By LAURA GATES, Naples News
Angie Meister wanted to help, but she didn’t know where to start.
With a growing family, her time and resources were limited, but she was raised with a mindset for missions, which had been nurtured through her faith and a recent read: “Between Sundays” by Karen Kingsbury.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman who spent all her free time helping widows and orphans and people in need,” said Meister, a Naples mom of three. “I wanted to volunteer and didn’t know where to start.”
She invited her family to join her on a mission to match volunteers with needs in their local community. Thus was born Project Outreach.
Four years later, what Meister started with her mother, two sisters and their families has grown into a massive grassroots network of caring.
“It started off in our living room and now has grown to over 700 Facebook members,” Meister marveled from the newly donated Project Outreach warehouse in the TollGate Commerce Center, which serves as a central storage facility and clearinghouse for donations. “Now we can take anything we feel will help someone else out.”
The Hardy family, which owns TollGate, readily agreed to donate the air conditioned storage space to Project Outreach after discovering the need through connections at church.
“What they’re doing is amazing,” said Jennifer Hardy, who manages the facility. “It’s the community trying to help. I know how hard it is to raise children with a good job and a good financial background, so I can’t imagine trying to do it without that.”
Many of the families helped by Project Outreach are in the midst of crises — whether it be health, financial or personal. Currently, Project Outreach is bringing meals to help a mom with brain cancer, providing appliances for a hard working mom of eight and supplying clothing and transportation to help a dad who is struggling to provide for his family while working two jobs.
“When you’re in a crisis like that, it takes so many people to help out,” said Meister’s mother, Julie Thomas, who runs the daily operations for Project Outreach. “It’s amazing to see the joy it brings when you bring a family gifts they would never expect.”
The family of the mother with brain cancer is overwhelmed that people they don’t know have been bringing them meals for three months, donating clothing to the children and even driving to doctor’s appointments, Thomas said.
“When you see the reactions and the tears in their eyes and the joy, it’s just such a blessing to bless others,” Meister added.
Referrals come from churches, case managers at local hospitals, the local fire department, the American Cancer Society and members of the community. Ninety percent of the help goes to families in Collier County, but Project Outreach has occasionally branched out to Lee County and beyond when a need is presented by a member of the group’s Facebook community.
When a need gets posted online, it’s usually met within hours, Thomas marveled.
“It’s so fantastic because it’s people helping people,” she said.
Thomas has been reaching out to the hurting for decades, as a counselor for unwed mothers and people struggling to overcome addictions. She’s taught her three daughters to look for opportunities to serve, and she is thrilled they are all working together as officers of Project Outreach.
Her eight grandchildren are also carrying on the legacy of community outreach. They participated in the annual Thanksgiving dinner in Immokalee, sponsoring families at Christmastime and singing carols at a local nursing home.
“To teach my grandkids how to serve is so wonderful,” Thomas said.
Many families involve their children in community outreach, she added. “We really want kids to understand and appreciate the selflessness of serving. It’s amazing to see how excited they get about it.”
Project Outreach volunteers range from the very young to the elderly. Dixie Lee Craig met Thomas through Destiny Church about six months ago and quickly joined efforts with Project Outreach.
“I’m always trying to help somebody,” said Craig, who connected Thomas with Hardy, supplying an answer to prayer for warehouse storage space. “When you find a need, you try to fill it.”
With 725 members and growing, Project Outreach is able to help in bigger ways than one group or church could ever do, Craig added.
“It’s so exciting how people are coming through and helping,” she said. “There’s such a rewarding feeling in your heart. It’s just a ‘praise God’ answer to prayer.”
Thomas and Meister continue to be amazed when a big need — a car or a refrigerator — is met within hours of being posted to Facebook.
“We found people’s desire to help in the community is so great,” Meister said. “We’ve been blessed by the community. Everyone chips in. Everyone plays a big role.”
Often, once a family is helped by Project Outreach, they want to give back, pouring whatever help they can give into another local family in need.
“It’s very cool because we have this circle of appreciation,” Thomas said. “When somebody gets back on their feet, they come back to help. Even if they don’t have the finances, they make a dinner or do something to help somebody else.”
Meister and Thomas are thrilled their warehouse is filling up with furniture, bikes, clothing and toys. Project Outreach is always in need of donated beds, dressers, children’s clothing and baby items, as well as “muscles and trucks” for delivery, Thomas said.
All donations are tax deductible, and monetary donations made be made online at www.projectoutreachnaples.com. Items drop-offs may be coordinated by calling Thomas at (239)269-7334. Community members are encouraged to connect on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/ProjectOutreach.
“Everything we receive, we put back into the community,” Thomas said. “You don’t know how much that bike you’re not using in the garage would mean to someone else.”
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