Look for the Helpers: Extending Hope during the Holidays

By Meg Daradanova

Holiday cheer abounds this time of year, but for many, it’s not a given. Those struggling with poverty, loneliness, or other adversities, could use an “elf” or an “angel” to lift their circumstances and spirits. Thankfully, many local organizations and individuals give generously, not only through donations but also by volunteering their time and offering genuine care.

The insightful Mister Rogers espoused his wise mother’s advice when facing scary situations: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

In Estero, this rings true. Here, we offer a small sampling of the myriad ways to offer the gift of hope this holiday season.

EXTREME FUNDRAISING

Mary-Kate DiVico, pictured with her neice, is skydiving for a Haven of Hope 'extreme fundraiser'

On Oct. 19, 12 locals took fundraising to new heights as they jumped into the big bluefrom 14,000 feet, skydiving to benefit Haven of Hope International in the “Jump for Hope.” For most of them, this was their first dive, checking off a bucket list item. For Haven of Hope, it was an inspired step toward the goal to affect global change in orphan care. The nonprofit aims to do more than provide for kids’ basic needs of shelter, food and medicine, additionally caring for their mental and emotional health and providing opportunities for a brighter future.

Stoneybrook resident Mary-Kate DiVico, a first-time jumper, admits that the thought of skydiving made her nervous, but she was excited to help the cause: “The thought of orphaned children living in extreme poverty around the world is very upsetting.”

The tradition of extreme fundraising started last y

ear when Alice Skaff, Haven of Hope founder and president, decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, raising $55,000 in the process.

Alice Skaff inititated the first Haven of Hope 'extreme fundraiser' by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2018“I thought it would be a good example for the kids because they have bigger mountainsof their own to climb,” explains Alice. “We want to help them not only to survivebut to unpack trauma, get into school, transition into the world and pursue their dreams.”

The flagship Haven of Hope orphanage opened in Bolivia in 2004. Today, Haven of Hope programs are embraced by 16 orphanages in nine countries.

How can I help?

Visit Jump for Hope’s fundraising page at www.firstgiving.com (search“Jump for Hope”) and donate to the event through Nov. 23, when the campaign closes with the Celestial Celebration Gala at Miromar Lakes. Visit www.havenofhopeintl.org for other ways to get involved.

FEEDING BODY & SOUL

Feeding the 5,000 is a beloved local tradition, hosted the past 17 years by Lamb of God Church. It has grown from a Thanksgiving dinner for 300 to a major community effort providing an average of 6,500 meals to local people on Thanksgiving Day.

The number varies every year, but the total is an amazing 70,000 Thanksgiving meals over the years. The recipients, who are registered by local agencies, include families who cannot afford to buy the food, shut-ins and elderly people who live alone.

Volunteers prepare turkey dinners at Feeding the 5000“I’m lucky; I’ve never had to worry about having a Thanksgiving meal, but there are a lot of people out there who can’t afford it,” says Wendy Smith, an 11-year volunteer. “The day brings me so much joy, seeing how happy everyone is to help.”

How Can I Help? Sign up to volunteer (or donate) at feedingthe5000.net. About 650 volunteers sign up each year, says the man behind the initiative, Art Nicoletti. Volunteer roles include roasting and deboning 335 turkeys, preparing 8,000 pounds of sides and desserts, packaging food and delivering the meals. Handwriting cards to go with each meal is a job the youngest volunteers love the most, adds Nicoletti.

CHEER FOR GRIEVING CHILDREN

The Caves family likes to help others year-round, but during the holidays, they the have a tradition of “adopting” a family that is grieving. The program is run by Valerie’s House, a local nonprofit that supports families who have experienced the loss of one or both parents.

Shea Sherman, 17, and Kendall Sulmasy, 14, were helped with grief at Valerie's House“A death in the family brings a lot of grief but can also mean loss of income and no gifts for the holidays,” says Jenni Caves, who loves to see her 13-year-old son, Nate, get involved in extending hope by donating his birthday money.

Valerie’s House allows volunteers to anonymously provide help in the form of “wish list” items or gift cards. Along with collecting donations, Valerie’s House provides grief counseling and organizes meals and holiday celebrations to help children and families work through the loss of a loved one.

“We are trying to help them keep their family’s holiday traditions and create new memories,” says Caves. “By giving something to these families, they know that someone in the community is thinking about them and praying.”

How Can I Help?

Valerie’s House is seeking gift donations from businesses for the organization’s holiday party. To learn about other ways to help, visit valerieshouseswfl.org.

HELPING GIRLS OVERCOME

The dangers of human trafficking are gaining publicity, but the immensity of the problem becomes obvious through statistics: more than 300,000 children are involved in some form of slave labor through trafficking in the United States.

Wings of Shelter is a local nonprofit that helps teenage girls under 18 who have been rescued from trafficking. Founders Sally and Lowell Senitz work with the Department of Children and Families to provide safe harbor for these girls.

“We place them in small groups in a protected environment and help them reset their lives,” says Sally. The teens receive trauma-focused mental health counseling, medical care, private schooling, tutoring, the opportunity to pursue extracurricular hobbies, part-time jobs and re-socialization through a big sister program.

Once the girls graduate and are ready to move out on their own, they need supplies and mechanically sound vehicles. Wings of Shelter has an upcoming graduate in December, and the Senitz’s biggest holiday wish is to provide her with a reliable car.

How Can I Help? Donate or volunteer. Visit wingsofshelter.com or email wingsofshelter@aol.com.

THE GIFT OF READING

Since 2002, New Horizons of Southwest Florida has empowered at-risk students in grades K-12 by offering after-school tutoring, mentoring and faith-building at no cost to the students’ families.

“For the holidays, New Horizons invites you to give the gift of reading in two ways,” says Communications Director Amanda Hampton.

The first is to volunteer at one of their 13 sites across Lee and Collier counties, including Estero United Methodist Church. Volunteers assist students with their homework, encourage them to succeed in school and share their wisdom.

“I ask the kids how they are, how their day was…it’s important that they get comfortable,” says West Bay resident and longtime volunteer Wendy Kephart. “A lot of the kids need to 

focus on reading English because it’s their second language.”

The second way to “give the gift of reading” is to pay for a student to attend Super Kids Reading Camp. It costs $600 for each student to attend the four-week summer camp that focuses on improving reading skills.

How Can I Help? To donate or to learn about volunteer opportunities, visit newhorizonsofswfl.org.

GIVING THE JOY OF TOYS

While there are many toy drives during the holiday season, an easy way to donate locally is to stop by your closest Estero fire station.

New Horizons Super Kids Club

The annual Fire Truck Toy Drive is a longstanding tradition organized by Estero Fire Rescue to benefit people within Estero Fire District who may be struggling during the holidays.

“We don’t give it much publicity, but we don’t need to,” says Susan Lindenmuth, director of Public Affairs. Many gated communities in Estero organize donations for the annual drive, she explains.

Besides new toys, the collection invites donations of sporting equipment, clothes and food. All donations need to be unwrapped and in new condition. Donations are distributed through Harry Chapin Food Bank, Estero Community Park, Our Mother’s Home and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

How Can I Help? Drop off a new item at your nearest Estero Fire Station. Find locations at www.esterofire.org.

HELPING THE HOMELESS

The Kindness Club, a project of Lee County Library System, connects children who like to help others. They embark on various altruistic missions throughout the year.

The club’s holiday project is a collection for homeless people in our region. Club members, ages 7 to 12, have decorated collection boxes and placed one at each Lee County Library branch. Their enthusiasm is contagious, says Kathleen Young Wells, a librarian who works with the club at South County Regional Library.

The collection runs through Nov. 30. Then Kindness Club members will pack items into individual drawstring bags and deliver them to the Lee County Department of Human and Veteran Services for distribution.

Helping the Homeless display at South County Regional LibraryHow Do I Help? The following items are needed (new and unopened): travel size bottles of body wash, hand sanitizer and liquid soap, lip balm, toothbrushes, toothpaste, cans of dry shampoo, bug spray, sunblock, flashlights, washcloths, socks, deodorant, individual packs of face and body wipes, ponchos and reusable utility sporks. Additionally, lightly used or new backpacks and drawstring bags are needed for packing. Drop off in the designated box at any Lee County Library.

How does your family or organization give back during the holiday season? Leave a comment below, or make a post on the Estero Life Magazine Facebook page with the hashtag #LookForTheHelpersEstero.

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