A decade ago, 8-year-old Will Constantine asked his mother, Kerry, how people without houses stay warm in the winter.
“That’s how it all started,” says friend Tara Geissinger. “She helped him gather some blankets from their house and went downtown and handed them out to homeless people around Lions Park. She recognized the need was out there, and so we banded together and created this group.”
“This group” is Blankets & Blessings, a nonprofit founded by Constantine, Geissinger and a few other Fort Myers parents who wanted their then- elementary-aged children to “get some perspective,” Geissinger says.
“We grow up sometimes sheltered from some of the aspects in our community, and we wanted our kids to have that foundation and be aware of how fragile that can be,” Geissinger says.
Blankets & Blessings collects blankets, toiletries and bug repellent they distribute to homeless people in places such as the Sunday dinners offered by Citygate Ministries in downtown Fort Myers.
“Our goal was to work in the background,” she says. “We partner with organizations that are already out there on the ground doing outreach.”
In fall 2021, five FGCU Honors College students got to see the importance of the group’s work when they volunteered for Blankets & Blessings as part of an Honors Foundations of Civic Engagement class. The students included two of Tara Geissinger’s children, Jack and Kaya, along with Ben Styra, Katelin Hand and Dominique Berrette.
As part of the class, students volunteer for a community project.
“We look through the different aspects of volunteering and talking not only about how to volunteer, but what types of projects can really help the community,” says Berrette, a sophomore majoring in psychology who says she’d like to work in public health.
“The homeless population has been increasing a lot with COVID-19,” Berrette says. “So when I saw Kaya’s discussion post talking about Blankets & Blessings, I thought it was a really great idea.”
The students collected toiletries, jackets and other items for the nonprofit. They also attended Citygate Ministries’ dinners, often bringing water, lemonade or baked goods to be served, and talking with dinner attendees.
The project was eye-opening for Berrette, a Fort Myers native who says she generally saw 40 to 50 people attend the dinners, with closer to 70 on colder days.
“People have this idea about the homeless that they’re drug addicts who spent away their money so now they’re living on the street,” Berrette says. “But I heard so many stories and got to really know the people there, and they all are really just going through a tough time. It can really just happen to anyone.”
Geissinger says she’s noticed events such as the Sunday dinners grow in attendance in recent years.
“There are a lot of families out there living paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “You have things like a job loss or an illness that you don’t recover from as quickly as you thought you would and you start incurring medical bills. Things like that can knock a family right out from their housing.”
One person who stuck out to Berrette was a diabetic man who told her he can’t afford insulin.
“He kept coming up for refills [of lemonade] and drank four or five cups, and he explained that 10 minutes before the dinner, he had passed out. He couldn’t afford insulin to regulate his sugar, so he was getting his sugar from the lemonade.”
Berrette says even after the class ended in December, several group members still volunteer at the dinners. The offerings include home-cooked meals from volunteers, warm food from local restaurants and recently expired baked goods from Starbucks and Publix.
Geissinger says she is glad the students got to speak with the homeless through the project.
“Until you get face-to-face with people who are living on the streets, it’s easy to make assumptions about them and their choices,” she says. “I think the kids did a really good job of plugging in and talking to people.”
While Blankets & Blessings isn’t looking for volunteers, Geissinger says it accepts donations of clean blankets and toiletries at The Golf & Casual Shop in Fort Myers, which is owned by a Blankets & Blessings volunteer.
In the 10 years since Geissinger, Constantine and a handful of other parents launched Blankets & Blessings, Geissinger is proud of the difference it has made in individual lives.
“When you dig into the homelessness issues Lee County has, it’s overwhelming. There’s a lot of bureaucracy,” she says, “and little organizations like us with no overhead, we’re agile. We can jump in between the hoops and really make a huge difference for individual people and families.”
–Nina Barbero graduated from FGCU in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.