Following the money: SWFL emergency relief funds continue to help local nonprofits, families

Reporter: Kellie Miller
Published: Updated:

Southwest Florida communities are still rebuilding nearly six months after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes, businesses, restaurants, nonprofits, and more. But, donors from all across the country have chipped in to make sure our community builds back stronger than before. 

Since September 2022, $7 million has been raised for Southwest Florida emergency relief efforts. United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades has led the way, making sure the funds end up in the hands of those who need it most. 

“The generosity in our community is absolutely incredible,” said Jeannine Joy, president and CEO of United Way. “Altogether, between grants and corporate gifts and individual gifts, we’ve seen about $7 million come through the relief fund.”

United Way started the SWFL Emergency Relief Fund after Hurricane Ian, in partnership with the Collaboratory organization. A total of $2,591,323.57 was donated directly to the fund. Proceeds are distributed to local nonprofits like Beacon of Hope, Blessings in a Backpack, and Family Initiative, which serves autistic children, teens and young adults in Southwest Florida. 

“We are super fortunate to be a United Way partner,” said Anjali Van Drie, co-founder and vice president of Family Initiative. “They pretty immediately came to us as a resource, and were able to provide financial support for us to help our families.”

Fort Myers resident Lisa Christy was in tears speaking about Family Initiative. Her son has utilized the nonprofit’s programs for about a year. 

“It’s like an extended family, it’s just pretty much me and my son, and everybody here is so awesome and supportive,” Christy said. “So, I’m super grateful for that.”

Cape Coral resident Elizabeth DeMelo also talked about how grateful she is for Family Initiative. She said the programs have made a huge difference in her daughter’s life. After Hurricane Ian, she continued to receive incredible support. 

“More than anything else, I will tell you I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that I received from them,” DeMelo said. “They were here giving of themselves out of the goodness of their heart really, to help our special needs children feel just a little bit of comfort, and ease and normalcy during that time.”

Thanks to the donated relief dollars, Family Initiative opened its doors right after Ian. The agency served more than 1,800 families in just two weeks. 

“It was an awful, horrible, devastating situation,” Van Drie said. “But there was also a lot of good that you saw come from it. You saw people really stepping up and caring for each other, and for us that’s life changing.” 

In addition to the $2,591,323.57 donated directly to the fund, United Way was given $3,763,922.40 in restricted grant funding, meaning the funds are only allowed to be spent on certain types of relief or recovery. United Way worked with large corporations like PNC, CVS, and Ford Motor Company to write these grants. United Way also received $795,501.04 in unrestricted funding for disaster relief efforts. That brings the total to just over $7 million.

Here are some other agencies that the money has been distributed to. 

Beacon of hope – $70,000

Blessings in a Backpack – $10,000

Community Cooperative – $125,000

Interfaith Charities – $55,000

United Way also has received over $10 million in donated goods. So far, about $3 million in brand new donated shoes, clothing, school supplies, and hygiene products have been distributed to Lee County school children through the United Way School Resource Center. United Way is also working with Rebuilding Together and Eight Days of Hope to provide volunteers, construction supplies, and furniture to rebuild homes. 

According to Joy, United Way is working with an independent auditor in mid-April. The 2022 audit will take a couple of months, and the nonprofit will provide a more detailed breakdown of the funds once that’s complete.

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