KIDS ALL OVER NORTH MISSISSIPPI BENEFIT WHEN A GRADE-SCHOOLER TAKES AN INTEREST IN HELPING OTHERS.
WRITTEN BY Caitlin Adams
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
Jamie Geller, of Tupelo, is familiar with the kindness of strangers and has no qualms about asking for support when needed. It is an ethos that was instilled in her during childhood, when her two hardworking parents experienced tough times.
“We used to shop at secondhand stores and get help from our school for clothing,” Geller said. “I still remember getting a pair of clogs that I thought were ugly, but eventually learned to love because I needed them.”
So when her 7-year-old stepdaughter, Cami Jo, came to her asking for ways to give back and help other kids, Geller sprang into action.
“Everybody does something for others,” Geller said. “Some pay for coffee for the people behind them; some donate time. But we wanted to do something a little different.”
They just didn’t know what that something was. Geller took to social media for suggestions for ways she and Cami Jo could help the community. A Facebook user offered the idea to collect items for families in need. Shortly after, Geller and her husband, Patrick, established Cami Jo Cares.
A single Facebook post brought Cami Jo Cares to life, but the family’s mission, and high demand in north Mississippi, has kept it going for nearly three years. The organization, which recently became a nonprofit charity, collects lightly used clothing and toys and disperses them to those in need across the region.
“People don’t realize how much those old books, clothes or toys can make a huge difference in someone’s life and teach them amazing values,” Geller said.
Collected items run the gamut, including newborn clothing, school supplies, winter coats, coloring books, arts and crafts, gift cards and cleaning supplies. But one thing they all have in common: no charge.
“Everything is completely free and goes directly to families,” Geller said. “Some secondhand stores are not cheap. That’s not us.”
Cami Jo Cares collects items for anyone of need, whether it’s a single parent who could use help putting gifts under the tree during the holidays, a family who lost everything in a storm, or a child who needs clothes and books to start a new school year.
What started small through word-of-mouth awareness has today morphed into a nonprofit with nine drop-off locations across Lee County. The group is small but focused. Geller is vice president, her husband, Patrick, is president, and Gail Austin, whom they met one year when trick-or-treating, is the director. Austin helps organize events and secures support to keep them growing, including working closely with the Dream Riders Biking for Children, the group that gave Cami Jo Cares their first cash donation.
Cami Jo, now almost 10, does not run the charity day to day, but she does pitch in during the summers and work at the events hosted by the organization.
“She’s still got a lot to learn,” Geller said with a laugh. “Keeping a kid’s attention is not easy.”
But the Geller family remains involved and committed to the cause. This fall alone, Cami Jo Cares hosted a Superhero Sunday at Arby’s in September, Halloween-themed events in October, and has planned a food drive and benefit at Arby’s Nov. 16. The group is continuously looking for ways to engage the community, not only to gather donations but also to reach those in need who might not know how to ask for support.
To receive assistance, adults can make contact via Facebook or email and will receive a link to fill out the application. The process is largely based on the honor system, and families can usually expect support within the month of applying.
“We don’t require a lot because we don’t judge,” Geller said. “It’s all about the kids.”
As awareness of the group grows, supply and demand have become factors. Geller said at times they have a waitlist, which happened in August during back-to-school season, as their inventory of popular clothing sizes ran low. For this reason, they never turn away a lightly used donation that meets their standards. This leaves their garage packed to the brim with clothing, their shed stocked with toys, and donated items tucked into corners of their home.
Geller has long-term plans to rent a storage unit and hopes to one day open a brick-and-mortar outlet to collect the goods. But for now, the Gellers are utilizing the space they have.
“We take the donations whether we have room or not,” Geller said. “Even if it means piles in the living room, kitchen and even the bedrooms. We just never know when someone will have a need, and we want to be ready to help.”
To learn more about Cami Jo Cares, visit facebook.com/CamiJoCares.