Want to give back this season? Start locally, with food ministries and homeless shelters like Naples’ own St. Matthew’s House.

We all know that the holidays are a traditional time of giving, whether that means gifts or time spent with family and friends. But before you start stressing over what gift to get for whom, or what dish to take to the office holiday party, remember that those less fortunate might appreciate our giving spirit most of all — those who may have recently lost their jobs, or children whose families barely make enough money to put food on the table, or families who have endured and escaped the terrors of an abusive home, with no ready-made support system to rely upon.

St. Matthew’s House is a place that provides safety, shelter, and meals to thousands of Southwest Floridians in desperate need. They do this not just during the holidays, but year-round. Not only do the people at St. Matthew’s House help cover these people’s basic human needs, but they also provide a sense of family for the broken. The driving principle behind their mission is to “impact the lives of the least of these in a spiritual environment that is both compassionate and disciplined.” What started in 1987 as a spiritual calling to bring food to a local homeless population living in a nearby woods has grown to a community that is supported on a 100% donation model that includes operation of an Emergency/Transitional Housing and Feeding Ministry, Justin’s Place Recovery Program, a Collier County jail chaplain service, six thrift stores, a full-service catering company, and a conference center.

St. Matthew’s House President Vann Ellison sums up the ministry’s devotion to helping the underserved and needy individuals and families in the Naples area: “Take for example, the man who was just released from jail. He has no family, no job, nothing. When he gets to our shelter, he is greeted without judgment. On birthdays and holidays, we give them gifts. Nothing extravagant, but things like underwear, socks, jeans in the right size, toiletries; the things the homeless desperately need. I’ve seen grown men cry, just because someone remembered them during a holiday, and took the time to get them a gift in the right sizes. It is our goal to make sure that all these folks, whether from abusive situations, incarceration, homeless veterans, anyone … that they are exposed to what a healthy family dynamic feels like.

We do large cookouts on Independence Day, we celebrate the kids’ birthday parties, we come together around the Christmas tree and give gifts. For those single-parent households barely scraping by, we send home a large meal so that Mom or Dad can have a nice holiday sitting down with their family. That’s what it’s all about. Family.

As for St. Matthew’s House sponsors, according to Ellison, “we have some pretty big [ones] for [holidays] like Thanksgiving and Christmas including Arthrex, which pays for between seven and nine thousand Thanksgiving dinners, 500–1,000 of which are prepared in our very own catering kitchen.”

Let that sink in: seven to nine thousand homeless or needy people, just in our local area, for one holiday dinner.

“We are so grateful for the support of those large companies who help us teach people to cook, serve, and host, as well as give them a safe place to rest. However, the stories that truly get me are the ones of personal giving from our local community.”

“One time, the local fire department was doing a turkey drive for us. A minivan pulled up, and as we were pulling the turkey from the side door, a little girl with a huge smile looked up and said, ‘Mommy told me there were people who didn’t have any food to eat. I asked her if it would be ok to break open my piggy bank so I could buy a turkey for them, and she let me! Here you go! I hope they like it.’ Those stories, of children learning what it means to give everything they have for another human being, are the most important. [Tweet “We could not do this without our local community.””]

Local grocery stores also help out. Trader Joe’s, for example, donates day-old food and dented cans to St. Matthew’s House, totaling close to three-quarters of a million dollars in groceries. Publix, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market also donate.

“We feed our families organic, wholesome foods because of the donations of these fine stores,” Ellison explains. “The need is vast, not just at holiday time, but all year.”

So, what can you do to help out? The answer, according to Ellison, is quite simple: “Donations are great and, of course, always welcomed, but I think the best thing [you] could do this holiday season is to support these local businesses that selflessly give back. Then, while they are in the store, find the manager and thank them. They are the people who make sure we are getting what we desperately need, and the encouragement to keep going from the community would be amazing.”

As for the families that are positively impacted every day by the services St. Matthew’s House provides, Ellison sees it as a genuine honor to be able to help. “I am truly privileged to be a blessing to them. They are my family.”

If you’re interested in making a difference and serving the Southwest Florida community directly during the holiday season, you can donate at stmatthewshouse.org, or sign up to volunteer at their many Naples locations.

You can also make an impact just by dining out this season: patronize restaurants that give back. Just a few additional regular contributors to St. Matthew’s House include Chipotle, Food & Thought, Panera Bread, Olive Garden, and Capital Grill.

Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida is another organization that provides food to those in need.

There are many local charities in need of help year-round, especially during the holiday season. Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida serves a five-county area, and provides over 18 million pounds of food annually to the almost 30,000 families in need each month.

Harry Chapin accepts online financial donations, stating that one dollar of donated money can buy $6 worth of food for their pantries and soup kitchens. You can also donate online with a monthly gift by visiting their site at harrychapinfoodbank.org/donate.

Looking for other ways to give back? Read on…

Everyone Rides, Everyone Gives a Little!

Looking For Athletically Minded Charities?

GOTR Reindeer Run 5K