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Beacon of Hope is a beacon of light for island

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Jan 6, 2021

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

Whether you live on Pine Island, work here or are simply visiting for a day, you can hardly cross the Matlacha Bridge without being touched by the Beacon of Hope in one way or another.

What began as a group lending a helping hand after Hurricane Charley, has since wrapped its arms around islanders to evolve into the stalwart organization it is today. According to long-time board member and former board president Elsie Stearns, four churches stood as beginning pillars of the Beacon just after the catastrophic damage of Charley ravaged the island in 2004 — Fishers of Men Lutheran Church, Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Pine Island United Methodist Church and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church. These churches were the founders of the Beacon, then known as the “Pine Island Long-Term Recovery,” said Stearns.

The churches, she explained, in conjunction with the National Guard and the Salvation Army, communicated frequently to make certain islanders had food, water, bathing facilities and necessities available.

Stearns, who was Fire Control District chairman at that time, rode along with the Lee County Sheriff, one of the county commissioners and the fire chief, surveying damages first-hand the day after the storm.

Shortly after the hurricane blew in through Charlotte Harbor, the bottom dropped out of the real estate market, said Stearns.

“As people were still recovering from the storm damage, it was apparent that there was much needed financial assistance,” said Stearns. “People were starting to struggle, jobs were being lost. We went from the elements of a hurricane to elements of a financial struggle. It was obvious that people were going to need the Pine Island Long Term Recovery to get through.” It didn’t take long to realize the much-needed organization would have to evolve from long-term recovery to continuously meeting the needs of islanders, bringing forth the Beacon of Hope.

“When I think about the Beacon,” said Stearns, “they do everything from diapering newborn babies, to feeding the most elderly people on the island.”

Beacon Bites, a program not unlike meals on wheels, is one of the most expensive Beacon programs to date, said Stearns.

“We purchase the food from restaurants here on the island, and some of the food is donated. It’s a collaborative effort.”

She describes the delivery of these meals to the senior population as a humbling experience, which began with six recipients and has grown to approximately 30.

“Those visits are necessary,” said Stearns, explaining how the medical credentials of current board president, Carlye Regan, have been crucial in this particular program, as she will do home visits whenever needed.

“This program has allowed important things to be done such as reporting elderly abuse from caretakers,” said Stearns. “It’s pretty amazing to think about all the things the Beacon has been able to accomplish, like the GED program.”

She explained the importance the role of education has played for many of the islanders, adding that there have now been 43 GED graduates from the Beacon’s Center of Excellence. The program, she said, has had a hand in not only helping people attain their high school diploma, but in at least one case, helping a student go on to obtain her master’s degree. “Some of the businesses here on the island have even utilized the ESL program to teach their employees English,” said Stearns.

The Beacon of Hope has now partnered with the United Way, said Stearns, opening the doors to the utilization of multiple different agencies, such as tax help or abuse consultation. In addition to the United Way, and local churches, other island organizations, such Pine Island Cares, Bobby Holloway, the Matlacha Hookers, and even the Garden Club, regularly team up with the Beacon to make sure donations go as far as they can.

Even the outer islands have had a hand in helping the Beacon to serve locals. According to Stearns, the Beacon’s thrift store, the Attic, which provides an enormous part of the yearly income, was born through the overage of continuous donations made by islanders.

“I believe the thrift store got started because people were bringing items to help other families and they had so much they turned it into a thrift store,” said Stearns.

She said as the Beacon has become a staple in the community and as more people have learned about it, donations have become a large part of the organization’s income.

Due to last year’s global pandemic, revenue for the Beacon has dropped, in large part due to a six-week closure in the midst of season, followed by limited hours at the thrift store, and restrictions which prevented fundraising to a great degree.

Overall Stearns contends from the community programs to the thrift store, and the Center of Excellence, the right people are in place to keep this organization running like a well-oiled machine.

“The community is benefitting from that,” Stearns said. “When the community is benefitting from the Beacon doing things properly, it’s a win-win. Not only is the Beacon a place for people to go to who need help, but the Beacon is a place for people to go to who like to give and like to volunteer.”

As we head into 2021, Stearns said everyone is anxious to get on the other side of the pandemic and while one day it will be behind us, everyone at the Beacon will be ready for the next phase of life, no matter the crises or the need.

“The Beacon will always be standing by, ready to meet the challenges of the community with loving, kind open hearts and minds,” said Stearns. “We are grateful for all the organizations and for all the people on the island — for every donation and every check that gets written.”