GULFPORT — It began as a way to get neighbors involved in their community. It has turned into something much more.
Gulfport Neighbors, under the leadership of board members Rose-Marie Seawall, Beverly Newcomb and Margarete Tober, is tapping the hearts and hands of dozens of area residents to give back to the community by offering help where needed.
Since October, scores of volunteers have helped with six beach cleanups, one trash collection (another is scheduled Saturday) and two home repair projects.
The organization works with the city administration and its departments to identify needs within the community. One early need was to provide residents with a cost-effective way of disposing of unwanted items.
An agreement with Gulfport's Public Works Department allows the group to conduct a quarterly Junk in the Trunk event where residents can bring their unwanted items to the 49th Street Neighborhood Center instead of paying fees to have the city pick it up. The event saves the city from making multiple trips, and provides an opportunity for disposing any number of items at no cost to the resident.
"Times are tough; not everyone has the money to pay the city $17 to pick up an old tire," Tober said. "This is a win-win for everyone, plus it enhances the city's curb appeal."
Working with the city's Leisure Services department, the group has been drawing dozens of volunteers to beach cleanups and was recently contacted by Gulfport's police chief about the possibility of allowing youthful offenders to fulfill their community service requirement by participating in the cleanups.
Newcomb said seven juveniles helped with the most recent beach cleanup.
"It was a positive experience for all of us," she said, adding that Gulfport is often seen as a safe and encouraging community.
"We had a chance to provide a lot of positive encouragement to those kids."
The group is encouraged by the community's show of support. With donations from the Downtown Merchants Association and Beach Bazaar and individuals, Gulfport Neighbors has been able to assist two homeowners with needed repairs.
"Our last project pulled together 25 volunteers under incredibly short notice. It was really heartwarming to see so many Gulfport neighbors willing to lend a hand," Newcomb said, adding that at least one city official would like to see the group tackle one home project every three months.
City Manager Jim O'Reilly said he is delighted with what Gulfport Neighbors has been able to achieve.
"They're organized, easy to work with, and they're generating a lot of interest within the community," he said.
Building a strong network of volunteers is at the heart of Gulfport Neighbors, and the three board members would like to see a team in each of the city's four wards that would identify needs and coordinate a community response. Until then, their next project is creating and providing a Welcome to Gulfport kit for each new resident.
"Of course, we'll be looking for volunteers to help us with distribution," Tober said.
Diane Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.