TAMPA — Blanket Tampa Bay started two years ago with a desire to help the homeless stay warm with a Christmas Eve gift.
Founder Beth Ross gladly gave blankets to 300 people that first year. Now, the nonprofit already has given out 5,000 of them in 2016, and hopes to have another 1,000 ready for Christmas Eve distribution.
"This has just grown. God has truly blessed us," said Ross, who has distributed them on Christmas Eve the last two years at Trinity Cafe, 2801 N Nebraska Ave., which serves meals to the homeless and food insecure.
Now Trinity Cafe has a second location in the First Church of God, 2202 E Busch Blvd., where she said the nonprofit also will distribute this year.
Blanket Tampa Bay began when Ross received an unexpected $100 in late 2014 and wanted to use the money to help others.
She already volunteered at Trinity Cafe and witnessed the need. With her husband, Ray, they started a Facebook page, Blanket Tampa Bay, and the word started spreading.
Last year, they set a goal of getting 350 blankets and ended up with more than 800, which they distributed at Trinity Cafe and took to a homeless shelter nearby.
"Our guests are always grateful for the warm blankets Beth distributes during the holidays," Trinity Cafe program manager Cindy Davis said. "For many of them it's the only 'gift' they receive for Christmas."
In January, Ross expanded the program to include weekly distributions Mondays from 7 to 8 p.m. at St. Peter Claver Church, 1203 N Nebraska Ave., in conjunction with meals provided by another organization. She also includes hygiene products that are purchased with donations.
"During the summer, people donated raingear and umbrellas to distribute too," she said.
Some churches or organizations have blanket drives to help her.
Taylor Vincent of Everyday Moms has her group, as well as a Girl Scout troop, collect the blankets.
"I found it (Blanket Tampa Bay) online, talked to her and loved what she did - and loved her," said Vincent, who added that Everyday Moms will have a blanket drive as part of a carnival at the YMCA in Riverview. "Any time we can have a blanket drive, we do."
Vincent also helped last Christmas with the distribution at Trinity Cafe, where hygiene products also were given out.
"It definitely was an experience and makes you have an appreciation of what you have," Vincent said. "You see how a much a bar of soap, some shampoo, a blanket means to them."
Ross said the campaign, mainly on social media and through word of mouth, has attracted teens who have made or collected blankets.
"I feel that I am influencing young people, too," she added.
With the growth of the project, Blanket Tampa Bay was able to achieve a non-profit, 501 (c3) organization status in March of this year.
Contact Lenora Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org.