Cami Jo Cares project pays it forward

Cami Jo Fullerton and her stepmother-to-be, Jamie Geller, are surrounded by some of the toys they have collected for Cami Jo Cares.

It started simply enough. Collect some toys and clothing to be donated to children in need. Simple, right? That was three years ago, when then 7-year-old Cami Jo Fullerton decided she wanted to do something to help others. Of course, her dad, Patrick Fullerton, and stepmother-to-be Jamie Geller Fullerton said the youngster toyed with whether she wanted to help people or animals. Eventually, it was decided going the two-legged route rather than four-legged would be best. And so, it began. “I grew up shopping at thrift stores,” said Jamie, recalling her own childhood in an economically disadvantaged home. “I wanted to teach Cami Jo that used stuff is just as good as new and teach her to pay it forward.” Cami Jo Cares was born. From a handful of occasional donations of toys and clothing – “lightly used” – to what sometimes seems a daunting task of collecting, sorting and distributing piles of items received. Indeed, the family home in northeast Tupelo has become something of a warehouse for all manner of goods. The garage is full, long unable to park any vehicles, and a large, recently acquired backyard storage shed is packed. And, still, the donations roll in. The family currently has nine collection sites in Tupelo, Mooreville, Fulton, New Albany and Saltillo: “It has become a lot bigger than expected,” said Jamie. She pointed out that the organization has been enlisting volunteers to help with various aspects of the effort, an important component to continuing the work of Cami Jo Cares. During last Saturday’s fundraising pancake breakfast at Applebee’s restaurant, visiting contributors were treated to pancakes and sausage and assistance from numerous volunteers and, especially, Cami Jo. Like the quintessential hostess, Cami Jo, now 9, a fourth-grader at Nettleton Elementary School, and dressed in a Christmas princess costume, moved from table to table chatting with the guests, even delivering food, bussing tables and sweeping crumbs from the floor. The Fullertons said the youngster has grown into the role of namesake, hostess and motivator for the organization, which was granted nonprofit 501(c)3 status last summer. “She’s a little spitfire,” Jamie said of her stepdaughter. “It’s hard to keep a kid’s attention. She loves the events.” Fundraising is necessary since actual money is needed for things like the storage building and funding the events. Some events in the future include a “Fight for the Kids” wrestling event Sunday in Amory and seasonal-linked projects near Easter, Halloween and next Christmas, as well as some in between those. Cami Jo Cares has had a positive and probably unpredicted effect on the family (Patrick’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Kinslee Fullerton, pitches in when she can): “It changed my life a little bit for sure, in the positive,” said Patrick, a longtime Walmart employee currently assigned to the distribution center in New Albany. “When you see a mother cry or a kid gives you a hug (after they receive toys or clothes), I don’t care how tough a guy you are, it affects you.” Patrick said the original plan for Cami Jo Cares was to operate it for one year but that has obviously changed. The Fullertons calculate they have helped more than 1,000 folks during the past three years, including more than 400 this Christmas season. “We have a waiting list,” said Jamie. Cami Jo Cares uses Facebook as its primary contact point to provide drop-off information and receive applications – an informal process that assumes applicants actually do need assistance. The organization is accessible at “Cami Jo Cares” on the social media site. Donations of new and “lightly used” toys and clothing as well as cash are welcomed. This Sunday’s wrestling event is at 2 p.m. in the East Amory Community Center; admission is $7 or the donation of a new or like-new toy. The Fullertons said requests for assistance are filled year-round, not just at Christmas.

C. Richard Cotton

Freelance writer/photographer/editor/author

243 County Road 783

Saltillo MS 38866

rcotton5@att.net

662-231-6222

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