Ocoee Outreach: From a handful to 1,500 volunteers
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG,  Banner Staff Writer
Jun 13, 2013 | 1628 views | 0 0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hidden Cleveland
OCOEE OUTREACH volunteers from Cleveland stand with the organization’s director outside the building from which they work. Ocoee Outreach, a nonprofit under the organizational umbrella of the Bradley Baptist Association, helps low-income individuals with home repair projects and welcomes volunteers from Baptist churches all over the country to assist with the cause. From left are Ocoee Outreach Director Randy Bonner, Mike Jones of Big Spring Baptist Church, Keshana Fox of Clingan Ridge Baptist Church, Anna McFarland of First Baptist Church, Kaley Hill of Westwood Baptist Church and Whitney Stevison of North Cleveland Baptist Church. Banner photo, CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
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Ocoee Outreach began its mission to help people who could not afford to maintain their homes after founders Michelle McCluskey and Steve Roper realized in 1996 there was a need for such an organization in Cleveland. Since then, the program has grown from a handful of local volunteers to some 1,500 traveling from multiple cities and states committed to take part in home repair projects this summer.

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which is both independent from and “under the heading of” the Bradley Baptist Association, assists people who have serious home repair needs but not the means to pay for such projects.

Randy Bonner, director of Ocoee Outreach, said volunteers have done everything from roofing and painting to plumbing and installing wheelchair ramps in homes over the years.

“We try to restore homes and restore hope,” Bonner said. “God has given us this tremendous tool to show his love to others and improve their quality of life.”

Those who need help go through an application process and describe what they need done. Each April, volunteers begin assessing the needs at each house to determine what they can and cannot do to help. Some circumstances, such as a hazardous problem like mold or a person being a renter instead of a homeowner, may keep the organization from doing some repairs. However, Bonner said volunteers try to take on as many projects as they can.

The Ocoee Outreach “season” runs during June and July each year, and that is when teams of people head out to homes and begin whatever projects need to be done.

Most of the families the organization has assisted have been within the East Cleveland area, but volunteers have occasionally helped people in places like Polk County. Many of those helped by Ocoee Outreach have been senior citizens, disabled individuals and those who, for whatever reason, could not afford to repair something wrong with their home.

Volunteers encompassing a wide range of ages come from all over the country to help. The Bradley Baptist Association makes the program available to Baptist church groups who want to make Cleveland a destination for a mission trip. Three separate groups from South Carolina and one from Ohio have visited the city to help out this week, Bonner said.

A group that comes from outside Cleveland generally stays for a week working at one particular place. Volunteers from Cleveland may work longer. Some local churches help throughout the summer by hosting the groups that come from elsewhere to volunteer, offering them things like meals, equipment and — if they so choose — housing while they are here. Some local volunteers, like a group of college students who work out of the organization’s office, may also head out to work sites with out-of-town groups.

People help out with Ocoee Outreach for a variety of reasons.

Whitney Stevison, a local college student volunteer, said she felt she needed to get involved with missions work but also desired to start in her city first. Then she learned of Ocoee Outreach.

“There’s a huge need here for home repair ministries,” Stevison said.

The home repairs are done at no cost to homeowners, and she said the projects also give volunteers the opportunity to share their faith with homeowners if they are willing to hear it. Stevison said she sees Ocoee Outreach as a group of workers who love the people of Cleveland and want to help those who cannot help themselves.

“I want the people to see we’re doing it because we love them,” she said.

Some volunteers, like local college student Mike Jones, said they appreciated that they got to take part in a type of work they enjoyed while helping someone at the same time.

“There are people who have so many needs people are unaware of,” Jones said. “I love doing construction. I think it’s a unique way to minister.”

While Bonner said the organization does not consider a person’s religious affiliation when deciding whether or not it can help with that person’s home, he said volunteers make no effort to hide what drives them to swing a hammer on a roof during the summer’s sweltering heat — their faith.

Funding for the home repair projects Ocoee Outreach performs comes in part through grants from organizations like the United Way of Bradley County, the Southeast Tennessee Development District and Americans Helping Americans. Volunteers on mission trips to Cleveland are also responsible for raising some money to cover the costs of their food, housing and building materials for the week.

For more information about Ocoee Outreach, visit www.ocoeeoutreach.org or call 476-5493.