Making A Difference: Group of 'angels' provided needed uniforms for Collier students

Joe Landon

During my years with the Collier County School District’s communications office, I would often speak to gathered groups of people about our demographics. I shared the “about us” or “district profile” kind of info in my presentation from the podium. No matter the group — chamber members, a local service club, etc. — when I would state the percentage of students classified as economically needy, I’d usually hear a few in the crowd respond with a slight gasp of disbelief.

Volunteers from a group called Project Outreach distributed uniform shirts, donated by Angels Undercover, at a back-to-school event at Parkside Elementary School in East Naples.

Well, as of today, nearly 64 percent of the district’s students are listed as “economically needy” because they qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Some people might be surprised by that given the fact that, however you choose to measure affluence, the Greater Naples area normally rises to the top of any list when it comes to things like per capita or median income, percentage of mega mansions or percentage of multi-millionaires living in our community.

It was about eight years ago that Jackie Bennett-Murray personally learned about the level of poverty here. “I noticed some students were coming to school inadequately dressed or in ill-fitting uniforms,” Bennett-Murray tells us. “I saw the need and vowed to do something about it by founding a group we’d call Angels Undercover.”

So they began their mission by providing school uniforms to needy elementary students in Collier County.

And for the past four years, they’ve been buying hoodies for children, as well, after learning some students were coming to school on cold winter days without long-sleeve shirts and, according to Bennett-Murray, even wearing towels around their shoulders to stay warm in a couple of instances.

Parkside Elementary School counselor Tom Gemmer and Parkside fifth grade students unload boxes of clothing which had been donated by Angels Undercover.

 “To date, we have provided more than $625,000 worth of clothes to 82,000 students in 29 Collier County elementary schools,” Bennett-Murray proudly shares.

But you can’t put a price on what it means for a child to come to school looking as good as his or her classmates. A principal once told me that, because of the help provided by Angels Undercover, her students were coming to school with big smiles on their faces and ready to learn. And a school administrator said she felt having a uniform helps students fit in and not feel different from one another. Several principals have told me they felt school uniforms create a level playing field for students so they can better focus on the business of learning and remove competition between the “haves and have-nots.”

Tom Gemmer, school counselor at Parkside Elementary School in East Naples, credits committed community partners like Angels Undercover with “allowing us to provide for students’ basic needs so that they are fully available for learning.” He emphasizes that “this opens the door for our teachers to help the students make academic progress, moving forward to their goals, without the distraction of worry about clothes and what to wear each day.”

Another school counselor once told me the people of Angels Undercover are “truly angels.”

So, who are they really? “We have always been a group of concerned individuals who wish to promote education,” Bennett-Murray explains. “Our funding has come from local friends and businesses and grants.”

Bennett-Murray invites you to support their annual appeal by becoming a donor. “With your gift of $25, we can provide one student with two standard uniforms. For $5,000, we can clothe an entire school” adding that “your simple act of kindness can change a child’s life.”

Angels Undercover is now officially a fund of the Community Foundation of Collier County. Donations can be made at, selecting “donate now to a specific fund” and entering the Angels Undercover fund into the fund name field.

Joe Landon is a communications consultant having retired as executive director of communications for the Collier County School District. Send suggestions for future columns to