FELLSMERE, Fla. - Operation Hope began as one man's attempt to help rural farm workers. Today, the nonprofit has grown into an 18-acre site, helping over 14,000 people a year.
Twenty-one years ago Jesse Zermeno had never heard of the town of Fellsmere, even though he had a successful carpet cleaning business 30 minutes away in Melbourne.
When one of his customers suggested they take a tour of the rural community just across the county line, he agreed, and that trip changed the course of his life.
His friend showed him miles of citrus groves and fields of vegetables.
"I mean, big fields of citrus," Zermeno said. "I mean, you're talking, like, an ocean. Beautiful."
He also saw camps of migrant workers living in substandard conditions.
"I found injustice, poverty and people in trouble," Zermeno said. "I'm a businessman, and I jumped because nobody else was doing it."
Zermeno and his wife, Jann, began collecting clothing and food that they, along with their three small children, would deliver on weekends.
His efforts were noticed by the local newspaper and word got out that he was making a difference in the small community.
"And then there was a big explosion. Oh, my gosh," Zermeno said. "I kept growing and along the way one man likes what I do and he saw my vision. He donated this property."
That property was a former flea market. Today, Operation Hope sits on 18 acres with 41,000 feet of indoor buildings that now house a library, a school, a dance hall, a thrift shop, a kitchen and a warehouse that supports their food distribution efforts.
Zermeno was nominated for the News 6 Getting Results Award by Kim Barton, who said in an email, "Jesse Zermeno, president of Operation Hope, is the most loving, caring, generous person you will ever meet."
Zermeno now runs Operation Hope full time. He said most of his time is spent getting the word out and appealing to churches and businesses for donations.
"I praise God," Zermeno said. "I believe He provides everything. I think He reads my heart. I've been in many situations where I don't have anything and all of a sudden big trucks are coming in."
Zermeno has become accustomed to change. His nonprofit has grown and so has the average distance people come for help.
"It's different. The picture is completely different because there's a lot of people that need help," said Zermeno, explaining that his clients come from as far away as Sebastian and Cocoa. "When I go home I say, 'Thank you, God. Thank you for what you've done to help me bless so many people. I'm blessed.'"
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