Until recently, Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida expected minority residents seeking its job training and placement services and other assistance to trek to its main office in North Fort Myers. Goodwill discovered, though, that many folks would not make the 75-mile one-way journey from a community like Clewiston, where Hispanics are in the majority, for help.

The nonprofit organization—and one of Lee County’s largest employers—was missing out on connecting with greater numbers of minority residents.

So Goodwill officials had one of those light-bulb moments and committed to expanding its services to more rural and diverse communities.

In the past three years, Goodwill has opened Job-Link centers in communities including Clewiston, Bonita Springs, East Fort Myers and LaBelle. Its centers are staffed with individuals who speak Spanish, as well as one fluent in Haitian Creole, and are among the 18 percent of local Goodwill employees of Latino descent (another 18 percent are African-American), who enable the nonprofit to fulfill its century-old mission.

“If you go back to the early 1900s, a minister named Edgar Helms was the father of Goodwill across this country and was really aimed at assisting immigrants in his local community who had no jobs and very little money and basically were losing hope about their independence,” says Tom Feurig, president/CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida. “The origin of our mission and our history really ties into diversity and the needs of the very diverse community.”

After 45 years in Southwest Florida, Goodwill’s 610 employees give a hand daily to residents in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. In 2010, Goodwill helped more than 16,000 Southwest Floridians, including 31 percent Latinos, 17 percent African-Americans and 12 percent Caribbean islanders and other immigrants.

By delivering services in communities instead of a central location, the organization better understands the needs of minority groups in those areas. For the Haitian community, for example, Goodwill has assisted individuals in immigration issues, attaining drivers’ licenses and finding employment, which sometimes includes teaching basic computer and web skills.

“Even though we live in a very diverse community, it’s difficult to achieve independence when people don’t see you as being equal,” says Kirsten Britt O’Donnell, Goodwill’s director of public relations and marketing.

By collaborating with other agencies, Goodwill also provides assistance ranging from tax forms to English as a Second Language classes. Coming soon: housing for the disabled in Clewiston, slated to open in late 2012.

Feurig recognizes that Goodwill, along with communities and other agencies, must constantly evolve.

“The needs are growing, and as a result, we’ve got to keep up with those needs,” he says. “To be honest, we’ve still got a long way to go.”