TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Marla Bautista knows what it’s like to be homeless. She lost both of her biological parents before the age of 10 and lived with an abusive stepfather. At age 18, she was put out on the streets, with all of her belongings in a single trash bag. She spent two years in shelters, couch surfing, and outside.

Marla found comfort, however, from church volunteers who handed out toiletries and other supplies to homeless men, women, and children.

“I told myself if I were ever to overcome that situation that I too would spend my life giving back,” Marla says.

She kept her promise, and now has a team of people helping her: her husband, Army Army Staff Sergeant Ulisses Bautista, and children, Ulisses Jr., Tylynn, and Christian. The Bautistas hand out meals, hygiene products, socks, and hope, to homeless youths and veterans, wherever the military life takes them.

“We started doing this when we were stationed in Germany, and later Colorado, New York, and now here in Tampa,” says Marla.

In addition to collecting and distributing hygiene products and socks in personalized packaging they call the ‘Belonging Box,’ the Baustistas work together to turn military uniforms into blankets and pillows for youths in group homes, foster settings, and shelters. 

Marla includes the story of each service member who wore the uniform with the blankets. “The stories that come along with these uniforms are stories of bravery, they’re stories of courage, they’re stories of hope.”

Marla also visits young women in detention centers because, she says, she wishes she’d had someone to be there for her when she was growing up.

To firmly set roots in Tampa, the family established a non-profit, The Bautista Project, to expand their mission. They launched a fundraising campaign to purchase a building and hope to bring together a network of academic, emotional, and mental health support services for the homeless under one roof. 

“If we band together, help one another, we can change this issue, we can uplift others and we can empower homeless community members to do better for themselves,” Marla said.

Learn more about all of the ways to get involved with The Bautista Project, including through donations for supplies or to help the building fund, at this link.