The Community Foundation of Sarasota County: Making a Lasting Impact

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By Ryan G. Van Cleave

When asked to identify the reason for Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s ongoing success in our community, President and CEO Roxie Jerde attributes it to her team’s ability to ask and listen. “By doing so,” she says, “we understand what our donors want to achieve with their charitable giving. We are then able to work with the plethora of nonprofit partners with profiles in The Giving Partner (more than 600+ in our free community database) to achieve the results our donors are seeking. We are also good stewards for donors who have entrusted us with carrying out their philanthropic legacy.”

Jerde is quite reasonably proud of the Community Foundation’s steadfast focus on creating impactful results for donors and community-focused initiatives. The annual Season of Sharing community-wide effort, which keeps families on the verge of homelessness in their homes. The Giving Challenge, which has raised over $28 million for deserving nonprofits in our community; the results of the Campaign for Grade Level reading that helps more and more 3rd graders in our most challenged schools to grade level reading; and the Two-Generation Approach, where children and parents together are moving to educational success and financial stability.

That last idea—the Two-Generation Approach—has profoundly changed the way their organization thinks about what they do. Inspired by the Ascend program at the Aspen Institute, the Two-Generation Approach marries the intentions of two major legacy funds at the Community Foundation: Mrs. Jo Bowen Nobbe cared about children and education and Mr. Edward K. Roberts was committed to moving single moms out of poverty. When you put the two intentions together, you have the essence of the Two-Generation Approach. This strategy also resonates with many donors in our community who have generously supported the effort over the years to bolster the impact.

“In the past, the Community Foundation has funded lots of things that were good for kids,” says John Annis, former Senior Vice President of Community Investment. “And we’ve funded lots of things that were good for families. But Two-Gen brought a new way of looking at it that’s fundamentally about intentionality.”

“It’s asking the question: What are we doing to measure outcomes for children AND their parents together?”

One example of the Two-Generation Approach in action is Habitat for Humanity housing, an organization that the Community Foundation has enjoyed a long-standing partnership with. They love the Habitat model, which is building a house, allowing a needy family to move in and pay the mortgage, and then offer crucial mentoring to support self-reliance as they become homeowners. So when two of the Community Foundation’s donors—Bill and Jane Knapp—wanted to support Habitat, they requested that the Knapps look at this opportunity a different way. The goal wasn’t to ask Habitat to change the rules or modify their program but rather just to connect it with what the Community Foundation was already doing with the families at Alta Vista Elementary, a place where the Community Foundation invests a lot of time, energy, and money to support education.

A teacher’s aide assigned to watch the children in the back of the room during the Habitat information session for Alta Vista parents and families heard the entire presentation and, at the suggestion of principal Dr. Barbara Shirley, applied to be a candidate to receive a home. As a single mom whose daughter had already graduated from Alta Vista, this was a chance to target two generations with one project. Now that teacher aide’s family has a beautiful and affordable Habitat house, the daughter’s a senior at Sarasota High School (which is mere blocks from the new house), and that same daughter volunteers regularly and has already been accepted to USF. One project, begun five years ago during that presentation at Alta Vista, has had a huge impact on this entire family—not just for one child. The whole family is far better off.

Jerde adds that “Alta Vista is a shining example of why the Two-Generation Approach of the Community Foundation works so well. It starts with the terrific leadership of Alta Vista’s principal, Dr. Barbara Shirley, who is committed to Alta Vista being a school for the family.” Dr. Shirley spearheaded a partnership with Suncoast Technical College (STC), endorsed by Dr. Todd Bowden (initially in his role leading STC and now as Sarasota County School District Superintendent) to bring educational opportunities to the Alta Vista campus for the parents of students. “Allowing students and parents to go to the same school together is an amazing opportunity for both generations. Credit also goes to the school social workers, funded in part by the Community Foundation, who are able to identify potential candidates for the Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) program and support them as they go through the program.”

To date, the Community Foundation has provided adult learner scholarships and graduated 80+ CNAs. 

In a community which has such a high demand for health care workers, these graduates are able to increase their family income—often with full-time work that includes benefits. The Community Foundation is especially proud to have two CNAs go on to the yearlong LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) program which will move them up the career ladder. Jerde admits that “my proudest moments are when we hold graduation ceremonies at Alta Vista and I witness the pride shown by the families as the graduates receive their certificates. Most touching is when the words of what it means for the Alta Vista students to see their mom or dad graduate are read. Never a dry eye in attendance!”

Another Two-Generation Approach success story is how the Community Foundation formed a task force a few years back to support student success in four elementary schools—Gocio, Alta Vista, Tuttle, and Booker—which were the lowest performing schools from a reading proficiency perspective at the time. Gocio, in particular, had such a high percentage of Hispanic students and families that the Community Foundation partnered with UnidosNow, a group with the mission of helping elevate the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement. While UnidosNow put a lot of emphasis on getting 1st generation Latino kids from high school into college, the Community Foundation wanted to start the college conversation younger. Way younger. The idea was to change parents’ thinking from “my kid might be successful at college” to “my kid will be successful at college,” and that message couldn’t come early enough.

The Two-Generation Approach answer was the Families Together program where parents got together at Gocio to talk about their needs and discuss how to help their kids do better in school. It became clear that many parents didn’t feel comfortable at school because of the language barrier and many had had bad school experiences of their own. The solution was to give support to help them learn or improve their ability to speak English. They were shown the best ways to navigate the school system. They learned the right questions to ask their kids’ teachers. They discovered what rights all parents had. Now many of those Hispanic parents are joining the PTO and finding ways to participate in school, which includes taking classes of their own.

Luz Corcuera, the Executive Director of UnidosNow, points to Tabita as a Families Together success story. A Mexican mother of two children—one in high school, one at Gocio—she grew up witnessing her own mother suffer from domestic violence. Tabita’s goals were to avoid that future for herself and to help her children receive a quality education. After a year in the Families Together program, she explains that “the program has given me the confidence to venture out to speak and read English. It has given me the information to navigate the education system in the US and a good understanding of what is important at every stage of education. I now participate in the SAC [School Advisory Council] meetings and I am very honored that my voice and opinion count. My two sons are proud of me for learning the language. I also feel privileged to be a mentor to so many women who may be facing an abusive situation at home. I encourage all new parents in the community to take advantage of programs like this. I LOVE the fact that the program takes place in my child’s school.”

The Community Foundation isn’t limited to dealing with issues of education. In fact, of the $33 million they gave out last year, about 1/3 of that was for education. The rest went to a variety of things, such as supporting local arts organizations and an effort to address the homelessness situation that challenges our community. The Community Foundation’s Season of Sharing effort, now in its 18th year in partnership with the Herald Tribune Media Group, has prevented more homelessness by keeping many people who are stuck in a paycheck-to-paycheck life from losing their home when a setback happens. “The situation would be much more difficult but for the assistance to thousands of families over the years,” says Jerde. “Knowing it takes $8,000 to get someone back in their home once they become homeless? Spending $1,000 to keep them in their home is a huge economic—plus psychological—savings for our community.”

And then Hurricane Irma, too, created a lot of local and regional needs. The Community Foundation began an Irma Hurricane Relief and Recovery Fund as the storm barreled toward our shores. The Patterson Foundation immediately stepped up with a $250,000 contribution. The Community Foundation’s board also contributed $100,000 to the fund. Jerde notes that community support has totaled an additional $80,000+ so far. “We have a Board-led task force determining the criteria for grants and will soon be rolling out a grant application process for The Giving Partner nonprofits with recovery needs.”

The list of the Community Foundation’s success stories like these goes on and on and on. And that’s because of the great work and commitment to success of people like Roxie Jerde and her dedicated colleagues.
“The future is bright and hopeful,” Jerde promises. “At the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, we truly believe each of us can be the one to make an impact on another person, a cause, our community. I am inspired every single day by the caring, kind, and committed people who make our community stronger and more vibrant—people who lend a helping hand or share a smile, people who give generously whether it’s a few dollars or many more, people who believe our community needs to be successful for everyone!”

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