The Art of Giving: Bob & Willa Bernhard

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by Ryan G. Van Cleave

John Annis of Community Foundation of Sarasota County says Bob Bernhard’s a born problem solver who’s always dreaming up ways to overcome challenges in our community. “There aren’t many 91-year-olds who are so actively engaged with local issues, finding articles online and sending them around, and thinking about ways to make a difference.” giving

“My real pleasure comes from seeing a need that no one else is filling—or hasn’t filled well—and then I try to do something about it.”

The technical savvy Bob displays on a computer? “It’s born of pure necessity,” he claims. That necessity comes from the Bernhards having two main types of philanthropic outlets. The first? Supporting big organizations like ACLU, Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, and local hospitals. The second? Bob admits that “my real pleasure comes from seeing a need that no one else is filling—or hasn’t filled well—and then I try to do something about it. This doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money, but it DOES take initiative, and it takes the help and guidance of someone like John Annis to help make it happen.” Bob’s the first to admit: “I like to poke around and find opportunities on my own.”

“They’re a great team,” Willa says. Bob adds that John’s a bright guy who comes through with everything he says he’ll do. “And I trust him,” Bob says. “Sometimes he says wait a bit on a project, and sometimes he says that now’s the time.”

One of their recent projects was to buy books from First Book to give to low-income area students at Gocio, Tuttle, Booker, churches, and nonprofits. The per-unit got better as the total book order grew, and Bob ended up buying an entire truckload—40,000 books. “The response we got was unbelievable,” Bob says. “Letters from teachers, students, and others. It was so well received that I decided to set up an endowment so John would know in advance that he’d have the money for books, giving him bargaining power with booksellers. This way he could get what he wanted versus having to accept what they offered.” Annis notes that the endowed fund has enough money to spin off enough proceeds to buy books every year. Forever.

That’s the type of impact Bob wants. giving

Long-lasting and profound. Another example of this is how Bob decided that minorities weren’t well represented in the Sarasota Police Department—certainly not to the extent they were in the community. So he got online and did his research. What he found was that unlike other cities, Sarasota didn’t pick a candidate for the police force and send them to school. Candidates for the police academy had to pay their own way. Bob reached out to the SPD and their chief of police hugged him, admitting that they’d been trying to save up enough money to put one person through the academy. Bob and Willa gave enough to send three minority candidates through the academy, about which Willa says, “It’s one of the best things we’ve ever funded.”

It’s no surprise that Bob’s business background was entrepreneurial. In his hometown of New York, he’d buy a piece of land, build a house on it, then sell it. But before long he realized that selling a property came with a single payday. Keeping it for rental purposes gave you an income for life. “I decided at a pretty young age that rental property was the way to go,” he says. “And it worked out. Not superbly, but well enough so that I have enough for my family and still have funds left over to help others.”

Willa—a former psychologist, therapist, and educator in the Department of Psychiatry at Cornell University Medical School—has plenty of ways of giving to the community here as well.

She works with the Women’s Resource Center of Sarasota County and belongs to the Florida Suncoast Division of the International Women’s Board, but she’s most excited these days about her participation with SOURCE Productions, an innovative theatre, video, and film program that teaches young adult volunteers about theatre, acting, life skills, and sex education in order to give back to the community. Willa plans to work with award-winning playwright and program director KT Curran to locate former SOURCE participants (who are now in their mid to late 20s) and interview them to see what type of lasting effect their experiences with SOURCE had. Willa wants to help bring that program to the next level.

A theater buff, Willa also offers to be interviewed by the Florida Studio Theatre from time to time so the actors can get a real sense of how older people think, feel, and react. And each theater season, if Willa particularly likes one of their plays, she sponsors it.

One of the newest ways that the Bernhards are trying to make a difference is in the field of medicine. Bob was in Sarasota Memorial for a week or so some time back, and while there, he ran across a Latina nursing assistant, a single mother of two, who wanted to become an RN but couldn’t afford the tuition and other expenses. Bob was very impressed by how she interacted with him. Her desire to become an RN wasn’t only about the additional income, but also a desire that grew out of a passion to be able to do more to help others, and that altruistic goal had an impact on Bob. So much so that he brought her in to meet John at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to work out the logistics of giving her the opportunity to become an RN.

That same hospital stay birthed another out-of-the-box idea. Bob came to realize that many of the health care workers struggled to afford to live here. After a bit of his own research, he learned that in Sarasota county in 2014, there were 175,000 separate housing units—“everything from trailers to mansions.” But 56,000 were single occupancies. “There’s got to be a lot of empty bedrooms, right?” And the only way the hospital had of helping workers find housing situations was a bulletin board. So Bob and John Annis are helping to launch a pilot program to be administered by the Senior Friendship Center where people who work at the hospital can stay in an unused room in return for rent, service, companionship, or some combination of those things. “If we could get just 2% of those 56,000 single occupancy housing units occupied by somebody, we’d get 1,000 rooms!” Bob says. “That’s a lot of low-income people who would have affordable housing.” giving 

Bob and Willa became Florida residents in 2006 and moved into the Sarasota Bay Club two years ago, but they didn’t move there to kick back and take it easy. They’re as busy as ever. Their secret to success? “Because we have a good marriage and we work together,” Bob explains. “It makes a huge difference. Respect your partner. Help your partner. How you deal with things after the rush of hormones wears off is what makes a good marriage.”

They’ve been married for 68 years so far, and though Willa jokes that they’d like a few more grandchildren, they seem as happy as ever. Bob adds, “I’ve got good health, two terrific daughters, and a good marriage. And that’s a true blessing.”


on Community Foundation of Sarasota County, please visit or call 941.955.3000

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