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The Heart of Giving

The shadow of abuse: Lise Descoteaux helps women like Nancy* end the cycle of abuse at the Shelter for Abused Women & Children. (ERIK KELLAR)Starting Over

To see Nancy* now, you’d think she’d always lived a charmed life. She smiles and jokes, dresses beautifully and speaks confidently. She seems self-assured and very much in control of her own destiny, and she is—though it hasn’t always been that way.

For 26 years, Nancy was, as she describes it, “a beautiful bird in a padded velvet cage.” Ensconced in what appeared outwardly as a charmed life indeed—full of jet-set traveling, fancy cars and limitless upscale shopping sprees—she was secretly suffering. Her husband, a wealthy and successful businessman, was less of a partner and more of a captor. He controlled every aspect of her life through a range of abusive mechanisms: verbally, emotionally, spiritually and financially. If she so much as thought about leaving, he’d threaten and degrade her. “Do you think you’ll ever be able to provide for yourself like I can?” he’d ask. “You won’t even be able to feed yourself without me.” So she stayed, putting on an air of happiness and contentment around him and in social settings.

Eventually, the abuse grew to be too much for her to handle alone. Nancy began looking for a counselor to speak to, which led her to the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Naples. But because of her social circle (some of her friends are donors to the shelter), she was terrified people might see her there and suspect something was amiss. “When I first got there,” she says, “I sobbed. It was degrading—humiliating—to think I had to go there. … But then I remember feeling safe. I could finally breathe.”

Each woman’s counseling sessions—which are all free of charge—are different and based on her personal circumstances. The shelter offers a range of services, including court and legal aid; a 60-bed emergency shelter for women, children and even their pets, which provides food, clothing, cell phones, transportation and more; a confidential 24-hour crisis line (775-1101); an elder-abuse response program; and even a healing arts program, which utilizes meditation, yoga, creative writing and art as means toward building inner strength and self-esteem.

Because of Nancy’s affluent background, she identified as a Woman of Means, another specialized program for women whose abusers have exceptional power, privilege or access to resources. These women tend to be college-educated and either raised with or married into wealth. The Women of Means program is one of only a few of its kind in the country.

In addition to her one-on-one counseling sessions, one of the most beneficial parts of the program, Nancy says, is meeting with a support group of other women in similar situations. Above all, Nancy says, “It validates that you aren’t crazy, and you’re not the only one this is happening to.”

Nancy recalls her first visits to the shelter and the fears she carried with her. “I wondered, ‘Can I smile again? Can I remember who I am?,’” she says. “I had molded myself to fit what [my ex-husband] wanted me to be, and in doing so, I had lost my own identity.”

It was outreach advocate Lise Descoteaux—one of 12 advocates working at the shelter—who led Nancy through her transformation from domestic violence victim to the self-assured, independent individual she has become. With Descoteaux’s help, Nancy identified the pros and cons of her current relationship and learned her options for becoming self-sufficient so, when she did leave, she would be fully capable of providing for herself. She recently finalized her three-and-a-half-year divorce.

Descoteaux stresses that the shelter’s services are strictly advocacy-based, meaning counselors never tell a woman what to do—even if it means they choose to return to their abusive situations. (Nancy tried going back to her husband more than once before separating herself completely.) Instead, Descoteaux says, they provide guidance and support to help women analyze their options and regain their own control. “It’s their life, their decision,” she says. “We don’t interfere, but we are their biggest cheerleaders.”

Now, Nancy lives on her own and fills her days with yoga, swimming, walking and trying her hand at golf lessons. She’s also in training to begin volunteering at the shelter as a mentor for other women—part of the “circle of life” at the shelter. “Most of all, I want to be able to help other women realize what a marriage of equality is,” she says. “I know I have a lot to give. I’m strong now.” —Jennifer Freihofer

*Name has been changed.


New no longer: In three years, Shelly Stayer has gone from new girl in town to one of the community’s leading philanthropists. “Honestly, it’s the women of Naples who help you get involved.” (NANCY DENIKE)Breaking In

It’s not always easy being the new girl.

But it’s probably safe to say that Shelly Stayer’s reign as “the new girl” is winding down. Just three years after she and her husband, Ralph, decided to move to Naples to avoid the Wisconsin winters, she has become a social fixture—chairing events, joining boards and making big donations.

But how does someone who wants to do good actually do good when they don’t know a soul in their new town?

“Honestly, it’s the women of Naples who help you get involved,” says Stayer. “Three years ago, I knew two people in Naples. One of them was Shirlene Elkins, whom we met eight years ago when Ralph was trying to convince me to move to Naples. Shirlene threw a party to introduce us to some people, and I met Simone Lutgert (then Simone Gomez). Back then I was 42 and never thought there’d be enough for me to do in Naples. So we went back to Wisconsin and continued to work at the company (Johnsonville Sausage). Then, three years ago we decided to move to Naples … I called Simone and said, ‘I don’t think you’ll remember me, but … ’”

Her worries of not having enough to do in Naples while her husband golfed quickly faded. Both Lutgert and Elkins asked her what charities she was a part of back home and she responded, “We like to help women and children.”

“Of course, being Simone, she got me very involved in the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples right away in the fundraising aspect. The building wasn’t even up yet. My husband Ralph is very involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs up in Wisconsin and so the children’s museum was a natural. When I got here I said I wanted to be involved with three things, so that was one.”

She then met Mary Baron at a party and was asked the same question.

“No one in Naples comes at you heavy handed,” says Stayer. “They take their time and listen to what is it you like to do. Even if they are not in that organization. The nicest thing that happened was two or three women of Naples who were very involved got me involved. That was the best thing that could have happened … Of course, Mary is very involved with the Shelter for Abused Women & Children.

“I took it slow. First was the children’s museum, then the shelter,” says Stayer. “My first two years here I was so busy I never got to the Phil. This year I finally walked into the Phil and was like ‘Oh my word.’ I couldn’t believe it was in Naples. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was … I said, ‘That’s it. This is my third thing!”
When the Stayers talk about giving, they talk about a couple of things; one is time. “These are the three things that I chose to give my time to,” says Stayer. “When we talk about giving monetarily, my husband and I are the sole owners of Johnsonville Sausage, so we paint with a wide stroke, a very wide stroke. We have an overall concept called ‘women in need.’ But then we’re all over the board, from animal shelters to whatever. We just talk to each other and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ It could be a Catholic church, a Lutheran church, whatever we feel good about … Our giving strategy is really whatever God tells us to do, we do. It’s always changing in different areas of need.”
She joined the board of the Phil in April.

Maybe it’s not that hard for the new girl.
—Michael Korb


More than money: With acts like providing a teddy bear for every kid in the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, Ellen and John Sheppard give any way they can. “There are a lot of other ways to give than just money.” (NANCY DENIKE)Reaching Out

John sheppard doesn’t know how to stop giving, not that he would even if he could. Old habits die hard with him.

Take his morning walks as an example. As a boy, he used to deliver copies of the local newspaper each morning throughout his neighborhood. He outgrew the job. But seven decades later, the 80-year-old hasn’t stopped taking walks down those same winding streets behind Lee Memorial Hospital. And his delivery boy habits stay with him. All those who subscribe to the paper along his morning treks find it placed neatly on the doorstep instead of down at the curb.

“When I go on vacation, people get worried about me,” he says, and then gives a little laugh.

Although he was a successful attorney able to carve out a comfortable life for his family, Sheppard said he realized a long time ago that he could never be the type of philanthropist whose name would go on a building. “I can’t write a check for $1 million,” he says. “But there are a lot of other ways to give than just of money.”

If people feel pushed out of charities by big-name donors with billion-dollar bank accounts, then that’s a personal problem—not a problem with the system.

“People shouldn’t feel bad if they can’t (donate large sums of money),” he says. “Everyone has something to share. You give what you can give—time, talent or treasure.”

And Sheppard and his wife, Ellen, have dedicated their lives to proving that point. He holds the Guinness World Record for most blood donated. She helps local children create art that sells for as much as $100,000 at charity auctions. More than a decade ago, the couple started a program to provide teddy bears for every child who is a patient at the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, which gives about 4,000 stuffed animals a year.

Together they relive the most painful episode of their lives several times a year to help other people in need. More than three decades ago, their son took his own life. The grief they felt was devastating. But they persevered.

Now when they hear of people experiencing the loss of a child, they immediately offer their support. The circumstances, whether it is illness or accident, make every parent’s grief different, Ellen Sheppard says. “Yet there’s that common thread,” she says. “I really can say that I understand.”

“It’s kind of like AA,” John Sheppard says. “The other people there have been through it. A psychologist or a pastor can say they understand, but they don’t, really.”

Seeing the grief they experienced in the faces of others is a difficult experience for the Sheppards. But knowing they might help another family navigate those emotions to find peace makes it worthwhile.

They don’t offer any revolutionary new advice. And they don’t expect anything in return. (John Sheppard says that means you won’t be disappointed.) They just listen and comfort in any way they can think of, be it a call, a note or a visit.

“You lose, and it ain’t ever over,” John Sheppard says of losing a child. “You learn to live with it. You don’t grieve anymore, but it’s still a part of your life. We can help people get there faster than we did.” —Jonathan Foerster

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