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2009 Philanthropists of the Year

They don’t do it for the glory, the pat on the back or the quid pro quo. Southwest Florida’s 2009 Philanthropists of the Year give without expectation of return, reveling in the knowledge that they’re changing others’ lives for the better. There’s no bigger pay-off than that. 

This year’s honorees include a couple who brought millions to help local kids with cancer; a Mariner High grad whose accomplishments include creating the Adopt a Grandparent program; and a volunteer who teaches children to grow edible gardens as part of her efforts to feed the hungry.

On the business front, our list celebrates a credit union whose foundation promotes the education, health and emotional well-being of children; and two local jewelers who regularly support local charities by donating their time, talent and treasure.

All of those recognized were nominated by their peers and selected by the area Philanthropy Day Leadership Council, which includes members of the Community Foundation of Collier County, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and Gulfshore Life.

Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser

At the end of the summer, Brenda Tate pulled on her grandfather’s overalls and took her gardening tools to Bonita Springs Middle School to see an idea of hers take root—an edible garden planted at the school to teach the students about growing their own nutritious food.

Partnering with North Fort Myers-based ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), the garden will include ECHO signature plants, which are those that grow in Southwest Florida’s challenging environment, as well as nutritious, edible plants, such as tomatoes, beans and squash.

“So it will be a demonstration and a learning area,” Tate says. “The students will be able to explain what it is and why it’s nutritious.”

The project touches on many of Tate’s passions—feeding the hungry, empowering children and enhancing education. In all of the organizations Tate volunteers, fundraises and advocates for, she finds a way to overlap the causes, people and benefits.

The gardening project grew from her involvement with Take Stock in Children, a mentoring program for low-income, at-risk children in Florida. While mentoring children in the middle school, she developed the partnership with ECHO. Her desire to help feed the hungry is a natural tie with her work in East Africa with Global Partners for Development, which works to end poverty. Through Global Partners, Tate brought a young African woman, Juliana, to speak to a newer group that Tate helped found, the Women’s Legacy Fund of Southwest Florida. The WLF, which falls under the Southwest Florida Community Foundation umbrella, is made up of women who pool their resources to issue charitable grants. Tate and her husband, Dewey, also support Lee Mental Health and the United Way.

“Dewey and I are in a place in our lives where we can be thoughtful about giving back,” says the Atlanta native who worked in the nonprofit arena before retiring. She calls the return she gets on her time and financial investments with these programs her “psychic income.”

“We get a better return than what we’re getting on the stock market right now,” she jokes. “I receive back more than I give—it’s a 100-plus percent return.”

—Shellie Terry Benson

Outstanding Small Business

The Yamron name has been a familiar one to Neapolitans since the early ’70s when the family brought its fine jewelry business to our sunny shores. Now with its third-generation owner, Bruce Yamron, at the helm, it’s no accident that the name is out there more than ever.

Each spring, it’s on the company agenda to lay careful plans for its wide community involvement in the season to come. While there are more than a few jewels donated each year, Yamron insists on giving in more ways than just dollar signs and to more than just a couple of choice charities. “If we can’t pay with dollars during these tougher times, then maybe we’ll offer more time or more advertising,” he says. “It’s always my personal motivation to stay with as many as we can. We don’t make the headlines with the amounts that we are giving, but I think we do get our point across with how many different stories we’re involved with.”

The business was involved with nearly 40 organizations last year, a figure that echoes Yamron’s philosophy of giving: “Our goal is to see how many we can help, not how much.” While the company tends to favor groups that serve educational needs, healthcare and the fine arts, the list extends to include those for underprivileged or disabled children and homeless pets, among others.

Of course, in a small family-owned business, leadership is a legacy not taken lightly. Establishing relationships and finding ways to help is just another part of doing daily business. “If someone is a customer of ours and they’re on the board of an organization, we ask if there’s something we can do for them,” Yamron says. “It’s easier to send flowers or a thank-you note, but sometimes there’s a donation to be made instead.”

Though the business set down its roots here years ago, Yamron says he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “It’s what we like to do,” he says. “We like to get business, and we also like to give back. It’s not a necessity; it’s a feeling. It makes you feel good.”

—Jennifer Freihofer

Outstanding Small Business

As an artist, Mark Loren has a habit of giving his creations away—seemingly bad for business, but great for the recipients of his philanthropy. It’s by giving without expectation of return, though, that Loren has seen his business thrive even more.

Mark Loren Designs in Fort Myers has been creating custom jewelry for 25 years. Loren has been featured in the book Gemstone Masters: Major Works by Leading Artists as one of the world’s top 39 jewelry artists, but he is also known locally for his generosity—something he links to lessons learned years ago while watching his father donate blood.

Now married with three daughters, Loren helps out the American Cancer Society, Children’s Advocacy Center, The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, and Abuse Counseling and Treatment Center, to name a few. People take notice and remember his name when it’s time to choose a jeweler for their important pieces.

A recent example of his philanthropic spirit came this year when Mark Loren Designs offered 200 free Mother’s Day necklaces to those out of work or in foreclosure. Hundreds lined up in hopes of receiving one. One man even gave the necklace as his final gift to his dying mother.

“You just don’t know when you do something like that how you’re going to touch people,” Loren says. “When you do something for someone else, it elevates you as well as them. Too many stores or businesses do philanthropy, they aren’t being philanthropy.”

Loren says he can’t simply write a $100,000 check, but he can create jewelry for local charity auctions. In the past three years, his business has donated nearly $91,000 in custom-designed pieces, with an average winning bid of $5,000.

“Good charities make volunteers feel in their soul like they made a difference,” Loren says.

—Denise Scott


Outstanding Large Business

Instead of being stuck at home alone while their parents worked, children in Harlem Heights got to join their friends in a summer program this year, thanks in part to Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union.

That is just one of numerous programs for children Suncoast supports. Although the Tampa-based institution’s membership has spread substantially from its beginnings as a teachers’ credit union, its mission hasn’t strayed from its roots. In 1998, it created the Suncoast for Kids Foundation with a mission “to promote the education, health and emotional well-being of children in our communities,” says Greg Pasanen, regional vice president of four branches in Lee County and Collier’s five locations. He serves on the boards of both counties’ education foundations, which jointly nominated Suncoast for its extensive support of their programs, from the Golden Apple awards and Teachers Academy to student scholarships and a program that provides a teacher for hospitalized children.

Of the 15 counties in which Suncoast does business, Lee is its second-largest beneficiary, behind Hillsborough County. Pasanen estimates donations in Lee and Collier of more than $700,000 in just the past two years.

Suncoast also supports the Guadalupe Center of Immokalee, Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, Children’s Museum of Naples and Florida Vision Quest, which provides free eye exams and glasses to children in need, among others. Ten local employees volunteer with Take Stock in Children, and Pasanen’s staff raised about $15,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. And when the Children’s Advocacy Center bought a new facility, not only was Suncoast the first to step up with funding, but its employees showed up to help paint.

Suncoast for Kids acts on behalf of the members of the not-for-profit credit union, says President and CEO Tom Dorety. “One, it’s the right thing to do; it’s where we live. Second, education helps everybody in the community, particularly our membership. And third,” he explains, “we think there’s a certain value to being recognized in these communities for doing the right thing.”

—Jill Tyrer


Outstanding Philanthropists

Jack and Shelley Blais are humble about the acts of generosity that led to their selection as 2009 Outstanding Philanthropists. However, others don’t hesitate to praise the Massachusetts couple for embracing local charities after they made Fort Myers their second home.

Joseph R. Catti, president and CEO of Finemark National Bank & Trust, serves on the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation Board of Trustees with Jack Blais. He nominated the couple for the award and says, “Rather than basking in the publicity that significant philanthropy usually generates, Jack and Shelley always ask that any publicity be used to promote the cause and those being helped.”

The Blaises have helped thousands of young patients at The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida since 2001. That’s when Jack pledged to match all proceeds from the annual Boston Red Sox Children’s Hospital Celebrity Classic. In just the past three years alone, those matching grants have helped the events raise more than $1.7 million. The Blaises also support Barbara’s Friends—The Children’s Hospital Cancer Fund.

“When Jack and Shelley stepped forward eight years ago, they could not possibly foresee what their good works would inspire,” Catti says. “Thanks to them, The Children’s Hospital built a six-bed expansion to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, obtained equipment for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, made extensive inroads in treating children with special needs, and helped literally thousands of children from Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry, Glades and surrounding counties who receive lifesaving care each and every year.”

The couple’s philanthropy has an even broader reach into the community. They have taken a lead role in the fight against hunger with a matching gift that initiated the Hunger Relief Fund. They also support Community Cooperative Ministries’ Soup Kitchen, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades counties, and they helped endow a scholarship fund at Florida Gulf Coast University.

—Denise Scott


Outstanding Youth

From her academic record to her community service, Signé Thomas is single-handedly proving that nothing is impossible. Valedictorian, student government president and prom queen, she graduated in June from Mariner High School in Cape Coral with a 5.66 grade point average. With additional credits from dual enrollment at Edison State College, she starts Florida State University this fall as a sophomore and expects to complete a master’s degree in four years.

Signé sets high goals and doesn’t rest until she’s achieved them, whether it’s acing an exam or organizing a program to help others. As secretary of the Volunteens organization and a member of the National Honor Society at Mariner, Signé gave her time and talents to efforts ranging from Habitat for Humanity and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life to Cape Coral’s Coconut Festival and the Cape Coral Hospital.

And when she sees a need, she steps up to fill it. She took first place in the Edison Inventor’s Fair by creating a device to help people who have the use of only one hand. She headed up the Thank a Soldier letter-writing campaign by her school’s English classes for U.S. soldiers overseas.

And after befriending a resident of a Cape Coral nursing home and recognizing that many residents didn’t receive regular visitors, she launched Adopt a Grandparent. “A lot of them don’t have any family [locally], and they don’t have regular visitation, which could be so easily provided if you’re just willing to volunteer your time,” she says. So she rallied other National Honor Society members at local high schools to start visiting the residents.

It’s little surprise that she plans a career in community service, via politics. “I definitely hope to continue my enthusiastic community service at Florida State and the rest of my life,” she says. 

“That’s why I want to get into politics and government, so I can make the right decisions for our country.”

—Jill Tyrer

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