The Battle to Help the Underserved
Behind the push to get the needy in Golden Gate the level of aid delivered to the underprivileged in Immokalee.
The Sanchez family is just one of thousands of families in the Golden Gate and East Naples areas who don't have access to similar levels of services as the needy in Immokalee.
Photography by Erik Kellar
Nestled in the middle of an otherwise quiet residential section of Golden Gate, Grace Place is a hub of activity at 4 p.m. on a Thursday. Parents come by to pick up students from the summer camp program, signing a checkout sheet held by volunteer interns. Children wave goodbye to teachers, screaming out to make sure they are heard.
Throngs of kids from pre-K through middle school huddle in different groups. Some just hanging out, others on the playground and a few tossing a football in the parking lot. (When you walk through the Grace Place campus, it is always a good idea to watch out for a flying football.)
Amidst the throng are the Sanchez girls (who are being referred to by last name only because of their parents’ undocumented immigration status). One a first-grader and the other a second-grader, the girls are consistently ahead of their peers in reading and English language skills, thanks to the work they’ve done at Grace Place.
“Her teachers are very impressed,” Mrs. Sanchez says of her second-grader (through an interpreter). “I get compliments.”
But the Sanchez family and the 300 other families served by Grace Place make up a fraction of the nearly 4,000 children living below or near the poverty line in Golden Gate alone.
The Grace Place campus is busy, with language classes for kids and parents, tutoring, after-school care and a food pantry. There are students working on college admission test prep and those learning about nutrition. During tax season, it brings in CPAs to help folks navigate the byzantine world of the Internal Revenue Service, while providing financial literacy for families on an ongoing basis.
Through partnerships with the David Lawrence Center and NAMI, it offers mental health screenings and abuse prevention classes. The Ronald McDonald House sends a bus to do community health screenings. Grace Place even offered to take over a swimming club when mothers in the community expressed the desire for their children to learn to swim, though some insurance matters with the school district caused problems.
“We look at the whole spectrum,” says Executive Director the Rev. Stephanie Campbell, who started the organization as a homework club in an about-to-be-abandoned Methodist church. The question she asks before Grace Place will offer or partner to provide a service is simple: “Does it meet a true need in the neighborhood?”
For people in Golden Gate and East Naples, that answer is all too often “Yes.”
Children of nonmigrant poor in Immokalee get educational assistance at the Guadalupe Center, which with an annual budget of more than $5 million, dwarfs the $1.5 million Grace Place has to spend on similar families in Golden Gate.
When the Naples Children and Education Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, first set out to quantify the issues facing children in Collier County, one of its biggest findings was just how underserved folks were in Naples’ two primarily working-class neighborhoods.
A decade later, change isn’t coming fast enough. According to census data, nearly 45 percent of children younger than 5 in Golden Gate live in poverty (which for a family of four is about $23,500 a year). In East Naples, the numbers are between 36 and 41 percent depending on the zip code.
The statistics are comparable to those in Immokalee, long seen as the epicenter of the region’s poor, where half of all children grow up under the poverty line.
But in Immokalee, many more people get the needed services. Between the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, better known as RCMA, and the Guadalupe Center, nearly half of all students from kindergarten through sixth grade have access to after-school programs. In Golden Gate and East Naples, that number is about 10 percent.
“In Immokalee there are groups in place ready to do the work, so funding them is the next step,” says Maria Jimenez, grants director for NCEF. “That’s not the case in Golden Gate. The groups are really limited.”
The lack of charity infrastructure means it isn’t just as simple as ramping up production, even with more money. But money is needed to create the facilities required to serve more people.
The result is that children born in one predominantly Hispanic area of the county are much more likely to get the services they need to succeed than in another similar area. Campbell says a student who starts school at Golden Gate Elementary is the least likely student in the county to graduate high school. Students in Immokalee used to hold that distinction.
“The good news is that it proves that (early childhood education) works,” Campbell says. “The bad news is that we don’t have enough of those programs here.”
You could make the argument that Immokalee has had a long head start. It’s been more than 50 years since Edward R. Murrow and CBS produced Harvest of Shame, a documentary that showed America the plight of the migrant workers in Immokalee. In Golden Gate and East Naples, the need hasn’t really been on the agenda for two decades.
“Immokalee has so many things that we don’t have in East Naples,” says Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala, whose district stretches through many of the largest areas of need west of Interstate 75. “They started so many years ago. And back then that was the pocket of poverty. By the time things converged on East Naples, the groundwork had already been set (in Immokalee.) They have such a great network of promotion.”
Fiala tells a story of a person who lives on her street who came to her to talk about the needs in Immokalee. She told him “we have those same needs” next door.
But as Lisa Lefkow, executive vice president at Habitat for Humanity of Collier County, says, “It’s much easier to see the need in Immokalee.
“One of the biggest issues is the context is very different,” she continues. “You are only going 35-45 miles, but (Immokalee) is like going to a whole different world. The poverty there is still very raw.
“We’ve done a much better job of hiding poverty in coastal Collier.”
The Sanchez family of golden Gate is a perfect example of how poverty manifests itself closer to Naples. The undocumented couple, both originally from Guatemala, have each lived in Southwest Florida for about a decade. They met here and began to raise their family, which includes the two daughters getting help at Grace Place.
Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Sanchez speaks English well. They both work long hours at low-paying jobs (he in construction, she in cleaning) and together bring in about $500 a week. Even though their $26,000 income
puts them slightly above the poverty line, it’s nearly $20,000 less than the median income for Golden Gate and less than half the median income for the county. They are able to pay rent and utilities by sharing a house with another family, Mrs. Sanchez’s cousin’s. But little is left over for things like a car or dining out.
As with many immigrants, they came to the United States to find a more prosperous life. Mr. Sanchez, 37, wanted to find better-paying work. Mrs. Sanchez, 25, sought to escape bullying from her peers and extended family.
Like most parents, they aspire for a better life for their daughters.
“One wants to be a doctor, the other to work for the police,” Mrs. Sanchez says. “I tell them both, ‘To do those things you have to be studious.’”
In this regard, Grace Place has been a huge boost to both. The children have been attending the center almost since birth, after a pregnant Mrs. Sanchez was directed there by a woman she met at a bus stop. The woman was so adamant that Mrs. Sanchez’s children could benefit from the center that she stayed on the bus with Mrs. Sanchez until she got to the Grace Place campus. The results, though anecdotal, represent what many experience there.
“I used to babysit both my daughter and my cousin’s child, who is about the same age but who doesn’t come here,” Mrs. Sanchez says, while sitting in an office at Grace Place. “He would stare at (my daughter) as she was reciting her ABCs. Then he would ask me, ‘Why does she know all this stuff? I want to know this stuff too.’”
While much of what Grace Place does is targeted at children, there is a desire to advance the whole family. “What child wants to be ahead of their parents?” Campbell asks.
For the Sanchezes, that has meant taking English classes as a way to better opportunities. Although they didn’t feel comfortable being interviewed in English, both said their skill with the language is coming along. And they have good reason to continue. Mr. Sanchez’s boss doesn’t speak Spanish. So his improving language skills have allowed for better communication and enabled him to keep getting work.
Mrs. Sanchez says: “A woman I work for has a better job (for me), with better pay. But my English needs to be better. I’m not there, yet.”
Perhaps more impressive than contributing more than $100 million to children’s charities in the past decade has been NCEF’s ability to create a unified community of agencies in Immokalee. Before the group came along, promising major donations, there was a sense of every charity for itself, says Barbara Oppenheim, head of the Guadalupe Center.
“There was definitely a culture of ‘This is my territory, my area,’” she says. “People didn’t want to share.”
But with a desire not to pay for overlapping services, NCEF brought everyone to the table. Now the heads of many agencies meet together regularly. Not only does it make it easier for both clients and the folks working at the agencies—who can now help send people to the right place for the services they need—but it also helped make the organizations more credible with donors.
“Each agency now shows an expertise,” Oppenheim says.
Working together is still a pretty new idea in the greater Naples area. Some East Naples and Golden Gate charities have started meeting this summer along with NCEF consultants to try to identify the area’s biggest needs and come up with a plan to address them. The area is also likely to be a focal point in an update of the original NCEF study that first identified the needs in the county. That document is expected to arrive sometime this fall.
Campbell, who has been a part of the NCEF taskforce, says some of the issues include creating more quality early childhood education programs, bringing after-school services to more students, identifying more direct emergency services for families in need of basics—food, clothing, shelter—and working to identify people before they reach a point of crisis.
But even before the fruits of those meetings are made public, Oppenheim says, Golden Gate and East Naples leaders should take a trip to Immokalee—something that has worked well in attracting donors.
The Guadalupe Center shares a lot of the same missions as Grace Place, and Campbell has said Guadalupe is a good guidepost for her organization to follow. And in many ways, that seems like a great plan. Guadalupe has already gone through the growing pains. It has completed construction on a campus that now houses 18 classrooms and works with more than 1,000 kids a day, including 650 in its innovative Tutor Corps program that pairs paid high school students angling for scholarships with elementary kids who need help in school. Grace Place has an architectural plan and a hope to break ground on a new facility in place of the aging chapel and rented portable buildings it uses now to serve about 180 daily in its early childhood program.
Most of the difference between the reach of Guadalupe and Grace Place comes down to budget. The Immokalee center has an annual operating budget of $5 million, compared to the $1.5 million of Grace Place.
With that money, Guadalupe has things that Grace Place can only dream of—two computers and a smart board in every classroom. Right now Grace Place has just added its first smart board, which is being used to great effect this summer, and its computer lab is a row of older-model PCs along the wall of one of its temporary buildings.
That discrepancy is replicated with similar charities in the two areas. Money for health care, food pantries, bill-paying assistance all flows more freely into Immokalee.
The only two areas where East Naples wins are the Boys & Girls Club—which is looking to expand its Immokalee offerings after having great success, thanks in part to NCEF, with its Davis Boulevard location—and Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat originally focused most of its work in Immokalee and still does a lot in the community. But in the early 1990s, the organization realized the needs even greater closer to the coast.
“We noticed the buses coming to Immokalee to bring workers to and from the Marco Marriot and the Registry,” Lefkow says. “So Habitat started exploring East Naples and Naples Manor.
“When we made the move, it was like the dam broke. Applications for homes skyrocketed.”
Still, Lefkow believes the location makes it harder to raise money. She says potential donors driving along the East Trail don’t see the poverty that lies just a few blocks east and west of U.S. 41.
“They see Lely and Treviso Bay,” she says. “Not the thousands of families that struggle to make ends meet.”
So which comes first, the successful charities or the donors who support them? That’s the riddle Golden Gate and East Naples have to figure out. Significant funds have been poured into the region, but mostly to large organizations or missions. The two biggest beneficiaries of NCEF’s golden checkbook are in East Naples—the Boys & Girls Club and a dental clinic at Edison College. But there is still a desire to see more cooperation and stronger outcomes before the real money flows in.
Myra Daniels, the Artis—Naples founder and former CEO, has made her new mission starting an after-school center with the Salvation Army, something one insider predicted would be an immediate hit with the large population of school-age children who live within walking distance of the proposed Airport Road location. But her previous track record, and that of the Salvation Army, is as responsible for pushing donations as the mission itself.
Allen Ryan is a long-time donor and current board treasurer for the Guadalupe Center. He got involved with the center because his community, Hideaway Beach on Marco Island, had long ago adopted the center as one of its charities.
But Ryan says he doesn’t think he would be so involved if Guadalupe and Immokalee as a whole didn’t have everything in place already when he came to visit the center.
“It was very important (that they had) very committed people already,” he says. “You could see the progress, see the kids breaking the cycle of poverty through education. Certainly, I wouldn’t have been as big of a giver without (seeing that).”
Campbell feels like Grace Place is building that community of committed people. About 200 people volunteer weekly, she says. And they are working on creating metrics that show the progress of both Grace Place students and their school classmates.
She’s also taken the step of bringing in an experienced development director, Barbara Evans, who previously worked at Habitat for Humanity in the San Francisco area, and a full-time communications staff.
Evans says she believes it’s only a matter of time and effort to cultivate a donor base. “Grace Place has established community-wide support with a strong base of collaborations and strategic partnerships,” she says. “We are poised for big things moving forward.
The Hideaway Beach Crusade
One of the secrets to the Guadalupe Center’s fundraising success is something just about any other social service charity would love to imitate—its special relationship with the Hideaway Beach community. Folks in Hideaway Beach on Marco Island have been a huge part in the phenomenal growth of the center, which was founded in the 1980s as a soup kitchen and morphed over time into a provider of education services.
For years the Hideaway Beach community was an active base of volunteers for the center, which relied on them for tutoring and mentoring programs. But the community also helped create—and more importantly fund—Tutor Corps. The program offers part-time jobs to high school students who both tutor elementary children and are mentored by volunteers. Those high schoolers can take a trip during the summer before their senior year to a summer camp program at a university of their choosing. And they have access to up to $16,000 in college scholarships from Guadalupe upon graduation from high school, which they all achieve. They all get accepted to colleges and the program has a 95 percent college graduation rate.
Allen Ryan, who started getting involved in 2001, began a formalized fundraising program for Guadalupe in Hideaway Beach a few years later. Up until then, the community had been donating about $50,000 a year to the organization.
Since then, the annual contribution has averaged about $350,000. And they do it all without a big fundraising gala.
The key, Ryan says, is that the Guadalupe Center is just part of the culture of the community. When someone new moves into the community, it’s not long before someone else is offering to take them out to Immokalee to show them around. And the newbie probably already knew what to expect because of the cocktail party to discuss the center that someone else invited them to.
“Once they get out there and see the kids and the results, most people are interested,” Ryan says. The results are so spectacular and steady that the center is starting to look at how to develop similar programs in other affluent neighborhoods.
“We’re using Hideaway Beach as a template,” says Kelly Hammer, the center’s director of development. “One person can become a champion and an advocate in their community. Then they educate their friends, who educate their friends.”