The Naples Children & Education Foundation—the organization behind the Naples Winter Wine Festival—searched nationally but chose locally in naming a new chief executive officer.
Maria Jimenez-Lara, formerly the group’s Director of Foundation Services and Grants Director, took the helm this week after an exhaustive national search. Jimenez-Lara was one of four finalists out of an initial pool of 225.
“One stood out ahead of all of the rest, and that was Maria Jimenez-Lara, and even though she’s been with us for a couple of years now, we made her go through the same vetting process that we made every other candidate go through,” says NCEF board chairman Bob Clifford. “Her vision of our future resonated strongly with all the members of the search committee and the board.”
“I am completely honored and proud and very, very excited and humbled at the same time,” Jimenez-Lara says. “To me, this is the most important work that happens in Collier County.”
Since 2001, the Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised $135 million for Collier County Children. NCEF oversees and distributes the money to partnering organizations that support its initiatives: mental health, health care, oral health, vision, early learning, hunger and after-school/summer programs.
Jimenez-Lara has spent her entire career in nonprofits. Prior to joining NCEF in 2012, she was director of charter schools for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Immokalee, where her schools went from F’s to B’s in two years. Her passion for helping children emerged during her first job in Miami working with teens caught up in gangs and the juvenile justice system.
“I realized if they just had different opportunities and help they wouldn’t be in the situations they are in,” she says. “I think if you have high expectations and very specific expectations, no matter what their background is, the kids always respond. … They just rise to those expectations.”