CEO, Naples Children & Education Foundation
Maria Jimenez-Lara believes she just might have the most important job in Collier County. No, she’s not boasting. She’s simply embracing the weighty reality of her charge.
As the top officer of a foundation that has raised over $146 million through its Naples Winter Wine Festival to impact more than 200,000 Collier County children through more than 40 nonprofits, she certainly has a special degree of responsibility to her day’s work.
During her time with NCEF—she was with the foundation four years as director of foundation services and grants director before becoming its CEO in 2015—she has with determined effectiveness implemented fresh internal systems; improved upon existing procedures; identified new community needs; developed new relationships, initiatives and infrastructure; asked and answered the tough questions about what should change; recognized what is working and should stay the same. But what she hopes will be her biggest legacy is her laser focus, through all the road bumps and distractions, on ensuring the foundation is sustainable.
“We have always looked at ‘What’s needed?’” Jimenez-Lara says. “It was a very Good Samaritan philosophy. ‘Let’s just take care of the kids.’ We want that, but we also need to make sure that care happens over a longer period of time. What if NCEF is not here? It’s almost like how you raise your own children, where you want them to be independent with or without you.”
Having moved to Miami from Puerto Rico at age 5 speaking no English, Jimenez-Lara sees herself as an example of education as the great equalizer. With the right tools, no children are beyond reach, she believes—and her life’s work has been all about helping them.
Before her role of grantor at NCEF, she was one of its grantees. She spent almost 15 years steeped in the Immokalee and Hillsboro County communities with the nonprofit Redlands Christian Migrant Association, where she developed charter schools for at-risk youth, among other strong, innovative community programming. She had been recruited there after developing a similar school—starting at just age 23—in the remote Miami area of Homestead. And that passion had been spurred by her first job out of college, at a head injury rehab, where she’d seen the kids she’d later come to serve recovering from wounds she hoped to prevent.
Always leaving positive change in her wake. She learned much from her parents’ example, she says:
“I think it’s pretty ingrained in me that you have to leave things better than you found them.”
Guilty pleasure: “Food. And time off. Time with my family.” Personal motto: “‘Those who say it can’t be done need to move out of the way of those who are doing it.’ … Any time someone says, ‘That’s not possible,’ I immediately go into, ‘Move out of my way!’” Quality admired in others: Grit. Favorite travels: Mexico City (where she completed her first of three degrees) and Cologne, Germany. Something surprising: “I think I’m a Star Wars geek, for sure.” Alternative career: “My alter ego would be a museum curator.”
Jeweler and owner, Mark Loren Designs
One of the most challenging pieces of jewelry Mark Loren ever designed was centered around a button. The button was from a dress that a mother was wearing as she and her child were taken to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The child gripped the button, tearing it from the dress as she and her mother were separated. The child never saw her mother again. But she held onto the button. Decades later, she came in with her daughter to the Fort Myers jeweler and asked if he could create a piece that framed the button. She was planning on giving it to another daughter.
The namesake of Mark Loren Designs sees jewelry as an art. It’s something unique and personal, a symbol of love that will span generations.
He’s become known locally for his involvement in charity work, going the extra step in creating specialty pieces for auctions. He once teamed with Norman Love for a Mother’s Day contest that had him driving an armored van and surprising mothers Publishers Clearing House-style with chocolates and jewelry. He’s instrumental in putting on benefits like the Law and Order Ball, for which he also produces the ceremonial pins and officer-of-the-year ring. “It’s not how much you give; it’s how you give,” he says.
Like so many other Southwest Floridians, Loren is from elsewhere. The Chicago native fell in love with Fort Myers for the sunny skies and beautiful beaches when he moved here for a job. And then. he started meeting more of its people. He was surprised how inclusive they were. Even some of the local celebrities, like artist Bob Rauschenberg, whom he worked with on a jewelry design, would treat him no differently than the big-name celebrities who’d frequent parties at the late artist’s Captiva home. Thirty-four years later Loren still feels the same way about Fort Myers. His connection to the community is a reflection of how it’s treated him throughout the years. That’s why he takes the time to handcraft a necklace or bracelet or award and then donate it for the sake of charity. It’s his gift to be passed along long after he has gone.
Quality admired in others: Authenticity. Something surprising: He’s an avid juggler. Guilty pleasure: Cigars. On his bucket list: “Sit on top of the pyramids and drink a cold bottle of champagne.” Craziest thing he’s done: Free fall out of an airplane.
Executive director, The Shelter for Abused Women & Children
Growing up, there are the people (most of us) who flip-flop, change minds, switch majors, change careers before finally settling on their place in the world. And then there are people like Linda Oberhaus, who seem to know, just as naturally as they know how to breathe, what they are meant to do.
“I feel I was born to be a social worker,” she says, sitting in her sunlit office at Naples’ The Shelter for Abused Women & Children, where she’s been executive director since 2007.
Oberhaus was a peer counselor in high school. At 18—yes, 18—she was a volunteer rape crisis advocate, visiting traumatized women and girls in emergency rooms. “When I was 18, I felt worldly and I felt grown, but when I look back—I have a daughter around that age, and I can’t imagine her doing that.”
She went into community mental health after earning social work degrees from the University of South Florida, and then landed a job at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, rising in the ranks until she became its executive director. She’s been working in the domestic violence field ever since.
“It’s an amazing place,” she said of the Naples shelter. “We’re all about transformation and focusing on empowerment.”
One of Oberhaus’ early decisions was to expand the board of directors, creating strategic alliances with law enforcement, school officials and others in key positions to help victims. She grew its prevention programs, particularly the ‘Gentle’men Against Domestic Violence. She oversaw the construction of seven cottages where women can live for up to two years while they continue working toward independence.
“Transitional housing can make the difference between a woman getting out of a violent relationship and staying out or feeling like she has to return,” Oberhaus says. On average, women return to their abusers seven times before finally getting out.
Next up: The construction of a new shelter in Immokalee to serve victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking. Too many women, Oberhaus says, decline to seek shelter in Naples because it is too far away from jobs, schools and extended family. And, on the subject of human trafficking, Oberhaus says this promises to become one of her biggest areas of concentration. No longer are the majority of victims foreign women lured away from other countries; they are U.S. residents—teens and young women—seduced into trafficking rings.
Something surprising: “When I was 11, I broke my collarbone playing tackle football … with the boys.” Worst habit: “I’m a list person. I make a list every day, seven days a week. I begin and end that day with that list.” Biggest influence: “My grandmother. I connected with her I guess around the age of 12. … She became my best friend, my confidant, somebody I could really depend on. I can’t imagine how I would have navigated the world without her.”
Ingrid and Fabrizio Aielli
Owner and chef-owner, Sea Salt and Barbatella
When the power cut out on opening night of their restaurant Sea Salt Naples on Nov. 15, 2008, Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli took it as an omen of success to come. The same thing had happened at their first-ever restaurant, Goldoni, in Washington, D.C.—and there they grew to add two more restaurants, gaining national recognition all the way.
Fast-forward to today and Sea Salt Naples has helped put Naples on the map as a dining destination and blossomed into a booming trio as well, joined by Italian trattoria Barbatella and Sea Salt St. Petersburg. The Naples eateries, adjacent on Third Street South, each quickly became a gold-star standard—and stayed there. The Aiellis’ reputation of “dream team”—Fabrizio as an earnest sought-after chef of fresh, simple and beautiful dishes and Ingrid as a warm, whizzing overseer of operations—have stood the test of time.
“Nowhere (else) in the world can you achieve so much with hard work and a dream,” says Ingrid, a native of Slovakia. Fabrizio was born in Venice, Italy.
“I grew up with a very, very humble family,” he says. “If there’s a crumble on the table, you do not waste it. … Today I still have a very high respect for food.”
The couple, who arrived proudly in the nation’s capital with a single suitcase each, don’t take for granted the opportunities they were given to seize. They make it a priority to contribute to the country and community that embraced them.
Through three small businesses, they have created 200 jobs. And through donated dining experiences, they have raised more than $500,000 for area causes.
Two programs have the strongest hold on their hearts. With the Nane Kimijan Memorial Scholarship, Ingrid has kept her late brother’s spirit alive by taking the reins of his program that gives two or three Naples High School students a jumpstart on college each year. And each year Ingrid and Fabrizio host a Christmas Eve lunch for the children of shelter Youth Haven. Fabrizio cooks while Ingrid and their staff serve; customers donate and wrap gifts; a friend dresses as Santa Claus.
Their philanthropic focus is on the children. And in other exciting news, having just finalized overseas the adoption of 7-year-old Adrian, they hope soon to welcome to America a child of their own.
How they met: At a wedding in Czechoslovakia. Neither spoke the other’s language, but they wed three months later. Something surprising: Ingrid: “I don’t know how to cook.” Would love to share a meal with: Ingrid: “It would be my brother for sure. My husband picked Pink Floyd; he cannot help himself.” Favorite childhood dish: Ingrid: “My grandmother’s duck lokša.” Fabrizio: “It is always so difficult to choose one thing. If I’m going to choose one dish, I’m going to lie.”
Founder and executive director, Quality Life Center
If you’d like to see the physical embodiment of the term “symbolism,” look to the brightly painted building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fort Myers.
That’s the site of a former nightclub—a lair of drugs and booze, fights and hook-ups. Enter Abdul’Haq Muhammed, who transformed the place into the Quality Life Center, an educational and social center for children. For 26 years, it’s been a beacon of hope in this troubled part of town.
Muhammed, a New Yorker, thought he’d pursue real estate investment upon arriving in Southwest Florida. But he’d long fought social justice issues, and it’d take more than Florida humidity to snuff out that flame.
“The evening news gave me a very graphic picture of young African-American males handcuffed and their heads guided into police cruisers,” he says.
Muhammed grew the Q into a holistic program for children ages 2 to 18 and their families.
“It all centered around making the community better. That was our mission: personal transformation and community transformation,” he says.
The Q is nonsectarian, though Muhammed, a practicing Muslim, says his work is driven by faith.
“Our purpose on this Earth needs to be driven by not only acknowledging the creator, but also by serving humanity,” he says. In addition to his work running Quality Life Center, Muhammed recently initiated a “Pennies for Community Progress” campaign that is pushing for the creation of a children’s services council to provide programs and services to impoverished neighborhoods.
There’s much hand-wringing in Fort Myers about the spread of violence. But the “formula” for keeping kids from succumbing to the streets is simple.
“It’s about being very genuine in your love for someone,” he says. “When it comes to children, the children need to feel that you genuinely love them, you genuinely care for them.”
With those bonds established, you can insist on excellence, Muhammed continues. “We create that environment, and then we encourage and we challenge and we push and we challenge and we push and we raise the bar and the expectations.”
A typical day: “Today, I had a manager’s meeting; I wrote a letter to county commissioners challenging them about the tax cuts; prior to that, I met with a couple people from the U.S. Justice Department; this morning I was in a meeting with the United Way.” Hobbies: “My worship, my faith. That’s what really balances out my life.” Quality admired in others: “What inspires me about people is their potential. Many times people don’t see their value. I want to help them find what it might be.”
It’d be understandable, in this messy and malevolent presidential campaign, if you wanted to write off politics—and politicians—entirely. But to do so would disregard those public officials who leverage government for good and to protect the people they serve.
Exhibit A: State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto.
“When I look back on the things we’ve accomplished in the last couple of years, I know that we have made lives better, and we have done things that have affected people on a personal level, in a day-to-day way,” says Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican first elected in 2010.
The senator, who served as majority leader from 2012-2014, can tick off a long list of legislative victories, including the passage of last year’s Legacy Florida bill, which she co-sponsored and which dedicates $4 billion in Everglades restoration—a project with direct implications for the wounded Caloosahatchee River ecosystem and Southwest Florida shorelines. Or her co-sponsored bill, now law, that forces life insurance companies to pay all policy beneficiaries, regardless of whether they come forward to claim the money. As of last summer, Floridians had received $500 million in payouts, a victory touted on 60 Minutes.
But two accomplishments touch her most deeply: the passage of a 2013 law that requires insurance companies to cover oral chemotherapy drugs at the same level they do intravenous ones; and new regulations over the handling of evidence in sexual assault cases. Benacquisto had been assaulted as a college student.
Until the chemotherapy law passed, a patient would pay a nominal co-payment for IV medication but could be charged thousands for its oral version. “It just made no sense,” says Benacquisto, whose mother died of lung cancer.
The law regulating sexual offense evidence came with $9 million to clear a backlog of 13,000 untested rape kits and requires law enforcement agencies to analyze new evidence within 120 days. This follows a previous victory for victims, a 2012 law that makes the reporting of suspected child sexual assault mandatory—and levies hefty fines on institutions that fail to do so.
“I used to regret this ‘thing’ that happened to me in college. … But then enough time passes and you realize, when you own it, there is such a power in being a voice for other people,” Benacquisto says.
Something surprising: “I do CrossFit. I love it!” Most gratifying experience: “Oh, that’s my babies, my (two) kids. Of everything that I will ever do, the most important things are wrapped around them.” Biggest influence: “My mom. When she passed … there were lines for hours to pay respects, and every woman that came through whispered in my ear, ‘She was my best friend.’ My mother made people feel that way, and I try as hard as I can to be that open and caring.”
Executive director, Alliance for the Arts
Lydia Black has always had a case of wanderlust. She claims Rhode Island as home, but she lived in Brazil growing up and has bounced around the United States as she’s grown older. Then, 10 years ago she came to Southwest Florida. And she’s stayed. Most of that time, she’s been with one organization, the Alliance for the Arts.
But you can’t look at it as just staying in one space. It’s not like her wanderlust has been cured. Just walking around the campus is a peek into different worlds. In one room, a new exhibit is being hung while just down the hall the stage is set up for the last week of a play. The excitement of a new experience is always around the corner. “In this place, the walls change every month,” she says. So, it really doesn’t feel like the same job. And it’s not the same Alliance from when she first started.
The Alliance was sputtering at the time Black was named executive director. Since, she’s given it stability and vision. The next big thing is an evolution of the 10-acre campus into a community hub with an expanded theater and gallery, more classroom space and an outdoor auditorium. She wants it to be a part of the community, not just a place where you come for a couple hours to be entertained. She places arts in the greater context of a society. Her question: “How can the arts impact our lives?” The answer comes in many forms. Of course, there’s the obvious one of entertainment and enlightenment. But don’t forget the potential economic impact—artists selling their work, nearby businesses getting traffic after a show. And there’s the community-building aspect, as it brings neighbors together for a class, a concert or just a lazy afternoon with the family in the park on campus. “The arts have an ability to touch people in so many ways,” she says.
While she’s been focused on growing the Alliance in the community, her wanderlust is still thriving. She travels frequently with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. Most recently, they backpacked through central Europe. The next trip is always planned. But she’ll return to Fort Myers, where her roots now grow strong.
On her bookshelf: Biographies of the Clintons, Ghandi, Mother Theresa; novels by Carl Hiaasen; nonfiction about The Grateful Dead. Guilty pleasure: Sunday morning political talk shows. Quality admired in others: Passion for their work. Travel plans: Southeast Asia and Africa.
Dr. David Perlmutter
Neurologist and author
Back in his adolescence, Dr. David Perlmutter—the Grain Brain and Brain Maker author and oracle of healthy eating—struggled with what many Americans battle today. He was overweight. So much so that he joined Weight Watchers in eighth grade. What was his motivation? Was it an early revelation that a healthy diet could have far-reaching effects on the body and brain? Not so much. “Girls,” he says with a laugh.
As a doctor, he’s focused on the more scientific reasons for living a healthier life. He’s authored multiple best-sellers based on the idea that Americans need to rethink their lifestyles—i.e. eat a low-carb, low-sugar diet and exercise frequently. In turn, not just our bodies but our brains will be healthier, leading to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other issues. Dr. Oz, Larry King and Oprah have interviewed him on their shows. Part of his success is due to his easygoing and charismatic attitude; he’s a doctor with a good bedside manner even when he’s not beside a bed but in front of a packed auditorium. His latest book, The Grain Brain Whole Life Plan, coming out this month, is a practical “how-to” guide for healthy living.
Most of his life has been surrounded by the study of medicine. He’s the son of a Florida neurosurgeon and, after a brief flirtation with a business major in college, decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He started a private practice in Naples shortly after residency at the University of Miami. As he practiced, he started to get more curious about the root causes of brain disease rather than the treatments of specific illness. He’s driven by “putting out the fire, not the smoke,” as he says.
He and his wife, Leize, raised their two children in Naples: a son, Austin, now a young doctor, and daughter Reisha, a talented painter. The next move may be elsewhere. He’s in conversations with a major academic institution in Southern California about joining the faculty to conduct clinical research. It’d be a big step for him and his wife, but it would be a chance to take a deeper look into his life’s work. Just another step on the path to healthy living he started on as a boy.
Hobbies: Fishing, boating, playing guitar. Quality admired in others: Compassion. Guilty pleasure: Dark chocolate—85 percent or greater cocoa. On his bucket list: Spending more time with his wife cruising British Columbia. Something surprising: He’s training to be a boat captain.
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