In his book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes the concept of connectors, those people with a special gift for uniting others. Connectors have what Gladwell calls an extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances, and they’re able to span a variety of social settings because of their unique blend of curiosity, confidence and energy. To say that Debbie Toler is a connector is an understatement. Super-connector would be more like it.
“She’s a magnet,” says top-producing Naples Amerivest Realtor and longtime friend Susan Owens. “Debbie’s a very upbeat person with a constant smile and a very charismatic personality. She’ll stand out in any gathering, whether it’s a cocktail party or a boardroom. And she’s an inclusive per- son. When she has events, she will invite friends and even casual acquaintances to join in and become a part of whatever she’s doing, whether it’s a special, worthwhile cause or a neighborhood celebration.”
When asked to describe herself, Toler just laughs self-deprecatingly.
“In high school I was way too social,” she says. “My father, he’s not here today, but he would tell you I was probably known to be too talkative.”
Toler’s professional background includes 10 years with marketing and communication agencies in New York, and she thrives on using her skill set to help organizations build their brands. Today, she sits on the board of SWFL Children’s Charities as their vice president of marketing, and this year she served as one of three chairpersons for the organization’s Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest.
Christin Collins, another Wine & Food Fest chairperson, has worked with Toler since 2017 and has seen how she brings her indomitable spirit to the cause.
“Debbie is a consummate event planner and brand ambassador,” Collins says. “She’s brilliant at creating win-win situations, and she knows how to facilitate connections. When you’re in a meeting with her and an idea sparks, she’ll reach out and connect with someone she’s met along her journey, enhancing the current work that she is leading. Her kindness and thoughtfulness in her approach and how she pulls people together is exhilarating to be around.”
For the first time this year, the majority of the money raised at the 2019 festival will go toward supporting children with behavioral and mental health disorders, issues with historic challenges to fundraising.
“In many cases, pediatric mental health has been a taboo subject,” Toler says. “In the past, philanthropic efforts weren’t as focused on this cause, and it’s amazing to see how the mindset is changing. After we selected mental health as our Fund-a- Cause auction item at the 2017 wine fest, people came out of the woodwork saying, ‘Why don’t you continue to do more in this space?’”
Toler feels that mental and behavioral health issues are more prevalent than many people realize.
“I think mental health illness runs in almost every family. I know it runs in mine. When I’ve discussed this topic with others, almost every single time the response is, ‘It’s affected my family also.’ That’s why we’re trying to break the silence and stigma. Resources should be as readily available for mental health disease as they are for other illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.”
Yet combating mental health problems, she acknowledges, is not simply a matter of having the means.
“Because of limited funding and resources, it can be difficult for anyone, no matter their economic status, to get the proper support and diagnosis they deserve. Florida is ranked one of the worst states in the country in terms of funding mental and behavioral health, and our surrounding counties rely heavily on philanthropy to address this disease.”
When Toler is not managing her chairperson duties for the festival, she’s dedicating her energies to another important cause, the PACE Center for Girls, where she is on the state board of trustees.
“I’m so excited to be a part of this organization,” Toler says. “We have 21 centers across the state of Florida, and this will be a national organization very soon. PACE has had such a positive impact on the lives of so many girls, and we look forward to expanding PACE and its comprehensive business model to have a greater reach beyond the state.”
Toler shares a Barefoot Beach house with her husband, Bill, retired CEO of Hostess Brands, and their home serves as the nexus for several communities. When the pair hosts events, they draw from networks that extend north into Fort Myers and south into Naples. This ability to bring together groups is a skill Toler has been honing for decades. As Bill’s career grew and expanded during their 35 years of marriage, the couple moved throughout the country, putting down roots in Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Philadelphia before making their way to Southwest Florida. Before they set out for their first destination, though, Toler had a brief moment of self-doubt.
“I was a Charlotte native and had not traveled much before we moved to Cincinnati,” she says. “I was very worried how I’d do away from my hometown.”
The answer? She did exceptionally well. Toler drew on her energy and sociability, and soon she created a diverse group of friends. The choice to move away from
Charlotte and see other parts of the country, she says, was one of the best decisions of her life.
And did Bill know the kind of woman he would be marrying? He might have gotten some early indication. Out of college, Bill worked for Procter & Gamble while Toler was at Thomas J. Lipton, and the two would cross paths as they checked on their respective store displays.
“We met in the backroom of a grocery store,” Bill says. Though he’s quick to add, with a chuckle, “Nothing crazy, of course.” On one of those display check-ins, Toler discovered that her display wasn’t where it was supposed to be in the store. And the display in its place? Bill’s. She likes to wave off the rest of the story with a smile and a blush, but it’s not hard to imagine this fiery go-getter marching into the backroom to set Bill straight.
Though her calendar is often full with philanthropy, travel and visits with family— two adult children, Kristin and Austin, plus her son-in-law, Ben, and grandchildren, Riley and Saxton—Toler still makes time to entertain with Bill.
“We’re very social,” she says. “We love cooking together for friends, and the kitchen is the place for some of our best conversations.”
Toler calls cooking “therapy in the kitchen,” and she loves the challenge of recreating dishes she’s tried in restaurants at home. She also likes understanding her guests’ eating habits and tailoring her menu accordingly. Sometimes her entertaining extends to the Tolers’ boat, where she regularly welcomes guests, and often it even reaches out of state, to the giant tailgate parties she hosts before Philadelphia Eagles games.
“We’re always trying to find new ways to bring family and friends together,” Toler says. And when she uses her connecting super- powers on an event—whether it’s a family get-together or the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest—she’s always met with success.