Gulfshore Strong

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, people across the region stepped up and pulled together to safeguard and heal our community. Here are six individuals who demonstrate the resilient spirit of Southwest Florida.

BY July 1, 2020
Photography by Brian Tietz

Champion of the Arts, Bryce Alexander, The Naples Players Executive Artistic Director

Those in the theater world have mastered the fine art of shape-shifting—adapting themselves, their sets and their costumes to fit any part. In that light, what Bryce Alexander has led The Naples Players to do in these past months quite neatly fits their play bill.

Let’s start with the most extreme role they’ve taken on: personal protective equipment providers. At the onset of the pandemic, the costume shop stitched masks for NCH Healthcare System personnel. Then, set designers answered another call for help by building plexiglass intubation boxes to shield NCH doctors from COVID-19 exposure. The group had the materials on hand, remnants from the set of She Loved Me, and produced about a half dozen. “One of the first things we did as a staff was ask: What are the ways we can give back?” Alexander says.

The 25-person team (which he kept on full payroll) didn’t stop there. They rewrote the script for theater education and live performance, launching web-based programming ranging from children’s story hours to adult Improv for Isolation to a virtual version of their previously scheduled play Becky’s New Car. Produced through Zoom, the show is believed to be one of the first digital theater productions in the country. Alexander is clear that the format is an alternative—not a replacement—for live theater.

The $20 tickets for the show and other offerings, such as virtual benefit concerts, are designed to defray the troupe’s $15,000-a-day losses. The fundraising is critical because of the small company’s outsized civic roles, as a creative outlet, thought leader and economic engine. “We were part of rejuvenating downtown 20 years ago,” Alexander notes. “And we anticipate our leadership in bringing people together is going to be important in rejuvenating the businesses and restaurants on Fifth Avenue moving forward.”
—Jennifer Reed


Healthcare Leaders, Paul Hiltz, NCH CEO, and Dr. Larry Antonucci, Lee Health President and CEO

As the region became socially distant, Southwest Florida’s two biggest healthcare providers came closer. In March, Lee Health’s Dr. Larry Antonucci and NCH’s Paul Hiltz started making appearances together. The men held a joint press briefing, gave blood together and starred in a promotional video for a fundraising campaign. 

It was a surprising sight given the at-times contentious history of NCH and Lee Health. Territorial battles in a fast-growing region often played out via lawsuits and lawyers. The recent leadership changes—Hiltz started last year and Antonucci in 2017—had softened the hard feelings. And to get through the coronavirus pandemic, it became clear that teamwork was essential. “This isn’t a Lee problem; this isn’t a Collier problem,” Antonucci says. “We’re approaching this as a regional issue.”

The two groups have been communicating daily on coronavirus matters, making sure their policies and procedures mirror each other. They’re also organizing testing based on the needs of the two counties. The Stronger Together campaign—brainchild of Lee’s Chief Foundation and Development Officer Chris Simoneau—started in early March to raise money for both hospital groups. It brought in more than a half-million dollars within the first month.

Expect more collaboration in the future. “We’re just getting started,” Hiltz says. “We’ll do a lot more together.” —Justin Paprocki


Restaurateur on the Frontline, Veljko Pavicevic, Sails Restaurant Owner  

“Restaurants are places of happiness,” says Veljko Pavicevic, the co-owner and general manager of Sails in Naples. “What we need in these moments is more happiness. We need more people coming together and celebrating life.”

From the start, Pavicevic and Corinne Ryan, co-owner and operations manager, directed their crew to whip up a serving of cheer to an anxious community. At first, Sails committed to delivering 300 gourmet meals daily to NCH employees. The crew later doubled that pledge. They also began serving St. Matthew’s House. Pavicevic counted on the backing of several local businesses, notably real estate executive William Raveis.

On top of the donated meals, Sails unveiled a “We Care” menu, offering residents the joy of eating out in the safety of their homes. Meals cost $15 each, or $99 for a week. The efforts not only fed the community, but also secured employee’s jobs. “Most of us worked more than 16 hours, seven days a week,” Pavicevic says, flashing burned knuckles as testimony. “Cooking is not my forte!”

Expect to see this entrepreneur continue to feed the local economy, as well. Pavicevic and Ryan intend to launch a wine sales division and open new restaurants. Independent restaurants directly or indirectly employ 83 million people in the United States, Pavicevic says. “How important is it to get these restaurants going as soon as possible? I believe it is tremendously important.” —J.R.


The Nonprofit Super connector, Sarah Owen, Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s President and CEO

When Southwest Florida hurts, it turns to its nonprofits for relief. Under Sarah Owen’s direction, Southwest Florida Community Foundation has become a leading force in coordinating those efforts. 

In this case, the focal point is on providing relief in a financial sense: The foundation—in long-standing partnership with the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties—mobilized the Southwest Florida Emergency Relief Fund to raise money to help nonprofits help the community. As of mid-May, it had generated more than $675,000.  

SFCF, like others around the country, pledged to ease  grant restrictions so that recipients could use money to respond to community needs—or their own. “We want them to know we trust them to make the best decisions that they can with the money they receive,” Owen says. 

The relief goes well beyond financial support. Long recognized as a thought leader in developing creative solutions to increase collaboration between nonprofits, Owen led the foundation in launching an innovative COVID-19 resource page brimming with offerings such as “Collaboratory Chats,” delving into topics from emotional health to taxes; CARES Act information; tech tips; webinars; and flash polls to take the pulse of nonprofits. The group even moved its scholarship award ceremony online, offering recognition—and peace of mind—to 132 college-bound students. “The definition of a ‘foundation’ is too limiting if you just think of them as a grant-maker and funder. Community foundations, in particular, are about community leadership and the vitality of a region. The way we make decisions on providing resources is by listening to the community, listening to our partners, listening to the end-users” Owen says. “This isn’t top-down, it’s bottom-up.” —J.R.


Humanist Storyteller, Lisette Morales, Photographer    

Photo journalist Lisette Morales has spent the past four years documenting life in Immokalee. With series such as Through the Sawgrass and Compathy, she aims to show the community—with a focus on the women who live there—as she has come to know them: strong, joyous and full of hope and aspirations for themselves, their families and each other.

When the pandemic broke out, Morales was among the first to publish images of workers huddled together without protective gear or direction. As aid has arrived, she has been there documenting for WGCU and Univision, as well as for her ongoing Los Caminos de Immokalee film project.

Her commitment to “photograph with dignity”—meaning she’s always upfront with subjects and aims to illuminate the shared humanity between people—has earned her access to places people might otherwise not see and stories we might not hear. It has also earned her trust among locals. “The pandemic is just a part of the story, and there are many challenges they will have to face after this health crisis,” she says. “But I also want people to see Immokalee is beautiful; it’s a vibrant community where people support each other. They will survive. ”

Morales follows the breadcrumbs from one story to the next, with every image intending to forge bridges. She recalls the quote from former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel who said  “Immokalee is 30 miles and billions of dollars east of Naples.” She adds: “I think about that every time I drive out there.”

Recently, Morales earned a grant from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to create a documentary about women who work, live or volunteer in Immokalee. “Everyone says stories connect us, and that’s true,” she says. “But only if different perspectives are included.” —Stephanie Granada 

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