The Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised almost $244 million since 2001, including a record-breaking nearly $22 million last year. After festgoers put down their paddles, a big question remains. As Naples Children & Education Foundation CEO Maria Jimenez-Lara often asks: “How will the funds raised make the crucial difference for child wellbeing and have a profound impact on their lives?”
Three comprehensive community assessments, released in 2005, 2010 and 2017, help guide the foundation’s giving. (A new study will be released this year.) Commissioned to determine where gaps exist in essential services for Collier County kids, the surveys led to the creation of seven strategic initiatives to which NCEF has donated nearly $80 million. Four are specifically focused on children’s physical and mental wellbeing: oral health, healthcare, mental health and vision.
Partnerships with dozens of nonprofits are also essential to determining where there’s the most pressing need. NCEF works with organizations to not only create solutions but also maximize the efficacy of every dollar. In bringing nonprofits to the table, NCEF has a unique ability to foster relationships that build on organizations’ strengths, while decreasing competition and reducing overlapping services.
The work can be challenging, but it’s what’s necessary to make sure the needs of Collier’s children are being met. “It can be a complex process,” Jimenez-Lara says. “But it solves so many problems.”
Almost every day, dentists at the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center see children with tooth decay so advanced the child has difficulty eating or speaking. Some of those children have never had a toothbrush. It can be a long journey back to pain-free teeth, but NCEF’s support makes it possible. “Now, they are not afraid to smile,” clinical director Lauren Governale says.
The 20,000-square-foot facility was the first major success story for NCEF. The center opened in 2008 in response to an NCEF study that found close to two-thirds of local third graders had tooth decay; it has seen more than 176,000 patient visits since opening. It’s also a testament to the power of multi-organizational collaboration. NCEF funds the program, the University of Florida College of Dentistry pediatric residency program provides the care, Florida SouthWestern State College houses the center on its Naples campus, and Physicians Regional Healthcare System extends the use of its facilities for procedures that require sedation.
Recently, the center has focused on accommodating patients with special needs. Keeping kids calm at the dentist can be challenging—even more so for those with sensitivity to external stimulation. A new sensory room allows patients to enter through a separate door into a quiet space and slowly transition to the dental chair. “The goal is to get them comfortable in a dental environment,” Governale says.
The program has also expanded to include community outreach, educating children and families about the importance of preventative care. Mobile dental units visit schools to provide screenings and care, like sealants to prevent cavities, and bilingual-education specialists promote dental health in the classroom. “We go to them and that’s a big deal because the drive can be so long from parts of the county,” says Olga Ensz, a clinical assistant professor at the center. “It can be the difference between getting care or not.”
About half of the children in Collier County receive care at Healthcare Network. In 2021, the 46-year-old network saw about 147,000 patients across its 11 locations, including treating nearly 27,000 children and delivering around 1,100 babies. Some patients have insurance coverage, but the organization typically sees a $13 million gap in uncompensated care. That’s where community partners like NCEF come in. “We’d have to cut services if our partners weren’t able to help,” says CEO Jamie Ulmer.
By building community partnerships, NCEF has helped close the gap in medical coverage over the last 15 years. At the Isabel Collier Read Medical Campus in Immokalee, which receives funding from NCEF, medical students from Florida State University College of Medicine work alongside Healthcare Network physicians to provide affordable pediatric and women’s healthcare. Reaching patients is also part of the objective, and Healthcare Network is working to expand its Ronald McDonald mobile unit to Everglades City and other underserved communities.
In 2020, NCEF was instrumental in another important expansion: the opening of the Nichols Community Health Center in Golden Gate. With nearly 40 percent of residents working low-paying service and sales jobs, the community was one of the most underserved in the county. Healthcare Network operated a pediatric clinic in the area, but the state-of-the-art, 51,000-square-foot facility brought medical, dental and behavioral care under one roof. The centralized location also makes referrals among different departments easier if, for example, a doctor notices signs of a potential behavioral issue during a routine check-up. It’s excellent care, Ulmer says, but it couldn’t be done alone: “Without NCEF, we would not be able to do this.”
Rates of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents were rising before 2020. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high schoolers reporting intense feelings of hopelessness and sadness increased 40 percent over the last decade—and the pandemic only made the mental health crisis worse. “They’ve lived through a dramatic change,” says Scott Burgess, CEO of David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health, a nonprofit treatment center for mental health and substance abuse. “It’s taking a toll on them.”
David Lawrence Centers saw a 19 percent increase in overall services during 2021’s fiscal year compared to the previous year. It also saw a 56 percent increase in admissions to its crisis stabilization unit for children who need immediate care for conditions ranging from psychotic breaks to suicidal thoughts. With NCEF’s help, the center increased the unit’s bed capacity to meet the need.
Throughout the years, the foundation has also supported other DLC services, like the partial hospitalization program for teens who struggle with day-to-day life due to psychological symptoms, like severe depression. The program often helps kids from the crisis stabilization unit transition to outpatient treatment, providing extra care during the day before they return home for the night.
Burgess points to the Beautiful Minds program as one of the biggest achievements for mental health in Southwest Florida. NCEF helped unite David Lawrence Centers, Golisano Children’s Hospital, National Alliance on Mental Health Illness Collier County, Healthcare Network and Florida State University College of Medicine’s Immokalee Health Education Site to provide integrated mental health coverage for lower-income students. The organizations work together to coordinate services and avoid redundancy, addressing how they can best assist each other.
Bringing providers together is NCEF’s strength, Burgess says. “They really dive in head-first on these tough issues,” he says. “I can’t imagine what our community would be without them.”
Not many people greet their ophthalmologist with a big smile and a hug—but it’s a normal occurrence for Dr. Bailey Peterson at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. For Peterson, who treats children through NCEF’s Vision Initiative program, the best part of the job is watching kids’ reactions when they get their first pair of eyeglasses and can finally see their parents clearly. “A pair of glasses can make a huge difference in their lives,” she says. “They’re so appreciative.”
Kids who need glasses may also struggle in school, as vision impairment hinders their ability to read and see the front of the classroom. In 2017, NCEF’s comprehensive assessment found that as many as 85 percent of children from low-income families with academic or behavioral difficulties may also have had undiagnosed vision issues. Students in Collier County receive vision screenings at school, but exams are not administered annually, and many students lack adequate vision care. Through NCEF’s Vision Initiative, about 15,000 children at low-income schools are screened each year for vision impairments, with around 2,500 annually receiving two pairs of glasses—one for school and one for home. If a student needs vision correction beyond what glasses can provide, Bascom Palmer and Florida Lions Eye Clinic provide additional ophthalmology services. (A new Bascom Palmer Vision Van will also bring mobile eye care to schools.)
Peterson mostly sees kids in elementary and middle school, but Bascom Palmer recently expanded to treat high schoolers, too. While the majority of cases can be resolved with glasses, she’ll sometimes uncover more serious issues. After a patient came in with optic nerve inflammation (a potential early indicator of multiple sclerosis), a referral led to further genetic testing for autoimmune and demyelinating diseases. Because the condition was caught early, the onset of symptoms could be slowed with effective treatment. A case like that is rare, Peterson says, but shows the benefit of routine care: “It can completely change lives.”
Here’s how NCEF empowers Collier County’s children.