For some, the love of nature is instilled from an early age. They spend days running through the woods, catching critters in the marsh and exploring secret mountain trails. For others, like Chicago-raised Kathleen Kapnick, the connection is preternatural.
Growing up in the city, Kathleen didn’t have much exposure to nature. A road trip out west to Estes Park, Colorado, when she was around 6, changed her perspective. “I got out of the car and was astounded by the blue of the sky, the 100 different greens of the trees and the mountains all around,” she says. Over the years, while attending law school, raising four children, and moving around Manhattan and Europe with her family, Kathleen sought nature as a respite. In Germany, she learned the art of ‘spazieren gehen,’ or strolling, through the three miles of lush greenspace across the street from their home.
Keewaydin Island, with its unspoiled landscape, holds a similar appeal for Kathleen, who started coming to Naples four decades ago when she and her husband, Scott, would visit his parents, Mary and Harvey Kapnick. “[Keewaydin] is so wild and so a piece of original Florida—the mangroves, gopher tortoises and dolphins that we see every single time we go out there,” she says.
Harvey would take the family out to the southern end of Keewaydin. He couldn’t swim, so Kathleen would jump out of the boat and haul it onto shore, where the kids would eat sandy sandwiches on the beach. Eventually, Harvey built a dock to make the journey easier. The kids would find shade under neighbors’ homes until their grandfather built a one-room house with a bathroom, a sink and solar power. “He always needed to have a project,” Kathleen says.
Perhaps Harvey’s loftiest project was Naples Botanical Garden. He found and purchased the $5 million, 170-acre property in 2000. Kathleen remembers seeing the barren plot. “It was just weeds and weeds and weeds,” she says. “But Harvey could do anything.”
After Harvey passed away in 2002, Kathleen and Scott bought his Naples house, Scott joined the Garden’s board and the couple gave millions to realize Harvey’s vision. Kathleen helped chair the second Hats in the Garden fundraiser in 2005, four years before the Garden formally existed. “Every single year [at Hats], someone will still say, ‘I never knew this was here; this is amazing,’” she says. “Anything that brings them to the Garden is great because they always come back.”
She joined the board in 2018 and became the chairperson last year. While her involvements with Naples Botanical Garden are well documented, what’s intentionally less known is what the Kapnicks do behind the scenes. Those who know Kathleen know if she is at a fundraiser or giving to a nonprofit, it’s because the cause resonates deeply. She’s only ever on one board at a time. “If you’re on a board, you need to give it your all; it’s a big job, and it deserves 100 percent of your attention,” she says.
The Everglades Foundation is another cause Kathleen Kapnick holds dear. She was awestruck by the Everglades at first sight. “I didn’t understand how the Everglades worked or that it’s a giant water filtration system and provides much of our drinking water and habitat for so many plants and animals,“ she says. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know—and the more she wanted others to know. In 2020, she helped scale up the Everglades Literacy Program, which provides tools to teach students about the wetlands. It was available to elementary schools, and with her aid, the project expanded with tailored materials for middle and high schoolers. Today, the program is in 995 schools, and 50 campuses are recognized as Everglades Champion Schools for making conservation a core part of their curriculum. “If you can get them early, and get them to understand not just the beauty, but the importance of preserving it, then you’ve got a friend for life,” she says.
On Keewaydin, where the family still maintains the home Harvey built, the Kapnicks helped fund a cabin for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, inspired by volunteers monitoring sea turtle nests on the beach. Now, Kathleen is in talks with Naples Botanical Garden about collaborating on replanting the landscape around their home affected by Hurricane Ian. They envision creating a dune restoration demonstration garden with sustainable and salt-resistant plants that don’t need watering or cutting.
The same priorities are in mind when redesigning the grounds around her Port Royal home with renowned landscape architect Raymond Jungles, who worked on Naples Botanical Garden’s design. “We’re getting rid of some of the plants we have that are very pretty but use a lot of fertilizer and way too much water, and we’re replacing them with equally beautiful but less high-maintenance plants,” she says, of vegetation like mondo grass and liriope. Kathleen’s heartened to see homeowners’ associations and the community getting on board with the Garden’s long-touted message to plant Florida-friendly flora and avoid problematic plantings, like zoysia grass. “The runoff and grass clippings go into the water, creating more problems for us,” she says.
When she thinks about the Garden’s accomplishments, she’s most proud of its reach beyond the 170 acres: its role as a source of peace, especially after the pandemic and Hurricane Ian; that many materials are available in three languages (English, Spanish and Creole); that 90 acres of the Garden are preserved land. She’s proud of the seed bank that safeguards local plants, and the partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University through the Harvey Kapnick Research and Education Center—another of Harvey’s visions. “He understood there was going to be a connection between the Garden and the science of conservation; he saw the Garden as a natural laboratory,” she says.
She also sees more support for Everglades restoration. She thinks about the mass draining of the wetlands that started before we knew better; the damming of the natural flow of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee toward Florida Bay; and the increase in red tide and loss of wildlife and fresh drinking water if we don’t continue and escalate restoration efforts. “We need the Everglades—and it’s not about being anti-development; it’s about preserving our water supply,” she says.
For Kathleen Kapnick, environmental conservation is about respecting life’s natural rhythms: “There’s a balance of life on Earth, and we’ve got to maintain it, and I want to help do that.”