Voices + Icons / The Future

The Next Generation Picks Up the Legacy of Giving in Collier County

Young philanthropists look to intimate dinner parties as an impactful way to connect with patrons. Case in point: This stylish soirée hosted by Naples native and interior designer Julia Hall Liegeois.

BY July 1, 2023
Julia Hall Liegeois
Driven to support children's mental health care locally, Julia Hall Liegeois and husband, Frank McMackin, hosted a private fundraising dinner for Kids' Minds Matter this spring. The intimate setting, she and fellow next-gen patrons believe, provides a strong avenue for communication and connection around the cause. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Julia Hall Liegeois shares her story to a teary room. It’s the first time she’s publicly opened up about the trauma she faced as a child, the ensuing struggle and out-of-state uprooting to get care, and the wounds she carried into adulthood after bottling it all up for years. The Naples interior designer pauses to compose herself before delivering her final message: “Sharing my story isn’t going to stop bad things from happening to other kids. But I can tell you that when you suffer trauma—and life delivers more trauma—if you haven’t been able to heal, it becomes harder to recover each time. Kids’ Minds Matter offers hope of breaking that cycle. I hope it helps you see how much your support could help someone else. Kids should not have to be sent away to get care.”

The event, hosted in the spring at Casey and Shera Askar’s Port Royal home, is one of about 12 fundraising cocktail parties and dinners Kids’ Minds Matter, a Lee Health Foundation organization, has hosted since launching in 2016. The dinners are intimate, hosted by one or a few individuals with a strong calling to the cause. The hosts are intentional with the guest list. With fewer than 50 people, the setting allows for open conversation, interactions with the organization’s leaders and, for many, a deeper connection to the issue. After Julia shares her story, Lee Health’s director of development, Anne Frazier, calls out for support. In quick succession, the donations pour in. “Put us down for $20,000,” one woman says. “I’ll match it,” chimes another. By the end of the evening, $103,000 has been committed.

Philanthropy has always been a cornerstone of Naples. The city came together as a sort of grassroots project, with hardy individuals who stumbled across Southwest Florida and couldn’t envision a better place to live. In the 1940s, they created The Naples Plan, a fund for civic improvements that functioned like a nonprofit, allowing residents to deduct up to 90 percent of donations to the city. The plan was also called Make Naples a Better Place to Live, and locals have been operating with the same idea since: recognize a need and rise up to fill it.

Among the guests at the dinner are several Naples natives and longtime residents whose family names are instrumental in local philanthropy—Van Arsdale, McCurry, Homan. The next generation is coming up with the same ideals that drove their parents to fill the gaps.

Astutely, Julia Hall Liegeois also stocks the guest list with newer transplants who have yet to commit the majority of their giving to a well-established cause like Naples Winter Wine Festival or Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “A lot of the same people get invited to these events—people I grew up with, who are wonderful. But, I recognized there are also people moving here that don’t really know the area yet, and we have a great opportunity to get them connected to a newer organization like Kids’ Minds Matter,” Julia says. All invitees are people who she hopes can help reduce the stigma around mental health and spread awareness of the need for support locally.

Kids’ Minds Matter was created seven years ago by Susan Goldy and Scott Spiezle after having struggled to get the proper care for their daughter when she was a child. Before dinner, Anne and two doctors in attendance share some startling facts: There is a two-year wait for children to get a psychology appointment. Youths wait up to six months to be evaluated for neurodivergent conditions and three weeks for urgent psychiatry appointments. Baker Acts at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida have increased by 235 percent in the last two years.

Statistics like these roused Julia to the cause when she attended a similar dinner Jennifer McCurry hosted in early 2022. “I was devastated, shocked, knowing the number of philanthropic events my mom is, and that my stepmother was, a part of and all that goes on with giving, realizing there’s still no place for a child that’s been traumatized to turn,” she says. “We have a lot of support for hunger and cancer—as we should—but we still don’t have anywhere for children to turn when they are struggling. I couldn’t believe a kid today would be having the same experience I did as a child.”

After being sexually assaulted by someone who was close to her family at the time, Julia’s family didn’t know where to turn for proper care to process the trauma. Mental health wasn’t talked about much during those days. Eventually, Julia started acting out in school and was sent to a facility in Utah—her biggest fear realized. “When you’re a kid and go through something traumatic, you need your parents more than ever,” she says. After nine months, her dad took her out of the program in Utah. By then, she was on so many medications, she could barely function, she tells the group. Julia met with providers in Naples, who kept trying different medications, but she didn’t receive therapy. “We didn’t find the right counselors,” she says. It’s just in the past few years that the 35-year-old mother of four feels she’s been able to start processing her trauma and get the treatment she needs: “I can’t help but wonder: If Kids’ Minds Matter had been around when I was a child, would I still be struggling the same way?”

Julia Hall Liegeois and her husband, Frank McMackin, started planning to host a dinner soon after attending Jennifer’s event. With a strong network of friends with children in Collier County, Julia and Frank quickly built an arsenal of support. The crew involved reads like a who’s who of Naples’ top makers: 50Fifty Creative Services on florals (“Matthew Huddleston is a genius,” she says.), Don Splain on food (the chef cleverly riffs on childhood favorites, like a spin on SpaghettiOs done with heirloom tomatoes and “Beanie Weeny” Wagyu hot dogs). Fellow interior designer Dani Marie Glicks conceptualized the monochromatic dress code, with each guest donning their favorite color from head to toe. “Kids’ Minds Matter’s idea of a kaleidoscope is that we all have broken pieces, but together we can make a really beautiful picture,” Julia Hall Liegeois says.

Private fundraising dinner
The dinner was hosted at Shera and Casey Askar’s Port Royal home. 50Fifty Creative Services did the florals, while chef Don Splain created the childhood favorites-inspired meal. Guests like Nina Van Arsdale, Courtney Hansen and Jennifer McCurry represent the next generation stepping up to meet the needs in Collier County. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

The Askars, who between them have nine children, quickly offered up their home. Julia had just finished redesigning the couple’s French garden-themed dining room, with its floral wallpaper, blue velvet curtains and antique furnishings. They knew it’d provide the ideal backdrop for intimate conversation. “When you go to these bigger galas, it’s a fun time and you’re at a table with friends, you listen to stories … But the conversation then turns back away from the cause,” she says. “With intimate dinner parties, you can truly focus on the issue, the conversation stays on it. And that’s where change is going to happen.”

Transparency is key to a nonprofit’s success. Groups like Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples (C’MON) and The Immokalee Foundation are successful in part for their ability to bring the figures to life ($500 will get memberships for five families, C’MON tells patrons; $10,000 gets five elementary kids a year of tutoring through The Immokalee Foundation). This is perhaps even more important among the younger generation of donors who grew up with Millennial ideals around accountability and open communication. “We want to know where our dollars will go,” Julia Hall Liegeois says. “It’s good to know that with $2.5 million, we can get a new facility built in Collier County.” (Kids’ Minds Matter is looking for space and funds to open a Pediatric Behavioral Health clinic in Collier.)

Julia believes that showing concrete examples becomes even more poignant when discussing mental health philanthropy. “Mental health is intangible—it’s often a problem you don’t see,” she says. “It’s not a broken leg you can fix; there’s not one treatment, so putting something tangible for people to see what they can help accomplish is super helpful.”

Julia notes that supporting children’s mental health has broad community benefits. Kids who receive the necessary support are more likely to grow into resilient, productive adults. This, in turn, reduces the strain on healthcare systems, social services and the criminal justice system. After dinner, everyone lingers and talks, discussing the needs with Anne, offering their help and thanking Julia for sharing her story. The evening leaves a lasting impression as Naples’ next generation of philanthropists steps up to the plate. 

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