The story began back in 1961 when The Junior League of Sarasota founded the Sarasota Day Nursery with a mission to prepare children from low-income families for kindergarten. In 1994, the agency became Sarasota County’s exclusive provider of Head Start services. With Early Head Start services added in 1998 and a name change to Children First in 2000, the organization grew rapidly, driven by the high demand for quality early childhood education and family strengthening programs within economically vulnerable communities. 

Today, with fifteen locations across Sarasota County serving 900 children and their families annually,

Children First holds the distinction of being a 4-time designated Head Start “Program of Excellence” and is ranked in the top 1% out of over 1,800 Head Starts nationwide. Offering high-quality early childhood education from qualified teachers in a nurturing environment that supports their healthy development and nutrition and health care assistance to children ages birth to five years old from low-income families,

Children First helps children receive the social and cognitive skills needed to enter kindergarten and elementary school on track. Children First has expanded to serve hundreds of children and their families annually at 15 locations across North Port, Sarasota, and Venice. 

Last year, as part of Children First’s 60th anniversary celebration, a group of dedicated, extraordinary supporters came forth with the idea to present a matching gift challenge to the community. This group of supporters, known as the Diamond Circle, collectively agreed to donate $1,060,000 if the community could match it. The community accepted that challenge and in total, raised $2,120,000 in “The Challenge to Change Lives” in support and recognition of the thousands of children and families whose life stories have been changed over the past 60 years as part of the Children First Family. 

The Diamond Circle is made up of key philanthropists who are passionate about the Children First mission and includes two anonymous donors providing gifts totaling just over $300,000; individuals, couples and foundations providing gifts of $60,000 each including: Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, Dawn and Mitchell Epstein, Julie and Brock Leach, Joan and Dr. Bart Levenson, Katherine and Frank Martucci, Elenor Maxheim in loving memory of John Maxheim, Keith Monda and Veronica Brady, Leslie and Dick Rivera, Gaye and Jack Schwarz, and Karen Solem in loving memory of Charles Forman; couples joining together to form Diamond Circles with combined gifts from $20,000 to $30,000 including: John Bean and Alexandra Jupin, Lisa and John Giglio, Carol and Richard Kalikow, and Bob and Lin Williams; and couples and individuals comprising a Diamond Circle with gifts from $10,000 including: Alison and Howie Madsen in loving memory of Gerri Aaron, Jo and Stan Rutstein, Mike Rutstein, and CEO Philip Tavill. A few of these generous donors took time to talk with us, sharing their inspiration and commitment to the organization.

The Barancik Foundation and Children First have been partners almost since the foundation’s inception. Through its granting, Barancik has invested nearly $1.8 million in the organization. “Children First was a favorite of our founder Margery Barancik,” shares Teri A Hansen, Barancik Foundation’s president and CEO. “Margie was a teacher herself and she firmly believed in the critical nature of a child’s first six years. Margie and Chuck Barancik’s passion for children’s welfare is why education is the red thread that runs through almost all of our work.”

Katherine Martucci thinks of Children First as a community of love and outreach perpetuating a “can do” spirit to the children and their families. As a former elementary school teacher, and having raised three children of her own, she has always felt the energy behind working with children. “I first became involved with Children First as a volunteer in the classroom and saw firsthand the educational and emotional progress the children made throughout the year. It was quite extraordinary,” she shares. Martucci knew right away that the program was something special, made up of devoted teachers and staff. “Once you become acquainted with Children First and their programs, supporting this organization is just a very natural thing to do,” she says.

Mitchell Epstein echoes the sentiments of his Diamond Circle partners. “I absolutely believe that our children represent the future,” he says. “Sarasota is fortunate to have many amazing organizations that focus on kids and without a doubt Philip and his team are doing amazing work.When you visit the kids on campus or hear their parents tell the story about how Children First changed their lives you just know that you want to be involved and help in any way you can.”

As for the Children First team players, they could not be more pleased with the outcome of the challenge. “The shared commitment from our Diamond Circle members and all who joined The Challenge is an investment, not just in the futures of our children and families, but the future of our community and the world we live in. We are deeply grateful for this heartfelt support,” says CEO Philip Tavill. 

“It has been amazing to see this trailblazing philanthropy from some of our most passionate supporters inspire a community-wide challenge that was not just met but exceeded,” adds Vice President of Philanthropy Jessica Rogers. “This is a beautiful representation not just of this historic milestone for our agency, but of the greater Sarasota community’s vision.” The Children First Diamond Circle was honored as one of SRQ Magazine’s Good Heroes this past December.