Mary Kay Henson and her husband Joe were brought up with the belief that the entry to anything they wanted to do in life was only possible with a good education. Being first-generation college graduates who’ve experienced incredible opportunities, they have made it a priority to share this belief with as many children as possible. 

Mary Kay grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio and attended Marymount College in Tarrytown, NY. Her parents, though adamant about having their daughter go to college, had very little social capital and no ability to guide her in college decisions. When a slightly older peer talked to her about the possibility of studying abroad, she decided to venture out and spend her Junior year at the London School of Economics. The experience was life changing for Mary Kay  and it inspired her lifelong love of learning and travel. One year out of college, she moved to San Francisco which she calls a glorious place. Her first job was as a computer programmer and later, she joined IBM as a salesperson and eventually became a marketing manager. When she met and married Joe, who was president of a computer company, she decided to retire to avoid any conflict of interest. That’s when she began her journey of volunteerism with a special interest in education. 

Fourteen years ago, the Hensons moved from Greenwich, CT to Sarasota. “Originally, we lived briefly on the East Coast in a gated golf community and found it wasn’t for us,” Mary Kay shares. “We  craved a greater connection to a city and a vibrant culture, which Sarasota is brimming with. Its location also didn’t hurt, being right near beautiful beaches!”

Now both retired and fully focused on giving back, Mary Kay and Joe’s philanthropy is centered mainly around the work they do through The Henson Fund, an organization they created when they first moved to the area to provide children who fall at or below the poverty line with the resources they need to succeed academically. The Hensons collaborate with local educators to develop and implement academically sound literacy and enrichment programs for Title I schools in the area.

“This all began when we noticed a lot of press surrounding the fact that children were not graduating high school, and that really hit home for us,” shares Mary Kay. “Education is what opened doors in our lives. How could the younger generations excel without it?” At first, the couple made cold calls to schools and charitable organizations to see where they could best help and how they could make an impact. They were eventually introduced to the principal of Alta Vista Elementary at the time, and learned that the school would greatly benefit from a summer program to prevent “summer slide.” And so, they began their first initiative with a pilot summer program. Since the first program in 2017, the fund’s initiatives and programs have continued to grow, now spanning multiple schools and grade levels. Working closely with students on a weekly basis, the Hensons noted that children require additional support outside of school to succeed academically. That’s where their involvement with All Faiths and UnidosNow comes into play. By working with these organizations, they learn about the needs of the families and try to help in ways beyond offering financial assistance, such as with new initiatives.

“We live a very privileged life and do not take it for granted,” shares Mary Kay. “Having had the opportunities our education provided, we want to give that ability to go anywhere and do anything to as many children as possible, and we believe that starts through education and enrichment. After all, you cannot dream something if you do not know what is possible.” 

Every day, through the work they do with their fund, the Hensons find a bunch of little stories that add up to tell a much greater story of hope. “It took three years of encouragement for a little boy at Gocio Elementary to finally be able to read a book he picked out during one of our program’s years prior, and after that, you could see the positive impact reading what he was interested in had on his motivation to read,” recalls Mary Kay. “I also remember seeing that spark in the eyes of a little girl I worked with every week the moment she was turned on to reading. And small stories within groups of children come to mind, like going into a STEM classroom and seeing how riveted the kids were to learn was an experience I’ll never forget. And it’s not just the little ones, the same goes for the mentors from our partnership with USF, who work in our programs. Watching them grow with the children, working as a group, and being a support system for each other is inspiring.”

Aside from working in the schools and brainstorming new ways to educate and enrich through academic programs, Mary Kay’s favorite place in the world is the beach and she visits it as much as possible. “Though I bring a book with me, I often end up looking out at the ocean. I’ve always found the water to be very spiritual, watching the waves continue to roll in and out,” she says.

While she is no longer a student studying abroad, Mary Kay’s love of travel has continued throughout her life. “My husband’s company has had many operations overseas and we traveled to Europe and Asia often through the years. Then, in his retirement, we continued to travel, and we have been lucky enough to visit over 40 countries. From my time in Europe, I have a love for museums, and they are always on the top of the list when traveling,” she says. Here at home, the Hensons enjoy time with their adorable Havanese Princess named Bella who they say is the definition of love. 

“My story of hope is not so much about affecting an individual, but the community as a whole,” says Mary Kay proudly. “Children are capable of so much; they just need to be given the tools to do it. I feel when I was growing up education was more affordable and easier to take advantage of than it is today, so I work to create a level playing field in everything I do.”