Senior Friendship Center and Project Pride

In an effort to address the unique needs of LGBTQ+ seniors in Sarasota, Senior Friendship Centers (SFC), a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of older adults has teamed up with Project Pride, SRQ, also a nonprofit, who works to expand awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community by creating strategic partnerships with local organizations, businesses, and governments toward a shared goal. SFC’s President and CEO, Erin McLeod said the partnership came about when her team recognized a whole demographic of older adults that they felt the need to be more proactive about. “We needed to learn all we could so that the seniors that we were serving would feel welcome and safe and they could be fully engaged in life.” About five years ago, SFC hosted a salon and invited some community leaders in the LGBTQ+ population to share ways in which the center might be able to help them. “We had about 35 or 40 people come that night and they talked about what they were facing. What struck me was the way they had survived a lifetime of discrimination, yet they were so resilient. They called it double whammy discrimination because they were being discriminated against not only as seniors, but also as members of a minority population.” One of the first programs started by the partnership was a grief support group, addressing the grief in losing  family support systems as well as grief in losing a loved one. Other programs soon followed, including a social group that came together once a month at the Center with potlucks, social activities and a library bookcase filled with LGBT authors and topics. In June 2023, SFC hosted their first annual Silver Pride event featuring a rainbow-decorated center and bus-loads of proud LGBTQ+ seniors. 

“Love is the universal language and it transcends race, creed, color, denomination, orientation and age because if we believe in love, we can believe in a better society,” said Project Pride President, Jason Champion in his speech at SFC’s annual fundraiser at Selby Gardens in March, where he was honored. “Like the spectrum of a rainbow that showcases many colors, our community encompasses a spectrum of age and backgrounds and when we are able to accept that diversity and build bridges, we can open hearts and open minds, one heart, one mind at a time. Together, and only together, will we be able to work toward a better society of creating something that’s compassionate, understanding, and loving. And when we do that, diversity is celebrated, love has no boundaries, and our aging community is honored and respected.”

About 150 people turned out to pay tribute to Jason Champion at the SFC gala this year, but also to pay tribute to friendship. “Friendship is about reaching across aisles and belief systems and honoring each other,” shared McLeod. “We want all seniors to know that no matter who they are, the color of their skin, how much money they have or what their lifestyle choices are, we see them and recognize that they have an uphill climb.”;

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

Community Harvest and Local Farmers Markets

Have you ever wondered what happens to all the abundant and lush tables full of fresh fruit and vegetables left unsold at farmers markets you visit? Well, wonder no more. Community Harvest SRQ, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing food waste and addressing food insecurity comes to the rescue by picking up unsold produce from farmers markets that would otherwise go to waste and donating it directly to local food pantries and other organizations serving food to the food insecure in our community. Through their signature food-rescue initiatives, education events and annual Eat Local Week, the organization continues to lead efforts to build a more sustainable future. They are committed to developing community-driven solutions for our local food system.

The pilot program started November 2022 when Executive Director Joyce Norris saw leftover produce being tossed into bins and loaded onto a truck, as if it were worthless. “This was all farm fresh produce and I couldn’t believe that it was being discarded when people are struggling to put food on the table,” she said. An idea sparked for Norris and her farmers market produce recovery program began. The program addresses food waste and climate change (food is not left to rot and release methane gas), feeds people, helps the farmer because they do not have to bring the excess back to their farm, and provides meaningful connection between the farmer and our local community. Recently rebranded from Transition Sarasota due to the desire to make their mission more readily identifiable and to engage even more community members in this important work, Community Harvest SRQ and their new farmers market program were made possible in part through support from Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. That support allowed them to work on the pilot program and perfect their veggie rescue operations. Later, Florida Blue Foundation came onboard with a grant for the project.

Every Sunday, Norris and her team pick up leftover produce at the Farmer’s Market at Lakewood Ranch. “We are extremely grateful to our farm partners Mondragon Farms, Honeyside Farms, and Peach Pit, who are vendors at the market,” Norris said. “Without their generosity and strong desire to be a part of our community, this program would not exist. It is wonderful to see how committed these farmers are to growing fresh food and putting healthy food on plates. Our Lakewood Ranch veggies are provided to local food pantries and organizations feeding those in need.” Some of the organization’s recipient partners include The Salvation Army, Church of the Palms food pantry, Second Chance Last Opportunity, and more. 

At the Englewood Farmers Market, Community Harvest partners with Aurora’s Fresh Produce, Fresh Harvest, and Hernandez Family Produce. All of the food that they collect in Englewood is provided to Englewood Helping Hand, a local nonprofit organization that provides food, utility assistance and more to those that need a helping hand.

“We love to see the smiles at the food pantry when we deliver all this healthy food. When we see all those boxes of veggies being unloaded, we see what an impact our small organization is really having,” shared Norris. To date, Community Harvest has rescued over 14,000 pounds of farmers market veggies. That is equal to 43,000 servings of fresh healthy produce that went onto the plates of those in need.

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Gulf Coast Community Foundation and St. Vincent de Paul CARES

On October 30, 2023, Gulf Coast Community Foundation (Gulf Coast) broke ground on one of the most transformational and collaborative opportunities for our region:  the City of Sarasota’s first Veterans Housing Initiative. Gulf Coast identified a need—safe, permanently affordable, veterans housing in Sarasota. Then, they focused on the power of partnership—convening stakeholders, philanthropists, government and nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul CARES to create the initiative. 

Gulf Coast Community Foundation values the significance of caring for military heroes who protected our liberties. With partners, a supportive community and local government, Gulf Coast is transforming housing for veterans in need. Our community has powerful services to make a difference in veterans’ lives and the lives of their families. Through Gulf Coast’s initiative, ten rental units are planned in the city of Sarasota for veterans, providing long-awaited, affordable housing to help our nation’s heroes.

“At Gulf Coast, we have the unique privilege of keeping the pulse on emerging and consistent issues in our region. Affordable housing is one of our top three priority focus areas. Together with our donors, Gulf Coast has invested over $7 million into helping homelessness and providing affordable housing. Our Veterans Housing Initiative is a vital part of that investment,” said Gulf Coast’s Senior Vice President for Community Leadership Jon Thaxton. 

Working with nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul CARES, the Veterans Housing Initiative will provide housing to veterans and their families, while also providing complete support services that include, but are not limited to, rehabilitation, health care, educational and employment opportunities, and permanent, affordable housing. St. Vincent de Paul CARES is a nonprofit committed to ending homelessness: making it rare, brief and one-time. They have a successful track record of building and operating affordable housing for veterans. 

“We are honored to work with St. Vincent de Paul CARES in support services for our veterans through the Veterans Housing Initiative. Not only do these veterans get a second chance at life with a safe home, but they also get integral support services from a powerful and life changing organization such as St. Vincent de Paul CARES,” shared Thaxton. 

The vision for Gulf Coast’s Veterans Housing Initiative is “to serve those who first served us, by lending a hand up.” This program will align with the Veteran’s Administration and will be guided by President Lincoln’s promise, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”

Since January 2022,  the City Commission made a unanimous vote to donate the land, the Citizens Planning Commission gave a unanimous YES to advance the project, and the support of incredible partners like the City of Sarasota, Office of Housing and Community Development, Congressman Steube, Congressman Buchanan, Bill Sterbinsky (President, SRQ Vets), Carlos Moreira (President, Sarasota County Veterans Commission), Skip and Gail Sack, and Peter and Elsa Soderberg enabled Gulf Coast to break ground on the city of Sarasota’s first Veterans Housing Initiative. Together with generous donors, Gulf Coast’s Board of Directors approved $300,000 for this initiative, bringing total commitments to over $1 million. The complex is expected to be move-in ready by the fall of

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Sarasota Youth Opera and Child Protection Center

Sarasota Opera approached the Child Protection Center (CPC)  about becoming 2022 Giving Challenge Campaign Partners knowing about their extremely vital work. The two organizations had a small, but important history together.  Over the years, Sarasota Youth Opera staff has utilized the free, professional training provided by CPC’s Personal Safety and Community Awareness team. In this training, the staff learns how to spot child abuse and properly report it.

It was exciting for both organizations to partner, establishing the theme of #Be the One to help children find their voice–to empower children to be able to speak up when abuse is happening in their lives and to find their voice through the wonders of opera. Raise Up Your Voice, a powerful choral piece from Sarasota Youth Opera’s 2015 production of Brundibár, was used as the musical theme in videos and social media posts. With this background piece, the two created a 30-second  commercial showing how a child can come from a terrible place of abuse to safety and healing with CPC’s programs and how youth can find confidence and creative expression by joining the Sarasota Youth Opera.

Director of Education at Sarasota Opera, Martha Collins said, “We wanted to do well in raising funds for the Sarasota Youth Opera programs, but also, because of the pandemic, the program’s enrollment had declined. The campaign gave us focus to rebuild community interest and attain newer supporters.”

Sarasota Opera made a clear and genuine concerted effort, too, to ask their constituents and Giving Challenge contributors to donate to the Child Protection Center at nearly every point of the campaign. Collins says, “It was important for us to share our stage, so to speak, with such an important organization.” The Giving Challenge also helped reaffirm Sarasota Opera’s commitment to Youth Opera members in providing a place where they can truly be themselves, feel accepted and be given a solid means to build their confidence, creativity and strong communication skills.  With this, the two organizations found a commonality in each other’s work with children. Different services, but a means to empower young people.

Each organization created separate events throughout the campaign but supported each other. For example, on the day of the Giving Challenge kick-off, both organizations started with an event at the Opera House in downtown Sarasota with a live social media feed and a community brown bag lunch. Right after, Sarasota Opera staff paraded down Pineapple Avenue. Wearing blue Youth Opera t-shirts (the color for child abuse prevention), carrying blue balloons, and holding up Giving Challenge-themed signs designed by Youth Opera members, they marched to the Child Protection Center for their afternoon event held at their center on Orange Avenue. 

“The programs provided by the Child Protection Center all center on the voice of the child. Whether it be listening to their voice as they tell their trauma of abuse, teaching them how to use their voice to protect themselves, honoring their voice by setting up boundaries and encouraging their voice as they are guided through the healing process. All of these strategies ‘set the stage’ for a stronger, confident voice that will transform their trauma into hope. As we met with the Sarasota Youth Orchestra, it became obvious that our missions, though quite different, truly honored the voice of children and gave them a platform to show their talents and strengths,” adds Sheila Miller, CPC’s vice president of philanthropy. “We are forever grateful to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Patterson Foundation for giving us the platform to raise funding for our vital programs. However, the idea to form a partnership with another nonprofit gave us an opportunity to more fully understand each other’s mission and it gave us a stage and new audience to spread awareness to more of our community.”;

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Project Nature Bridge: Mote, Selby and Conservation Foundation

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast are pleased to announce the ongoing success of Project Nature Bridge, now entering its third phase. Supported by the generous funding from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, this innovative initiative aims to enhance environmental literacy and foster a deeper connection to nature among underserved and underrepresented youth in the community. Since its inception in 2018, Project Nature Bridge has been instrumental in providing transformative experiences for local youth through education and hands-on engagement. Building upon the achievements of previous phases, the current phase focuses on two primary objectives:  implementing nature-focused programming at youth-serving partner organizations (YOs) and expanding project impact through professional development opportunities for YO staff. “We’re absolutely thrilled to dive into this new phase of Project Nature Bridge, taking our passion for nature and learning to the next level,” said Elaina Wheaton, director of education at Mote. Mote and the other environmental organizations (EOs) provide expertise, guidance, additional training, and support in developing and implementing nature-focused programming. Staff from the youth organization (YO) establish and form the materials and lessons for their members. Each program is created specifically to meet the needs of that YO, but all programs build on the previous two phases of Project Nature Bridge. As youth-seeking organization staff complete the series of professional development workshops, they will be eligible to implement their own nature-based programming at their clubs, working with EOs in applying the skills and knowledge they have gained to enhance the positive nature experiences of their participants. “Experiences in nature help shape our lifetime perceptions, build confidence, instill a love for the natural world and motivate us to protect our environment,” said Christine P. Johnson, president of Conservation Foundation. Project Nature Bridge remains committed to empowering youth and cultivating a lasting appreciation for the environment.,

Boys & Girls Clubs of Charlotte County and Pulsafeeder

Boys & Girls Clubs of Charlotte County and Pulsafeeder, a global leader in fluid handling technology with a philanthropic spirit, started a partnership in mid-2018. “After experiencing the food insecurities our kids and families are up against, our Director of Development reached out to Pulsafeeder’s CEO,” says B&GC CEO, Lynn Dorler. “Pulsafeeder never hesitated. They were committed immediately to helping to provide meals and food for our kids and families.” It began with a food drive and soon led to Pulsafeeder employees volunteering to help cook and serve meals. Soon, Pulsafeeder became family at the Boys & Girls Clubs and volunteered at the club in a variety of ways. They raised money for the Club’s dinner program, applying for grants from their corporate foundation (IDEX).  The Club received three large grants to establish and implement their daily dinner program that serves hot meals to kids prior to them going home at night. The food program also provides families hot meals to take home to help alleviate their food insecurities. “Pulsafeeder and its employees have been instrumental in our Giving Challenge success,” shares Dorler. “The Boys & Girls Clubs of Charlotte County is so thankful for all the amazing help and support that Pulsafeeder and its employees continue to provide for our kids and families.”

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First 1,000 Days Suncoast: Building a Web of Support for Families through Collaborative Partnerships

In 2018, Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System (SMHCS), Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, and key nonprofit agencies launched First 1,000 Days Suncoast,  a regional initiative comprised of nonprofit leaders, healthcare professionals and parents. The goal was to bring together the community under a shared vision to help children thrive and reach their full potential. 

Research has shown that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for child development. Investing in pregnancy and early childhood programs and services has not only yielded better outcomes for individual families, but it has also proven a massive return on investment for communities. This is not surprising, since reducing sources of stress by meeting basic needs and increasing social support enables parents to do their most important job–nurture and love their children. 

Over the past five years, First 1,000 Days Suncoast has expanded its reach from one county to the tri-county area and increased its partner agencies from 32 to over 90. Through focus groups and a Parent Advisory Committee, the initiative actively involves parents in decision-making processes and campaign strategies. This inclusive approach ensures that interventions are tailored to the specific needs of families.

One of the significant achievements has been the implementation of a care coordination platform called Unite Us, which now connects over 200 medical, mental health and social service organizations. In addition to assisting professionals in sending quick electronic referrals, it has also prompted a movement for agencies to routinely screen for social needs such as job assistance, housing, food, etc. A dashboard shares county-level data on top needs, co-occurring needs, race and place-based inequities, and capacity concerns.

“Our partnerships built a strong foundation which has spilled into a whole range of activities and workgroups to better support families. Unite Us has provided a tool for this enhanced connectivity, prompting the development of targeted interventions and intentional partnerships,” shared Dr. Chelsea Arnold, First 1,000 Days Suncoast manager. “I am so proud of the work we have all accomplished together, the parent leaders and professionals, as well as the support of local foundations and donors that have made this collective work successful.”

Difficulty navigating the system was a top barrier to care identified by families in the community. To address this concern, First 1,000 Days built a navigation service to connect families with resources tailored to their specific needs. In 2023, 306 families were assisted with over 1,000 referrals sent to local nonprofit and mental health agencies. Preliminary results from families have shown a reduction in stress, an increase in social support, and a reduction in reported unhealthy mental health days 30 and 60 days after assistance.

Nikitaa, a parent who benefited from the program, shared her initial reaction after being assisted by Family Navigator Tina Wilson. “The first thing was relief!  Thank God!  I have someone to be supportive of me.  I don’t have family in this country. [First 1,000 Days] is more like family help; like friends helping me solve problems.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about organizations, have someone to share my concerns with, etc.  It was a great relief to me.”

Looking ahead, First 1,000 Days Suncoast remains committed to its mission to support and connect families with resources during pregnancy and throughout a child’s first 1,000 days, when critical development occurs. By harnessing the power of partnerships, empowering parents and implementing targeted interventions, the initiative continues to make a meaningful impact on the lives of families in the Suncoast region.