It's About Joy

By staff December 1, 2001

After the Sept. 11 attacks, as more than $750 million in donations poured into New York, charities all across the country reported that local giving had virtually dried up. With air travel and tourism collapsing, Florida charities were hit especially hard. Thousands of Floridians were forced out of jobs, increasing the need for services-just as tax revenues, which fund grants for those services and other charitable programs, were decreasing. With stock portfolios sagging, local not-for-profits began to worry about year-end giving. As in retailing, December is the month that makes or breaks most charities, and some fundraisers predict there won't be much to celebrate this holiday season.

We believe they're wrong, and that's one of the reasons we're publishing our first annual Charitable Register this month, with information about nearly 100 different groups that do everything from feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless to bringing art and enlightenment to us all. Sarasota is famous for the number and strength of these not-for-profits. Economists say they comprise a significant local industry, one that attracts new businesses and residents and wields considerable economic as well as social impact. We hope our listing will introduce you to some groups you didn't know about and inspire your support, too.

With state and local funds in short supply, these groups are depending more than ever on individual donors. (Because there are so few big businesses in town, corporate giving supplies only a sliver-probably less than five percent-of most local groups' budgets.) Just who are these people who, year after year, keep 100 or more Sarasota charities going?

I know a little about that, because as a board member of the Sarasota Family YMCA, I've had the privilege of getting to know some of those people. Every year, the Y names an outstanding donor its "First Citizen," and I write about that person for the program book at the awards luncheon. First Citizens are chosen not so much for the amount of their giving as "their commitment to the mission of the YMCA," explains Karin Gustafson, president of the Sarasota YMCA Foundation. Some do have money-lots of it-and a knack for getting their wealthy friends to give along with them. (I'm thinking of charming socialite Janet Kane, who, when a guest at one of her dinner parties insisted on replacing an Oriental carpet after he spilled food on it, replied, "I wouldn't hear of it-but you can make a donation to the YMCA.") Others have shown the courage and vision to help the Y pioneer new programs and services. They've ranged from the late Tampa businessman Hugh Culverhouse (he donated the land where the South County Y now stands) to a shy, retired printer who worked tirelessly to help get the Y's Youth Shelter off the ground. And their commitment to the Y is just part of their commitment to the city. "I don't think you'll ever see one who isn't involved with many other community agencies," stresses Gustafson.

First Citizens usually start our interview by assuring me there's nothing interesting about their life, but their stories always prove otherwise. In 10 years of interviewing them, I've never failed to come away inspired; and different as each one has been, they share certain characteristics.

Many have been successful entrepreneurs and now live in comfort-sometimes downright luxury. But that's not how they started out. Lew Kern, 1994 First Citizen, was three when his mother had to put him and his two brothers in foster care and at eight was sent to an orphanage. Bernie Wagman, 1998 First Citizen, had to go to work at 14 to support his family after his father died and was nearly 50 when he started his Scott Paint Company, now one the area's most successful companies. The late Norman Peterson, 1995 First Citizen, invented a portable microprocessor that helped revolutionize digital communications. But he almost missed getting an education, after his father was injured and could no longer work to support his wife and eight children. His father, a carpenter, fell from a scaffold and could no longer work; with eight children in the family, they faced poverty. But everyone could see how bright young Norman was, and somehow, they scraped together enough to make sure he got a good education.

Through hard work and determination, these men and women achieved wordly success. But as Bud Kalish, husband of 1997 First Citizen Claire Kalish, explained it, they looked beyond "the quest for material success to other values." When I met them, the Kalishes were in their 80s, a self-effacing couple who still gazed at each other with total adoration. They lived in a modest downtown condo, using their wealth to help a wide spectrum of Sarasota charities. Jack LeFrock, a retired physician and this year's honoree, also emphasizes that money is not the measure of a life. "When you're dead, all that's left is your name," he declared. "If I've helped to turn one person's life around, then my life had been worth living."

That belief has driven these men and women to build a better Sarasota for everyone. When they first retired here, said the Kalishes, they were busy going to the theater and ballet and taking art classes. But then they began to look around and see how many people, even in sunny, privileged Sarasota, were in desperate straits.

La Rue Merrill, described by the Y's CEO Carl Weinrich as "the single most outstanding volunteer I've ever worked with, came to Sarasota as a young wife expecting her first child when "Tuttle Avenue was a dirt road and Southgate was just being built." That first hot summer, the Minnesota girl felt displaced and lonely. "I used to sit in the balcony of the church and look down at all the white heads and wonder who this baby was ever going to play with," she confessed. But she soon plunged into action, organizing young mothers and helping to start one of the town's first preschools.

The late Frank G. Berlin, 1992 First Citizen, arrived even earlier-in 1938. With only 10,000 residents, Sarasota was a little burg where cows wandered the dusty roads and black clouds of mosquitoes descended at dusk. Berlin helped change all that; he founded the Chamber of Commerce, developed many landmark local neighborhoods and helped start the YMCA in 1945.

In failing health but still chipper and bright when I met him, Berlin looked surprised when I asked him why he gave so unstintingly to so many causes. "Why, I do it because I like to," he said. "I like to give better than to receive. Most people do, I believe. Don't you?"

That's it exactly, agreed Kim Githler, the 2000 honoree. She and her husband Charles produce financial symposiums all over the country; when he told her he wanted to give her a major Christmas present several years ago, she knew just what she wanted. "A toddler shelter!" she replied, explaining that the YMCA needed a place for abandoned and abused children. Soon the couple's employees had thrown themselves into the project, too, doing everything from painting walls to rocking babies to sleep; they all felt so transformed by their efforts that Githler has persuaded other Sarasota businesses to adopt a YMCA facility. "We can feel, touch and see the results of our gift," she explains. "And once you've felt that wonderful feeling, you want to feel it again."

Initially, concedes the YMCA's Gustafson, people may give out of guilt, or for tax reasons, or because someone tells them it's the thing to do. But soon, she insists, "They give because it gives them joy." She believes that this year more than ever, people will hunger to feel that joy. She points to Babe Weiler, the 2001 First Citizen, a tiny, 90-something dynamo who still teaches yoga classes and plays tennis. The week after the attacks, Babe strode into the YMCA Foundation board meeting. "I want to make a statement on giving right now," she announced, "because I don't want to stop." She pulled out her checkbook and wrote a check for $10,000.

"You'll see overwhelming giving this December in Sarasota," Gustafson predicts. "No terrorist bomb will take that away from us."

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