Unity Awards

From Food Inequality to Education to Emergency Funds, Joe and Mary Kay Henson Always Step Up

“We’re problem solvers, or at least we like to think we are."

By Ilene Denton January 12, 2021 Published in the January-February 2021 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Joe and Mary Kay Henson

Joe and Mary Kay Henson

Lots of people tsk-tsk over civic problems and move on. When Joe and Mary Kay Henson, on the other hand, learned that a majority of Sarasota County elementary school-aged children live in poverty, they decided to “get up off the couch,” as Mary Kay says, and do something about it.

“We’re problem solvers, or at least we like to think we are,” says Mary Kay, a retired IBM marketing manager who moved here from Greenwich, Connecticut, with her husband, Joe, a retired tech entrepreneur and CEO of Fortune 500 companies.

The Eagle Academy they founded—and funded—to provide free two-generation summertime learning opportunities at Alta Vista Elementary School in 2013 has now expanded to 11 Sarasota County Title 1 elementary schools. Pre-Covid, some 1,800 youngsters spent six weeks in June and July each year brushing up on everything from language arts to STEAM subjects, while one evening each week, their parents came to “Parent University” to sharpen their parenting skills, learn to better manage their finances and more.

While our public schools are temporarily operating in a hybrid mode, the Hensons are working with the nonprofit Unidos Now by funding an effort to help the area’s Hispanic families hit hard by Covid-19 to negotiate reduced rents and utility bills. Last summer, too, the couple donated $500,000 to All Faiths Food Bank through a challenge grant to help feed those who’ve lost their jobs.

“These families are a vital part of our community, and so many are [now] financially desperate,” says Joe. “Covid and the damage it’s done to them financially is certainly not their fault. It behooves the entire population to come together to support them.”

For “their contributions that advance educational equity and academic outcomes for Sarasota County’s youngest students,” the Hensons last year received the Advancing Equity award from the Florida League of United Latin American Citizens.

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