Joe and Mary Kay Henson.

Giving back has never been a question for philanthropists Joe and Mary Kay Henson, who have actively served the Sarasota area since moving here full-time from Greenwich, Connecticut, 12 years ago.

Mary Kay, a former IBM marketing manager, and Joe, a former tech entrepreneur and chief executive officer of Fortune 500 companies, were honored as part of Sarasota Magazine's 2021 Unity Awards for creating The Eagle Academy, a summertime education and parenting resource program, and for working with All Faiths Food Bank and UnidosNow, ensuring food security and opportunity for impoverished and Hispanic and Latino communities.

This year, the Hensons are participating in the Community Foundation of Sarasota County's Giving Challenge, a 24-hour philanthropic binge that begins at noon on Tuesday, April 26, with 700 participating nonprofits. Since 2012, the online event has brought in more than $59 million in unrestricted funding. In 2020 alone, the Giving Challenge raised $19.1 million in 24 hours at a time when people found themselves in particularly great need because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of picking one organization and cause to support this year, the Hensons have decided to help them all. They've donated $100 to each Giving Challenge participant, for a total of $70,000. That amount was also matched by The Patterson Foundation, raising the total to $140,000 this year.

We recently spoke with the Hensons about their work and plans for future giving:

What inspired you to join this year's Giving Challenge?

"We simply saw this as an opportunity to do good. It is consistent with our efforts toward helping children and families in poverty over the last 12 years," says Joe. "This doubles the weight of our giving. We thank Roxie Jerde for her leadership at the Community Foundation, for carefully vetting each organization and accepting our $100 donations for each one. And then the Patterson Foundation matching these amounts. ... That really put smiles on our faces."

"Joe is also a businessman, so he saw this as a two-for-one opportunity—a way to leverage the money," says Mary Kay. "We absolutely have confidence in the Community Foundation for vetting these organizations and recognizing they are worthy of help."

Have you participated in past Giving Challenges?

"We don't know if we have, because we've been so focused on our pilot programs with the school system in the past few years," says Joe. "We have, however, been partnered with Community Foundation on some of those projects."

"Until now, we've focused on education," says Mary Kay. "But when we see the news and what's happening in our community, we know we can do more. So we decided to give a $500,000 donation to All Faiths Food Bank two summers ago, because we saw how many people were going hungry. This donation was also matched by Community Foundation to total $1 million. This helped during the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was afraid."

How has the pandemic affected the way you give?

"We've become more personally involved in people's lives when we give to them now," says Joe. "It's given us the chance to help people individually that are facing real hardship. Recently, a local schoolteacher's house burned down and she lost everything. Mary Kay reached out to her and provided her with quite a bit of assistance. It was great to connect."

"The housing crisis in our town due to the pandemic is another thing we've been aware of," says Mary Kay. "We are looking to see how we can help and step up. So many people working here are living in the poverty margin. They are renting houses and experiencing egregious increases in monthly rent to the point they can't afford to live anymore. We are lucky enough to be in the position where we can help."

What does it mean to you to be a philanthropist in a city like Sarasota?

"It's a small community, so it's easy to navigate and find out who is doing the good work and how we can help versus a metropolitan city," says Mary Kay. "Another difference is our snowbirds. Some come down for a short period and may not see the struggles. They live on Longboat, go out to dinner in downtown Sarasota and go back. If they lived here full-time or started volunteering in the schools, they'd see the poverty that surrounds us."

"Fifty-two percent of all school children in Sarasota are living below the poverty line," says Joe. "In particular, 114,000 Hispanic families live below this line in Sarasota and Manatee counties combined. We have a soft spot in our hearts for Hispanic, hardworking families who may not have access to things like quality housing, health care and education."

What are your plans for the remainder of 2022?

"We have a couple efforts underway. One is to work with Booker Middle School and the University of South Florida, helping children who are not reading at grade level get up to speed," says Mary Kay.

"Another not-yet-formed idea surrounds providing proper and affordable health care to the Hispanic community, potentially working in tandem with concierge physicians," says Joe. "Many of these people do not have health insurance and do not see doctors regularly for check-ups. Many also need medical attention on weekends because of work schedules, so making things more convenient and helpful."

For more information about the Community Foundation of Sarasota County's Giving Challenge, click here. Donate from noon Tuesday, April 26, to noon Wednesday, April 27.

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