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The Power of Philanthropy and Inclusivity Through Education and Art

Read how Embracing Our Differences, supported by Gulf Coast Community Foundation, promotes inclusion, kindness, and respect in their bayfront exhibit opening this month.

Presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation December 19, 2023

Elementary and middle school students gather around Embracing Our Differences’ 2023 exhibition on a docent-led field trip.

When philanthropy and unity align, magical, wonderful opportunities flourish for the greater good of all.

Imagine vibrant, giant-sized pieces of artwork and statements promoting inclusion, kindness, and respect staged along the bayfront for all residents and guests to enjoy. Yes, it’s that time of year when Embracing Our Differences’ international art exhibition consisting of 50 billboard-sized works of art with accompanying quotes begins at Sarasota’s Bayfront Park, running through April 14.

Philanthropy plays a vital role in supporting nonprofit organizations with worthy causes, giving them a platform to share their mission, vision, and stories with donors. At Gulf Coast Community Foundation (Gulf Coast), we have supported Embracing Our Differences for well over a decade through our Arts Appreciation Grant program and other granting opportunities. Since 2007, together with our donors, Gulf Coast has given nearly $2.8 million to Embracing Our Differences.

Students and adults visiting and enjoying Embracing Our Differences’ 2023 exhibit overlooking Sarasota's Bayfront Park.

“The Embracing Our Differences exhibit brings diverse voices from around the world into one public space, which is so important during this time and always. The work that Embracing Our Differences does with our students and community is impactful, powerful, and life changing. Gulf Coast is honored to support Embracing Our Differences and their vital work,” said Gulf Coast’s Community Leadership Associate Hollie Mowry.

Embracing Our Differences’ annual outdoor public art exhibition has drawn more than 4.3 million visitors since its inception. In fact, Embracing Our Differences leads one of the largest education programs in southwest Florida with 1,981 teachers and 58,122 students participating in their exhibit and educational programs in 2023 alone. The bayfront exhibit is the heart of a year-round program of activities designed to use art as a catalyst to create awareness and promote diversity.

The nonprofit offers fieldtrips to their exhibits where they partner with other arts organizations, two annual Reading Days for elementary schoolers in which many Gulf Coast staff have participated, and many other important programs and clubs.

Embracing Our Differences’ Executive Director Sarah Wertheimer has been with the organization since 2014.

Opportunities For All

We sat down with Embracing Our Differences’ Executive Director, Sarah Wertheimer, to learn more about the history and collaboration of both organizations. “Gulf Coast has been a very strong community partner and has helped us deepen the work we are doing in the school systems and the community. In the beginning, partnering with a well-established and well-respected organization like Gulf Coast gave us credibility that we desperately needed to do this work. Gulf Coast uses philanthropy to create a lasting impact on our community, trying to make this a beautiful place for everyone and trying to remove barriers in so many ways.”

Wertheimer joined the organization in 2014 to make a difference. “It’s been such a passion of mine being born and raised in Sarasota and growing up in Sarasota County public schools. It’s also a personal passion because I was often the only Jewish student kids would meet in school. I recognized how easy it still is for me to fit into a room and how much more challenging it is for other people. This motivates me and drives me to keep working so everyone can feel truly valued in our classrooms and our community.”

We asked Wertheimer how the concept of Embracing Our Differences started? “It was a traveling art exhibit brought to our region from Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem that traveled around the world. We had it for one month originally and then community members said we need to do this every year.”

It wasn’t hard for Wertheimer to share a meaningful story when asked about a student who has experienced Embracing Our Differences. “When I was at North Port High School participating in our Unity Day program, one student was sharing in a small group that he had attempted suicide multiple times and that he didn’t feel comfortable as he was struggling with his own identity. At end of day, in a share back session from the whole group, a football player stood up saying it was the most important part of his day to hear this other student’s struggle. He said ‘I am here for you’ to the student and they hugged each other. Afterwards, the teacher said the struggling student had come to school every day for three weeks, when he normally doesn’t come to class. That is progress,” said Wertheimer.

Embracing Our Differences’ 2022 exhibition shines bright on a docent-led field trip with middle school students. Photo by Barbara Banks.

On why it is important to have Embracing Our Differences in our community and schools, Wertheimer responded, “I think we need to focus on humanity, treating one another with kindness and respect, and trying to come together as a community. I think that starting at a young age educating our students is vital to combat this negativity that we see out in the world. Starting these positive lessons at a young age is just crucial.”

Wertheimer’s final words? “I express my extreme gratitude to everyone at Gulf Coast from the team to the Board to every fundholder. We are a small team and could not do this without Gulf Coast’s support. It is vital.”

When we work together for the greater good of all in our community, you can see that magic starts to happen, people are kinder to one another, and the world starts to shift towards love and unity.

To learn more about how Gulf Coast supports the arts in our community, click here.