Philip Tavill, the longtime president and CEO of Children First, Sarasota County’s exclusive Head Start provider, has vivid memories of spending time beside his father, a physician working in public health, in locations from Morocco to Milwaukee. His South African mother’s passionate anti-apartheid stance also helped shape his concern for others. “Together, they taught me from a very young age that we’re all humans and should be afforded dignity and the opportunity to pursue our dreams,” says Tavill.
That background led him to pursuing a degree in psychology and, eventually, dual master’s degrees in social work and nonprofit management. Working with Goodwill elsewhere, he found it personally gratifying to help prepare people with disabilities for work. So he was resistant at first when his supervisor steered him toward administration, feeling he would become too much “the Man,” he jokes. But she convinced him, he says, “that you can help more people doing this [administration] than you ever could on your own.” That struck home, and after friends tipped him off to an open position as executive director of Venice’s Loveland Center, Tavill spent two-and-a-half years growing that agency’s services for adults with disabilities.
In 1996, he found his home of the past 24 years at Children First. During his tenure, the agency has been designated a Head Start Program of Excellence, ranking in the top 1 percent of more than 1,800 programs nationwide, and has expanded to serve 900 children and their families at 15 locations throughout Sarasota County. He and Children First have formed partnerships with entities such as the Sarasota Housing Authority, Catholic Charities and the Sarasota County school board, all aimed at meeting the needs of infants, toddlers and their families through childcare and education.
Children First has received numerous awards for its work, including the Sarasota NAACP’s Education Award and WEDU’s 2019 Nonprofit of the Year. As the agency celebrates its 60th birthday, Tavill, now 58, remains committed to the cause. “Everybody here is focused on the mission,” he says. “We want no wait list [for care] for children below the poverty line. We’ll never rest on our laurels.”