SWFL'S SUPER VOLUNTEERS
THEY GIVE. THEY HELP. THEY ASK FOR NOTHING IN RETURN.
“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” —Mark Twain
Southwest Florida is home to several thousand nonprofits, whose missions range from offering life-saving aide in the wake of hurricanes such as Irma, to organizing cultural perks for kids. And without their volunteers, many of these agencies and institutions would fall flat. TOTI Media has selected a handful of these gentle souls to share with our readers:
PAWS ASSISTANCE DOGS IN COLLIER COUNTY
BY BRIGID O’MALLEY The golden retriever puppy looks up at Deb Maguir e. The dog’s eyes focus squarely on her face as she encourages him as he trots along. His focus is the payoff. “Look at you,” she says. “Look at you!” Maguire is one of a team of 50 or so PAWS Assistance Dogs volunteers helping train the dogs to allow combat-wounded military veterans and children with disabilities to be more independent. An average of 12 golden retrievers get placed with recipients each year. So far, 59 dogs have been put in service since PAWS became a nonprofit in 2012. These Collier County volunteers tackle everything from puppy house breaking and socialization through the long and complex training process, which often lasts more than two years. Another team of volunteers helps with office work, fundraising and other projects. PAWS Assistance Dogs volunteers in 2016 donated 35,269 hours. Founder and executive director Jeannie Bates nearly tears up when asked about the value of volunteers to the organization― she couldn’t do it without them. With 18 ne w puppies at its Naples training center by mid-summer, the volunteers (who are trained themselves by a professional dog trainer) will have their puppy patience tested and their training skills pushed to the limit as more and more little paws pad around the room and the workload grows.
“I give thanks for them every day,” Bates says of the PAWS volunteers. “Every single day.” Brigid O’Malley is a writer living in Southwest Florida.
FRIENDS WHO CARE: SANIBEL COUPLE’S GIFT THAT KEEPS GIVING
BY CRAIG GARRETT Theresa Louwers was driven by the idea that deeds, good or otherwise, circle back. The nonprofit that she cofounded on Sanibel with her husband, Tom, nearly 35 years ago has lived and endured by this notion.
The couple’s nonprofit, Friends Who Care, this holiday season will donate sleighs full of gifts and deliver volunteers by the hundreds on Sanibel and Captiva to those most in need on the islands. In return, kids, moms and dads with little to give, seniors with health and income issues, each will have a happier holiday.
In a sense, those of us living and working on Sanibel and Captiva will have given something―money, gifts or time― to help Friends Who Care succeed, large numbers of the population answering that annual shout for help. “Things came back to Theresa,” Tom Louwers says of his wife and lifelong companion who died in February 2015. “I could give you stories to knock your socks off.”
Theresa and Tom Louwers were givers from childhood in suburban Detroit. Theresa was most affected by kids, advocating for those families living day to day, Tom says. Shifting their lives to Sanibel, the couple in 1983 formed Friends Who Care. The initial goal was to help families in crisis. The holidays presented a different challenge, however. The couple set up holiday donation sites at select locations around the islands. Service groups such as Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary also gave money and time.
What evolved became the Friends Who Care Santa Run― volunteers in Santa gear delivering wrapped gifts to those identified by churches, nonprofits, teachers, social agencies and others aware of need at the holidays. Theresa and Tom in the
beginning wrapped the donated gifts at their island home, but that chore has moved to The Sanibel Community House, where rows of gifts are laid out, get divided by need and age, and are wrapped by that volunteer army. Santas hit the streets on Dec. 23, six of them in vehicles stuffed with gifts, each returning with amazing stories, Tom Louwers says.
Although Theresa Louwers is gone, her legacy flourishes. Friends Who Care this year has also provided select families with school supplies, helped fund the F.I.S.H. of SanibelCaptiva, Inc., human services group at Easter and in November with Thanksgiving provisions, served those with health troubles or who are just coping.
Tom Louwers has been rewarded over time by inspirational islanders. One father, for instance, was given Friends Who Care toys and gifts for his family. In turn, the man gave some of those toys to other kids in struggling families. “That’s what keeps me going,” Tom Louwers says of such stories. Craig Garrett is a contributing writer for TOTI Media.
CAPE’S PIONEERS SAFEGUARDED EACH OTHER, NEWBIES STILL DO
BY CRAIG GARRETT Stopped in morning traffic you’d not guess now that Cape Coral was once a lonely outpost in Southwest Florida— no bridges, no Starbucks, nothing. Instead of Conestoga wagons, however, the Cape’s early pioneers in the 1950s and ’60s arrived in Dodge or Ford wagons, clustered together, started traditions, built and supported churches, businesses and social centers.
For those remaining today from that “bohemian” time, the volunteerism mindset is in the blood. It’s what Gloria Raso Tate calls the Cape’s innate “volunteer spirit,” her family a first among 200 or so Cape Coral settlers. Modern Cape Coral numbers nearly 200,000 residents. “If there was a need,” she says of that early era, “we all took care of it. It’s the way we grew up … it’s the Cape Coral story.”
Living in such isolation prepared Tate for leadership, whether volunteering, literally building things, or for a position with city council, the first woman to do so. To this day she is vested in community activities to make Lee County’s largest city a better place, she says. “You learn to take care of your own,” she says of the ongoing thinking in Cape Coral.
Again, it’s hard to imagine early Cape Coral, accessed only by what is now Pine Island Road. Things got percolating in the 1950s when two brothers began selling home sites and dredging canals. Gloria Raso Tate’s father, Joe Raso, bought Cape property around 1960 after hearing a radio advertisement in Pittsburgh. He would work for those brothers, Jack and Leonard Rosen, and later help start the Cape’s Italian American Club with his wife, Grace. Raso Realty is his legacy.
ALTHOUGH THERESA LOUWERS IS GONE, HER LEGACY FLOURISHES.
The Rasos in September 1960 were welcomed by a Florida hurricane. But things settled and the small town built its shops, marinas and diners, its churches, a place for kids, all with local money, a thing of special pride that Gloria Raso Tate insists is part of the Cape’s continuing legacy.
“We learned to not depend on government,” she says. “Look to your neighbor and [you] will find that out.” Craig Garrett is a contributing writer for TOTI Media.
READING NEWSPAPERS ON THE RADIO AND TEACHING ESL
BY GLENN MILLER Mark Twain’s understanding of kindness is fastened on a wall at Florida Gulf Coast University. The message at its WGCU studios applies to what thousands do to make our lives easier, safer and—in some cases—perhaps a final comforting face.
The message applies to what Charlie Sloin, Gary McCarthy and Susan Atkinson do every day in Southwest Florida. They volunteer. They give of themselves. They help others. They ask for nothing in return.
Sloin and McCarthy, for instance, volunteer at WGCU’s Radio Reading Service for the blind, reading newspapers for a listening audience.
Atkinson, a retired high school English teacher from Indiana, volunteers at the Literacy Council Gulf Coast/Bonita Springs. She teaches English as a second language.
Sloin, 82, has performed in community theater in Ohio and also here in Southwest Florida. He looks at reading for the blind as another use of those skills. “I love that opportunity,” Sloin says.
“The volunteers are everything,” notes Barbara Steinhoff, director of communications and outreach at WGCU Public Media.
McCarthy, a retired New York attorney, finds volunteering at WGCU very rewarding. “I’m a bit of a ham,” he concedes. “I do look forward to it … I plan my day around it.”
That is also the case with Atkinson, a Bonita Springs resident. She lived in Romania and Ukraine earlier in life, and can relate to non-English speakers. “I know what it’s like,” she says.
On a pleasant summer day, Atkinson is teaching a language class in Bonita on Old U.S. Route 41. Three tables are set up around her in a U shape, with about 15 students crammed in, sitting close to each other. The topic of the day is basic sentence structure and differences between adverbs and adjectives. On a board on the wall between two large maps― one of Florida and the other of the world―she writes: “I like the pepperoni pizza.” Atkinson then asks: “Where is my adjective?” Drills such as this are what Atkinson, 68, uses to help teach basic English. She understands because she’s been on the other side of the white table. “I did this because of empathy,” she says. Glenn Miller is president of the Southwest Florida Historical Society and a frequent contributor to TOTI Media.
“IF THERE WAS A NEED, WE ALL TOOK CARE OF IT. IT’S THE WAY WE GREW UP … IT’S THE CAPE CORAL STORY.” — PIONEERING CAPE CORAL RESIDENT GLORIA RASO TATE
Gloria Raso Tate