Multi-tasking is a way of life for local non-profits by Jeff Lytle

The story on page 60 about The Naples Players reaching beyond traditional roles to better serve the community is not an isolated case. Collier County is rich with examples of non-profit, service-driven organizations that started with focused missions and expanded as the community grew and needs evolved.

Take The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, for example. It started in 1964 as a vehicle to oppose a bridge proposed to link Keewaydin Island to Rookery Bay. Today it fills an entire riverfront campus with services that include monitoring growth management and water quality. It runs a major wildlife clinic, education center and electric boat tours of the Gordon River, with apartments for interns. Its advocacy for sustainability now reaches throughout our region, as reflected in its name.

Eileen Connelly-Keesler, CEO of the Collier Community Foundation, says non-profits’ multi-tasking is driven by civic needs, and Rob Moher of The Conservancy explains.

“The addition of wildlife rehabilitation was a natural extension of The Conservancy’s efforts to preserve essential habitat,” says Moher, who is president and CEO, and today’s “full- fledged operation rehabilitates more than 4,000 native animals each year at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital. “The introduction of invasive species in this region and the impact on our native wildlife required a response, for what was the purpose of rehabbing native wildlife if they are only to be eaten by a non-native species such as the Burmese python?”

Clean water is a top priority that has “elevated the need for The Conservancy to be involved at the state and federal level,” Moher says, “pursuing practical policy on behalf of the citizens in our communities.”

Meanwhile, The Baker Senior Center Naples launched as Naples Senior Center to combat loneliness and hunger with  weekly lunches, cards and classes in music, art and computers, says president/ CEO Jackie Faffer. Using that foundation as a portal to other needs, she says, the center now offers dementia respite, in-home case management, geriatric counseling and even public medical care, stepping forward when COVID vaccine government directives and online registration baffled vulnerable clients.

Despite the growth in services and a brand new campus in North Naples, Faffer explains, the mission remains the same – and that’s true of other non-profits. The Collier Community Foundation has experienced its own expansion of services. Now it has become pro-active on its own list of causes, including workforce housing, and serves as the first responder of philanthropy for storms and health crises such as COVID.

Champions of Education, formerly the Collier County Education Foundation, started 30 plus years ago as sponsor of an annual televised banquet for its Golden Apple awards to outstanding teachers.

That continues, alongside a full range of services – from mentoring to scholarship procurement — helping students get into and succeed in college.

Humble describes the beginnings of two more non-profits – the Neighborhood Health Clinic and Naples Botanical Garden — both of which stand today as national models.

The clinic launched for the working poor in a storefront of an under-achieving shopping center where Naples Square condominiums are today in the heart of downtown. NHC has branched out to its own suite of dental chairs and a medical partnership to produce its own diagnostic imaging.

The Garden, meanwhile, flourishes on the site of a former makeshift dump that came close to being developed. Original supporters had little money and wanted to plant pretty flowers. Today the Garden is not only beautiful, with displays from around the world, but it has become a visionary international research and conservation partner. It hosts a Florida Gulf Coast University laboratory led by a world-renowned wetlands scientist.

Hungry for more? The far-flung, year-round Empty Bowls and Meals of Hope non-profits evolved from bright ideas. Empty Bowls started with once-a-year festivals of food and fellowship at Cambier Park, with ceramic bowls fashioned by volunteers of all ages – at schools and nursing homes and everywhere in between. Now that event is supplemented year-round by sales of bowls at storefront venues such as Mercato. Empty Bowls’ prime partner, Meals of Hope, originated as Kids Against Hunger 16 years ago to make simple bags of uncooked, dried food for Haiti. When local needs surfaced,  founders pivoted to a network of assembly lines making food that is distributed locally by schools and its own network of 15 food pantries serving up to 4,000 families a week.

“We have packed over 85 million meals,” says founder, president and CEO Stephen Popper. “So far this year we have had 2,107 new families come sign up for assistance who have never been to our pantries before. The need today is greater than in the past.” St. Matthew’s House originated after a discovery that left many residents shocked: There were people living in the woods near Naples Airport. Founders overcame neighbors’ opposition to open a shelter and soup kitchen in a retired firehouse next to the courthouse. The non-profit now is a friend to neighbors with a separate residence as well as a café, resale shop and other businesses that generate revenue and teach job skills.

The examples keep coming, with the Shelter for Abused Women & Children building a satellite in Immokalee, David Lawrence Center reaching out to more clients of all ages and the Naples Winter Wine Festival broadening its umbrella of funded children’s services. There is a saying about Naples philanthropy: Show and prove a real need, and it will be met.

That seems as strong as ever as the community grows way beyond a small town.

Editor’s note: What non-profits have I missed? Let me know at

Thank you.


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