Lavern Norris Gaynor’s foray into live theater was inauspicious, but the venture led to a much more meaningful path. With a 9-year-old’s vision of taking center stage by playing different roles, the young Lavern, her sister and a friend penned and produced a play that they believed would draw crowds. Unfortunately, Lavern’s imagination was brighter than the production’s promise because, as she describes it, the play was a “total failure.”
The audience wanted their money back, but Lavern somehow managed to make 20 cents from the piece. She was proud because it was the first money she earned on her own, and she had thoughts of sharing it and buying penny candy.
Her parents, Dellora Angell and Lester Norris, who were great supporters of many needs in their hometown of St. Charles, IL, asked their daughter what she intended to do with the proceeds. As Lavern pondered the question, her mother took her to a children’s home. It was the Great Depression, and the need was staggering.
“I really thought, ‘Isn’t it amazing what this money could do?’” Gaynor remembers.
The visit and her mother’s lesson in giving to those who need help ignited Gaynor’s passion for philanthropy.
“It sort of came naturally after that,” she says.
Today at 91, Gaynor is one of Collier County’s most unassuming and beloved benefactors. From conservation efforts, arts and local history appreciation to children and education, Gaynor has made an indelible impact on Collier County. As a result of her good works, she will be honored as Outstanding Philanthropist on Nov. 12 during National Philanthropy Day by the Everglades Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Gaynor’s strong belief in accessible and affordable preschool education prompted her to invest in the expansion of the Greater Naples YMCA preschool program. She also has volunteered her time by serving on the board of directors and by taking an interest in the children and families the YMCA serves. The organization is honoring her by naming its new preschool the Gaynor Early Learning Center.
“At the Y, Mrs. Gaynor’s philanthropy is not about writing a check,” says Cari Hansen, the YMCA’s marketing director. “She attends preschool graduations, tea parties, birthday parties and plays. Every year, she chooses to spend her own birthday with the kids at the YMCA. Many kids know her simply as the ‘the birthday lady’ or ‘Lal.’
“They are the products of her generosity, but to those kids, her money doesn’t matter,” Hansen says. “It’s her time, her stories and her presence that they look forward to at each event.”
For 15 years, Gaynor has supported Champions for Learning, Collier County’s education foundation, by mentoring students and funding scholarships.
Susan McManus, Champions of Learning president, says that Gaynor can empathize with the needs of children like Laura Hernandez and their parents. Her support of the foundation’s Take Stock in Children program helped to provide Hernandez with a scholarship and a mentor during her progression from middle school through high school.
Today, Hernandez is a 24 year old who plans to graduate in December with an associate’s degree in criminal justice. She wants to be a role model for her sisters and to make her mother proud of her accomplishments. Gaynor’s support is making her dreams and ambitions possible. “There are no words to thank her for what she’s done for me,” Hernandez says. “She is amazing.”
At Grace Place for Children & Families, Gaynor’s investment in the Golden Gate organization has helped working-poor families become more literate and has instilled in their children the importance of learning. Her support also funds Grace Place’s school readiness and English- language programs. “She can relate to the challenges of not understanding the culture, experiencing language barriers and, of course, trying to navigate the school systems,” says Barbara Evans, the organization’s chief development officer. “She believes in the Grace Place model of working with the entire family, working to not only assist the child but to also work with the parents.”
Gaynor also wants children and other Collier County residents to understand and appreciate the history of Naples and Collier County. She founded the Naples Backyard History program in 2007 to make this possible. The project now includes a website, naplespanorama.org, that people will want to visit again and again. The site includes live streaming video of sunrises over Naples Bay and sunsets over the Gulf. What’s more, the project is spreading the word about nonprofit organizations in the community. The Naples Backyard History program also features a collection of photographs and documents of local history through the Naples Online Virtual Museum (naplesvirtualmuseum.org).
“I believe if people know their neighborhood’s history they will become better connected to their community,” she says.
What will be Gaynor’s legacy in Collier County’s history? Philanthropy is about more than accolades to her.
“It’s just the idea that you can make someone’s life better.”
National Philanthropy Day
What: National Philanthropy Day
When: 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12
Where: Hodges University, 2655 Northbrooke Drive,
Who: 2015 Honorees
• Outstanding Philanthropist: Lavern Norris Gaynor
• Outstanding Philanthropic Organization: Hideaway Beach Club
• Outstanding Philanthropic Youth: Alfredo Villalobos-Perez and John Scalli, Jr.
• Fundraising Executive of the Year: Elizabeth Morano
• Distinguished Volunteers
Information: To attend or for more details, contact the Association
of Fundraising Professionals Everglades Chapter at afpeverglades.
afpnet.org/ or Jeanne Bolds, Everglades Chapter administrator, at
Who: Lavern Norris Gaynor
Hometown: St. Charles, IL
Family: George Gaynor, a Texaco Oil Company executive, who died in 2003;
son, George N. Gaynor; daughter, DeeDee Spence; five grandchildren; and
four great grandchildren
Family Legacy: Lavern Gaynor learned about the importance of philanthropy
from her parents. Her mother, Dellora Angell, was the heiress of the
founder of Texaco Oil Company. Her father, Lester Norris, helped to create
the national Victory Garden Program of WWII. Her family’s commitment to
community service extends from their roots in St. Charles to Collier County,
where Lavern Gaynor first visited in 1945. Lavern and George Gaynor
moved permanently to Naples in 1976. Her family’s contributions to Collier
County include: Naples Community Hospital, Palm Cottage, Lowdermilk Park,
Delnor Wiggins State Park, Naples Pier, Norris Center
Lavern Gaynor’s Legacy: “My hope is that people see that I was someone
who took the time to recognize a need, educate myself about it and then do
what I could to help.”
She has supported several organizations in her own right. Among them are:
Hodges University, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Naples Philharmonic
Center (today Artis-Naples), Youth Haven, Community Foundation of Collier
County, Naples Historical Society, Naples Backyard History, Greater Naples
YMCA, Champions for Learning, Grace Place for Children & Families, Harry
Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida.