Guest commentary: Jim Dixon, Naples Children & Education Foundation

By Jim Dixon

Naples Trustee and Grants Committee Chair Naples Children & Education Foundation

This from Yesenia Lopez, a student attending the Guidance Programs for Success at the Florida Gulf Coast University Leadership Academy, funded by the Naples Children & Education Foundation, this summer:

“[It] helped me understand the purpose of making a plan for my future and to have confidence in myself that I am able to succeed Plus it got me interested in bioengineering.”

In the summer, the needs of the children of Collier County escalate. When school is not in session, others must provide safe and effective ways for kids to learn and play while their parents work. Without school lunches, many children go hungry. And their physical well-being, oral health and mental health issues need to be addressed all year round.

That’s why the programs and services of the NCEF, founder of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, kick into an even higher gear this time of the year.

NCEF, founded in 2000, supports effective, disciplined charitable programs that significantly improve the physical, emotional and educational lives of underprivileged and at-risk children in Collier County. The needs of the children are great — more than 63 percent of children are poor enough to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. More than 1,000 were homeless during the last school year. The demand for emergency food rose more than 500 percent between 2007 and 2012. And only half of third graders are able to read with minimal proficiency.

Through the generosity of its trustees, patrons and sponsors, NCEF’s major fundraiser, the Naples Winter Wine Festival, has raised more than $110 million for Collier children since its 2001 debut. In turn, NCEF has funded 37 charitable organizations and spearheaded seven major Strategic Initiatives; these allocations are based on a comprehensive series of research studies that have identified where needs are the greatest.

More than 150,000 children’s lives have been touched by these programs. In a county in which funding from the public sector is minimal, the importance of the work of NCEF and its partners is incalculable.

Today, all over Collier County, children are participating in programs funded by NCEF.

Between the Boys and Girls Club and the Marco Island YMCA alone, 1,400 children attend out-of-school programs underwritten by NCEF.

Just this month, our partners from the Harry Chapin Food Bank delivered the 2 millionth meal funded by our Children’s Hunger Initiative.

Staff from Florida State University Medical School, now working from the NCEF-funded renovation of the Isabel Collier Read Medical Campus in Immokalee, shared opportunities in medical careers to area high-schoolers.

The Immokalee GPS program — part of NCEF’s Children’s Out-of-School Initiative, is providing almost 2,000 students with academic instruction that will help them keep up with their studies and plan for their futures.

The Children’s Oral Health Initiative, housed at NCEF Pediatric Dental Center at Edison College in East Naples, staffed by University of Florida College of Dentistry residents and managed by the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida, handles up to 15,000 patients each year.

NCEF, together with the David Lawrence Center, is fostering the expansion of services that integrate primary and mental health care, identifying and preventing children’s mental health issues.

The NCEF Early Childhood Learning Center is increasing access and affordability of education-focused care for children from birth to 5 — a period considered most critical for development.

At the Naples Equestrian Challenge Summer Camp, physically and behaviorally challenged kids are joined by able children in the Inclusion Horsemanship Summer Camps.

All this and more is happening every day. But perhaps the most powerful way to communicate the value of these programs is through the words of their beneficiaries, such as Yesenia Lopez, who started this story, and a 9-year-old who told us: “When I was being hurt by my daddy and my mom was scared and we had no other safe place to go, The Shelter and NCEF was there for us. You helped stop my pain and my fear and now my mom and I are working on starting to laugh and have fun again.”

The Naples Children & Education Foundation is thankful for its amazing supporters, its incredible partners, and capable staff and volunteers. Without them our work would not be possible. And this work is simply too important to ignore.

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