Woman of the Year: Fiala honored at P.E.O. International gala

Lance Shearer

Donna Fiala was honored Wednesday evening as “Woman of the Year.” The award was presented by the Marco Island chapter of P.E.O. International, their first-ever such recognition, during a fundraising gala at Marco Lutheran Church.

P.E.O. International is a women’s organization dedicated to increasing access to education for females. What “P.E.O.” stands for is secret, she said, but other members confirmed it represents “Philanthropic Education Organization.”

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“Our sole purpose is to raise funds to give scholarships to deserving women,” said Marian Harris, one of the event’s organizers. “The group was started by seven women over 100 years ago.”

Fiala, the longest-serving Collier county commissioner, is stepping down after this year after a remarkable political run. After her first race in 2000, when she first won her seat, she has run unopposed in every election since. While she is closely identified with East Naples, for which she has been a vociferous and persistent cheerleader, she also has made sure not to “burn her bridges” with her constituents on Marco Island.

In her brief remarks during the dinner gala – a noteworthy point in itself, as Fiala can speak at length whenever offered a microphone – she told the gathering how she first got into county politics.

“I saw county commissioners being hauled away in handcuffs,” she said. “I became president of the East Naples Civic Association, and I saw there was so much to do for that part of town. I thought, these kids deserve just as much as everyone else has.”

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During her tenure on the commission, Fiala championed major improvements at Eagle Lakes Community Park, including the Donna Fiala Community Center that bears her name. She spearheaded efforts to bring state funds to improve the Marco Island Executive Airport and was the driving force behind getting the Florida Department of Transportation to smooth out the washboard ruts along Collier Blvd., work that is ongoing and scheduled to be complete late this year.

Fiala’s District 1 also includes Goodland, and a contingent from the Goodland Civic Association came to Wednesday’s gala to add their plaudits. GCA president Greg Bello lauded Fiala for her efforts for their community, including legalizing golf carts on Goodland streets, taking back control of Goodland Drive from the City of Marco Island, and getting the county to raise that road to prevent the perennial flooding that has been an ongoing problem. That work is starting this year.

Before the gala, Fiala said while she may be stepping down from the county commission, she has no plans to back away from civic activism.

“I know where to go and what to do to get things done. I will stay involved,” she said. “I just want to finish some things I started. I’m leaving the job, but not the parts of the job I love the most – getting things done for people.”

Georgiana Matz, one of the gala’s organizers, said that they opted to present Fiala with a gift basket rather than a plaque. “She has enough plaques on her walls. We’re giving her a basket of goodies, a bottle of vintage wine, and a tiara, although she doesn’t have to wear it.”

Fiala was also the centerpiece of a town hall meeting on Tuesday evening at the Marco Island Historical Museum, where she learned she is being honored with her name on a bench. “Four or five of the candidates for my seat,” running to replace her, were there to speak to islanders, she said.

The Woman of the Year designation was a first for P.E.O. on Marco Island, but the gala proved lucrative for their scholarship fund, said Matz. While they did not have final figures, she confirmed the group had raised at least $20,000, and that did not include proceeds from the silent auction.

Along with the gala itself, P.E.O. sold tickets to a champagne preview earlier in the day, with 132 people paying to view the tables decorated for the event.

“I didn’t even know tablescaping was a thing,” said Darcie Guerin, who with her firm Raymond James sponsored the “Out of Africa” themed table. Other tables featured a Great Gatsby-Roaring ’20s theme, a Mackenzie-Childs fantasy, and a Fiesta! Olé! South of the Border motif.