Collier County's poor need more help, says Community Foundation CEO
All the grand images of regal waterside homes, posh boutiques, manicured lawns and tony restaurants often obscure the fact that some people struggle in Naples and Collier County, a philanthropic leader said Saturday.
Thousands of needy people — some poor, some elderly, some women, some mentally ill — struggle just to get by.
“People think, ‘Oh, we live in paradise, and the needs are not there, because everybody’s the same as we are,’” said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Collier County.
“They don’t take the time to really research all the needs and poverty that go on with workers, the people cutting our lawns, the people cooking our meals, the people cleaning our homes, the teachers, the servers in our restaurants. These people are not making livable wages here.”
Connolly-Keesler spoke Saturday to the Naples branch of the American Association of University Women at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Golden Gate Estates.
She emphasized the critical role philanthropy can play in helping people beset by social and economic woes. Government falls short of offering adequate support, she said.
She displayed statistics indicating 14.1 percent of county residents live in poverty and 25 percent of children in Collier County lack adequate food to eat.
Yet Collier allots just 1.4 percent of its budget for human services, drastically below the state average of 8.3 percent.
She said the county is one of only six in the state that lacks a sales tax, which could raise substantial money to assist the needy.
“People are shocked" when they see the level of poverty in the area, Connolly-Keesler said.
“This community has to depend on philanthropy to meet the needs,” she said.
The only alternative is to restructure the tax system and that is not likely in the current political climate, she said. In fact, things seem to be going in the opposite direction, she said, with politicians in Washington considering ending the income tax deduction for charitable contributions.
“That will cripple us,” she said, contending it likely will curtail philanthropy rather than inspire it.
A women's branch of the Community Foundation has distributed almost $450,000 over the past decade to help women with housing, health, medication and teen pregnancy.
One group of people who urgently need help are elderly women, some of whom lose half their Social Security incomes when their spouses die, Connolly-Keesler said.
“Do they buy medication, do they live in their cars, what do they do to survive? It’s a little scary,” Connolly-Keesler said.
So the need for help is immense, she said:
“It’s just that people don’t see it," she said, "because you don’t see the homeless hanging out on the street. They’re in the woods. They’re hidden from us. So it’s a matter of constant education.”
Another reason poverty and other social ills sometimes go unseen in the Naples area, Connolly-Keesler said, is that the area has grown so rapidly over the past three decades.
“Human issues have to be dealt with,” she told the AAUW members. “We have to do something, but I don’t know what that something is.”
She urged people to become involved by volunteering, raising money or establishing their own funds for giving. The role of the Community Foundation of Collier County is to connect donors with those in need.
“Our mission is to improve the quality of life in Collier County,” Connolly-Keesler said.