They don’t wear capes or perform gravity-defying feats of daring. But to the lives they touch and the causes they support, they’re superheroes. From a high school senior to an 80-year-old real estate broker, these caring citizens are making our world a better place.
Caroline Kincaid is a young woman with an old soul. As a child, she begged her father to tell her tales about ancient Egypt instead of bedtime stories. And although she’s only 18, she’s a born teacher (maybe because both her parents are educators), eager to share what she knows with people of every age.
The Venice High School senior has spent hundreds of hours volunteering—240 hours in all, she thinks. But she admits she’s not sure. “I stopped counting because you get to the point where you have enough for your requirements and you just want to do it because it’s the right thing to do,” she says.
For three years, Kincaid has helped digitize the Venice Museum’s archives. She helps set up and tear down museum exhibits and acts as a docent. She also serves on the Venice Historic Preservation Board. And she volunteers as event photographer for exhibition openings.
“It’s cool because the older citizens always get excited to see someone younger,” Kincaid says.
“She always thanks us profusely for giving her the opportunity,” says Rhonda Rogers, administrative coordinator at the museum. But really, Rogers adds, “The honor is all ours.”
At Venice High, Kincaid and her friend Emilee Barrett helped found the Adopt-A-Soldier Club to send supplies to overseas troops. In Spanish Honor Society, she helped spearhead efforts to collect food and Christmas gifts for migrant families in Immokalee.
She also tutors younger students through the Math Honor Society and at Student Leadership Academy. Every summer she helps Taylor Ranch Elementary School teachers, including her mother, set up their classrooms.
Now, fueled by her passion for the past, she’s decided to major in history in college, then pursue a combined post-graduate law and master’s of business administration degree.
Carroll Hunter beams with pride when he talks about Venice Theatre. The 76-year-old has volunteered for 15 years and serves as a secretary on the theater’s board of directors. His enthusiasm is infectious. “I love doing this. I do,” he says.
Hunter’s father enrolled him in acting school when he was 16. The experience helped create a lifelong love of theater, but he pursued another passion—law enforcement.
He had a successful career, retiring in 2000 as deputy director of the New York City Department of Corrections, overseeing human service programs and about 125 counselors who worked with 20,000 inmates in 17 jails. Today he’s vice president of Law Enforcement Gays and Lesbians, which advocates for the rights of officers around the world. In 2010, Instinct Magazine named him one of the “20 Leading Gay Men in the United States.”
In 2002, Hunter and his husband, Stephen Sanford, moved to Venice. Soon after that, a friend persuaded him to audition for the role of Booker T. Washington in Venice Theatre’s Ragtime. To his surprise, he got the part, and he’s gone on to act in Second Samuel, Fences and The Full Monty.
“I like really serious, dramatic parts, and they’ve been kind enough to let me do that,” Hunter says. “And I have a responsibility not to play characters that devalue or demean black people. I won’t do it.”
During a backstage tour of Venice Theatre—now the nation’s second-largest community theater—Hunter flagged down costume makers, stage managers, set builders and lighting directors, pointing out how important their work is.
“Good theater, aside from being entertaining, is also educational. It will lift you up and it will make you think,” Hunter says. “That’s pretty much everything that we do here.”
Artistic and executive director Murray Chase says Hunter has been a “dynamic” and “dedicated” actor and volunteer who spreads the gospel of Venice Theatre throughout the community. “He is constantly helping to tell our story,” he says. “We're fortunate to have him in our family.”
Bobbi Sue Burton
Bobbi Sue Burton grew up in and out of foster homes and was on her own by age 13. The founder of nonprofit Project Phoenix fled a domestic abuse situation on Florida’s east coast and settled in Englewood 15 years ago.
“I took my kids and we left,” Burton, 44, says. “We had the clothes on their backs.’”
The young mother found a landlord who was willing to work with her, but she had no money to furnish the apartment. Burton’s landlord and a few friends pitched in to help.
“You have to provide a conducive environment for your kids. I didn’t have beds. I didn’t have a table to feed them their dinner at. Those are important things,” she says.
That experience led her to found Project Phoenix, which provides household items for families who have suffered devastating losses. It also offers a meal for anyone who needs it every Tuesday night at Englewood’s Indian Mound Park. Most are “campers,” as Burton calls homeless residents. Unlike some charities, she does not require sobriety. Burton has been homeless herself, so she doesn’t judge. While Project Phoenix is not affiliated with any religion, Burton runs it by her own beliefs.
“God doesn’t tell me who I should help and who I shouldn’t,” she says. “He just says this is what you need to do. Every life has a story.” After Hurricane Irma left many without power, Project Phoenix provided hot dinners, including for hundreds of linemen from the North. The community rallied around her efforts, helping to feed the men for a month. Care packages for Project Phoenix arrived when the workers returned home and told their families about “the nicest town on earth,” as one lineman wrote in a thank-you on social media.
Burton, 44, continued her charity work through treatment for Stage 3 uterine cancer that had metastasized and colon cancer that followed. While she’s been cancer-free for three years, a genetic condition called Lynch syndrome almost guarantees the disease will return.
“I’ll deal with it when it comes back,” she says. “If I die tomorrow, I want to know that I made a difference in somebody’s life.”
Dr. William Jervey Jr.
As a young boy, Dr. William Jervey Jr. visited Venice with his parents. He remembers building sand castles on the beach and walking up West Venice Avenue. The small town on Florida’s Gulf coast made such an impression that in 2009, Jervey, now 73, decided to return and focus his philanthropy here.
“I thought I might be able to make a difference in a town the size of Venice that I’ve loved since I was a little boy,” he says.
A lifelong love of libraries led Jervey last fall to donate $1 million to the new Venice Library, which will bear his name. He keeps an architect’s rendering of the high-tech library in his dining room and intends to hang the silver groundbreaking shovel on the lanai of his condo, which overlooks the city he loves.
Growing up in Hawaii, Jervey spent his spare time in a college library, “instead of playing ball,” he says. He began reading investment books and bought his first stock at age 13. At 37, he decided to retire from his position as a political science professor at the University of Central Florida and focus on investing. His colleagues questioned his sanity, he says, but “I’ve never regretted it. Within six months, I was a millionaire. Now I’m finally able to pay it forward.”
And giving to the library was the natural choice. “if it were not for libraries I would not be here today,” Jervey says.
Jervey also supports the Lord-Higel House, the Historical Society and Venice Area Beautification.
His foundation endows scholarships for Venice High students and funds the Betty Intagliota Lecture Series about local and state history. He is eyeing other causes, including State College of Florida.
“I’m leaving almost everything to good causes here in Venice,” he says.
A Sarasota newspaper dubbed Nelda Thompson the “Queen of Manasota Key” after seeing her name on real estate signs up and down the barrier island south of Venice. But Thompson doesn’t advertise her philanthropy, often working behind the scenes to fund initiatives for the arts and education in the Englewood area, where she has lived since 1969.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Thompson says her great-grandfather, grandfather and father all ran newspapers in small towns in the Panhandle. The family’s community service left a mark on the young girl, who used to help run the press and bag newspapers.
At 80, she’s scaled back her real estate work, but retirement is nowhere on the horizon because she uses her income to fund charitable causes. She has donated thousands to The Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key, but she says her biggest contribution was finding the right volunteer to help repair the deteriorating buildings there in the early 2000s. She persuaded Tom Dignam, an Englewood power player, to lead efforts to transform the former boarding house and nudist resort into a world-class retreat for some of the country’s leading mid-career artists.
“That was the best gift I could give to The Hermitage,” Thompson says.
Thompson is famous for persuading her well-heeled neighbors to open their wallets for causes ranging from the former Venice Hospital Foundation to the arts, including the symphony, ballet and opera in Sarasota.
She has no patience for those who say they contribute to causes “back home.” One friend declined to contribute to the local hospital foundation because he gave money to a hospital “up North.”
“I said, ‘That’s great, but I hope you have that heart attack you’re going to have one day in Chicago, because if you have it down here we may not be able to take care of you.’ The next week, I got my thousand dollars!” she says with a laugh.
For Don Fisher, decades of charity work have been focused on “the kids,” as he calls the Suncoast Foundation for Handicapped Children.
In 1985, shortly after moving to Venice, he was one of the founders of the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix and the Suncoast Foundation, which provides rent-free facilities to nonprofits that serve special needs children on campuses in Venice, Sarasota and North Port. Over the years, the foundation has built 25,000 square feet of buildings, and the charities that operate out of those buildings serve 8,000 children and adults with disabilities.
“My thing is trying to help disadvantaged kids and kids with disabilities because I feel that they need the most support,” says Fisher, 75, who is retired from the restaurant business.
About a decade ago, when the future of the boat races and Thunder by the Bay—another fund raiser for the Suncoast Foundation—was in doubt, he and a friend cooked up the Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash at the Venice Airport. The popular festival helps ensure that the foundation’s legacy buildings are maintained.
Early on, people told Fisher they didn’t think the event’s formula would work. They told him the same thing about the boat races 32 years ago.
“I’m of German ancestry, so I’m pretty pig-headed,” Fisher says. “I felt it would work.”
The April BBQ bash drew nearly 20,000 people last year. This April 21, three of the nation’s top bluegrass bands will play, and thousands will show up to sample world-class barbecue, eat chili and drink beer.
Fisher’s other passion is pet therapy. He and Lucky, a black Labrador retriever, have made 2,500 visits to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. They were the first canine team to visit the children’s oncology unit. Fisher tears up as he describes how just cuddling with the dog can make a young patient’s face “light up like a Christmas tree.” One mother told him, “Thank you. That’s the first time in six months my daughter has smiled.” You can’t measure a reward like that, he says.
Become a Super Hero
Our region has numerous organizations that need your help. Find the cause—and job—that’s right for you.
Attend Venice Magazine’s GeneroCITY, a showcase bringing guests face to face with a diverse range of nonprofit leaders, Jan. 16 at the SKY Family YMCA. Visit sarasotamagazine.com/generocity2018 for tickets and info. Also: Sarasota County Volunteer Match, Community Foundation of Sarasota, Gulfcoast Community Foundation