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What Are We Going to Do About This?

What Are We Going to Do About This?

“So Sarah, What are we going to do about this?”

For several years this was how Betty Bireley would begin every conversation with me.  Whether it was on the phone or in person she would greet me exactly the same way.  At the time of these interactions I was leading an organization that fought hunger and homelessness in Lee County and Betty would reach out to me on a regular basis to find out what was happening in our community around those issues.

Betty would literally lose sleep thinking about families who were experiencing homelessness.  She would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it and call me early the next morning.  She didn’t want to rest until she figured out a way to get the families out of the woods and into some sort of housing. With her background in real estate and generous philanthropy coupled with pure will she was certain she could design some sort of solution.

On many occasions she would join advocates for these families on trips to homeless camps in the woods to deliver blankets and food.  The trips to the camps served as reminders to her that these mothers, fathers and children were out there without a home.

Her calls to me were not just to ask how to help but also to offer up ideas such as:

– Working with Habitat for Humanity to build houses specifically for families experiencing homelessness.  Betty had been very involved in funding Habitat houses and she thought there might be a way to change the model to solve this issue
– Purchasing an abandoned camp that still housed some out buildings and small cabins that could be converted into housing
– Faxing (Betty never emailed, always faxed from a machine in her home) all of the foreclosure listings in Fort Myers each week during the height of the recession and asking me to see if there were any opportunities to purchase some of these homes
– Issuing a $100.000 challenge to local nonprofits and guaranteeing the dollars if someone would come up with an idea that made sense to her.  Trust me as the leader of a nonprofit I tried to come up with something, but none of the ideas I had were sustainable and I did not feel right about accepting the money for a short term solution.

Those are just a handful that I can remember off the top of my head.  The point is not the ideas themselves but the notion that she never stopped thinking, dreaming and imagining.  She believed with all her grit that a solution was out there and we had to find it.   If an idea didn’t work she would start researching the next one.

I remember when she heard I was changing lanes in my career and moving to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, she called right away.  For the first time ever she altered her opening line.  “So Sarah, we STILL have to figure out what to do about this.  Just because you are going to the Foundation does not mean this is going away.  Hopefully there will be more resources there and we can get something done.”

The last time I spoke to Betty she was still asking me about the families in the woods.  She reminded me they were still out there and wondered if I had figured anything out yet.  I told her no but promised as always that I would keep working at it.

Our community lost Betty recently but I will never lose sight of her vision or her voice in my head.

Betty is gone but the issue is still very much with us.  So, what are we going to do about it?

If you are interested in continuing the conversation Betty started, email me at [email protected]



Sarah Owen is president & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $88 million, the Community Foundation has provided $61.2 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $2.9 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services. It granted $782,000 in nonprofit grants including more than $400,000 in regional community impact grants and additional $450,000 in scholarship grants.

For more information about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, call 239-274-5900 or visit



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