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scholarpage1imgIt’s human nature to wonder what former classmates and colleagues, friends and first loves are doing these days. We’re curious if they married so-and-so, fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a doctor or teacher, and, let’s be honest, have they changed?

Social media lets us fill in the gaps, reconnect and follow their lives.

Recently at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation we’ve begun following the lives and successes of the people impacted by our programs. One of our biggest thrills is seeing scholarship recipients earn post-secondary college degrees and certifications and sharing their success stories with our community.

The foundation administers 88 scholarship-related funds and last year distributed $700,000 in new and multi-year awards to the freshman class of 2016, current college students and adults returning to the classroom. These funds have been established by community patrons who realize post-secondary education is an investment in the community.

“Scholarships have the power to shape someone’s future,” said Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. “The beautiful thing about our scholarship programs is that the donors understand the importance of launching a student on a career path. They tell us, ‘I want to help a student pursue their goals and dreams even if I never meet them.’”

The community foundation has awarded $2.75 million in scholarships during just the last five years, providing financial assistance to students like 2016 Dunbar High graduate Nahisha Alabre, just wrapping up her freshman year at Cornell University. Receiving scholarship money was “a blessing upon me and my family,” said Ms. Alabre.

A scholarship is just the beginning of the community foundation’s connection with students. Like proud parents, we walk with them every step of the way, supporting and cheering them on, celebrating college and technical college graduation and the next big step to a career. We’ve seen many scholarship students change their community and the world, becoming engineers, artists, scientists, teachers, advocates and leaders.

Sharing the successes of nine present and former scholarship recipients shows how scholarships have opened a world of opportunity for thousands of Southwest Florida students. These students and young professionals have realized their dreams, including a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon, an Emmy Award-winning manager at NBC Sports, and a chief financial officer for a Texas gas and oil company. Others are working right here in Southwest Florida, including the assistant head of school at Montessori School of Fort Myers, an assistant district attorney, and the 2008 Miss Florida who now mentors young women through her church and runs a home-based business.

The Power of Believing

Scholarships permanently entwine the lives of donor and recipient.

“Someone believed in me and really wanted me to succeed,” said Jessica Williams, the recipient of the 2011 Paul & Aline Flynn Scholarship established by the community
foundation’s former CEO and his wife Aline Flynn. “I want to thank them for giving me a chance to become who I could be. Someone who I had never met wanted to invest in me. That kept me going.”

As a first-generation college graduate, Ms. Williams said her bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Gulf Coast University is “my family’s degree. They are so proud of me.” She is now working on her master’s at the University of Vermont where she received a full-ride scholarship.

Christopher Howland received the first Flynn scholarship in 2008, following the career path of Mr. Flynn who started in sports journalism and later became president of USA Today. Mr. Howland landed a job at NBC Sports soon after graduating from Florida State University and
received a 2016 Emmy for digital innovation. He’s nominated for two 2017 awards and was recently promoted to manager of sales integration, responsible for the custom commercial advertisements users see when streaming live events.

“What the Flynns did is admirable, giving kids like me an opportunity,” he said. “I know Mr. Flynn was a major player in sports journalism. I would love to have met him. I would ask for career advice and what he would do in my shoes to continue to advance.”

Scholarships for Every Scenario

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation awards annual scholarships to students who meet a variety of criteria established by donors – from simply living in the five-county region and demonstrating a financial need to those following a certain career path or attending a donor’s alma mater.

Ms. Alabre was identified in middle school as a candidate for the Jo Anne Olmsted and John F. and Mary W. Hotchkiss scholarships which the community foundation provides to the Foundation for Lee County Schools to administer. The scholarships were created in 2005 from $2 million in gifts to the community foundation and require recipients maintain good grades and stay drug and crime-free through middle and high school.

Ms. Alabre, who lights up the room with her megawatt smile, was selected by her teachers and mentored through the school foundation’s Take Stock in Children program. She also received the Dunbar Heritage Scholarship and is grateful to the donors who gave her an early start.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now, doing what I’m doing,” she said. “The scholarships were important because I knew my parents couldn’t afford college. I don’t have the stress about where the money is coming from and if I’m coming back next semester. There are kids who couldn’t come back.”

A Dunbar track standout and Lee County’s fastest woman in 2016, Ms. Alabre was also recruited for the Cornell track team. She’s majoring in human development, minoring in business and plans to pursue sports psychology in graduate school. She’ll then return to Dunbar and give back to the community she credits with supporting and guiding her to success.

“I don’t quit,” she said. “I want to lead by example and give back to the community that built the Nahisha Alabre you see today. I have a big heart and once I put that in
there, boy, boy, boy. Things get rolling and magic happens.”

Multiyear Awards Shape a Doctor and a Scientist

Erin Gillaspie and Lee Visone received money for college from the John M. and Mary A. Shanley fund, a fouryear scholarship. It helped Dr. Gillaspie realize a lifelong dream of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Ms. Gillaspie was a unique candidate for scholarship – at 18 she had already achieved her high school diploma and her first college degree.

“I knew I wanted to do this since I was a little 13-year old in oversized scrubs sitting in the operating room watching my first case,” said, Ms. Gillaspie, who recently completed a fellowship in surgical training at the Mayo Clinic and is an assistant professor in thoracic surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “I’ll never forget my first day as an attending walking into my office knowing I accomplished this because of people like the Shanleys. I remember the day I interviewed with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation for the scholarship. Everyone was kind, compassionate and excited for me.”

The Shanley scholarship funds supplemented money Mr. Visone received through the GI Bill after serving a four-year tour in Iraq. The Marine veteran graduated with honors from the University of Florida in microbiology and is now a senior-level patent examiner for the federal government.

“This scholarship helped me achieve a lot of things in life,” he said. “I’d like the donors to know their money went to a great cause.”

Erin Gillaspie, MD
Cardiothoracic surgeon & professor

Jessica Williams
2017 graduate with master’s degree, Univ. of Vermont

Lee Visone
Sr. Examiner, US Patent and Trademark Office

Lindsay Scott
Asst. State Attorney

Michael Dignam
Chief Financial Officer

Nahisha Alabre
Student, Cornell University

Rachel (Fox) Roberts
Asst. head of Montessori School of Fort Myers

Sierra (Minott) Jones
Former Miss Florida, mentor, entrepreneur


Guy Whitesman, Chair
Larry Hobbs, Vice Chair
Sandy Robinson, Secretary-Treasurer
Joseph Mazurkiewicz, Jr., Immediate Past Chair


Aurora Badia
Juan Bendeck
Carolyn Conant
Patricia K. Dobbins
Kevin L. Erwin
Craig Folk
Chauncey Goss
Dennie Hamilton
Hon. Archie B. Hayward, Jr.
Christopher Hill
Mike Jung
Hugh Kinsey, Jr.
Howard Leland
Alan Mandel
Gail Markham
Fred Moon
Sarah Owen
Dale Reiss
Darren Robertshaw
Robbie Roepstorff
Jonathan Romine
Gay Thompson
Karson Turner
Myra Hale Walters
Rusty Whitley

Senior AdvisoryTrustees

Marie M. Ackord
Audrea Anderson
Gary Aubuchon
Jay A. Brett
Robert da Frota
Dawn-Marie Driscoll
M. William Frey
Chris A. Gair
Sam Galloway, Jr.
Charles K. Idelson
David Lucas
Melvin Morgan
William T. Prather
John W. Sheppard
J. Tom Smoot, Jr.
Gene Solomon
A. Scott White

Return on Investment, a Return to Southwest Florida

Rachel (Fox) Roberts has found her calling at the Montessori School of Fort Myers. She said receiving the Lewis Barber Memorial Scholarship marked a life milestone. “It was the first time as an adult I made something happen for me. “I was really proud I got this money.”

Sierra (Minott) Jones received the George E. Judd Scholarship and supplemented it by getting involved with the Miss America program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. She was named Miss Florida in 2008 and competed at the national level the following year, finishing fourth in Miss America.

“Because of the scholarship money, I completed my education debt-free,” said Mrs. Jones, who earned a master’s in seminary and returned to Fort Myers where she and her husband are raising a family.

Lindsay Scott gives a voice to victims of domestic abuse as an assistant district attorney with the 20th Judicial Circuit, a career inspired by watching “Law and Order” as a child.

Ms. Scott credits guidance counselors from Fort Myers High School for providing lists of available scholarship money. “It was a proud moment for my family when I found out I received the Sam Sirianni Athletic Scholarship.”

Paying it Forward

Michael Dignam, the CFO of an oil and gas company in Corpus Christi, Texas, received numerous scholarship awards including the 2006 Sam Sirianni Athletic Scholarship and the Southwest Florida PGA Scholarship 2006. “He was recruited to play golf at Vanderbilt University where he majored in economics and Spanish.

“I reached out for any scholarship I could to take the financial burden off my family,” he said. “The scholarship donors were very helpful to a young person trying not to take on a ton of debt while going to college.”

Mr. Dignam plans to one day pay it forward by getting involved with organizations like the community foundation. “Scholarships so thoughtfully provided by donors who are no longer here continue to give,” said Mrs. Owen. “They have created a ripple effect in the community by impacting these students’ lives who in turn impact our community and the world. There’s an exponential return on donors’ generosity.”

“I’m starting to ask myself how I can help young people trying to follow the same path I followed … I want to repay the favor I was given.”
— Michael Dignam
CFO of a Texas oil and gas company
Corpus Christi, TX

Multiple-year Scholarships Becoming the New Norm

Scholarships and post-secondary education have the power to change lives for high school seniors and the growing numbers of nontraditional students returning to the classroom to finish degree or certification requirements or completely change careers.

As a result, multi year scholarships that follow a student through college or technical school have become mission critical, according to Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

“Getting a scholarship for freshman year or the first year for nontraditional students is the beginning of the story,” she said. “Getting it done is equally important as getting in.”

The community foundation is working with donors to establish multiyear awards and is walking alongside students throughout their degree or certification attainment.

“We’re having different conversations about scholarships,” Mrs. Owen said. “We have to take a new approach because things have changed. College students aren’t necessarily high school seniors nor do they complete their degrees in four years. The new norm is six years and a large percentage of students are now nontraditional students who need a different support system.”

Two local professionals understand the importance of renewable scholarships. Gail Markham, founding partner of Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. P.A. with offices in Fort Myers and Naples, received five four year scholarships while attending the University of Maryland. To this day, she credits the kindness of others for changing her life.

As the first generation in his family to attend college, Christopher Hill qualified for scholarship money during his years at Barry University in Miami. Now a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors and the vice chairman of the community foundation’s scholarship committee, Mr. Hill worked a number of full-time jobs to supplement expenses not covered.

“I was lucky,” he said. “Some students have more barriers than I did.”

Ms. Markham established an endowed scholarship fund at the community foundation in 2013, making it available to girls in the five-county region who demonstrate financial need and have a minimum 3.0 grade point average. It’s renewed annually up to four years.

“I didn’t want too many restrictions,” she said. “I just want girls to go to college. That’s how I broke out of my previous world. Education was everything for me.”

The community foundation offers 88 different scholarship funds, each fulfilling a variety of scenarios. Some are broad-scoped like Ms. Markham’s. Others are more specific, awarded to students following a certain career path or attending a donor’s alma mater, for example. Some scholarships even identify students as early as sixth grade.

The foundation is a partner and the anchor organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition. The Coalition is dedicated to removing the barriers to degree and certificate attainment, recognizing some scholarships awarded by colleges and
universities can be restrictive. ( Money can’t be applied to summer housing, food or living expenses such as gas, transportation or even a warmer wardrobe for Florida students attending a northern school. Some financial awards may even prohibit a student from working to ensure they adapt to academic life.

As part of its communication with current students, the foundation connects through students’ LinkedIn accounts. It’s also looking into creating an emergency fund to help students facing potential drop-out crises, Mrs. Owen said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 60 percent of students who were freshmen at a four-year institution in 2008 had graduated by 2014.

“Numerous studies appear to show that little things can keep people from
graduating,” Mr. Hill said. “They might get sick or their car breaks down. An
unexpected $100 expense could mean the difference in completing a semester.

“I really appreciated the scholarship opportunity I was given,” he added. “I’m proud to help other kids who might be in the same situation.”

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation provides a number of creative ways to establish scholarship funds. Donors can establish them in memory of a loved one, a favorite school or alma mater or specific subject, and also request donations be made to their funds in lieu of birthday gifts or to commemorate other milestones.

— Interested in establishing a multiyear scholarship? Contact Carolyn Rogers at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation at 239-274-5900, email [email protected] com or visit us at 8771 College Parkway, Building 2, Suite 201 in Fort Myers. More information can also be found online at

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Southwest Florida Community Foundation
Southwest Florida Community Foundation

Our ambition is a more vibrant community that will continually address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties in Southwest Florida. We invite you to join our family and invest in the community with us!