Style Magazine: The Giving Trees

November 15, 2020

Boy with a toy hammer
Children playing with trains together

November 15, 2020

Meeting Children’s Needs Now for Future Success

There’s a Chinese proverb that epitomizes Sarasota’s many and varied children’s nonprofits: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Some of the area’s youth-centered organizations began working decades ago and have cultivated generations of young Sarasotans into adult pillars of the community. And today, with an eye toward future healthy, happy generations, these charities continue to plant and expand.

As the world grapples with the effects of the pandemic, the work of children-centered organizations to meet the emotional, medical, practical, and educational needs of the area’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens is more important than ever.

These three local nonprofits, powered by staff, boards, volunteers, and your financial support, are performing invaluable work with children and families. This is how your dollars make a difference.


Children First has been serving southwest Florida families for nearly 60 years and Philip Tavill, now president and CEO, has been there for 25 of them. The organization was founded in 1961 by the Junior League of Sarasota as the Sarasota Day Nursery. Although the name changed in 2000, the multigenerational mission remains very much the same. “At the core, even though we are living in a much more complex world, we’re still doing what (the founders) set out to do,” said Tavill, “and that’s to help children and families living in dire economic circumstances be successful.”

That mission takes two primary forms at 15 sites throughout the county. One is early care and education for children through the age of five, which is when 90 percent of brain development occurs. It also provides family-strengthening services so that positive development continues through lifetimes and

generations. Of the 900 kids enrolled annually and more than 400 total families served each year, every single one requires some level of scholarship support. Among local contributions this year was a $10,000 scholarship grant from Suncoast Credit Union.

As the exclusive Sarasota provider of Head Start and Early Head Start services, Children First receives approximately 80 percent of its expense budget from the federal office of Head Start – on the condition that the local community donates the other 20 percent. As Tavill explained, “Every local dollar collected secures four federal dollars.”

When COVID hit and schools were closed, Children First family advocates became a lifeline for clients, delivering home learning kits, food and other supplies to families where they lived. One donor supplied $8,000 in Publix gift cards. With the current combination of global health crisis and economic impact, “our children and families are the first to get hurt, they get hurt the worst, and they’re the last to recover,” said Tavill. “While our mission has always been important, I believe the pandemic makes the mission of Children First more important than it’s ever been.”

As needs grow, the organization must expand its reach. That’s going to take more space and more operational funding to support the cost of serving even more children. Community partnerships provide some space for little or no fee, but Children First remains committed to hiring early childhood experts and paying them competitively, so that they can afford to dedicate themselves to the organization and the community. Private philanthropists have thus far made sure that all of the current 210 Children First employees have been retained on staff.

“Private philanthropic support translates into this: Many hands make light work, especially when the lifting is heavy,” said Tavill. “And it’s really heavy lifting right now.”