BY RYAN G. VAN CLEAVE
Education is at the heart of Gerri Aaron’s philanthropy.
Gerri Aaron started coming down to Sarasota from Philadelphia with her husband in the 1970s. “He always rented a car,” she explains. “I’d drive him to his office, and then I’d drive around, getting to really know the area. That’s when I decided we had to come here when we retired.” And that’s exactly what they did. In 1991, they became residents—first of Longboat Key, then about 20 years ago, downtown Sarasota became home.
Aaron got involved with her new hometown right away. It started with the Arts Council, which at the time was a group of young people who fought to keep the arts in the schools. They supplied the school system with artists and musicians and worked hard to get arts funding put back in place. On her table, Aaron hast a photo of herself with other protestors, marching with “Keep Arts in Education!” signs. “It was an amazing, exciting time.”
Shortly after, she was asked to serve on the Selby Library Board. A college English major who always loved books, what could she say but “yes”? Then came other opportunities to serve as a board member. Many others. Like the Sarasota Orchestra (“I love that wonderful orchestra!”). JFCS of the Suncoast (“Such a remarkable group of people who really do good for so many!”). The American Jewish Committee (“They do wonders toward keeping people peaceful and active!”). And even a little environmental group called the Tree Foundation that’ll be celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020 (“Dr. Meg Lowman is a great scientist, a strong environmentalist, and a good friend!”).
One of Aaron’s recent philanthropic efforts is with The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which is home to 17 nonprofit health and human service agencies that help low-income and at-risk adults, children, and families.
“I’m a good friend of Betty Schoenbaum,” says Aaron, though she notes that Schoenbaum has a different approach to philanthropy. As a philanthropic leader in the community, Schoenbaum openly says she follows in her husband’s footsteps. He raised a lot of money for Glasser/Schoenbaum, and she keeps his memory and spirit alive by continuing that commitment. “My husband is the one who made the money in our family,” explains Aaron. “He was in business and did very well. While he was philanthropic, he was focused on business. I’ve always been philanthropic, too. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to help people.”
So when Aaron learned from her friend about Glasser/Schoenbaum, she was intrigued. She was already very good friends with Glasser/Schoenbaum’s former CEO Phil King, and the new President and CEO, Dr. Kameron Partridge Hodgens—who took over in October 2014—proved equally impressive. Aaron says, “Kameron’s an amazing woman. She’s doing such a good job.”
What appeals to Aaron is how all the organizations that are housed there, getting nearly rent-free space, are social services. They’re helping the community in one way or another through the nearly 100 different programs offered by the agencies.
“I’m from Philadelphia,” says Aaron, “and I’ve asked my friends there—none of them have heard of any place like this. It seems to be unique.” So Aaron felt that it was very important to help Glasser/Schoenbaum continue its important and special work. Always the fundraiser, she’s also gotten others to contribute as well.
Quite simply, education is at the heart of what matters to Aaron. In additiion to her passion for Glasser/Schoenbaum, she is quite pleased with what Children First is doing. A lot of area children need help, and she’s proud to point out that almost 90% of preschoolers in Children First’s program meet or exceed Cognition & General Knowledge school readiness goals. Plus all children in their programs receive over 50% of their weekly nutritional needs from Children First, which gives them a healthy breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack every school day. “I’m not a board member at Children First, but I’m very involved with them and the good work that they do,” says Aaron. With five kids and numerous grandchildren, she knows all about how hard it is to do an effective job of raising children.
Part of why she became a lead contributor and honorary chair of the Westcoast Black Theatre’s Heart & Soul capital campaign is their work with at-risk children. Aaron likes how Founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs works with so many young performers in the Young Artist Program. The only professional black theater company on Florida’s west coast, Jacobs and his troupe mentor and inspire many African-American youth and young adults through participation in their company. The not-yet-achieved $6 million campaign goal will transform the organization’s 2.5-acre, two-building campus at 10th Street and Orange Avenue into a state-of-the-art performing arts center, create an endowment fund for the future of the troupe, and more fully develop its education program.
Aaron is also a staunch supporter of the Neuro Challenge Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers. “This cause is very close to my heart,” she says, which comes as no surprise since her husband suffered from this disease for many years. In the past year alone, the Foundation served more than 2,000 people with Parkinson’s and their families in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, and South Pinellas counties.
A year ago, Aaron broke her femur in an accident. “Not a fall!” she notes. As a result, she’s looking to ease back on her obligations these days. It’s simply harder to get around. But she loves Sarasota—the weather, the beaches, the culture, the people. Try as she might to keep her schedule under control, her love for this community and her profound interest in helping people who need help remains firm.
“I know that my age is against me,” admits Aaron. “But I have to do what I can while I’m here. I’m hurrying. Maybe I can’t run anymore, but my mind is racing.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
on The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, please visit www.gs-humanservices.org.