Friday, October 22, 2021

Grace Place Launches West Side Challenge

Submitted | Main Campus Rendering

Submitted | Main Campus Rendering

By Maureen Chodaba

Grace can be defined as a state of regeneration and betterment bestowed with divine assistance upon those in need. Grace Place for Children and Families is a place where this bestowal of blessings can be witnessed on a daily basis. Started in 2004, this non-profit education center in Golden Gate is dedicated to putting faith into action to provide pathways out of poverty for children and their families. Although it is a faith-based organization partially housed in a former Methodist Church, Grace Place is completely non-denominational and does not proselytize. Nationally recognized by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Grace Place currently enrolls over 800 people with programs for early childhood, school age, and adult education. In addition, over 250 families are supported through the Friday Food Pantry each week. Grace Place provides these services, not through “handouts,” but by helping others to learn to help themselves and to give back in return.

The west side of this five-acre campus is currently under new construction and expansion in efforts to support more people, more efficiently and more effectively. A very generous Marco Island family, who wishes to remain anonymous, has offered $875,000 in a matching gift “West Side Challenge” for the completion of the new buildings.

Tim Ferguson, Chief Executive Officer of Grace Place said, “The West Side Challenge is not just about completing the buildings. It’s about supporting our children and families. Thirty-five percent of Grace Place families have less than a fifth grade education. We work with the parents and integrate them into the learning. Children taught at Grace Place at an early age gain social skills, achieve better grades when they attend school and have fewer behavioral problems.” Ferguson went on to say “Computer literacy helps our adult education students find employment and advance their careers. Grace Place is a cradle to career model that helps break the chains of poverty through a multi-generational comprehensive program.”

To fully understand the challenges, mission and vision of Grace Place, one must learn a bit about the people of Golden Gate. This community has the highest density of children at risk and most underserved in all of Collier County. For 99% of the students, English is not the primary language spoken at home. Ninety percent of the school age children are from households identified as “economically needy.” Sixty-three percent of the elementary students read below their grade level.

Keep in mind that Golden Gate is located a mere 15 miles from Marco Island.

Barbara Evans, Chief Development Officer of Grace Place, is passionate about the educational programs that are offered at Grace Place. Referring to the very generous donor family from Marco Island, she said “While they wish to remain anonymous, what I can tell you is that this family began supporting the Friday Food Pantry at Grace Place in 2011 and continued their support annually. Then in 2016, they surprised us with this major gift to support family literacy programs.”

Those programs start with Bright Beginnings, Grace Place’s program that incorporates PACT (Parent and Child Together). The parental portion of the program is focused to cultivate confidence, capability and literacy for parents so they can guide their children through the crucial years of early development. The early childhood education portion helps prepare the children for kindergarten ensuring that they are ready to learn.

Evans shared a fond recollection of a child and his Mom who participated in the Bright Beginnings program. The child went on to kindergarten with a readiness and enthusiasm to learn, while Mom went on to start her own cleaning business. She now hires other mothers from the Bright Beginnings program.

The Academy of Leaders program supports students in grades K-12. Its goal is to improve student achievement in academic subjects, to encourage the

Barbara Wilson (left) and Barbara Evans show off the students’ gardening project.

Barbara Wilson (left) and Barbara Evans show off the students’ gardening project.

development of leadership skills and to help students achieve computer skills that are so necessary for college and future careers. The program provides tutoring, learning activities and enrichment programs of music, art, physical exercise, and even gardening.

The AP Leadership program supports high school students through leadership development, service learning, college preparation and mentorship. Tim Ferguson proudly said, “Our AP leaders achieve a 100% high school graduation rate.”

Mentoring is perhaps the most crucial of these activities and serves as the unique signature of Grace Place. One requirement for enrollment at Grace Place is the obligation for participants to give back, particularly in the activity of mentoring. The older students give back by mentoring younger children. It is this interactive exchange of talent and knowledge that sets Grace Place apart from other organizations.

Giving, receiving and then giving back. That is what breaks the cycle of poverty and creates a new cycle of success.

Grace Place’s dedication to education doesn’t end with high school students. The Adult Education program offers courses in English as a Second Language. Computers equipped with the Rosetta Stone language software are a key resource. Courses in Financial Literacy and Citizenship are also offered.

Strong mental development through education is only successful if the human body is healthy and nourished. The Friday Food Pantry began as a temporary program in 2008. It was found that some students at Grace Place were not eating their provided snacks. They were saving the food to bring home to feed their families. Today the Friday Food Pantry is the largest distribution center for the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Collier County. Many individuals and groups support the pantry with donations and food drives. Collier Harvest, Naples Harvest and Meals of Hope contribute significantly to the cause. Panera Bread and Empire Bagels are ongoing donors to the pantry.

Marco Island is known for its spirit of generosity and dedication to humanity. Although it is only a short ride from the island to Grace Place, it can feel as if it is a world away. That is, until you see the faces of so many of our neighbors who give their time and talents to help others. Rod Bucklin has volunteered at the Friday Food Pantry since 2008, while his wife Jeanne volunteers her time teaching adults to read and write in English. Hal Milkey, Robert Stried and Art Winterhalter; all of Marco Island, enjoy helping out at the food pantry. Arthur Smith of nearby Verona Walk volunteers in the Adult Education program. Dave Tobiasz of Marco Island serves as CFO for Grace Place, while Bob Furek is the Immediate Past Chair and current member of the Board of Directors.

Upon visiting Grace Place, we are reminded that no one of us is really all that different from those who are enrolled in the programs. Barbara Evans told a story of a friend who had been gainfully employed and was suddenly found without a job. That friend needed the food pantry to help feed her family.

The world is ever changing and life is unpredictable. I think we can all agree on that. Perhaps by putting faith into action, we can see that we are all connected. Perhaps we can all join hands in making the world a place of grace.

Grace Place has set a goal to complete the West Side Challenge campaign by March 31, 2017. “We are confident that the community will step up to the challenge so we can continue to support our growing number of children and families who are so committed to improving their lives through education,” says a hopeful Tim Ferguson.

If you would like to step up to the challenge and help in doubling the impact of this generous matching gift, please contact Barbara Evans at 239-234-2403 or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *