Building a More Equitable Sarasota With Philanthropy & Mentoring

Categories: BELONGING AND CULTURE: Cultural Development & the Arts, Donors, Philanthropy, Donor Story,

Tom and Carol Beeler believe to invest in a more equitable community means more than just making charitable gifts. It means getting involved in the lives of young people who otherwise may struggle to achieve success.

Longtime patrons of the arts and education, the Beelers quite naturally gravitated to Sarasota with its vast array of arts offerings and multiple institutions of higher learning, when they approached retirement. But as they became more familiar with the community, they observed cultural and educational opportunities were beyond the reach of many youth and their families, especially minorities.

This observation inspired their philanthropic drive to fund educational programs that help low-income students, with 50 percent of their funding directed to people who are racial minorities. The programs the Beelers support incorporate a diversity, equity, and inclusion philosophy paired with developing life skills.

“We want to make a difference,” Tom says. “We want the kids in Newtown and other lower income areas to have the opportunity to go to college and to partake in the arts.”

Providing scholarships and grants that enable students to develop their potential is a common way to address economic and educational disparities. But the Beelers have taken a step beyond typical philanthropy. By becoming involved in the lives of the students they assist, Tom and Carol develop personal relationships that grow over the years, resembling a family relationship: attending students’ school events, taking them to arts performances, or inviting them to their home for dinner.

“The money does make a difference,” Carol says. “It enables them to sign up for a Circus Arts program or a State College of Florida degree. But what we found is that whenever we sponsor a student, when we ask what they need from us, it always goes beyond money for their education. One girl said, ‘I’m so shy. I need to build up my confidence.’ I said to her, ‘We are going to go to this event and you watch me and do what I do.’ I would extend my hand to someone and say, ‘Hello, I’m Carol Beeler. I don’t think I know you.’ She would shrink back.”

But the young woman caught on. Now she is a senior at USF, teaching classes to younger students. “She is so confident. She wants to be a teacher,” Carol says. “Her mother says she can’t believe the change.”

Over the past decade, the Beelers have helped a dozen students, known as Beeler Scholars, pursue their dreams at institutions including Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training and the State College of Florida Music Excellence Program. Most who have graduated from college still keep in touch. The newest Beeler Scholar is graduating from State College of Florida this year and recently phoned the Beelers for advice on where he should continue his studies in education and music.

The Beelers plan to continue sponsoring and mentoring students as long as they are able, but they also want to assure that their efforts don’t end when they pass away. While refining their estate plan, an advisor at Northern Trust introduced them to Betsy Pennewill, Corporate Counsel for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, who helped the couple draft legal documents to carry their philanthropic goals well into the future. The Community Foundation also helped them identify nonprofits whose work dovetails with their mission.

In addition to their legacy plan, the Beelers rely on their Donor Advised Fund at the Community Foundation to support local organizations’ arts and education programs such as summer camps at Circus Arts and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Their Future Fund at the Community Foundation will benefit the Booker High School Promise, Circus Arts Conservatory, New College of Florida, University of South Florida - Sarasota- Manatee, and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe after the Beelers pass away. A similar fund at Gulf Coast Community Foundation will support programs at Florida Studio Theatre, Ringling College of Art and Design, State College of Florida, and Visible Men Academy.

“Future funds allow for innovative solutions to develop over decades, not just weeks and years,” says Pennewill. “By strategically thinking about their legacy, the Beelers are entrusting us with their vision for a brighter future, giving our community the means necessary to truly make a difference. These are timeless gifts to the next generation.”

Through philanthropy, the Beelers are ensuring that their values and commitment to young people continue to launch careers long into the future by connecting with other organizations, schools, and colleges. To foster that, they are funding and developing the Beeler Scholars IDEIL (Incorporate Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Leadership) Program at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Campus, with matching funds from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County alongside Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

The program will unite the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion paired with life skills learning through an arts-integrated, academic teaching. Their long-term vision is to improve the lives of low-income students and accelerate integration and equality. Currently, an online course is being developed and pilot-tested, and upon completion will be offered to arts organizations, colleges, and schools to enhance career development and student futures.

The Beelers welcome the participation of others in their ongoing effort to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Sarasota through philanthropy and mentoring.

“We continually tell friends and contacts, ‘You don’t really need big bucks. You just need interest and time,’” Tom says. “It’s time that’s so valuable and that makes a difference.”

Editor’s Note: Tom Beeler passed peacefully May 10, 2021.