Editor's Note: This article is written by Ryan G. Van Cleave and originally published by SCENE Magazine.
When Bill and Betsy Roe sold their tech-industry manufacturing company and left Minneapolis to live in Florida full-time, Betsy said, “Billy, we have been so blessed in our own lives, I don’t want our lives to be purely about recreation.” Not that there’s anything wrong with recreational activities, she explains, but rather they both felt a profound need to be actively giving back, making their new community a better place. To that end, they found the perfect partner in the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
“We came here and examined all of our options at the various foundations,” explains Bill. “The Community Foundation’s donor-advised funds really appealed to us. We discuss with them what we want from a philanthropic standpoint, and they vet all of our options before making recommendations. They do the majority of the work by guiding how we can best direct our energies into the community.”
Spend five minutes with either Bill or Betsy and it becomes clear that they’re far more interested in being hands-on in terms of their giving back than in simply writing checks. “We’ve really learned that the best way for us to contribute is with our boots on, by doing the work. We love to get into an existing system and then work under the excellent leadership that is already in place. We have great respect for the people working ‘on the ground’ who are making the greatest difference in our community.”
To begin with, for seven years now, they’ve been Guardian Ad Litems in the Twelfth Circuit, which means that they’re responsible for the oversight and care of the best interests of children who are taken from situations of parental abuse, neglect, and other challenging environments. As Guardian Ad Litems, they serve as legal representatives for these youths in most aspects of their lives, ranging from foster parents, doctors, teachers, therapists, and social workers. The Guardian program under the leadership of Toni LaTortue is an extraordinary program working with dedicated guardians, judges and caseworkers to protect children.
“We’re often the only constant in the lives of these children,” Betsy notes. Understandably, after being such an integral part of the children’s lives for a year or longer, Bill and Betsy have a hard time detaching from the children after their cases close. However, they continue to stay in touch with most of the children they serve, even after their cases close. They also continue to help the families who often still need handholding while they get their lives back together. More than once during our discussion, Bill notes that the cases are always difficult and often sad. However, there’s great reward in witnessing and being part of the process that assures that the best interests of the children are being met.
"We’ve realized that our plan is to help one child, one person, one family at a time."
Always looking at the positive, Bill says, “We’ve realized that our plan is to help one child, one person, one family at a time. The longer we have experience working in this area, the more we’re certain that we need to start this help at an early age, so that children don’t grow up repeating the same abuse and neglect in their adulthood they’ve experienced as children.”
As a result, Bill and Betsy are very interested in childhood education. To this end, they brought their interests again to the Community Foundation and were directed to Principal Steven Royce at Gocio Elementary School. They both now serve as tutors there, helping with a new program to support students to become independent readers. Betsy explains that this is an extraordinary program directed by reading specialists Tamara Ellis and Jamie Ward, where the population of children they’re serving is mostly unable to read, yet after 20 weeks in this program, they’re nearly reading at grade level.
Betsy adds, “Last fall, the beginning of this school year, it was just heartening to listen to Principal Royce be so excited about the results of the summer camp program we funded for the children at Gocio that combined both play and schooling.” The camp, referred to as MESI Camp, assures that while the children are having fun, they’re also being instructed so they do not forget all they’ve learned during the previous school year. As a result of the difference this camp made in the lives of the children and families, Bill and Betsy have agreed with Principal Royce to expand the program from kindergarten and first grade to include second grade and adding a pilot program for third grade. “The program’s growth might exceed our ability to support it,” says Bill, “but the Community Foundation’s there to help bring in others to meet Gocio’s needs. They’re terrific about creating new partnerships and bringing people together. President and CEO Roxie Jerde’s mission is inclusivity and believing wholeheartedly that many of us can do so much more than one of us, and together we can make a difference in our community.”
When I asked how they made the transition from hard-working business owners to hard-working, hands-on philanthropists, Bill shares that their long-time Minneapolis financial advisor, Ross Levin, moved to action when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. He paid for his colleagues and clients to go work in the 9th Ward, right at the start of the recovery and cleanup. Bill and Betsy joined Mr. Levin in New Orleans for two weeks. “When I started I didn’t know how to hold a hammer, but I learned to build a furnace box while Billy reroofed. This was my first real experience working with my boots on,” Betsy reports. “You’ve never seen destruction of a whole city. The smell of death was everywhere. It was an incredible experience to have people, who had had their entire lives stripped away from them, come up as strangers on the street to hug you and thank us for caring about them and helping them.”
And so they continue—with Community Foundation’s vital guidance and support—to do all they can. Bill says what he loves about Sarasota is that the city is big enough to have the big city problems, but also small enough to get your arms around and hopefully make a difference.