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Issue 648

07/11/2013 at 5:10pm

A Seahorse DreamA Seahorse Dream

It's always a pleasure to listen to someone speak passionately about helping others. In our town, one can have this experience on any given day, as we are a community of givers. We are always finding creative and fun ways to contribute to good causes, with many of us concentrating our efforts in support of local needs. If you know or have children in Southwest Florida, then you have probably donated time, money or goods to those organizations that serve them specifically, and there are many.

There is one effort that could arguably benefit just about any child in this and several neighboring counties, and that is the drive to raise construction funds for the new Golisano Children's Hospital at the Lee Memorial HealthPark campus.

There are several organizations working in conjunction with the Lee Memorial Health System (LMHS) Foundation to help raise the nearly $300 million in construction costs needed to bring about the facility's completion by 2016. One standout group contributing to this goal has dubbed their project 'A Seahorse Dream'. We had the opportunity to chat with Roger and Irma Spencer, two of the originators of this special fundraising idea. A good friend of the Spencer's, Jim Sherman, also working as a volunteer with the group, joined the conversation.

Irma, with an easy, open manner and a ready smile, explains how 'A Seahorse Dream' came to be.

"I belong to a women's group called Montage," a local women's club founded three years ago that has monthly programs, field trips, social gatherings and raises money for local charities. There are about 125 members - women from all over the country and the world, representing many different cultures and lifestyles - a veritable montage of women.

"Last year, the club sponsored a tour of the children's hospital at HealthPark," Irma recounts.Two other Montage members and their husbands - Joyce and Jack Thomas, and Paula and David Eberhart - joined Irma and her husband Roger that day. Dr. Emad Salman, Medical Director of Hematology/Oncology at the children's hospital, was their tour guide.

"When you listen to a man like that talk, and hear and see the passion he has to take care of those kids..." Roger says to explain what had touched him so deeply that day. "Then you see how the 'children's hospital' is spread out all around HealthPark.You hear the doctors and nurses talk about (the inherent difficulty in) that, and you see how it is... it's very obvious that it needs to get better."

With Roger and Irma settled in "their" corner booth at Bennett's Fresh Roast Cafe, and Jim sitting across from them, they all begin to talk about what is perhaps the most compelling reason for each of them wanting to make sure this new facility is built. Most people know or have heard about a family dealing with a catastrophic childhood affliction. From the first diagnosis until a successful recovery - or a heartbreaking loss - the desperate prayers, the gazillion questions and fears, the reams of insurance forms, the hours of waiting, the agony of watching their suffering child, the mounting bills - the parents of these sick kids must also carry on with the rest of everyday life. If the child requires long hospitalization and special treatments, there is a good chance they will have to go either to Miami or Tampa/St. Petersburg. There is a lot of driving, a lot of hotel nights, a lot of restaurant food, a lot of missed work, missed school, and a whole lot of added expenses. Says Roger, "It makes you want to do something about it."

The couples got together with some other friends not long after the hospital tour, and soon the conversation was centered on ways they might be able to help make the new hospital a reality. Irma, Joyce, Paula and Jackie (Sherman) dreamed up a way to do more than raise money, but to give the community something to enjoy as well. 'A Seahorse Dream was born.

Their husbands - Roger, Jack, David and Jim - quickly got involved. "The women came up with the idea," Roger acknowledges, "and asked us if we could put the project into a format that we could make work.That's where Jack and I came in, because we both have business backgrounds." Jim spent most of his professional life in corporate communications, and is handling publicity for A Seahorse Dream. "It's an easy cause to buy into," Jim says. "We are a group of retired people living in Florida and enjoying life. We're trying to do something meaningful."

'A Seahorse Dream' is a public art project created to raise money for the construction of the Golisano Children's Hospital. Three and five-foot tall polyresin seahorse statues will be painted by 20 artists selected by the sponsors of the statues, then displayed throughout Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties through early next year. They hope to have 50 sponsored seahorses sold by March of 2014.

After a lot of legwork and research, Roger and Jim came up with a project plan that is now in full swing."The six of us have been going around talking with whoever will give us ten minutes of their time," Roger tells us. "It can be frustrating at times, but then it's so rewarding when you get a corporate sponsor like Chico's to sponsor two $5000 seahorses. It makes all the work worthwhile. Still," he adds, "it's a challenge. People are approached for contributions to very worthwhile causes all the time. You have to get in front of that and let them know why this is so important. What we're doing is helping, along with many other organizations, to get this hospital built."

The overall goal is to raise $100,000 through sponsorships and donations of any amount. Both the Montage Club, as well as the men's group Saints and Sinners, to which Roger, Jim and most of the other husbands in this group belong, have each already sponsored a seahorse, and the six founding members of the project got together and bought a sponsorship themselves. The folks in Roger and Irma's high-rise community have together donated $17,000 for the cause. Jim relates a story about a nine-year-old girl who learned of the project, and asked that donations be made to 'A Seahorse Dream' in lieu of birthday presents this year. And Irma shares a story about Helen, a 90-something-year-old volunteer at Blessed Pope John's thrift store who has already sent three different checks to the LMHS Foundation. She adds, "They are handling all the finances. All checks are made out to the LMHS Foundation, and they send an acknowledgement and thank you for every check they receive."

Yesterday afternoon, the first twenty, 90-pound, 5-foot tall seahorses were delivered in downtown Fort Myers to selected artists. "We had put out a call for artists, and many sent in examples of their work," Irma explains. "The seahorse sponsors then selected the artist of their choice - they got to choose which artist would paint their seahorse."

'A Seahorse Dream' will present an Artists Showcase at Harborside Event Center on November 20th, which will give the public the opportunity to see all the finished seahorses, and to meet the artists and the sponsors. The following week, on November 28th, in conjunction with the Fort Myers Christmas Walk and the Holiday Tree Show at the Berne Davis Center, the seahorses will be on display at Harborside.Irma emphasizes that the people at Harborside and Sharon McAllister of ArtFest have been extremely accommodating.

On March 7, 2014, at a gala dinner at the Sanibel Harbor Resort, 20 selected statues will be auctioned.Each seahorse will have a plaque with the names of its artist and sponsor on it. "We would be thrilled if a sponsor had a school art class paint their seahorse to include at the gala auction," Roger says, and Irma and Jim enthusiastically agree. It is, at the end of the day, all about the kids for these dedicated folks, and making 'A Seahorse Dream' come true.

Jo List