Women’s Giving Circle meets community needs

Nov 17, 2023
Sharon Lyles, left, Central Florida Diaper Bank founder and executive director, gives a tour to members of the Women’s Philanthropic Giving Circle — Lynda Dennis, Margaret Curran and Kimberlee Riley, Foundation of Central Florida president . The bank was ultimately chosen as a grant recipient. (COURTESY)

ORLANDO  |  Samaritan Village, Central Florida Diaper Bank, Pregnancy Center of Sanford, and Harbor House all have one thing in common. The charitable organizations all received grants from the new Women’s Philanthropic Giving Circle.

The Catholic Foundation of Central Florida (CFOCF) initiated the circle one year ago. Women with hearts for outreach came together “to form a group who could address community needs in Central Florida in a collective, engaged and faith-filled manner,” according to Kimberlee Riley, president and CEO of CFOCF.

“As is typical for giving circles, we wanted the initiative to be member-led. Our membership exceeded our expectations,” she noted, grateful for the committed response.

The Women’s Philanthropic Giving Circle is a labor of love and passion project of Catholic Foundation board member Lori Tolland, a parishioner of Prince of Peace in Ormond Beach who serves as founding chairwoman. Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary Sister Maria Teresa Acosta serves as spiritual advisor.

“The members are very involved in their parishes, and want to grow spiritually by doing beautiful works of charity, providing financial support for different charitable outreaches in our community,” Sister Acosta said. “(This desire comes from) the foundation of the love of God and neighbor. They want to grow in their relationship with God. Together as a circle, my role is to help them grow in holiness.”

As the women came together, Sister Acosta said all felt a special presence of Mary. Just as Our Lady of the Visitation went out in haste to visit and help her cousin Elizabeth, Sister Acosta believes this group “is extending the missionary work of Mary” in the Diocese of Orlando’s nine counties. The organization’s mission states, “Taking inspiration from Mary, mother of our Savior, we proclaim ‘Yes’ to God’s call to active works of charity as witnesses of faith and hope. … These are Catholic women who want to express their faith by giving and being. The goal is to grow in union with God, Jesus, and Mary.”

In less than a year, the circle of 32 founding members raised $15,250 in funds donated to vetted non-profit organizations whose mission aligns with those of the Catholic Church. Of 20 grant applications submitted, the members narrowed the selections, and visited sites to be considered.

At its inaugural Grant Attendee Celebration sponsored by Certified Financial Group, Inc., the circle distributed grants to four organizations. Samaritan Village received a $5,000 grant for its Hope and Healing in the Village Program. Central Florida Diaper Bank received a $5,000 grant for its Diaper Distribution and Parent Educational Workshop Program expansion into Lake City. The Pregnancy Center of Sanford received a $3,250 grant for its Out of the Valley: Intentional Healing from Post-Abortion Grief Program. Harbor House of Central Florida received $2,000 for its Emergency Shelter Food Pantry Program.

Sharon Lyles, founder and executive director of Central Florida Diaper Bank, said the award will help 45 households by educating parents and distributing diapers and other essentials including hygiene products for babies and moms. Together with its many partners, the bank provides diapers for 17,000 babies per month.

“Diapers are the core of what we do, but when you get the families in here you find out they need other things, too,” Lyles said.

Lyles appreciated the circle particularly because of the thorough selection process. “They came out to see who we were and what we do. They weren’t just a donor that wanted to write us a check based on something they saw on paper,” she said. “They wanted to get a feel for who we are. The fact they get our passion and what we do and they’re not just writing a check to us, but want to be a part of it, see who they were investing in, meant a lot to me.”

The diaper bank started in 1995, by beginning in small churches and assisting teen mothers. MiaSarah is one of those mothers grateful for the organization. She first reached out thinking it was a volunteer service. With spare time after being laid off, she wanted to give back to her community. Pregnant with her second child, she discovered, if she committed to a one-hour parent education Zoom class per week, offered in English and Spanish, she would receive diapers for her newborn.

“It’s been awesome. The educational topics alone have helped,” she said. From topics of domestic abuse, to breast feeding, and information on local resources, Central Florida Diaper Bank classes nurture parents.

MiaSarah picks up diapers for her 9-month-old son from the Central Florida Diaper Bank.

After learning about community resources, MiaSarah was even able to get free swimming lessons for her eldest daughter. MiaSarah also volunteers at several bank events.

“Everyone at the diaper bank is so sweet and supportive. They are always willing to give a helping hand. And of course, the diapers are a good benefit,” she said. “I think it’s beautiful that the women give back to the community. A lot of times moms feel lonely, and they have no one to talk to. Groups like this give us a chance to get to know each other.”

Danielle Pierson is the executive director of Samaritan Village, a place where victims of human trafficking can find a safe shelter, hope, and healing. In 2022, the organization helped 19 women. They have 15 beds and three safe homes. The goal is to help them heal and find hope for a successful transition within 12 to 18 months.

“It’s important for us to have women who support our ministry and provide their immense generosity to continue to drive our ministry forward,” she said. “They truly bless the women (at Samaritan Village) with an opportunity to receive some renewing, therapeutic support. It’s just the power of women helping one another.”

Although these four award recipients are women’s organizations, the circle does not limit its consideration to strictly women-run agencies. Next year it hopes to look into other societal issues such as homelessness.

Lynda Dennis is an executive committee member for the circle and one of the initial founders. The Annunciation parishioner visited several sites and was particularly moved by Samaritan Village.

“It just breaks your heart. We live in this bubble and my eyes were so opened when we went to The Samaritan Village,” she said. “I learned of the statistics for human trafficking in central Florida and around the country and how broad human trafficking is.”

Her personal goal for next year is to grow the organization and seek out younger members. “The more members we have, the more money we can give out.”

If interested in membership, contact Madelyn Weed at 407-246-7188 or mweed@cfocf.org.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, November 17, 2023