Windermere residents Avani Desai and Leslie Hartog are co-chairs of local giving circle 100 Women Strong, a Central Florida Foundation initiative.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
Helen Keller’s vision for humanity is the guiding principle of 100 Women Strong, a giving circle at the Central Florida Foundation. And at the helm of the circle are two Windermere residents: Avani Desai and Leslie Hartog.
Giving circles differ from the fundraising methods of many nonprofits in that the funds come from the circle members themselves. Each member of 100 Women Strong contributes $1,100 annually, and together, they research local source problems and devise a plan to solve them.
The goal is to find the root cause of problems local women and children are dealing with and then focus on a lasting solution. Rather than throwing money at a symptom, Hartog said, the women in the giving circle put their heads together to analyze the best possible solution.
“We vote on our area of focus and then have a research team and a grants team do the research on the root cause and the project we want to support,” said Hartog, 100 Women Strong’s co-chair. “We work with experts in the community and different nonprofits. … We’re about collaborating with the community, working with the experts and figuring out, ‘How do we fix it?’”
Hartog got involved with 100 Women Strong about two-and-one-half years ago and met her co-chair, Desai, when she joined shortly after. Hartog is the co-founder and CEO of Community Seal, and Desai is the president at Schulman & Company.
“We’re both fairly new to the organization, but when we joined the woman who had started it … had moved away from Central Florida and after that the membership had waned, so they were down to about 17 members when I joined,” Hartog said. “We got ourselves organized when I joined and Avani became my co-chair after she joined and we started doing some recruiting. Our goal is to get back up to 100 women, and we’re about up to 70. We’ve been doing a lot of growing and making sure that we have things for everyone — networking events, our award ceremonies, several teams people can join — but at our core we look for source problems in the community.”
The effect of 100 Women Strong has even trickled down through Desai’s family, she said, as her two young children are learning to be givers.
“I am a strong believer that being altruistic is not innate, but learned,” she said. “Coming home and telling my children what we did and taking them to the day cares or the good-works social shows how they can make a different in our community too. …It made me even prouder of the work we do and the impact, not only on the community, but my own family.”
CIRCLE OF SECURITY
For the last two years, 100 Women Strong has focused its efforts on early-childhood education. The project — Circle of Security — focuses on positively affecting the social and emotional development of children ages 3 to 5 who live in or come from high-risk situations.
One of the statistics that drove the group to focus on this was when it found out how many children are being expelled from preschool, Hartog said. In high-trauma areas the preschool expulsion rate is actually higher than in middle and high schools. Additionally, according to the Early Learning Coalition in Orange County, 45% of local children are not socially or emotionally ready for kindergarten.
“It’s really just how they deal with stress, and how they interact with their peers and adults in their lives is not healthy and certainly not preparing them for kindergarten,” she said. “That affects their reading scores (and eventually) graduation rates. We focused on private preschools in the Pine Hills area, because it’s considered a high-trauma area. Kids who have been through trauma, its difficult for them to be emotionally ready for school.”
The project focuses on building relationships so that a child in a teacher’s care will feel safe and secure to explore and come ready to learn. It revolves around finding the root cause of negative behavior — what the child’s needs are and how they can be met.
“The teachers have a better way of understanding the children and their needs and why they’re behaving the way they are,” Hartog said. “The environment these kids grow up in is not a very safe and secure one, so learning their ABCs is the last thing on their mind.”
As a whole, 100 Women Strong is always looking for and researching ways to help the community. Grants are awarded based on the members voting on the projects they feel are most pressing.
For Hartog and Desai, being co-chairs and keeping the circle going has been one of the most rewarding experiences. Their skill sets balance each other perfectly. While Hartog said she is more about structure and meeting the needs of the circle’s members, Desai is connected in the community and has a knack for social media, outreach and networking.
“It’s been terrific because we live close to each other, work well together and have developed a respect and friendship out of it as well,” Hartog said. “The whole leadership team has really rolled up their sleeves and jumped in and we’ve been thrilled and honored at how far we’ve come in the last year.”
Desai echoed her sentiments, adding that the two learn from each other and complement each other well.
“Leslie and I are a great team … I enjoy working on outreach, volunteerism, events, and education,” Desai said. “Leslie enjoys the grants and research, so we are able to cover all of our teams and processes together. I am lucky to have joined the leadership team with her and have learned a great deal from her background.”