The couple builds their passion for helping foster children.
Some give back because it makes them feel good. Others have a burning desire, passion and purpose for a certain cause.
Graci McGillicuddy is the latter, and after watching her continue to add fuel to the fire of her passion, her husband, Dennis McGillicuddy, is adding his own fuel.
Graci’s need to help abused children first began in 1986, when she read a story about Shannon Nicole, an 18-month-old baby who had
been brutally abused and killed by her mother and her stepfather, then left at the hospital. The story came out around Graci’s birthday, so instead of asking for jewelry for a birthday gift, she asked Dennis to help her make sure this didn’t happen to another baby.
Her newfound passion for helping abused children led her to start fundraising for the Child Protection Center, an organization both Graci and Dennis still support.
Soon after she started helping the nonprofit, Graci began to dream of starting her own organization to help even more abused children and heal the current foster system.
The McGillicuddys say their philanthropic efforts paraphrase the Michael Nolan quote, “There are many things that catch your eye, only a few catch your heart. Follow those.” Not only do they subscribe to this, they have used it as a guiding principle throughout their 65 years of marriage.
Together, the Sarasota couple has not only attended hundreds of philanthropic events, they’ve given back both financially and via hands-on efforts.
Most recently, the pair took the big step to make Graci’s dream of building a campus for foster children come true. The 5-acre campus near 17th Street and Lockwood Ridge Road will house up to 60 children who have been removed from their home for the first time, keeping siblings together.
“The vision she developed was this notion of creating a campus where children would come to a loving, nurturing environment and be enveloped in this safe haven where they can heal and become productive,” Dennis says. “She knew that the foster care system harmed far more kids than it helped.”
When completed, the campus will include six residential homes, a clinical building for treatment programs, a central park, a playground, a clubhouse, a garden and a boutique store for children’s clothing.
All Star Children’s Foundation will also be working with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to focus on the science behind child abuse. After doing research, the McGillicuddys learned early childhood trauma is one of the root causes for children going into the foster care system. Because of this research, All Star Children’s Foundation and the hospital will also work with outpatient children in foster care to develop evidence-based protocols and trauma therapies to help more children grow to become productive, healthy adults.
“We are creating a model to transform the foster care system,” Dennis says.
Graci’s passion for changing the system — and how she never stopped talking about it — is what drove Dennis to become involved as well. After one of the many talks they had about her vision, Dennis asked Graci if she had a business plan, to which she replied, “A business plan?”
Dennis jumped on board, helping his wife put her dreams into reality.
“Now Dennis has jumped into it with both feet,” Graci says.
Prior to retirement, Dennis was a multifaceted entrepreneur, which gave him the skills to own and operate a company.
But nothing prepared him for the difficult emotions that surround child abuse.
“What I didn’t know I learned firsthand — the pain and suffering that our kids go through,” he says. “That touched me so deeply, it’s now my own cause along with hers.”
Building the campus for All Star Children’s Foundation has been a labor of love, Graci says. She designed the building with tall pillars to give the children a sense of looking up to the sky, and big windows with the original trees in sight to keep it natural. Graci also thought of the idea to have community members write messages of love to the children, which will be posted on the walls of the building when they arrive.
“When I look at this building and how hard we’ve worked to get this started, the neatest thing is the guys working; you can feel the love,” Graci says.
So far, the McGillicuddys have raised $9 million of $15 million needed for their campaign. Part of the funds have come from private foundations such as the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, but they’ve also received a state grant of $2.5 million for building expenses. The pair is still reaching out to private donors to sponsor the residential homes, or even just a single brick for the project.
Dennis says he foresees the campus opening in a year, and he believes the foundation will become a national model for housing in the foster care system.
What started as a dream for Graci is becoming a reality.
After having spent many sleepless nights wondering what more she can do, she’s only getting started with her goal to eliminate child abuse.
“I want everybody to feel like they can make a difference in the lives of our children because these children have been betrayed by absolutely everybody, including the people who are supposed to be protecting them and nurturing them,” she says. “We are going to treat the children, treat the parents and make people aware that our children are treasures.”
To learn more about the center or to make a donation, visit allstarchildrensfoundation.org.