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Black Tie Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 4 years ago

People with Purpose: Charlie Ann Syprett

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After leaving a career in law to help families affected by cancer, Syprett says helping others find joy is her biggest passion.
by: Heather Merriman Saba Black Tie Editor

Name: Charlie Ann Syprett

Occupation: Retired attorney

Age: 61

Years involved in Sarasota philanthropy: 18 years — She left a legal career in 1997 to devote herself to Sarasota’s cancer community full-time.

Current organizations: Sarasota Film Festival, Booker High School Foundation, Sarasota County Bar Association Diversity Committee and Sarasota Memorial Hospital Foundation

I was raised in a family with a firm Catholic faith; one of the fundamental pillars of that faith is selfless service to others. We were not rich by any means, but my father was deeply committed to helping others. I watched him participate (and, later helped in) in his company’s food drives and efforts to collect toys at Christmas time over the years.

My own first act of philanthropy occurred when I was in third grade. I, along with the neighborhood kids, went Christmas caroling, and people opened their doors and gave us money — change, really. At the end of the night, we had about $10, which was huge back then. Instead of splitting the money, I convinced the group to give the money to the church’s fund for the poor. There's no doubt this was my father’s influence.

He was such an honorable and generous man. I remember we knocked on the convent’s door across the street from where we lived, and we gave the nuns our money. It felt good to know we were helping others. I've never forgotten that night or that feeling.

In 1995, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer; shortly after, my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and my father’s prostate cancer came out of remission. Both my parents died. Less than a year after their deaths, the unspeakable occurred. My then 29-year-old sister was diagnosed with a rare and terminal cervical cancer. Watching her and the other patients in the hospital suffer was unbearable. It was at that moment that life changed. I no longer had a passion for practicing law. Instead, I wanted to help those facing cancer – both patients and their families. I saw firsthand how a cancer diagnosis can turn a family upside down. We all needed help.

I learned about the Wellness Community — a national organization that provides free evidence-based services for people and families facing cancer. There was a Sarasota affiliate. I reached out to them, both as a caregiver needing support, and as a volunteer. I was motivated by an overwhelming need to give some meaning to the loss of my parents and the suffering of my sister. Within months, I retired from the practice of law and began a long career of both volunteering and financially supporting cancer-support organizations in our community. 

I found my purpose and my place. This work has been the most rewarding part of my professional life.  

After almost 12 years of volunteering for cancer-related organizations, I turned my focus toward other initiatives. The civil unrest in our country and community motivated me to become more involved in organizations that promote diversity, inclusion and simple respect for our differences.

I've been blessed to receive so many cards, notes and letters from both students and adults thanking me. The one I've saved and will forever cherish is a note that my husband, Jim, and I received two weeks after we took a group of cancer patients out on our boat. Each year, we would take about 20 patients out for a bay cruise. We’d serve lunch and provide them with an afternoon away from cancer.

One woman was a stage-four cancer patient and required quite a bit of assistance that day. She embraced us as she left us and told us she'd never been on a boat before and that she would always remember us. She died a week after the cruise. In the note, her daughter shared that her mom couldn’t stop talking about that afternoon on the bay. There's simply no greater joy in life than knowing you gave someone else their joy. I feel good knowing we gave her an afternoon of escape from her cancer. That seems like such a small thing but, it's what motivates me. Giving back is truly a life’s calling.  

Making time for giving back is a priority for me and my family. We're all involved in volunteering for nonprofits, including my 11-year-old granddaughter, who was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 7.   

Sarasota is a unique animal. Its philanthropic community is so integrated with the social scene, and if you're not careful, you can lose your focus and purpose for giving back. I'm now very selective in what I do and how I do it. I try to remain laser focused on the mission and goals of the organization and my purpose for being involved. I actually try to avoid the limelight and focus on giving back for all the right reasons.

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