Three Lakewood Ranch moms turned teachable moments into a nonprofit that provides young do-gooders with volunteer work.
During their Tuesday drives to volunteer at Mothers Helping Mothers in Sarasota, Stephanie Guido and Ali Pereira would often talk about their children and how good they had it.
“We’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if they knew how lucky they were?’” Guido recalls. “In Lakewood Ranch, you tell the kids, ‘Clean out your playroom — we’re going to give the stuff to Goodwill,’ and that just means making room for new stuff. There’s no learning in that.”
From those drive-time chats emerged a simple idea: forming an organization that would act as a kind of clearing house for youth volunteerism. Last October, Guido, Pereira and friend and fellow mom Victoria Cobb founded SUGAR, which stands for Showing Unconditional Goodwill and Respect, a 501(c)(3) that’s an official club of Lakewood Ranch.
In less than one year, SUGAR’s volume of activity and influence in the community have taken off. Children of all ages — from preschoolers to high-schoolers — are racking up community service hours.
Young volunteers have pitched in at beach cleanups, Special Olympics events, car washes and community gardens. They’ve advised the Florida Maritime Museum in the West Bradenton fishing village of Cortez how to make exhibits more kid-friendly. They’ve entertained residents at assisted living facilities and at a Vietnam veteran’s dinner.
On Mother’s Day this year, SUGAR collected more than a hundred purses and loads of products, all donated. Thirty-one kids formed an assembly line at Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, stuffing purses with toiletries and other “mom essentials,” for the purpose of distributing to women’s shelters across the area.
“Finding volunteer opportunities for kids is not as easy as you would think,” Guido says. “There are an extraordinary (number) of charities in Sarasota/Manatee, but volunteering for them isn’t always easy. There can be age limits and group size limits. We wanted to create a way to allow kids to just sign up, show up and volunteer.”
How did three women with limited experience in charity work make a youth volunteer coalition out of whole cloth? It wasn’t difficult.
“We just started cold calling other nonprofits, telling them we were interested in helping,” Guido says. “Most of the time it was, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you so much for calling.’”
Meal on Wheels’ Daybreak Adult Day Center has benefited from SUGAR’s services. The nonprofit has paid three visits to the Lakewood Ranch facility with its preschool-aged “Sugar Cubes” to serve lunch, entertain and mingle with seniors, many of whom have dementia or physical impairments.
They see how easy it is to do some good in a couple of hours. And it’s fun. They learn about things they never knew existed and they get to do it with children their age. They’re always asking me, ‘What’s next?’
Stephanie Guido, co-founder, SUGAR
“We have different groups come in, but there’s something special about the little ones,” says Jerry Gironda, the Day Center’s client activities manager. “Most of the kids are shy at first because they’re not around elderly people that much. But then they loosen up, and once one of them sings or does a little performance, they all want to join in.”
As the cliché goes, the givers get as much out of the experience as the receivers. Guido’s daughters — Stella, 7 and Carly, 5 — were at first fearful of the elderly because they rarely interact with them. “The first time we went there, they were introverted, hiding behind my leg,” Guido says.
Now the girls are zealous and undaunted. “It’s ingrained in them,” Guido says. “They see how easy it is to do some good in a couple of hours. And it’s fun. They learn about things they never knew existed and they get to do it with children their age. They’re always asking me, ‘What’s next?’”
SUGAR runs lean, with just the three women leading, organizing, conducting and marketing their services. It’s effectively a “no budget” charity. (They’ve been especially effective at promoting the cause and events through social media.) Guido does not have a job outside the home, but Cobb teaches music in a preschool and Pereira works at Ed’s Tavern in Lakewood Ranch. The three founders stay in touch via phone and text, and try to meet face to face every Monday.
They’re so busy organizing charitable enterprises that they haven’t given much thought to the nonprofit’s future. “In my fantasy, I would love to see SUGAR start up in other counties,” Guido says. “It would give kids an easier way to pay it forward and give back.”