Organizers of the Naples Winter Wine Festival have released a study they commissioned on the state of child care in Collier County, a tool they will use to be proactive in distributing the millions of dollars they raise each year.
Until now, the annual festival, which was founded to raise money for underprivileged and at-risk children in Collier, has distributed funds to organizations that come to them with a need.
In its six-year history, the festival has raised $38.8 million, mostly from a live auction of wine lots and travel packages held each year. The festival set a record in January when it pulled in $13.7 million.
The exceptional amount of money, which has made the festival one of the most successful wine charity events in the world, led organizers to question whether it should continue to be spent locally.
“We’re raising so much money, do we still need to spend it in Collier County?” said Scott Lutgert, chairman of the Naples Children and Education Foundation, which receives all festival proceeds.
The answer, the study showed, is yes.
Despite millions of dollars being poured into children’s charities courtesy of wealthy wine lovers, nearly 20 percent of children in Collier lack access to basic services that are critical to child development, the study revealed.
“Deprived of these services over time, these kids are not going to be successful, or as successful” as their better-nurtured peers, said Donald Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida, which conducted the research.
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The study, the first of its kind, gives a comprehensive look at the needs of children using data from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida Department of Education and Early Learning Coalition of Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.
According to the research, the number of children living in poverty is 15 percent; children without health insurance is 17 percent; kindergartners who are at risk of early school failure is 44 percent; and children who need after-school care is 50 percent.
Only 11 percent of early learning centers in Collier are accredited; however, that level is consistent across the nation, said Alan Simpson, spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children based in Washington, D.C.
The challenges usually involve a greater investment in teachers and lower ratios of teachers to children.
With the needs clearly identified, festival organizers want to use its resources to reduce drastically the number of children who don’t receive basic services.
“We figured if we had the facts that we could do a much better job, and we could energize the community, too,” Lutgert said.
A community effort is needed to meet the goal and to address a major finding of the study: the fragmentation of children’s service organizations.
These organizations operate independently; there is no group or government agency that works with them to communicate, share data and set goals and accountability standards. In order to create what Pemberton calls a “social safety net,” they will have to collaborate with community leaders to ensure all the needs of children are being met.
Wine festival organizers say they will spearhead such a group. They have divided the needs into four areas, and will start with one, possibly two, according to Lutgert.
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-- Early learning education
-- After-school care
-- Medical health
-- Dental health
The foundation funded by the wine festival has set aside $8 million from the past two festivals to kick off the agenda.
“We’re going to look at a few particular needs and try to go after those needs with that money and completely eliminate those,” Lutgert said.
That’s right — eliminate. Lutgert admits the plan is ambitious, but he believes they have a job to do now that they have the facts.
“We’ve got a lot of money and we’ve got a responsibility to do the best job with it that we can,” he said. “We try not to get overwhelmed. We just try to take it one step at a time.”
The first step is getting educated. Wine festival organizers have invited local leaders from each of the four areas to give them half-day presentations about the issues. Once they decide where to begin, they will convene the charities in that area and talk about how to best use the resources, Lutgert said.
Richard Akin, chief executive of Collier Health Services, said the plan is a smart one, albeit a lofty goal.
“Are they biting off a lot? Absolutely,” he said. “But I think you have to set your goal high in order to achieve a high standard.”
Collier Health Services has used money from the wine festival to support the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, a pediatric office on wheels that travels to poor areas of the county.
Mary Boyce-Johnson, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County, said she is glad to see the foundation taking a holistic approach to child well-being.
“There are no quick fixes because the problems are so widespread and all-encompassing, but you really can make a difference,” she said. “No longer can we put Band-Aids on the problems.”
The Boys & Girls Club has received more than $4 million from the wine festival, and is using some of it to build a 36,000-square-foot youth development center on Davis Boulevard in East Naples that will serve more than 1,000 kids every day.
Even as their capacity grows, Boyce-Johnson said the need among underserved children continues to rise.
“If we want children to become self-sufficient, economically independent and good citizens, they’re going to need that kind of support,” she said.