In this economy, colleges and universities are more focused than ever on raising money. Polk State College, with campuses and centers across Polk County, is no exception.
What is unusual, however, is where the money the College raises is going.
Polk State faculty, staff, students and administrators are engaged in a wide range of charitable activities – everything from small-scale scarf-knitting for the homeless to leading county-wide campaigns.
Polk State’s emphasis on philanthropy truly reflects a culture of service at the institution, from top to bottom. At the top – in terms of rank and commitment – is President Dr. Eileen Holden. The cause closest to her heart is the United Way of Central Florida, which serves Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.
“I have always made a strong pitch that what is good for Polk State College is good for the communities we serve – and that what’s good for our communities is also good for the College. That, after all, is a big part of what we mean when we say ‘We are Polk,’” Holden said. “I consider United Way to be a particularly vital component of Polk County’s quality of life, and for the College to sit on the sidelines just wouldn’t make sense.”
Holden, a member of the UWCF’s board of directors for five years, in 2010 served as chairwoman of the agency’s Pacesetter Campaign, a fundraising push that precedes an annual communitywide campaign.
That same year, Polk State employees raised $25,609 for the agency, a 70 percent increase over their previous-year total.
UWCF President Terry Worthington said Polk State regularly raises more money than any other post-secondary institution in Polk County.
“The thing about Polk State College is that it’s more interested in supporting an organization that improves lives in our community than it is about generating support for its own specific mission,” Worthington said.
In reviewing Polk State’s history of giving, Worthington noted that since Holden arrived in 2006, it has raised $91,174 for UWCF. Prior to Holden’s arrival, the largest amount pledged to UWCF from Polk State employees was $11,270 in 2004.
Holden will serve as chairwoman of the UWCF’s annual communitywide fundraiser in 2012, taking on what amounts to a yearlong part-time job, Worthington said. The next year, she will become chairwoman of the board of directors.
United Way and More
Holden’s history of leadership with UWCF – while huge and impactful – is only part of Polk State’s story of philanthropy. Another example: Winter Haven Provost Dr. Sharon Miller, who dedicates time, money and effort to a handful of charitable causes.
Among the causes on Miller’s list is the Women’s Resource Center of Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, an organization that serves women and their families during times of crisis. Miller was instrumental in arranging a concert by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis – scheduled for March on the Winter Haven campus – that will benefit Women’s Resource Center.
She also serves on the boards of the Winter Haven YMCA and Main Street Winter Haven, and is active with the Lakeland Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
In explaining why she so freely gives of herself to benefit causes outside the College, Miller goes back to her childhood. Her mother and other adults stressed the importance of giving back to the community – a message she’s never forgotten.
“We all have an obligation to give because someone gave to us. None of us arrived at our current or future stations in life without someone having given to us,” she said.
For more proof of Polk’s passion for philanthropy, turn to Peter Elliott, vice president for administration and chief financial officer. Earlier this year Elliott served as chairman of Polk County’s American Heart Walk.
Under Elliott’s supervision, the Oct. 1 event attracted 1,000 walkers and raised $108,731 to benefit the American Heart Association.
Organizing and rallying support for the event was no small task; Elliott estimates he volunteered an average of three hours per week for six months. Every minute of it was worth it, he said.
“I think Polk State College has a responsibility to give back to the larger community,” he said. “You can’t just go in, close the door and not be engaged in what’s going on around you.”
That sentiment is echoed by Tracy Porter, Polk State’s vice president for institutional advancement and executive director of the College’s Foundation.
Porter regularly makes personal donations and volunteers her time to fundraising efforts for breast cancer research and the arts.
She was part of the creative team behind Big Pink Ribbon, an Oct. 22 event at Fantasy of Flight in which thousands of breast cancer awareness supporters gathered to form a human pink ribbon.
Porter also participates in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and a 5k to benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
“My mom is a survivor and my aunt passed away from breast cancer,” Porter said. “Too many of my friends have been touched by it. Cancer is just a horrendous disease.”
In addition to breast cancer, Porter is also a dedicated supporter of the arts, having recently served on the board of directors of the Lake Wales Arts Council. She is also a Leadership Giver to the UWCF.
“I think that it’s super-duper, incredibly important to have a well-balanced community,” she said. “As much as we need excellent education, we need quality healthcare, diverse cultural offerings, uplifting social services and cures for diseases that take our loved ones much too soon.”
Further evidence of Polk State’s generosity to its community is found with Melissa LaRock and Tammy Villanueva, a pair of best friends who co-chair Winter Haven’s Relay for Life event, benefitting the American Cancer Society.
LaRock and Villanueva have both been personally touched by cancer, having known many friends and family members who have received that dreaded diagnosis. Spurred by a desire to do something – anything – that might make a difference, the pair in 2010 took on the Relay for Life effort.
“I want to be a person who helps stop cancer,” said LaRock, an administrative assistant.
In 2010, Relay for Life raised $76,000, far surpassing its $37,000 goal. In 2011, it raised $137,000, trampling the $87,000 goal. Next year, the goal is $115,000.
Those impressive totals aside, there is a more important, intangible goal, Villanueva said.
“People just don’t know what their own bodies are saying,” said Villanueva, an academic services specialist. “Educating people is my main reason for doing this.”
LaRock and Villanueva have transformed the Winter Haven Relay for Life event, said Caellan Curtis, community representative with the American Cancer Society. In the years before LaRock and Villanueva, Winter Haven’s Relay for Life consistently raised about $40,000.
“They’re amazing. Their enthusiasm and passion is contagious and you can see it in the growth of the event and, obviously, the money,” she said.
Curtis added that Polk State College far exceeds any other postsecondary institution in Polk in terms of its Relay for Life participation.
Fostering Goodwill in the Community
Add to these examples a litany of student projects – from those scarves for the homeless to fundraisers for Japan’s earthquake victims — and it’s clear that “giving back” isn’t just a catch phrase at Polk State College. It’s a way of life – and something that has garnered the College much goodwill in the business community.
“If it weren’t for organizations like Polk State, our community wouldn’t be as good as it is and we wouldn’t enjoy the quality of life that we have,” said Bob Gernert Jr., a Polk State alumnus and executive director of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.
Greg Littleton, president and CEO of Citizens Bank and Trust and a member of Polk State’s board of trustees, agreed.
“Polk State plays such a vital role in our community by fulfilling its basic mission of affordable and accessible quality higher education for all of us in Polk County. Then when you consider all the other things that the College and its dedicated faculty, administration and even the student body contribute to our community, it is truly amazing,” he said. “The support, and in many cases the leadership, provided to events and countless volunteer boards — and in general providing excellent leadership in our community — goes above and beyond what is expected from an institution like Polk State. It’s no wonder Polk State, and all those involved with the College, are looked to with such high regard.”
Polk State again proved its commitment to bettering its community with an Oct. 19 Faculty/Staff vs. Lady Eagles soccer match at the Lakeland campus. The second-annual game served as a United Way awareness event to garner support for the agency.
“United Way is a worthwhile organization that spreads its benefits over a wide area of needs. It is also very local, thus the money stays within our own community,” said women’s soccer coach Bill Read. “Plus, the students get to have some fun and hopefully have some bragging rights with their professors.”
Considering her wholehearted support for UWCF, Holden is of course pleased to see students, staff and faculty members get behind the cause. And she’s certain that in doing so, the College reaps its own benefit.
“It means a lot to me to see how engaged Polk State’s faculty, staff and students are in causes such as our annual United Way campaign. I know we are helping many worthy causes through the campaign, but I also can’t help feeling that we are creating a much stronger College culture in the process,” Holden said.