100 Women Who Care helps foster children celebrate their birthdays • St Pete Catalyst


St. Petersburg’s 100 Women Who Care Chapter held their quarterly event on September 1, which means another well-deserving nonprofit walked away with $18,000 to continue their mission.

The historic waterfront ballroom of the St. Petersburg Women’s Club was once again the site of an evening of camaraderie and generosity. Fundraising events feature three area nonprofits carefully selected from a field of 20 applicants by a search committee. Participants must leave $100 at the door to collect a grand prize of $10,000.

However, 100 women who care The efforts caught the attention of other local private and corporate donors, enabling the group to provide the evening’s winner, as voted on by attendees, with a much-needed check for $18,000.

While all three nonprofits represented worthy philanthropic causes and each leader gave impassioned presentations about why their organization needed additional funding, Celebrate birthdays — and the foster children he serves — walked away as the evening’s big winner.

“We do this with a piece of our heart, and it’s our passion to make this happen for these kids,” co-founder Belinda Leto said emotionally. “I can’t put into words what this means for the children we serve.”

Leto started his presentation with a sobering statistic. She said that more than 50% of adoptive children in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco County have never had a birthday.

Celebrate Birthdays’ mission is to empower foster children to do just that. While headquartered in Tampa, Leto said 65% of the organization’s efforts are in St. Petersburg and Pinellas.

Leto and his co-founder, Celina Saunders, are both full-time nurses who incorporated Celebrate Birthdays as a nonprofit in 2019. Leto identifies children in need through partnerships with several other community organizations.

Celebrate provides birthday boxes filled with 16 items, including at least one gift and one book to promote literacy. The co-founders’ grassroots campaign has grown significantly over the years, and Leto said they now supply more than 100 boxes a month and have served more than 4,500 children since the nonprofit’s inception. lucrative.

“Wherever these children reside in our community,” Leto said. “Whether it’s in a motel, whether it’s in a car, or whether it’s under a bridge – and believe me, we’ve served them in all of those places.”

Celebrating a birthday, Leto explained, makes children feel loved and important, builds self-esteem, and increases feelings of self-esteem. She told the story of a foster child named Jasmine, 17, who started sobbing when Leto handed her a cupcake with a candle.

Jasmine, Leto said, was overwhelmed with emotion because it was someone’s first birthday celebration.

Leto (center) with St. Petersburg Chapter co-founders Christina Noordstar (left) and Lauren Brigman.

In light of the organization’s impact over the past three years, Leto and Saunders now plan to take the program one step further with a birthday bus.

Leto said Celebrate recently received a donated bus that she hopes to turn into something like a mobile pop-up clothing “store” for foster children. Children will choose clothes and will receive socks, underwear, accessories, toiletries and a book. With the help of volunteers, the organization also provides a handmade birthday card for a more personal touch.

“They can get on that bus and have an experience,” she said. “And feeling special and feeling loved and feeling important. That’s what it’s about.

The bus, Leto said, is in critical need of renovations, paint or a body wrap, routine maintenance and fuel. While most of the events take place in Pinellas County, she also drives over an hour to places like Ruskin. “The miles don’t matter to me as long as the kids can celebrate,” she added.

Leto said the grand prize, originally estimated at $15,000, would cover “a very large part” of the cost of upgrading the bus.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, two more deserving local nonprofits also took home $350 Thursday night.

Katie Combs, Director of Bay Area Performing Arts and Casting (BAPA), explained how his organization gives children the skills to perform while providing those opportunities and encouraging individual growth. The program currently serves 61 local children, many of whom participate through scholarships.

Combs is hosting a show in February at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, which costs around $18,000. If BAPA received help with initial costs, she said the organization could become self-sufficient through ticket sales.

His students gave the women in attendance a show and a teenager, Jeffrey, shared what BAPA meant to him. When his father died during the pandemic, he said he walked into a “dark place” but found solace in the program.

“Ms. Combs actually helped pay for us to go to the funeral,” Jeffrey said. “I think it really shows the community we have here at BAPA – everyone is so loving.”

The children of BAPA performed a song for the women present.

Mara Spears emotionally conveyed the impetus to launch the Ali Spears Foundation, named in honor of his daughter. Doctors diagnosed Ali with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) when he was 11 years old. After a two-year battle, she succumbed to rapidly progressing cancer in 2019 at just 13 years old.

Mara Spears has channeled her grief into a nonprofit foundation that raises awareness of childhood cancer, helps families through the pain and financial hardship it causes, and supports research that may one day provide a cure.

Spears said she signed an agreement with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg in June 2021 to establish the Ali Spears Innovation Fund for Pediatric Cancer Research. The money, she explained, supports research into blood and bone marrow transplants to increase the chances of survival and reduce the risk of recurrence.

“Because it’s the first day of September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, I can’t think of a better day to be here talking to you,” Spears said. “We are funding research to find a cure – because in the end, today, 43 children will be diagnosed with cancer.”

Mara Spears (center) started the Air Spears Foundation in 2019 after her daughter died of leukemia aged 13. Noordstar (left) and Brigman look on.

The next meeting of 100 Women Who Care will take place on November 3. For more information, visit the website here.


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