Couple’s generosity fuels Immokalee families during tough times

No one is immune from the coronavirus.

While the number of COVID-19 cases is relatively small compared to the region’s population, there isn’t a single person in Southwest Florida who has not been impacted by the virus. Financial markets and 401(k) plans have collapsed. Schools, businesses and restaurants have temporarily closed. Supermarkets and big box stores cannot keep essential items in stock.

However, the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting lower-income families, particularly those in the service industry – hotels, restaurants, retail stores and attractions.

In Immokalee, nearly half of families were living in poverty before the crisis, and that figure is certain to rise in the coming weeks and months as the service industry staggers and agriculture jobs disappear for the summer. Those workers are the parents of students at Guadalupe Center. They work hard, but live paycheck to paycheck. Now, that paycheck is either smaller or non-existent.

Thankfully, local school systems are providing “grab-and-go” meals to students while schools are closed. For many children, it’s the only nutritious, well-balanced meal they will receive. Unfortunately, those programs don’t operate on the weekend, and that concerns Debbie and Bill Toler, community leaders with a passion for helping nonprofits, particularly those focused on education and youth. The Tolers were exploring ways to help locally owned businesses impacted by the economic and health crisis, like Jonesez BBQ, a Fort Myers-based caterer recovering from a barrage of cancelations. Debbie contacted Guadalupe Center to begin developing a plan to feed students and their families.

Jonesez BBQ’s three food trucks rolled into Immokalee on Saturday, March 21, serving 1,000 hot meals – pulled chicken and pork, rice, beans and rolls – in drive-thru style lines to minimize contact and follow federal guidelines for social distancing. To increase the impact across several geographical areas and reach more families, the trucks were stationed at Guadalupe Center’s Monaghan Family Early Childhood Education Campus, as well as at community partners Pathways Early Learning Center and Redlands Christian Migrant Association. All three organizations serve the students of Immokalee. The Tolers have generously supported Guadalupe Center for years and were happy to partner on another meaningful event.

“We truly believe in their mission and they service some of the neighborhoods that really need it the most,” Debbie said. “They take care of educational needs of so many children in the community and it’s beyond just the children – it’s the entire family.”

Guadalupe Center’s weekly Smart Start family literacy program, for example, shows parents how to facilitate in-home learning and ensure that children are reaching age-appropriate development milestones. Guadalupe Center also has partnered with the Immokalee Unmet Needs Coalition to help provide housing for families whose homes were severely damaged by Hurricane Irma.

Guadalupe Center relies on assistance from generous supporters like the Tolers to carry out its mission of breaking the cycle of poverty through education for the children of Immokalee. The center’s nationally accredited Early Childhood Education Program, After-school Tutoring & Summer Enrichment Program and college preparatory Tutor Corps Program have become models for communities serving similar demographics.

“Really, it’s more than the food that we’re serving them,” Debbie said while helping package meals for families. “It’s providing additional support and letting them know that as a community, we’re here for them.”

Dawn Montecalvo, president of Guadalupe Center, said support from the community is helping deliver exceptional results, like statistics showing that 95% of children meet or exceed kindergarten readiness measures and 94% of Tutor Corps students graduate with a postsecondary degree.

In a time of crisis, Dawn hopes the Tolers’ act of generosity serves as an inspiration to others in Southwest Florida.

“Take care of your family’s needs first, but if you have the ability and means to help others, please go ahead and do it,” she said. “There are so many families and children in Southwest Florida that are going to have a very difficult spring and summer, but coming together as one will help our community grow stronger.”

To help Guadalupe Center students and their families, please visit or call 239-657-7711.