The longtime commissioner has been dogged in her efforts to get the East Naples community what they deserve. However, she feels a bit embarrassed about the park being named in her honor. In fact, she can’t even say the new name.
“Well, I can’t say it,” Fiala said of Donna Fiala Eagle Lakes Community Park. “I call it Eagle Lakes Park. It makes me a little embarrassed. But it’s very, very, nice. I know there’s a lot of people who fought to make that happen.”
Fiala was touched at the outpouring of appreciation she received at the Thursday morning ceremony, which was held right outside of the Donna Fiala Community Center.
“I think it was above outstanding,” Fiala said. “They had all parts of the community that is affected by a park. I was thrilled to see all of them. The soccer teams, the swim teams, the Lely band. I just thought it was very wonderful.”
At the age of 82, Fiala has served as a county commissioner for 20 years. She chose not to run for reelection. The impact of her retirement set in over the summer.
“During the summer,” Fiala reflected, “as I came to a complete realization, I was very sad. Because I’ve loved the job. This has been my whole life. The satisfying part of a job like this is that you can help people. You can help the entire community. Yes, East Naples needed a lot of help. It was in sad shape.”
Fiala presided over a large district—and cared for every nook and cranny of her domain. However, it’s East Naples that has needed the most help—and Fiala has battled for their residents. She sees a double standard when it comes to allocating funds to the county’s parks.
“They’re using this land with the blessing from South Florida Water Management District,” she said of the park that bears her name. “We put in the playground, and we had no ballparks in East Naples at all. So, we put in a couple of ballparks. That at least gave a release for some of these people. People think that we’re not as wealthy as some of these other communities. That we don’t need as much. I’ve had to drill that into people’s heads—these people need that even more. They don’t have it in their backyard. You want to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. We really needed a community center.
“They built the community center with Pre-K in there and then a big room. There was nothing in the room. Nothing to play with. It didn’t have anything for the kids to do. Every other park had rooms for the kids. Craft rooms, things like that. Not here. In fact, not anywhere in East Naples. It’s amazing the difference in what we get here and what they get there. They are just presented with this stuff and we have to fight years and years to get it. It’s sad.”
Fiala doesn’t understand the reason why East Naples gets neglected. She doesn’t hesitate to fight for the community.
“They told me we didn’t have the money,” Fiala lamented. “That’s when I started getting a little nasty. I said, ‘In Immokalee they have three parks. We have three times as many kids and you don’t give them anything.’ This was about 4 or 5 years ago. I said, ’They need a gymnasium, where they can play basketball. Where they can get out of the blazing heat in the summer. If there’s lightning, they can go inside.’
“It’s such a shame. They’ve been neglected horribly. They know I’m a squeaking wheel. Their favorite one is ‘we can’t afford it.’ They said that about the pool. That’s when I looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘Don’t tell me that, because I know where the money’s going. And it’s not going here. It’s going into other people’s parks instead. You build grandiose parks and we get something without even a playground. That’s why they named the park after me. We never get anything because it’s given to us, you have to fight tooth and nail in order to get one step at a time.”
The kids of East Naples have long been a priority for Fiala.
“It’s something I did because I wanted it for the kids,” she explains. “The kids deserve it. They deserve the same things everybody else has—and they get slighted. Take a look at the park at East Naples Community Center, take a look at the bathrooms; they’re a mess. The people who come in for the pickleball championships every year are begging for new bathrooms. For years they keep saying it. They still don’t have them. The park was built in 1987. You have to fight for everything here. Then they turn around and build these magnificent parks—and nobody’s even asked for anything. Why is that? It seems like it’s ingrained. And they know that I make a lot of noise. I do make a lot of noise. And still, nothing happens.
“They’ll say, ‘You don’t need it as much.’ They need it more. They don’t complain as much. Because a lot of them don’t speak English. But as you can see, I love these people. I have a passion for all of that stuff.
“We’re going to get that gymnasium. And we’re going to get those classrooms for the kids. They’ve said it’s coming. I think it’s been slowed down a little, but by the beginning of the year, things should begin to change.
I’ve never lost a thing in Marco yet. Here in East Naples, it takes years to get things done in the parks. It’s great working with Isle of Capri. It’s great working with Goodland. They’re wonderful people. I’ve been so fortunate; I’ve got great areas.”
As her career as a commissioner comes to an end, Fiala is looking forward to new challenges.
“I’ve been blessed to be asked to serve on the board of directors at Rookery Bay,” she said. “I didn’t know that they take care of all of the 10,000 islands. They’ve asked me to be on the arts committee for the Bayshore group. I’m thrilled to do that. I started on the Bayshore Arts back in 1992.
“The Lely High School swim team needed help. Nobody gives to the school. I thought maybe I could get a group together. I talked to the Swim Coach. I asked the Principal. She said, ‘We’d love it.’ I called Kamela Patton to see what she thought. She said, ’They’ve needed a spokesperson for so long. Yes, you can!’ So that’s the other thing I want to be involved with. I think any help we give Lely High School will be a benefit.”