Local philanthropists joined forces with healthcare providers Saturday night at the Marco Island Yacht Club with a gala to help support the Sterling Center during Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Josh Ferris, a Marine Patrol Officer with the Marco Island Police Department, was honored with a Sterling Star Award for his service to local children in need.
“Tonight, we are going to honor Child Abuse Prevention Month,” said Dr. Jamie Sterling, founder and president of the Sterling Center, a local mental health and family support center. “This is to bring awareness to child abuse. We are a mental health and family support center here locally and we serve children and families in crisis and in the foster care system.”
Ferris has volunteered with the Sterling Center for several years.
“Josh started to volunteer with our Fairytales for Fosters program,” Sterling said. “We take foster children to Disney World who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have that experience.”
“We take 10 kids out of the foster program to Disney World,” Ferris said. “We’ll take them offshore fishing. We basically want to take them out of the element they live in and show them a good time for the day. Something they don’t have the opportunity to do on a regular basis. That’s one of our main annual events, taking the kids to Disney World. To see the joy on someone’s face who doesn’t have the opportunity, and may not have the opportunity again, is more than enough reward for me. I do what I can to help out.”
Ferris said he is drawn to helping kids.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Ferris said. “I can only attribute it to how I was brought up by my parents. I saw my parents forgo some things that we could have as a family to help others. I remember my dad got a work van. I was probably 10 to 12 years old. We were going to buy speakers and a nice radio for it. I remember when it came down to it, he took that pot of money that he had set aside for the van and gave it to a friend who wasn’t as fortunate as we were. I remember being upset as a child. ‘Hey, that’s ours. We’re using that to fix up our van!’ I didn’t understand. And I didn’t understand for a long time, until I got a little older. I was just too young to understand it. That lesson was put into me at a young age.”
Ray Higdon was the lead speaker. He shared his story of growing up in an abusive household. He was able to persevere and experience success in business.
“True significance for me comes from helping other people struggle like I did,” Higdon said. “The more that I am able to do for others, the better I feel about myself. I was so honored when I was asked to be here.”
Higdon was struck when he visited a local group home with Dr. Sterling. He asked the kids what he could do for them.
“They couldn’t come up with anything they wanted,” Higdon said. “We had to ask the question several times before one of the girls said, ‘Well, it would be kind of cool to have different board games.’ When you’re not being fulfilled at different levels in your life, you’re not thinking about what you want, you’re thinking about what you need. You need love, you need caring. You need someone to listen to you. Someone to acknowledge you. That’s something very different than wanting the latest, greatest toy, or whatever. These kids really need hope.”
“How can we instill more hope in these kids?” she asked. “Dr. Sterling did an amazing job of talking with these kids. She said, ‘Hey, you’re not victims. You can choose to be whatever you want to be.’ She really spoke life into them. Several of them, you could tell had been through some stuff.”
Sterling gave an impassioned speech to the crowd assembled at the Yacht Club.
“I hate when people ask me if we’re busy,” Sterling said. “In most businesses it’s really good to be busy. But in mine it means more people are suffering. I work on the front lines of families who are suffering. It’s a great thing that we are here. There’s no other agency like this one. There’s no other person who loves these families like I do. There’s no other person who loves their team more than I do. We go toward the situations most providers run from. I absolutely hate the idea of fundraising. I’m a giver. I only know how to give. Taking, and asking for something, is hard for me. But Ray Higdon said to me, ‘But you’re giving them the opportunity to be part of something really special. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that is giving. And I’m a giver.’ All of a sudden I started to be a little better with it.”
Sterling is a fighter. And she didn’t mince words with her audience.
“I want you to listen and listen good,” Sterling said. “Who loses if you don’t win? Who loses if I don’t win? The children and families lose if I don’t win. My team loses if I don’t win. Our entire community loses if I don’t win. I can’t do it alone. Here I am, swallowing my pride. Humbly asking for your help. It’s not easy for me. But I can tell you this. If those kids lose if I don’t win – we’re going to win. I’m asking you to, if you have it, share it. If you don’t have it, that’s okay. You can volunteer your time. It’s our responsibility, not just mine.”
Sterling shared a poignant story of a five-year-old boy who called 911 after a domestic abuse crisis involving his mother and father. She detailed the heartbreaking fallout that ensued. As sad and heartrending her account was, Sterling assured the audience that this was actually a mild case compared to what she deals with on a daily basis.
“Who loses if we don’t win,” Sterling continued. “Why is it just my responsibility? It’s not. This is your community. These are your kids. Who loses if we don’t win? I ask you to consider mentoring a family in crisis. A lot of times it’s something as simple as a mother who can’t budget her money for food. How many of you could go help a mother budget her money for food? How many of you could say, ‘I can take Johnny to soccer on Tuesdays’ because they have to work that overtime to pay their electric, right? Kids in foster care miss out on a lot of things that are pretty normal to most kids. We have birthday boxes. They’re 40 dollars. Forty bucks! That’s a few Starbucks trips, man. Those birthday boxes go to children in foster care that if no one else thought they were special that day, at least we did. We didn’t forget you. We’re never going to forget you. For 40 dollars you can bring happiness to a child on their birthday.”
After the program concluded, the silent auctions were extended an extra 15 minutes between the main course and dessert. Attendees flooded the silent auction area and increased their bids. The list of 40-dollar birthday boxes filled the entire page. The Marco community responded – as it so often does.