The City Beautiful is Also the City Generous
Coral Gables enjoys – and deserves – a litany of accolades. When it comes to Florida cities, it ranks at the top in categories like affluence, education, cultural institutions, “smart” municipal technologies, and fine dining, to name a few. It is also a bastion of charitable engagement.
“This is an incredibly giving city,” says Mary Snow, president and CEO of the Coral Gables Community Foundation. “We are blessed to be a city with so many citizens who have the resources to help others. But more importantly, we are blessed with the number of those citizens who give back to their community and help those who are less fortunate.”
The Foundation is the city’s principal platform for channeling donations to worthy causes in education, the arts and culture, and small business. It currently stewards more than 90 Donor Advised Funds for local individuals and families which support local causes and charities. In addition to two annual events (Tour of Kitchens and the Foundation Ball) that raise money for outreach efforts and scholarships, it jumps in when crises occur. In the past year it raised money for the survivors of the Surfside condo collapse; during the pandemic it set up meal distribution centers and donated computers for those in need of home schooling or remote workstations.
But the Foundation’s efforts are only one part of the army of charitable endeavors by those who live in the Gables, and even its work would falter if not for support from residents.
In the following pages we feature a handful of the people who give back, both to our city and to those in need across Greater Miami. And, as always, we ask why they contribute. The answers range from deeply held religious convictions, to family values that have been passed on, to simply the overriding feeling that those who are fortunate should share with those who are less fortunate. “If you are lucky enough to have the resources to get involved [with charitable giving], what an opportunity that is to help other people,” says Adam Carlin, a wealth management advisor in Morgan Stanley’s Gables office. “It feels so much better to do nice things for other people than yourself.” Or, as Ana VeigaMilton, director of the José Milton Foundation puts it, “I am so grateful [for what I have], and the best way to express that gratitude is to give back.”
For others, giving is grounded in family and faith. “It’s the Christian philosophy to help others,” says Gables philanthropist Carol Williamson, who with husband Ed owns one of the largest Cadillac dealerships in the nation. “We were raised that way… It’s in our DNA.”
And while the recipients of Gables philanthropy range from ecological causes to gay rights, a central theme is education – not surprising for a city that houses the state’s top private university and where two thirds of adults hold college degrees. Educational opportunities, especially early in life, are “profound for the future of our country,” says Gables resident David Lawrence, former publisher of the Miami Herald who founded the Children’s Trust. “No other need is more important than that every child have the fullest opportunity to fulfill his or her potential.”
Ana VeigaMilton, Jose Milton Foundation
Focus: Education, Healthcare
For the past nine years, Ana VeigaMilton has been the president of the José Milton Foundation, established by her father-in-law to improve quality of life in South Florida – and close the opportunity gap in education and healthcare. She is also co-founder (with her husband) of the Cecil & Ana Milton Family Foundation and director of Corporate Social Responsibility for the Milton family business. “I was born in Cuba and this country saved our lives,” she says. “It makes me so grateful, and the best way to express that gratitude is to give back and be involved… [This country] gives everyone the ability to reach their potential, so I wanted to shrink the opportunity gap.”
Today the Gables resident spends much of her time – anywhere from 30 to 60 hours a week – leveraging the family real estate business and its foundations to fund scholar- ships and public-school facilities, such as the 700-seat José Milton Performing Arts Center at the Zelda Glazer 6-12 school in West Miami. “We are so privileged in Coral Gables that it’s important to get out of our bubble and help out with the needs of other com- munities,” says VeigaMilton. Other significant JMF donations to date include $10 million toward the José Milton Memorial Hospital in Doral, and $1 million towards a new Mount Sinai Surgical Center in Miami Beach.
What VeigaMilton is most passionate about, however, is the ability to help individual students. “I have seen a lot of work that helps a lot of people. But really, touching one person at a time makes the most impact.” Of special focus for her are scholarships for minorities in STEM programs. “Especially if you are curious in science, studying STEM [curriculum] is your quickest way out of poverty. The salaries are at the top and the skills you learn are transferrable to anything that uses numbers. And it affords you to do a lot of good for the world, to solve its greatest problems.”
David Lawrence, Former Publisher, Miami Herald
Focus: Early Childhood Programs
When it comes to early childhood development in Miami-Dade County, few people have had as much of an impact as David Lawrence. “I decided years ago to devote the rest of my life to issues of social justice, and no other need is more important than that every child have the fullest opportunity to fulfill his or her potential,” he says. After heading up a task force on “school readiness” for then Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, he retired in 1999 to lead two successful campaigns to create (2002) and then make permanent (2008) The Children’s Trust, a dedicated source for funding underprivileged children in Miami-Dade. “It struck me as profound for the future of our country,” he says.
The Children’s Trust is funded by a half-mil increase in property taxes, which now generates $150 million annually for early intervention in Miami-Dade County. The dollars are dispersed to hundreds of non-profits, enabling them to offer high quality early education and after school care. According to a variety of studies, early childhood is a critical time for cognitive development. “There is enormous research that every dollar wisely spent upfront for a child’s development saves seven dollars later on, for things like prison,” says Lawrence.
While there have been other contributing factors, over the last two decades the number of juvenile offenders placed under arrest in Miami-Dade dropped 85 percent, from 16,532 in 1998 to 2,446 in 2019. The county today has one of the lowest juvenile crime rates in the country. “In one way or another I am still working on this every day. I am not saving my energy for the next world,” says Lawrence, 79, who is also on the boards of the NAACP, Florida A&M, Barry University, Casa Familia, Cristo Rey and the Lucy Project. “I don’t know of anything more fun, or important, than learning.”
As the granddaughter of Jose Ortega, the founder of Sazon Goya seasonings company, Ana Mari Ortega Schwarzberg is the director of the Ortega Family Foundation. But she will tell you that it’s very much a family affair, involving not only her brother Jose, but also their spouses – not to mention her aunt, a trustee of the foundation. “I have a flexible schedule, so I have a lot of time to devote to it,” she says, “but we as a family participate.”
“My grandfather was quietly philanthropic throughout his lifetime, so when he passed away, he endowed the foundation. I see us stewarding these dollars to benefit others,” says the Gables resident, who also heads her own jewelry manufacturing company. Currently, Ortega Schwarzberg is the chair of City Year Miami, a division of AmeriCorps that gets volunteers to work in high schools. “It takes up a lot of my time, but it’s like a blessing to be able to be active in the community,” she says.
In addition to City Year Miami, the Ortega Family Foundation also supports Madison Middle School (in West Little River), contributes to the Coral Gables Community Foundation, “and I personally support Friends of Coral Gables High,” says Ortega Schwarzberg. “I like the idea of Coral Gables High School being a world class institution.”
Ortega Schwarzberg says that while it is a cliché, she learned to be philanthropic from her family. “The idea was that you had a family job and then some sort of civic engagement,” she says. Each year, the women in her family – including her aunt and mother, who also support the Centro Mater childcare center in Little Havana – sit down and go through college applications to pick 40 students for scholarships. “When I was young, I thought to make the world a better place I had to work at the UN. Then I heard a phrase – pragmatic idealism – where you don’t have to change the world. You just have to help the zip code next to you.”
Adam Carlin, Morgan Stanley
Focus: Health Care and the Arts
As the managing director of private wealth management for investment powerhouse Morgan Stanley, Adam Carlin is in a unique position as a fundraiser and an advocate for philanthropy. Many of his clients use either a Family Foundation or a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) as a vehicle to make charitable contributions. “I often meet at the end of the year [with clients] and a portion of that discussion is the charitable efforts of the family. Often it’s done through one of these two entities.”
While both offer tax advantages, Family Foundations are more generational, set up for the long term and managed by family members. They have no legal requirements beyond having to donate 5 percent of assets annually. A DAF has no requirements for spending minimums and has higher tax benefits but is less flexible in terms of giving; specific charities sponsor the DAF and handle its management.
Carlin, who has worked at the same Morgan Stanley office in Coral Gables for 17 years, is himself an active and engaged philanthropist, serving as the chair of the UM Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, on the board of trustees for the University of Miami, and on the boards of the Frost School of Music, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and the New World Symphony. He also personally funds an annual prom for children being treated for serious illnesses at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “If you really think about it, it doesn’t take all that much time as long as you are engaged when you are supposed to be… You have to be ready to serve even when it’s not convenient.”
When it comes to personal charities, “I consider myself very lucky and very blessed. I see community involvement as an obligation and a privilege.” As for fundraising, he says, “I probably spend five percent of my time reaching out to others. Sometimes I just write the check.”
Ed and Carol Williamson, Cadillac Dealership
The list of charities supported by the Williamson family is so extensive this page could hardly do it justice. “They are kind of in groups,” says Ed, who with wife Carol runs the No. 3 Cadillac dealership in the country – down on U.S. 1, not far from their Gables home. While United Way was the first major involvement for the Williamsons, they have spread their largess to three separate community foundations (including the Coral Gables CF), ecology and nature-related charities (Everglades Foundation, Friends of the Everglades), medical and health institutions, gay and lesbian rights groups, minority enhancement, and higher education.
“We like to support causes for academia,” says Carol, which range from Miami Edison High and her alma mater (Valparaiso University) to Ed’s alma mater (Auburn University) and UM, where Ed has been on the board of trustees for 40 years.
Both Ed and Carol attribute their charitable instincts (“It’s in our DNA,” she says) to their Christian upbringing. Both are active members of Christ the King, the Lutheran church on Red Road, and their first charitable contributions went to the church. That was followed by United Way, where Ed volunteered starting in 1968.
“We got married in late ’68, and as we became more and more successful, we picked those things we wanted to support. It started with United Way and the church, but it has just kept going,” says Ed.
The Williamsons have also inculcated their army of almost 400 employees in South Florida (215 here, 170 in Broward) with the notion that charity should be a way of life. “It’s not just what we do personally. We have an employee United Way campaign with payroll deductions every year. Our employees have been very generous.” And they give back to them as well, at one point taking all their employees and their spouses on a United Way cruise.
*Photos by Jonathan Dann