A Spotlight on Gables Philanthropists and their Charities
Philanthropy is part of the DNA of Coral Gables. Home to numerous affluent families and scores of highly successful business leaders, it’s a city that values the idea of giving back. Its schools teach the ideas of contributing and volunteering; its social events revolve around raising money for hospitals, scholarships, parks, schools, museums, and community programs of all stripes.
Part of the reason why so many philanthropic individuals and organizations call Coral Gables home is the city’s strong sense of community. The Gables is that rare municipality where people cherish their membership, where residents have a palpable sense of pride. The reality is that almost everyone here has probably given something to the city, whether it’s a few hours of volunteering on a Saturday morning to help clean a city park or donating part of one’s fortune to help those less fortunate realize educational opportunities, overcome handicaps, or gain access to critical healthcare.
When most people think of philanthropy, they think of dollars and cents, the size of the check and the goals of fundraising. But giving is not just about dollar signs. Giving is work. It’s the time and effort you donate, not just the money you give.
Each year we feature a selection of Gableites who have been exemplary in giving back to the community, names such as Trish and Dan Bell, Ed and Carol Williamson, Thomas and Norma Jean Abraham, Chuck and Sue Cobb, David Evensky, Aaron and Dorothy Podhurst, Ana ViegaMilton, David Lawrence, Adam Carlin, and many others. They have not only been generous with personal donations, but active in foundations where they work to raise awareness as well as additional dollars. These are Gableites who see a need for something and get it done, residents who take up service projects for no other reason than to help their neighbors, the givers who want future generations to have more than they did.
“Coral Gables residents have a deep sense of pride and appreciation for our shared community,” says Mary Snow, the President & CEO of the Coral Gables Community Foundation. “We are extremely lucky to have people who live in our city who love where they live and the values we stand for, and those include sharing our good fortune with those less fortunate.”
Allen & June Morris
For Allen and June Morris, giving doesn’t just mean dollar signs – it’s also time and effort. The philanthropic couple actually first met at a charity gala for the Coral Gables Community Foundation. They’ve been together ever since, donating to causes close to their hearts, attending and hosting charity events, and serving on community boards. Their list of philanthropic accomplishments is a long one, replete with organizations both near and far.
Both are involved with global and national nonprofits like the United Way and the Boys & Girls Club of America, but also work with organizations in Miami and Coral Gables, such as the Orange Bowl Committee and the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce. Specifically in the Gables, they are involved with the Garden Club, the Coral Gables Museum, Actors’ Playhouse, Coral Gables High School, and local youth and campus ministries like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the University of Miami, among others. They sponsor the Garden Club’s annual photography contest as well as programs at the museum, where June serves as a board member. They’re ongoing sponsors of Actors’ Playhouse at Miracle Theatre, they provide pre-game meals to high school football players (one of Allen’s projects), and, four years ago, June started Friends of Gables High, a nonprofit that has raised close to $300,000 for the school.
“I grew up in a family that emphasized civic responsibility,” long-time philanthropist June said, echoing Allen’s comment that their philanthropy is “a family tradition.” In fact, June – the daughter of the first female mayor of Coral Gables, Dorothy Thomson – was only a young teenager when she first began a service project beautifying a historic home in Coral Gables. It’s now known as the Merrick House, one of the Gables’ most iconic buildings.
Tony & Marielena Villamil
Focus: Children in Need
Where is a never-ending supply of honorable causes to dedicate philanthropic work to, but what could be nobler than the pursuit of a better life, not for yourself, but for the next generation? As Tony and Marielena Villamil say, “children are the future.”
The couple has been giving back for the last 20 years with a focus on the world’s youth: their health, education, and communities. They are involved with multiple charities, including the American Red Cross, St. Jude’s Research Hospital, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and the Coral Gables Community Foundation, where Marielena served as a board member for 10 years. They have a personal endowment fund with the Community Foundation where they dedicate money to local causes like the Chapman Partnership, which aims to solve family homelessness in Miami, and Friends of South Florida Music, which provides early childhood music education for underserved communities in South Florida. Everything comes back to helping the next generation.
“Children are innocent people,” Tony says, “and they need support and growth. That’s why we give.” Adds Marielena, “It’s [a cause] close to our hearts because we have kids and grandkids and we feel that they need people to help them, especially if they don’t have easy lives.”
Tony is a nationally recognized business economist and has worked as a policymaker for both federal and state governments. Marielena is a former educator at Miami- Dade College. Through their work, they have each seen the urgency of helping future generations. “We’ve been exposed to the needs of the community and the need for children to grow up healthy and contribute later to our community development,” Tony says. “My background in public service at both the national and state level is tied to seeing the needs that exist in communities for children to grow and become productive and happy citizens.”
Ziyad ‘Zach’ & Chirine Mneimneh
Focus: Adults with Intellectual Disabilities
“It takes a village,” so the saying goes. Few know this better than Chirine and Ziyad ‘Zach’ Mneimneh, who learned the true meaning of the phrase two decades ago when their youngest son, Tarek, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. “What we went through was difficult and we appreciated every small support,” Chirine says, adding that “support is not always money. [It’s] emotional support, acceptance.”
After 20 years, the couple is finally in a position to give back to the village that accepted and helped raise their son. Last year, they established the Mneimneh Foundation to help adults with disabilities.
While they’re still in the early stages of that project, they’ve been doing philanthropic work for the last eight years with local nonprofits, including the Coral Gables Community Foundation and Casa Familia, a Miami-based organization dedicated to creating affordable housing communities for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Since Tarek’s diagnosis, they have worked extensively with the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Autism and Related Diseases (UM-NSU CARD) and were honored this year for “their 18 years of inspired leadership, generosity, and service to [the] community.”
Their eldest son, Waleed, now 25, has also been raised as a giver. Over his four years of high school, he raised $100,000 for UM-NSU CARD through a tennis tournament charity event. The Ace for Autism tournament was held at the Biltmore each year and earned Waleed a Silver Knight Award. The Mneimnehs are eager to restart the program as they get their family foundation off the ground.
“It was a village who helped us,” Ziyad says. “A whole village; different people in different organizations. We were lucky. Giving back is just a natural impulse.”
Ray Corral & Alina Meledina
Focus: Coral Gables
Ray Corral and partner Alina Meledina are only in their 30s, but philanthropy is already a high priority for the young couple. They’ve been donating to the Coral Gables
Community Foundation (CGCF) for the last four and a half years and have only increased the size of its donations as time goes on. This year, they outdid themselves by pledging a whopping $100,000 to the Foundation. “They do a really good job of distributing the money, and we basically leave it up to them,” Corral says. “We feel they’ll put the money where it’s needed.”
Corral, the founder and owner of Mosaicist, Inc., a Miami-based company that designs and installs mosaics for walls and pools, hopes that young people will see the donations he and Meledina make and feel inspired. “It’s important to actually bring awareness to the younger generation in Coral Gables,” he says. “You don’t have to spend your money at a nightclub – you can have a better quality of life within your own neighborhood [by donating].” He also highly recommends the CGCF for younger philanthropists. “We joined some different organizations, and we just didn’t relate to them. The Foundation got us around a bit of a younger crowd. It’s more fun. And it’s more fulfilling.”
This latest donation isn’t the only time Corral and Meledina have been in the news for philanthropy. During the pandemic, the couple started what is now known as “The Orchid Project.” Residents in the neighborhoods planted thousands of dollars worth of orchids in the oak trees lining Country Club Prado, only to find that someone was stealing the pricey blooms. Corral and Meledina stepped up to replace $2,000 worth of pilfered flowers and the perpetrator was eventually caught. For these two, philanthropy is all about the neighborhood.