The Philanthropists of Coral Gables

Gables Residents Who Give Back

The word itself tells the tale: Derived from the Latin roots for “loving” (philo) and mankind (anthropo), it means “love of mankind,” especially in the form of deeds of generosity and work for the good of others.

Here in Coral Gables, philanthropy is rampant. Partly it’s because we are an affluent community. Many affluent Gables residents either understand how tough life can be – having created their fortunes from scratch – or come from a family tradition of beneficence. What is as remarkable as their monetary generosity is the extent to which Gables philanthropists also give their time and energy. While the givers we recognize here are affluent, they give much more than money. Many are hands-on involved with the charities they love, helping to guide them and to raise additional funds. 

Having lots of money, however, is not the point, says Thomas Abraham of the Abraham Foundation. “Each of us has the power to make a difference in other people’s lives,” he says. “If we all did our own little bit it would change the world. That is the message our foundation promotes. You don’t need to be rich… a respect for humanity can change the world, and it doesn’t take money for that.”

Indeed, while money can help a great deal, there is plenty of work to be done just by rolling up your proverbial sleeves and helping. “With these charitable organizations there is always the need for participants who can volunteer, take on chores and lead,” notes ambassador and philanthropist Chuck Cobb.

And while giving money to philanthropic causes may seem the province of families with generations of wealth, many of Coral Gables’ most active givers came from modest backgrounds and see philanthropy as a way to help others who come from a similarly underprivileged place. “I grew up poor and believe that giving back is the grateful thing you can do… it’s about helping people in tough situations,” says attorney Aaron Podhurst. For such people, for whom a scholarship-based education proved critical in life, much of the charitable work focuses on helping raise money for schools, and for poor, but hardworking students.

In some cases, the philanthropy is based on deep religious convictions. This is the case with Trish and Dan Bell, whose latest charitable effort is the construction of an interfaith chapel at FIU. “Giving of course makes us feel good, but that is definitely not the primary reason we give,” says Trish. “We give because, for us, it is the proper response to having received so many blessings… This is actually not very different than what all of us learned in kindergarten – namely, that we all have an obligation to share.”

As former Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb notes, “In the local community there are all kinds of different ways to help people. In the end, it is part of fulfilling our roles in life to help.”

And then there is simply the joy of giving, and how that makes you feel. Is it better to give than receive? “The feeling you get when you help someone out is indescribable,” says entrepreneur Matthew Meehan. “There is nothing you can buy, or anyplace you can travel to, that feels better than helping out a neighbor. That is a feeling I want to have over and over again.”  




For siblings Thomas and Norma Jean Abraham, the idea of charity was inculcated at an early age. “[My father] was a rags to riches story,” says Norma Jean. “When he made a lot of money [through car dealerships, an ad firm and real estate] he said he wanted to give back.” Initially, the Abraham Foundation he started was run by their mother, who was a patron of both local opera and ballet. But when she passed away, the reigns were turned over to the children.
“I don’t like opera or ballet,” admits Norma Jean. “But we have stuck with [the charities] that had to do with children and education.” More than just sticking with them, the Abrahams have been active with more than 90 charities, from the Buoniconti Fund to cure paralysis to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to Camillus House. They also contribute to UM, Barry University, FIU, Ransom Everglades School and the Lebanese American University (the Abraham family is Lebanese).

A special place for them is St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which their father started with fellow Lebanese descendant Danny Thomas. When their mother was alive, the Abrahams hosted an annual Miracle Ball for St. Jude’s, which often included celebrities. When their mothed died, Frank Sinatra came to last the ball, to honor her work. The Abraham siblings have also worked to help in crisis locations worldwide, where there are local natural disasters, by donating to local churches to help with relief efforts. “Both of our parents were humble people who had a real concern for those who were distressed,” says Thomas. “It’s part of our Lebanese heritage, not because we like to be patted on the back, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Over the past 30 years, the Bells have donated more than $30 million to more than 40 organizations, mostly within the Miami community. These have included faith-based entities, community support groups, educational institutions, medical organizations and arts organizations. While Dan achieved great success as the founding CEO of Kos Pharmaceuticals (sold in 2006 for $3.7 billion), both he and Trish came from modest backgrounds. “Neither set of our parents ever had any ‘extra’ financial resources to share with others,” says Trish. But both sets “were very loving and generous individuals who would do anything they could to help others.” From the beginning of their marriage, the Bells made a practice of setting aside 10 percent of all they earned for charity, following the tithing practice of many churchgoers.

Over the years, that 10 percent set aside has steadily risen. “In essence, we believe that those who have been more generously blessed should also share more generously,” says Trish. While the Bells don’t like to focus on any one charity at the expense of others, their most recent philanthropic project – creating an interfaith chapel on the campus at FIU, toward which they have donated $5 million – “is likely to bring us the most sustained joy for any we have yet undertaken.” Another major effort they have dedicated considerable resources and time to for over 15 years is Branches, a nonprofit providing tutoring and mentoring to underserved children and their families.  Since 2005, the organization has grown from serving 40 elementary school children at one small site, to now serving more than 400 K-12 students at three sites – and over 40 college students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college.  







The Philanthropists of Coral Gables

For Bill Bonn, the idea of giving back to the community was instilled at an early age. On one side of the family, his grandfather came from Germany via Ellis Island. That grandfather married the daughter of an English civil servant born in Barbados. “It’s really quite straight forward. My grandparents [on this side] were imbued with a sense of responsibility for the people around them, their siblings, their loved ones and their friends,” he says. “The other grandparents came from the Outer Hebrides, where there is a real sense of helping each other,” he says. “The Scottish are a fiercely proud people and fiercely independent, but with a cultural background of civic duty and responsibility for your neighbors. My three siblings are the same, and we all try to give back in one shape or form.”

When Bonn retired from working as a high-powered corporate attorney and got more involved in charity, he says “It was a wonderful transition from a 70-hour work week to something I felt useful doing.” After moving here, he says the charity that caught his eye was the Coral Gables Community Foundation. “The great thing about a community foundation is that you are giving back locally,” says Bonn. “When you give back at the local level, the impact of your time or money is readily apparent. I still give to national charities, but you don’t really see the impact there. At the local level it is much more emotionally rewarding.”
Bonn also loves the foundation’s flexibility. “When pockets of need appear, the CGCF can step in – like when the pandemic hit and a lot of people were out of work, they came up with the idea of distributing food from the leftovers [of farms and restaurants]… it’s clearly [partner] Ruben’s and my favorite charity.”

When it comes to charitable involvement, the thing that strikes Adam Carlin the most is how fortunate he is personally, and how others are afflicted with bad luck beyond their control. “When I was growing up, I never thought in a million years that I would have this blessed life,” says Carlin, a highly successful private wealth manager at Morgan Stanley’s Coral Gables headquarters. “Part of what happens in life is the luck of the draw. Some people have had a lot of unfortunate things that have happened to them through no fault of their own.”

That is a big reason – along with the fact that he has young children – that Carlin is so involved with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “They are not just focused on treating those illnesses that are the most common,” he says. “They are also on the cutting edge of looking for the best of research and treatments [for rare diseases] that can be devasting to a few beautiful young children.” Besides raising funds for the hospital, he personally underwrites an annual prom party for young patients there. Having seen his mother suffer from cancer that crippled her, Carlin also raises funds for UM’s Sylvester Cancer Center, where he serves as Chairman of the Board. “Besides Nicklaus, the organizations I am most passionate about are Sylvester, UM [he is on the board] and the New World Symphony,” says Carlin. “They all play an incredible role for the community.”




The Philanthropists of Coral Gables




It would be hard to find a more accomplished couple living in Coral Gables. Charles “Chuck” E. Cobb, Jr. was the chairman and CEO of Arvida Corporation and the Disney Development Company; he later merged Arvida with the Walt Disney Company. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland, and as assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Sue Cobb served as the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, and as Secretary of State of Florida. An accomplished lawyer, she also ran the U.S. Department of State’s seminars for newly designated ambassadors and authored the book “The Edge of Everest” on her attempts to become the first American woman to summit Mount Everest.

These accomplishments hardly touch on the career positions and the boards the couple serve on, as they continue to run Gables-based Cobb Partners, a private investment, venture capital, real estate and resort development company. Nonetheless, the couple now devotes about 60 percent of their time administering the vast charitable foundation they started decades ago. “[Chuck] came up with the idea that when we had sufficient funds to start some kind of meaningful giving, to have a foundation set up,” she says. Says Chuck, “We were able to contribute 20 percent of our income for every year from her law practice and my career. Now we can have a meaningful impact.” Sue has been an avid supporter of the United Way and Goodwill Industries “for the variety of ways they help the community,” and is also active in charities for Jamaica and Haiti. Chuck has been a big booster for education, having served as a trustee of UM and former chair of the board. Among many other projects, he started a charter school with Barry University and is involved with the Annenberg Foundation. “Education locally has been really important to me,” he says. Both also support donating to churches in the Caribbean, especially where natural disasters occur.

Charity and philanthropy have been an integral part not only of David Evensky’s upbringing, but also of his entire professional life. As a principal of the firm founded by his father, Evenksy Katz/Foldes Wealth Management, the Gables native has been involved in building and protecting the wealth of individuals for whom charitable causes are common. “My family has always been philanthropic, and in a way my whole firm has gotten involved,” he says. “We manage more than a billion dollars, and at our core competency we are financial planners. We look at everything [our clients] do, and we see how many of them are philanthropists… we’ve actually gotten involved in some of their charities.” While Evensky serves on many boards and supports local institutions such as the Coral Gables Museum, the Coral Gables Art Cinema, and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, his current passion is to build a 20,000-square foot community center for the Friendship Circle, a nonprofit that takes care of children with autism.

One of their programs connects high school student volunteers with autistic kids, befriending them and spending time with them so that, among other things, their parents can get some respite. “These [autistic] kids are isolated and don’t have many friends,” says Evensky. “A high school student is assigned to a child and provides some social interaction and friendship… It’s a friendship program to help with the social fabric.” It also teaches the volunteer students a sense of responsibility and giving. The campaign to build the Friendship Campus near Baptist Hospital is about half way to completing its fundraising goal of $10 million. “We do serve a lot of Gables children, and we have a lot of volunteers from the Gables schools,” says Evensky. “It’s a beautiful program.”




The Philanthropists of Coral Gables




The Philanthropists of Coral Gables

For Matthew Meehan, the financial barriers to education were clear to him as a child. “We were lower middle class, not poor, but living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “I know certain things are out of reach except through scholarship programs and awards. That made things possible for me.” Meehan also saw the power of education, as his mother earned first an associate degree, then a bachelor’s, then a master’s, and with each advance watched her earning power grow. “Seeing what that did for my family permanently changed my outlook on education and how powerful it is,” he says. For that reason, after joining the board of the Coral Gables Community Foundation, Meehan took charge of the scholarship committee. “It was a sleepy committee for a long time, but we reactivated it,” he says. Last year, $150,000 went to deserving seniors at Gables High School. “I want to raise that to twice as much. So, if you read this article, don’t be surprised if I come for you.”

Meehan, who owns more than 30 companies (mostly in the beverage world), is also involved in other charities, including the New World School of the Arts and Dade Heritage Trust. Camillus House is one he loves because of their mission to educate and train their homeless “clients.” He also founded an orphanage in India in 2004, which has helped 20,000 kids to date. But it is the Community Foundation – which gave him their Philanthropy Award this year – that he holds most dear. “What they do to keep the doors open in so many charities is one of the reasons I love it,” he says. “It doesn’t help just one cause. It helps every single organization in our community, and it is profoundly impactful in that sense.”

Aaron Podhurst grew up in a poor family in upstate New York, but became a highly successful South Florida attorney after attending Columbia Law School. It never crossed his mind to become a philanthropist, he says, until he could. “You can’t become a philanthropist until you get into a financial position to do so,” he says. “When I was young, I wasn’t particularly philanthropic. As I became successful as a lawyer, starting perhaps 30 or 35 years ago, it became an important part of my life.” He adds, with a wink, “People also like you [for being charitable] and that helps you in business.”

For the last three decades, he has given to organizations such as United Way and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation [where he was president], because “they give to many, many organizations. So, it’s a good way to spread your philanthropy. I give to each one annually.” Podhurst was also instrumental in the launch of Perez Art Museum Miami, which he worked on starting for two decades. “I felt it very important to give to a public art museum in the county, which we never had in Miami-Dade County.” Not only did Podhurst donate his own time, energy and money, he also raised funds from friends and colleagues for the downtown art museum. “You can’t do it all yourself, so you have to use all your resources. A lot of people don’t like raising funds, but it doesn’t bother me.” Since the pandemic started, Podhurst has also donated to food banks and organizations to help those affected. He is also a major backer of Breakthrough Miami, “an organization which, among many things,  gives scholarships to younger people.”




The Philanthropists of Coral Gables




The Philanthropists of Coral Gables

Paul and Swanee DiMare are among the Gables most dedicated philanthropists. Together they have impacted numerous organizations. Paul is the president of seven family corporations, mostly in the agriculture sector (he was inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southeast Produce Council). Charitable giving was already part of Paul’s family tradition before he married Swanee, particularly with the University of Miami. With her, the scope of his philanthropy broadened to include the American Red Cross, United Way, Camillus House and the Chapman Partnership for the Homeless, among many others. Swanee says she became a philanthropist after a career stint with Delta Airlines. “One of my collateral duties was to motivate employees to connect with charities, like March of Dimes, the Special Olympics, and the Youth Fair,” she says. “Delta wanted to be part of the community and to be known in the community [but] it was tough to get people to give up their days off… It gave me some real insight into what being charitable was all about.”

Since then, she has been involved with literally scores of organizations, most notably the American Red Cross (where she hosted several balls), the Miami Ballet, and today with Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, Vizcaya and Women of Tomorrow. “I’m very much involved with Fairchild, where we have the yearly ball,” says Swanee. “For me that’s important, because I have lived here in the City Beautiful all my life. As a kid I used hang out at the Venetian Pool.” One of her favorite charities is Women of Tomorrow, which helps at-risk girls in public high schools. “It is incredibly fulfilling to help people less fortunate than you are,” she says.