On March 1, just 12 days prior to the state of national emergency called for COVID-19, Linda Cunning entered her role as the new executive director for New Horizons of Southwest Florida. Her challenging transition was aided by an incredible staff committed to equipping and empowering people regardless of external circumstances, she says.

The organization transitioned to online tutoring, partnered with Lee County schools to distribute 31,828 meals to children and youth, and raised over $25,000 for food gift cards benefitting its families. Since most of the students’ parents do not speak English, New Horizons staff members played an important role in communicating information about the virus. The organization’s volunteers and community partners were equally helpful, crafting masks for staff members, encouragement cards for students and celebratory gift bags for graduates.

Throughout the years, New Horizons of SWFL has blossomed from a humble effort to a pillar of hope serving hundreds of at-risk students and their families across the region through after-school tutoring and mentoring, clubs and other programs. Cunning attributes this growth to the powerful vision of founders Bob and Ellen Nichols, along with the leadership of former Executive Director Debra Haley. It’s all propelled by the generosity of community supporters and the dedication of big-hearted volunteers.

“Together we are changing the lives of so many students — and volunteers — in our community,” Cunning says.

1. Where did you grow up, and how did it shape your aspirations?

I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. Northwest Ohio has incredible people, a creative environment, diverse population and a highly philanthropic culture. It has that tenacity that makes the city unique. Toledo gets bad press from time to time, but it shaped my Midwestern values…and added a little hot sauce on the top!

2. What inspired your passion for nonprofit work?

I was five years old, watching “The Wizard of Oz.” The wizard struggles to say a word to the Tin Man and ends up saying “a good deed doer.” I asked my mother what word he was trying to say. When she told me, “a philanthropist,” I said, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up!” Well, I may not have the means to be a philanthropist, but I did the next best thing: work in the nonprofit arena.

3. As the new executive director, what is your vision for New Horizons of SWFL?

My vision is to continue to serve at-risk students in our community with best-practice programs, while providing the mentoring and character-building tools necessary to be successful. We cannot do this without professional staff, community partners and volunteers. My vision includes increasing value-added partnerships, expansion of our programs and sites, having a highly trained and skilled staff, and being a place where volunteers want to come and dedicate their precious time in support of these incredible students.

4. In what ways can the local community make an impact on the kids at New Horizons?

 To truly make an impact on the lives of the students that New Horizons serves, our community members need to be willing to learn about the complexity of poverty. We tend to want to “fix” them. Instead, we need to understand the hardships and barriers they experience. New Horizons takes a holistic approach to serving our students, not just an educational approach. That is why we have such wonderful successes.

5. What are your volunteering needs for the 2020-21 school year?

Volunteers are an important key to our success because they enable us to give one-on-one attention to our students. We are concerned that volunteers may stay away if we are back at the sites in the fall due to concerns about COVID-19. We are diligently preparing to take all necessary precautions. We seek people willing to give a few hours or more of their time to sit with a student and help. You do not need to be a teacher, just a person willing to share some love, time and knowledge.

6. How do your personal values align with the values of New Horizons?

I am a woman of strong faith in God. I also believe in the power of education to break the burden of poverty in someone’s life. New Horizons was founded on expressing the love of Christ through serving students. It is a natural fit.

7. What is your life motto?

  1. “To live a creative life you must lose your fear of being wrong.” (Joseph Chilton Pearce)
  2. “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” (James 2:13, NIV Bible)

For more information on New Horizons of Southwest Florida, including how you can get involved, visit www.newhorizonsofswfl.org, email: info@newhorizonsofswfl.org, or call (239)948-4146.

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