A Celebration of Local Women Doing Great Things

 

By Cheryl Mandell

Kell Thawley with her 40 Under 40 Award in 2022

Kell Thawley with her 40 Under 40 Award in 2022

Mother’s Day has been officially celebrated in America since May 1914. Long before there was a day of recognition for mothers, the role has been multifaceted. In addition to the traditional tasks expected of wives and mothers, many women have full-time jobs and ambitious careers. For the special few, their plate is also filled with community service and helping others.

As we celebrate all mothers and the roles they play in our lives, we are inspired by three local women who are making a difference right here in Estero and Southwest Florida.

 

Helping Students Find Their Way

Kelly Thawley is a future-shaper. As the new assistant director of workforce education for Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW), she helps students navigate their career pathways. She draws on their passions and interests, providing academic and career guidance as well as scholarship assistance through local, state and federal grants for high-demand fields like nursing and computer programming.

“We’re helping the community, too, because it’s all based around economic development reports,” Thawley said. “(Identifying) where we’re lacking, where we have skills gaps, and trying to fill in those gaps with our local workforce by letting prospective students know that we have these courses and programs.”

Before Thawley made her mark on education in Southwest Florida, she was a young girl from a small town in Ohio, where her maternal grandparents played a large role in her childhood, watching Kelly and her two brothers while both parents were at work. As hard as her parents worked, they always managed to show up for extracurricular activities and were very supportive, something that remains meaningful to Thawley today.

Still, she knew she wanted to get out of the “small bubble” of her tiny town. “It was a great place to grow up and to live,” said Thawley. “But thinking about professional opportunities, there weren’t a lot.”

Education was her way out. She graduated second in her class in high school and became a first-generation college student, majoring in early childhood education and minoring in psychology. At a job fair shortly after graduation, a recruiter from Brevard County, Florida, offered her a teaching position. With her parents’ blessing, she made the bold move from the Midwest to the Southeast and began a career in education that would take her first to Merritt Island, near Cape Canaveral, and, ultimately, to Fort Myers in 2012.

As much as she loved being in the classroom, Thawley wanted to make an impact beyond the 20 students in her class. Thawley soon became director of student programs for the school system’s education foundation and then moved into a role as college and career specialist for the School District of Lee County before advancing to her newest position at FSW.

During the twists and turns of her career path, Thawley also became a mother, which she considers her greatest achievement.

“Sometimes, they teach us more than we teach them,” she said.

Kelly Thawley

Kelly Thawley

As a single mother with her family in Ohio, Thawley has faced challenges juggling a career and raising her 9-year-old son alone, but it hasn’t stopped her from serving on the board of directors for Our Mother’s Home and as chair of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce Women in Business Committee. She was also a member of SWFL Inc.’s Leadership Class of 2020 and was named to the Gulfshore Business 40 Under 40 in 2022.

For Thawley, there is value in the “wrong turns.”

“Just knowing that life is not supposed to be perfect –– it is messy,” said Thawley. “We are supposed to be constantly learning, and to do that, you have to make mistakes.”

 

Empowering Youth to Protect the Environment

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Falon Tabares felt strongly that she was meant to make a change in her life, so she did something very brave –– and risky. The Estero resident left her management consulting career and started her own nonprofit, The Healthy Earth.

Growing up in Cartagena, Colombia, a vibrant coastal port city along the Caribbean Sea, Tabares was immersed in a lifestyle that prioritized ecotourism and sustainability from a young age. After her father retired, they relocated to be with extended family in Miami, then moved to Naples. Once Tabares came to Southwest Florida, she became increasingly aware of the pressing concerns surrounding climate change.

“After learning that 60% of young people throughout the U.S. felt very worried about climate change, yet unsure of how to contribute, it ignited a passion within me to empower young people by providing accessible avenues for them to contribute to their community and environment,” Tabares said.

To say it was a leap of faith is an understatement. Tabares had no experience in the nonprofit sector and learned that the path to creating such an organization was not linear.

“There was no straight arrow to create a nonprofit,” said Tabares. “It was very much trial and error.”

Fortunately, she received guidance from a nonprofit lawyer, and Falon reached out to anyone she thought could help her establish this new organization.

“I was eager to learn, contribute and use as many resources as available,” Tabares said. “That has helped me become the leader I am today –– teaching me that obstacles are merely opportunities in disguise.”

Tabares is no stranger to challenges. She was a single mother to her first daughter for over four years before marrying her husband in 2020. That same year, they welcomed another daughter, who is autistic and non-verbal. Their daughter goes to therapy five times a week, often for three hours at a time. The flexible schedule her new career offers is essential to Tabares. While she admits the challenges can feel overwhelming, she appreciates what her youngest brings to the family.

“She’s helped us see the world in a different and more beautiful light,” Tabares said.

The Healthy Earth officially launched in October 2020. Tabares and her board members made connections at local schools and churches, applied for grants, collaborated with companies for corporate volunteer programs and hit college campuses for feedback. She was impressed by environmentally aware FGCU students who suggested beach and reef cleanups, which Tabares quickly put into action.

Another early effort was facilitating a community garden at the YMCA Bonita Springs Early Learning Center –– an initiative that has since expanded to eight other centers.

“I wholeheartedly believe those two experiences provided me with insights and connections that have helped shape The Healthy Earth,” Tabares said.

Tabares poses with her mother_ Janet after receiving the INCredible Award from SWFL_ Inc. in 2022.

Tabares poses with her mother,  Janet after receiving the Incredible Award from SWFL Inc. in 2022.

Tabares credits the 1,200 volunteers who committed to making each project a success. The Healthy Earth collected more than 7,600 pounds of marine debris in 2023, and the organization’s YMCA garden programs have grown 150 pounds of fresh foods. Children at the Early Learning Centers get to grow, harvest and eat those fresh foods for snacks –– and take the surplus home.

“We want to teach them, make them feel welcome, and give them the tools they need to learn,” Tabares said.

For her inspiring efforts, Tabares was nominated by her Leadership SWFL peers for the INCredible Award in 2022. She was also named to the Gulfshore Business 40 Under 40 Class of 2023. The Community Foundation of Cape Coral presented Tabares with the Generational Leadership Award in 2023 and awarded a grant to The Healthy Earth.

The next big event for The Healthy Earth is a Memorial Day weekend beach cleanup at Bonita Beach Park on Saturday, May 25, from 9:30-11 a.m. Everything that is needed, including tools, snacks, water and sunscreen, are provided. To learn more about upcoming events, visit www.thehealthyearth.org.

 

Leading by Example

Jamie Hoover_ Personal Health Advocate_ Lee Health

Jamie Hoover, Personal Health Advocate Lee Health

For Bella Terra resident Jamie Hoover, growing up in small-town Iowa consisted of a large blended family and lots of sports. Hoover held her own amongst eight siblings and the neighborhood boys, and she excelled at basketball and softball, earning scholarships at Waldorf University, where she earned a degree in children’s wellness.

Fresh out of college, Hoover was a teaching assistant at her high school alma mater. She also taught CPR and trained for a triathlon before obtaining her graduate degree.

After getting married in 2013, Hoover’s husband was transferred to Naples, with a move to Estero in 2016. Her family of four will soon increase to five –– Hoover is expecting her third child in September. The duties that go along with a young family is enough to fill anyone’s plate, but Hoover is also a dedicated personal health advocate at the Lee Health Healthy Life Center and an American Heart Association instructor.

Nearly a decade ago, Hoover was the youth programs director at the Bonita Springs YMCA, then became a child advocate with Golisano Children’s Hospital, focusing on preventable injuries for children, car seat safety and safe swimming education. In 2016, Hoover spearheaded Project ADAM, a nationwide initiative that assists schools and communities in establishing and practicing a plan to respond to a sudden cardiac arrest, including the installation of Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) in public places and athletic fields. Hoover coordinated the project for the children’s hospital, establishing relationships with schools and Lee County EMS, which provided training. Today, every public school in Lee County participates in Project ADAM.

While on maternity leave five years ago, an opportunity arose to join the Healthy Life Center at Lee Health Coconut Point, a perfect fit for Hoover’s educational background and passions.

“The focus of what I’d like to share with the community is the educational piece of how to live a healthier lifestyle,” Hoover said. “This healthcare system has a very large influence around the community. I saw lots of potential in how I could contribute.”

Last year, Hoover taught CPR to over 600 individuals in hour-long classes. Her goal was to empower people through education on the effectiveness of CPR and AED use. In February 2024, Lee County Public Safety launched the Heart Smart Lee County campaign, a community-driven effort to improve cardiac arrest response and outcomes. This initiative uses hands-only CPR and emergency response procedures to educate the public on the importance of immediate intervention in cardiac arrest incidents.

Jamie Hoover teaches a CPR class

Jamie Hoover teaches a CPR class

Recently, there were five incidents within Estero and Fort Myers gated communities where AEDs were used to save lives.

“Many organizations are part of the Heart Smart committee,” Hoover said. “We’ve got FSW and FGCU, Lee County School District, the (Lee County) Health Department, Lee County EMS, and Lee Health, of course.”

Hoover credits her high school basketball coach with pushing her to reach her potential and believe in herself. He had a profound impact on her as he led by example. Being a mother, Hoover strives to be a healthy role model for her children, setting appropriate boundaries and constantly learning.

“All of those hats –– the mother hat, the wife hat, the friend hat –– all of them that we wear,” she said. “We need to be humble enough to evolve with it all.”

 

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