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The Power of Giving

When Jeanne Fortier moved to Orlando from Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s, she was eager to continue the volunteer work she was doing in her previous city as part of a social group that supported local charities. When she discovered that no such organization existed in her new surroundings, she was not deterred. She simply found eight other like-minded women and they started one of their own.

More than 30 years—and one global pandemic—later, the Central Florida Women’s League (CFWL) is still going strong and is continuing to have a positive impact on those who need its assistance the most, even during the past 18 months as COVID-19 has made it more difficult to fundraise. Now consisting of 100-plus volunteers, it has distributed more than $2.5 million in grants and scholarships over the years through its nonprofit arm, the CFWL Foundation.

Original founders like Fortier are still members, while there are several women who have been around for decades. At the same time, the philanthropy bug and leadership roles have been passed on to other women in the area who were moved by the organization’s commitment to giving and the sense of kinship fostered among its volunteers. The subsequent generations are pushing the CFWL forward while always remembering and honoring those who established the mission in the first place.

“It’s pretty phenomenal that nine women grew an organization so much that it became an entire foundation,” says Denise Crabbe, president elect of the CFWL. “Every penny that we raise with our events and fundraising, every donation that we get, goes to our foundation and that goes straight to our charities and our scholarship recipients. We truly are an all-volunteer organization.”

Crabbe joined the CFWL a little over 10 years ago when new members still had to be sponsored by an existing one, a practice that has since been changed. A friend thought she would not only be interested but could make a difference, and that turned out to be prophetic. “She invited me to a few events and luncheons and I really liked the ladies a lot and I loved what they were doing,” Crabbe says. “We all want to give back, but to do it in a group that is so much fun and where you build friendships [is also important]. That’s how I got involved.”

Lynne Pirrie had just moved from her native Scotland to Florida when a friend told her about the CFWL and encouraged her to join. It immediately helped her feel connected and welcome in her new city, and she eventually joined the board before chairing the social committee and scholarship committee and taking on her current position in marketing and communications for the group.

“The league has given me the opportunity to become involved in giving back to the community I have chosen to call home,” she says. “It has given me a platform to learn and grow as an individual. I feel supported and empowered by other league members who have added to my experience in making the league meaningful in so many ways.”

Then there’s Sherry Paramore, who has been able to reap the benefits of the Central Florida Women’s League on both sides of the aisle. She is the president of Elevate Orlando, an Orange County nonprofit that focuses on helping students from high-needs communities with their post-secondary journey, building long-term relationships with kids at a critical point in their lives. She first came across the CFWL in 2019 when Elevate was in the process of receiving a $30,000 grant from the organization, which went to funding a summer program to help eighth graders transition to high school. The program brings the students together to explore volunteer opportunities, college tours and job-shadowing experiences.

“It’s something outside of the school year so we didn’t have support for it, but it’s something that’s needed for those students,” Paramore says. “No. 1, it keeps them out of trouble, and No. 2, it provides exposure for them. We felt it was something we needed to do and the Central Florida Women’s League funds really helped us to do it.

“When people come from different backgrounds they really don’t know all the challenges that students face from communities of poverty, and generational poverty at that. They don’t realize the need we fulfill. When [CFWL’s members] realized this is what they were funding, it was amazing to see how quickly they supported our organization.”

Paramore was so impressed with the CFWL that she decided she had to be part of it. “I’ve been in the nonprofit world for 30 years and I know the struggles that especially smaller, community-based nonprofits face with fundraising. When I saw there was an organization that actually raises money to support these smaller nonprofits, I was really ready to jump in and help where I can.”

The CFWL has a granting committee that accepts nominations each year from the general membership about which local charities they would like to support. A thorough vetting process begins in the fall to determine if the nominees are legitimate organizations, and then the list is whittled down to 10 or 11 finalists. From there, the committee members take site visits and receive written proposals from the charities on how the grant would be used. In the spring, they usually choose seven to support, and the principals are invited to a luncheon where they receive the money and talk about their missions.

Crabbe has a hard time when asked to choose some of the charities that have stood out to her over the years, just because all have left a lasting impression. In addition to Elevate, the CFWL helped students at several schools in the Apopka area by providing an afterschool program and tutoring services. Another grant went to mobile mammogram services, offering free exams to women in low-income areas who don’t have health insurance. Other causes that have received aid include Matthew’s Hope Ministries, Happy Tails Farm and Canine Companions for Independence.

“The list goes on and on and on,” Crabbe says. “There have been a hundred charities we’ve given money to over the years. It’s very rewarding.”

The CFWL also participates in service projects such as contributing to Habitat for Humanity. One of Crabbe’s goals as president is to increase those opportunities and give members a chance to “get our hands dirty” at the charities that are given grants each year.

In addition to the grants, the CFWL can also assist nonprofits in a pinch with significant contributions. “We have something we call compassion funding, and I think this is unique to our group because we’re local,” Crabbe says. “Let’s say a local charity is just in dire need and there’s not enough time to apply for a grant or to solicit donations. They can come to us and we can give them $1,000 or $1,500. We did that with Seniors First; during the pandemic there was a real shortage of food that could be delivered to them. We also did it for an elementary school before the county got up and running on providing food for the kids who count on school for a lot of their nutritional needs.”

The other important way the CFWL gives back is through its scholarship program for girls at five Orange County high schools: Dr. Phillips, Ocoee, Olympia, West Orange and Windermere. On average, 10 scholarships are granted each year to graduating female students who have a minimum unweighted GPA of 3.0, demonstrate a financial need, and participate in extracurricular activities and community service.

“The personal qualities that always stand out to us are the students who excel in their academic achievement whilst working part time to save for college or help support their family,” Pirrie says. “[We lean toward] the student who is busy with extracurricular activities, clubs and volunteer work. Giving back to the community is particularly important to us, so a student who accumulated at least 100 hours of community service will stand out. We look for a student who will not only make it to college but one who will stay there, graduate and go on to achieve their goals.”

Pirrie adds the organization often hears back from these young women down the line, such as one scholarship recipient who recently graduated from medical school and is about to start her residency. She thanked the CFWL for helping her along the journey to becoming a doctor.

“I love getting to know the girls and sharing their excitement of them fulfilling their dreams,” Pirrie says. “When we interview the students and they share their stories with us, we are beyond touched by the courage, determination and strength shown by some of them. Some students have overcome more in their young lives than most do in a lifetime. I learn from these incredible young women and feel humbled by their achievements.”

The CFWL raises the funds for the charitable grants and scholarships in various ways, including with the help of generous sponsors like Southpark Dental Group. There are also two signature events each year: Power of the Purse, which will return in person on Nov. 5 at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, features a lunch with champagne and wine, a live auction and a silent auction; and the Taste of Windermere, held the last Saturday of February, allows guests to enjoy food, wine, beer and cocktail samples from more than 30 restaurants at The Grove Windermere. Both of these events are open to the public and sell out quickly, and tickets along with more information can be found at

Of course, the Taste of Windermere had to be canceled earlier this year and Power of the Purse was held virtually in 2020 due to restrictions from the pandemic. These two events normally bring in around $90,000, so there was concern whether the CFWL would be able to support as many charities and scholarships as usual. Thanks to the members digging into their own pockets, as well as a rainy day fund started years ago through mutual fund investments, the organization was able to meet its goals and will not skip a beat in its support.

A story like that is just further proof of the difference the Central Florida Women’s League has made and will continue to make in the area. Prospective members are always welcome to join the cause and support the mission.

“We’re very diverse in every way, from people who don’t have careers and have just been philanthropic most of their lives to professionals like doctors, attorneys, dentists and corporate [executives],” Crabbe says. “We have people from all groups and we’ve very inclusive. We certainly have a diverse community and that’s who we help, so we like to be a reflection of that.”