Naples Y receives fundraising boost from former NFL standout
Retired since 2013, Birk and his wife, Adrianna, are co-chairs of the fundraising campaign to create the Gaynor Early Learning Center, which will offer an innovative approach to early childhood education. Joining them as co-chairs is the facility’s namesake, philanthropist Laverne “Lal” Gaynor, a longtime supporter of the Naples Y’s early childhood education program.
Fundraising is in the early stages for the center, which will occupy a 24,000-square-foot, two-story structure to be built adjacent to the Y’s health clinic. It will feature classrooms tailored to preschool education and a nationally recognized instructional system, Creative Curriculum GoldPLUS.
There will also be covered playgrounds, access to the 20- acre campus’ nature trails, pool, gymnasium and other amenities. The health clinic’s medical-therapy services will be integrated into the center’s program to pinpoint and treat health and learning problems in their early stages.
“Our goal is $9.2 million and then we’d like to raise at least another $1 million, if possible, for an endowment that will enhance operations,” said Kae Moore, the Naples Y’s financial development director.
Organizers hope construction can begin between September and December this year, with an opening occurring in February 2019. The program is currently housed in portable classrooms.
“This YMCA facility is one of the finest in the country and when we complete this building, this will be one of the finest early childhood education facilities in the country,” said Moore.
Birk has been involved with the Naples Y since meeting its CEO, Paul Thein, after the 2013 blaze that destroyed roughly 70 percent of the facility’s community center.
“I didn’t really grow up with the Y, but Paul told me everything that was going on over there, their mission and how important it is to the community,” said the St. Paul, Minn., native and six-time All-Pro. “I’ve always been involved with the community so it seemed like a great place to jump in with. I spoke at a prayer breakfast to try and raise money after the fire and joined the board.”
Birk spent his career with the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens, with whom he earned a Super Bowl ring in 2012.
His off-the-field community service led to his being named the Vikings’ Man of the Year for seven consecutive years and receiving the same honor from the Ravens for his activities during the 2011 season. Birk also received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award in 2012. The NFL presents the annual award to honor a player’s volunteer and charity work as well as his on-field excellence.
Birk cited several reasons why the Gaynor Early Learning Center is an important project for Collier County’s largest preschool provider.
“First, Florida and Collier County specifically, rank near the bottom of having kids ready for kindergarten,” he said. “The second thing is, ever since I’ve had the NFL as a platform, I’ve used that to preach to kids the importance of education. With the integrated model of education and wellness, I think it’s exciting. That is something, if we prove it works, that could really change how preschool is provided. With these services, you can catch any difficulties a child is having early on and really put them on the road to success.”
“We think that with the facilities and the concepts we’re implementing, that we will vastly improve preschool readiness for these children,” he said.
Birk and his family, which includes eight children, settled
Collier County after he and his wife were impressed with the area during a 2010 visit to Marco Island, when the NFL Players Association held its annual meeting there. He was the Ravens union representative at the time.
“He’s really playing a major role in the fundraising for the new Gaynor Center,” said Moore. “When they say he’s the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year for 2012, well in my opinion, he’s the Man of the Year in Naples for 2017.”
To learn more about the Gaynor Early Learning Center and the Naples Y’s preschool program, visit www.greaternaplesymca.org/educationcenters.html.