Raising money to save the lives of children throughout the Southeast
Forty-six years ago, Ellen Cavert’s 8-day-old granddaughter Abbie died at Wolfson Children’s Hospital because the facility lacked the proper equipment to care for the needs of critically ill newborns. While mourning her loss, Cavert, a highly religious woman, became determined no other family would endure the unspeakable pain of losing a child in this way. Acting on an angel message from her Lord, Cavert recruited 40 women with “heart” to join her in setting up The Women’s Board as a fundraising arm of Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
“While Abbie’s life and being have always inspired us, I believe it is the Holy Spirit, God’s presence, that has guided my grandmother, The Women’s Board, and the work we do,” said Grace Martin Sarber, Cavert’s granddaughter and sister to Abbie.
“My grandmother’s faith was a vital component of her heart for Wolfson Children’s Hospital and her passion to help sick and injured children. It was the cornerstone of her founding The Women’s Board, and it guided her throughout each day of her leadership. I am quite sure The Women’s Board would not exist without my grandmother’s deep, abiding faith in and love for her Lord.”
It was in 1972 when her daughter, Ray Cavert Martin, was expecting twin girls, that Cavert became acutely aware of Wolfson’s great need for a neo-natal intensive care unit. Martin had no inkling that anything was wrong with her pregnancy until her water broke suddenly, leading to the birth of her babies more than two months early.
For several days it was touch and go as the two newborns struggled to survive at Wolfson Children’s Hospital by taking turns on a ventilator designed for an adult. At that time, Wolfson had no neonatal unit and no equipment to support one premature infant, let alone two, Sarber said.
Cavert supported her daughter by dividing her time caring for Martin’s two older children Grace, 4, and Charles, 2, and praying for the tiny babies at the hospital. After Abbie died, her surviving twin, Annie, was transported in an incubator in the back of her parent’s station wagon to Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
“Even though I was just shy of 5 years old, I remember it vividly,” said Sarber. “I was with my mom when she began labor, and I remember her fear, as it was too soon. And then my parents were gone for days. After Abbie died, my mother didn’t tell me right away. She waited until she was home, told me, and then ushered me outside to play. I remember sitting down in the driveway and crying, not really knowing how to feel. How could I miss this baby I’d never met? And yet, I did, and I hurt, deeply. I also remember the joy we felt in our home a few months later when baby Annie, whom Daddy called Peanut because she practically fit in his hand, finally came home,” she continued. “The joy of her gave us a reason to celebrate life.”
After consulting with Dr. J.W. Hayes, a Wolfson pediatrician now deceased, Cavert was determined to provide tangible support to the hospital charged with caring for so many sick children in Jacksonville. At a time when women often took a backseat to their husbands in business, Cavert hand-picked 40 of her friends and family, who she knew had a heart for children, to form The Women’s Board so that every sick child could have access to the best health care possible.
“As Granny said in 1973, ‘We don’t want this to happen to any other family.’ The loss of Abbie has led to the saving of so many children’s lives, and it is especially poignant that Abbie’s own cousins and nephews have been patients at Wolfson. My son’s life was saved by this amazing hospital, and I believe Abbie’s legacy helped make that possible. I know God causes all things to work together for good to those who are called according to His purpose. He absolutely has used the tragedy of Abbie’s death to bring beauty, for He is the God who brings beauty out of ashes and joy in the morning,” Sarber said.
Since it was founded in 1973, The Women’s Board has raised more than $32 million for equipment, programs, and facilities, and has grown to nearly 400 members, who give their time, talent and treasure. This has helped make Wolfson Children’s Hospital one of the highest-ranked pediatric hospitals in the United States, with acclaimed international recognition.
“Granny was very purposeful in her inclusion of other women in the community. Women coming together, supporting each other, and working together toward this common goal was a huge passion for her,” said Sarber.
Over the years, The Women’s Board continues to be heavily influenced by the way 98-year-old Cavert handled her job as its leader. Its members remain inspired her “Ellenisms,” phrases Cavert used to encourage her volunteers. Cavert’s famous sayings include many of Sarber’s favorites: “It’s not your job to fund, it’s your job to simply ask. Ask! Knowing that almost anybody will give money to a sick baby.” – “The purpose of service to others is really completion of oneself.” – “You can’t thank people too many times.” – “Don’t let anybody steal your joy.” – “Do things first class – it’s the quality that counts, and it’s what they remember.” Cavert’s motto – “Do everything with the Sweet Spirit.” – continues to direct the way the board operates today, Sarber said.
“The Sweet Spirit is a slogan Ellen created when she got her friends together. It’s something she wanted them to remember when they were planning an event and raising money,” said Executive Director Sally Parsons. “To balance all their different personalities, you need the Sweet Spirit. It’s so they will remember to ask in a sweet spirit that fosters volunteerism, and so they will work together as a team for the common good.”
Each year The Women’s Board generates more than $1 million primarily from its two signature fundraisers – The Art & Antiques Show and the Florida Forum speaker’s series.
Over the years, the board has funded many different parts of the hospital. Currently it seeks to build a new state-of-the-art, neonatal intensive care unit and has launched a five-year, $4 million funding target, may total $10 million once Baptist Health’s matching funds are included. “It’s the heart of why we began. What happened to Abbie would never happen today. The Women’s Board is instrumental in that,” Parsons said.
Sarber agreed the board’s fundraising has a tremendous impact but sees its mission as much more. “While our fundraising efforts have made an impact on Wolfson, I view The Women’s Board’s greatest role to be as advocate,” she explained. “Our untiring advocacy on behalf of this hospital, its incredible doctors and medical professionals, and the incomparable care they provide has been what has made us different. We are passionate about this mission, we believe we are the voices for the children, and we love to tell others about it,” she said. “The bottom line is that, without The Women’s Board, Wolfson Children’s Hospital would not be what it is today, and that is quite a lasting legacy to leave to one’s community.”
To ensure that legacy will continue, The Women’s Board has honored Cavert and its 40 founders by establishing the Cavert Legacy Society and Endowment. The purpose of the endowment is to support the mission of The Women’s Board in perpetuity, and its goal is to raise $7 million. “The Women’s Board is committed to meeting this goal by 2021,” said Sarber. A portion of all donations acquired by The Women’s Board will be given annually to the endowment until it is fully funded. Donors may also give directly to the endowment, and if they make planned or straight donations of $25,000 or above, they will be included in the Cavert Legacy Society as well as become members of the Society of 1955, the official legacy society of the Baptist Health Foundation.
Although Abbie is not The Women’s Board’s official namesake, Sarber said she has always felt Abbie’s spirit in its work. “I often ask God to tell her things for me, and, as I have served in leadership roles with The Women’s Board, I have in a way felt her presence,” she said. “I know her life was not in vain. I believe she is often on her knees before the Throne of Grace interceding for my siblings and me, especially for her twin, Annie, for those who serve at The Women’s Board, and for all the precious children at Wolfson.”