Family ties bind four generations to women’s board

Grace Sarber vividly remembers the sad day her newborn sister, one of twin girls, died when she was five. Now, at 47, she is president of the organization her grandmother started a year later to give other sick babies more of a chance. She represents the third generation of one of Jacksonville’s most philanthropic families, with her young children showing strong signs of bringing up the fourth.

Grace’s mother, Ray Cavert Martin, gave birth to the girls prematurely in 1972, when Wolfson Children’s Hospital’s equipment to care for them was woeful compared to the superior capabilities it has today. The improvement is largely because of Sarber’s grandmother and Martin’s mother, Ellen Cavert, who handpicked compassionate women to create The Women’s Board to raise money for Wolfson.

Through its Art & Antiques Show and Florida Forum speaker series and donations, the board has raised $26 million for the hospital. “We have just under 400 members and we are passionate about serving children,” said Sarber, spokesperson for her 96-year-old grandmother who still advises her on running the board. In June, Cavert received the Florida Times-Union’s EVE Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to Wolfson and numerous other causes.

“My family’s approach was to turn tragedy into purpose,” said Sarber. “We’ve loved the hospital our whole lives. I volunteered as a little girl. It’s always been a part of my life and who we are as a family.” As a child, Sarber remembers her mother volunteering, bringing babies home and nurturing them to better health. “That affected me significantly and is a huge reason why my heart is open to helping children who are not my flesh and blood,” she said. “We were raised with a very strong faith background and believe wholeheartedly that God calls on us to help others.”

Four decades after Cavert started the board, its members remain guided by one of her “Ellenisms,” the directive “Most people aren’t going to say no to a sick baby. Your job is to ask them.” However, younger members are also pushing for a bigger social media presence and a more interactive website, Sarber said, noting people are going to pull out a credit card, not write a check and mail it in.

“We have the most phenomenal group of young people—dynamic, smart, savvy and incredibly giving,” Sarber said. “I am so encouraged looking at the future of our board, hospital and philanthropy because of this enthusiastic group of young people.”

She could say the same thing about her husband, L. Johnson “Johnny” Sarber, and their three children who also volunteer for Wolfson and who have agreed to make her board presidency a family commitment. “Yes, this is going to take mommy’s time but they will learn through this process that it’s not always about us. Sometimes life needs to be about other people,” she said.