Helping to ‘level the playing field’
From education to healthcare to the arts to community efforts, Gasper and Irene Lazzara’s commitment to making life better for residents of Northeast Florida is evident through their extraordinary contributions. Since its founding nearly 20 years ago, their family foundation has given over $15 million in donations to more than 30 organizations.
Notable philanthropic gestures that bear their name include the Lazzara Performance Hall at the University of North Florida, the Lazzara Health Sciences Center at Jacksonville University and the Lazzara Family Fine Arts Scholarship Endowment at UNF, as well as scholarship programs at Edward Waters College and Florida State College at Jacksonville.
“A naming makes a very public statement about the level of commitment you have made to the mission of an organization. When it is an educational institution, it speaks to one of our core missions, which is to provide opportunity, access and an effort to help ‘level the playing field’ for young people in our community,” said Irene.
A former special-education teacher and a longtime member of the UNF Foundation board, Irene said one of their most fulfilling initiatives is providing scholarships to fine arts students at UNF. “With a belief that access and enjoyment of the arts greatly enhances quality of life, it is especially gratifying to help these talented students reach their dreams,” she said. Gasper, an orthodontist and founder of Orthodontic Centers of America, has made major philanthropic efforts to ensure that orthodontic treatment is available and affordable by working to increase the number of trained orthodontists and developing more efficient business systems.
Increasing minority representation in his profession continues to be one of his priorities. The Lazzara Health Sciences Center at JU houses the orthodontic school that not only provides quality training to orthodontists, but also affordable braces to patients in the community. The Lazzaras also support the United Way’s Success by 6 program that provides scholarships for children to attend quality early learning centers. Additional recipients of their financial and other support include Florida Theatre, where Irene was board chair for three years, Jacksonville Humane Society, Sanctuary on 8th, The Florida House and the Jacksonville Zoo.
“We also like to support events that utilize a lot of community volunteers, such as our hospitals and the American Cancer Society and Pediatric Hospice. These community efforts give everyone a chance to contribute in whatever way works for them,” said Irene. “It’s really about building community.”
“Their gifts impact not only the institution, but the entire community,” said Joshua Merchant, Ph.D., vice president for University Development and Alumni Engagement and executive director, UNF Foundation, Inc. “They have also demonstrated how important UNF is to their family by introducing their children to the university and getting them involved in volunteering, as well.”
The Lazzara family’s next-generation philanthropists – daughter Jessica Wynne, sons John and Christopher, and Christopher’s wife, Rachel – are following their parents’ strong lead. They serve on boards and are involved in efforts to support the library, MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation, hospitals and other charities. “It’s wonderful to see them taking off, finding their niches and having fun with it,” said Irene.
Jessica, an attorney for a private equity firm, will be teaming up with her sister-in-law, Rachel, to organize a fashion show and auction fundraiser for the Mission House. Actively involved with UNF’s Student Affairs Community Council, on the board of the Jacksonville Public Library Foundation, and a member of the Florida House Board, Jessica credits her parents for her interest in volunteering.
“Truly my greatest example is my parents; they both give their time and their resources to the local community and the national community,” Jessica said. “For so many of my parents’ friends, like the Steins and the Chartrands, this is such a part of their lives. Growing up around them and their examples of giving have been my greatest inspiration.”