Education is what brought Naples residents Don Fites and Joyce Hagen together. Married nearly two years now, the couple first met at a board meeting for Valparaiso University, where they are both alumni. Their passion for education also has guided their philanthropic involvement with The Immokalee Foundation.
When Fites visited the nonprofit’s Immokalee Technical Center, he saw an opportunity to help train young people to work with heavy equipment, a skill that leads to lucrative jobs that are in demand.
“There’s a place in the world for a lot of people who do not end up going to college,” says Fites, a former CEO of machinery giant Caterpillar. “I thought, what are we going to do to help those people?”
Answering his own question, Fites conceptualized and helped launch The Immokalee Foundation’s Heavy Equipment Technicians Program in 2010. He also contributed funds through his Fites Family Charitable Trust, and worked to secure collaboration with the Caterpillar Foundation, Kelly Tractor (a Caterpillar dealer) and the District School Board of Collier County.
The two-year program has yielded about 25 graduates to date, all now employed in the industry. It is just one of several ways the nonprofit assists underprivileged children of Immokalee with education, vocation and life skills.
“When you drive from Naples, 40 miles east to Immokalee it is like driving into a third world country,” Fites says. “It strikes you to see the wealth and beauty of Naples [contrasted against] the absolute poverty that many people in Immokalee live in. They are proud people. They want to succeed, and it makes you feel good to try to help them.”
At the 2014 Charity Classic Celebration, Fites contributed $200,000 in a matching fund to incentivize other donors at the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser. This year, Hagen will chair the November event.
“It’s about looking at the individual needs of the kids and being there with resources along the way,” says Hagen, also an Immokalee Foundation board member. “The dream is that they are contributing members to society, they’re able to realize their dreams, and if they want to get out of Immokalee and start a life somewhere else, they will have all the tools to do that.”