Teenagers Emanuel and Marvin Ramos Jr. are growing up in Naples without their parents, and their plight tugged so severely at Laura Barnard’s heart that she sprang into action to create a charity to help other children who face similar challenges.
The retired special education teacher, who also taught English as a second language, had hired the boys’ father to paint her house, then later discovered that he had been deported in 2017 after living in Naples for 20 years. Emanuel and Marvin’s mother, and their 3-year-old brother, returned to Guatemala after she learned that her husband was in the hospital. But she left the older boys behind—they’re American citizens—in hopes that they would have a better life.
“I wanted to see what I could do to help this family,” Barnard says. “So I started calling immigration attorneys in town. I was directed to Sister Maureen Kelleher, who’s an attorney with Legal Aid Service of Collier County. There are so many good charities here that people get involved in, but after I met Sister Maureen, I knew this is what I had to do. She was my spark. She’s like Mother Teresa, but she’s a lawyer.”
What Barnard did was rally a group of artists to donate items for an auction to benefit Legal Aid. She’d taken up painting as a hobby and figured her passion would be the perfect way to fuel her philanthropic goal.
“I went to Phil Fisher’s gallery, told him the story, and asked if he thought people would donate art to help,” says Barnard, who moved to the Paradise Coast from Connecticut in 1993. Fisher gave her 10 names, and then a second Naples-based painter, Paul Arsenault, jumped in to help.
Says Eileen Arsenault, who owns Arsenault Studio & Banyan Arts Gallery with her husband: “We feel strongly that there are a lot of people who don’t get justice because they can’t afford lawyers. To have a group in the community that can help people get that representation just makes the world more fair for everybody.”
The Arsenaults hosted a party for the artists at their gallery in February to launch the first Art Aid Naples online auction that featured pieces by 30 local artists and raised more than $25,000. This season’s auction, which will be held February 8-16, will showcase donations from 45 artists and counting. “This has touched a lot of hearts since it started because people are realizing that what we’re doing is helping so many families,” Barnard says. “The artists want to be a part of it.”
Legal Aid helped Emanuel, 16, get his uncle appointed as legal guardian. His brother, Marvin Jr., is now 18. In addition to helping immigrants, the organization provides free civil legal advice to all Collier County residents based on need. Attorneys represent everyone from low-income families and children to veterans and victims of domestic abuse. They also assist senior citizens with Medicare and Medicaid issues, help with housing issues, protect victims of trafficking, assist with deportation issues, and more.
Barnard hopes that this season’s Art Aid Naples, which includes a second event called Quick Draw on November 23 at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, will raise even more money. Quick Draw will feature more than 25 artists who’ll spend just three hours creating a painting that will immediately be auctioned to guests.
Kelleher, who retired from Legal Aid this year but still volunteers there, has been helping Collier County residents since 1984. Based in Immokalee, the 81-year-old nun became a lawyer to assist the poor and those without legal papers. “Thanks to the money from Art Aid Naples along with other new funding, we now have the ability to handle many more cases,” she says. While Barnard insists that the nun is the driving force behind the fundraiser, Kelleher credits the former teacher.
“Laura is so committed because of her personal experience of seeing a family divided by deportation,” Kelleher says. “Laura has an inspiration from the family that she knew. She is so on fire with her mission that she brings people along.”
Some of those people include local artists such as Dennis Goodman, Cynthia and Steve Adams, Cesar Aguilera, and Popo Flanigan, who will donate her art again this year for the online auction and participate in Quick Draw. “What I like about it is that everyone needs help from time to time,” she says. “It’s really wonderful that they have such a thing for people who can’t afford a lawyer.” Aguilera, curator at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers for two years, will be joining the effort for the first time this season and is recruiting other artists. “I think, being an immigrant myself, that I know what people might go through,” he says. “I definitely want to help people who have fewer resources.”
Barnard, meanwhile, recruited help as well when she launched the event. Her husband, Rick, created the website (artaidnaples.com), and her daughter Emily Rose wrote the press releases. Other volunteers produced videos and handled social media.
“It was heartbreaking for me to see parents and children separated,” she says. “I feel like I have a really charmed life. I get to travel. I get to play tennis. I get to do my art. But these things don’t fulfill me like teaching did. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I wasn’t doing something to help.” «