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Philanthropic women support special needs clubhouse

Mark Parker



From left: Christina Noordstar, co-founder of 100 Women Who Care St. Petersburg, Michelle Morales, founder of the Mr. Strong Foundation and Lauren Brigman, co-founder of 100 Women Who Care, at the Nov. 2 quarterly pitch event. Photos by Mark Parker.

Special needs children will soon have a specially designed, “FUNctionable” clubhouse thanks to the generosity of 100 Women Who Care St. Petersburg and a mother determined to make a difference.

In 2009, Michelle Morales’ son, Landon, was unexpectedly born four weeks premature. He suffered severe brain damage and visual impairment and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a sensory processing disorder.

Morales quickly exhausted her health insurance’s allotment of provided therapy services and struggled to find local assistance. In 2011, she decided to help other families encountering the same struggles and launched the Mr. Strong Foundation.

Morales, a St. Petersburg native, was one of three nonprofit founders to pitch their causes from the St. Petersburg Women’s Club’s historic ballroom Nov. 2 to 100 Women Who Care. While the organizations all received much-needed funding, Morales took home the $15,000 grand prize.

“This is life-changing for these kids and our organization,” Morales said. “This has literally been the best night ever.”

Michelle Morales (left), founder of the Mr. Strong Foundation, and 100 Women Who Care co-founder Christina Noordstar.

St. Petersburg’s 100 Women Who Care is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to uplifting area nonprofits. A search committee selects three from 20 nominees, and members contribute $100 at quarterly meetings.

The goal is to raise $10,000, and corporate donors provide a 50% match. Co-founders Laren Brigman and Christina Noordstar awarded a total of $18,000 Thursday night.

The Mr. Strong Foundation, based at the Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center in Pinellas Park, helps families afford specialized therapies. Morales stressed that “not a penny” of the money it raises goes to her son or volunteer board members with special needs children.

The organization also offers scholarships for summer camps and provides special needs classrooms with adaptive toys. Morales said the overarching goal is ensuring children facing extraordinary challenges have the same access to life-enriching experiences.

She noted that the Mr. Strong Foundation would soon host its annual “Snowapalooza” event. Morales said the nonprofit trucks in two tons of snow and creates a hill for children to sled down, “even our children in wheelchairs.”

Morales pledged that 100% of her award would help build a unique clubhouse at the Nina Harris Center. She said it would provide a fun and safe space for special needs children outside of a clinical setting.

“Our goal is to create a place where our children are not defined by their challenges but instead, celebrated by their potential,” Morales said. “There is nothing like the FUNctional clubhouse at any school in our county.”

Morales said the facility would remain open year-round and serve 165 kids. She also noted that 70% of the school’s students come from low-income households or live in group homes.

She said the facility and its specially designed equipment would cost $44,000. Morales has already raised 45% and said she could open the clubhouse in time for the spring semester with the 100 Women Who Care’s help.

“I cannot wait to tell everyone at school because it’s going to be the best day ever tomorrow,” Morales said. “Thank you so much – from the bottom of my heart.”

From left: Quenita Oats, executive director of Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay; Bridget Heller, founder of the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation; and Michelle Morales, founder of the Mr. Strong Foundation.

The other winners

While only one organization can win the grand prize, no one walks away empty-handed at 100 Women Who Care events. The Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation (SPPF) received $2,000 for second place.

Bridget Heller founded the St. Peterburg-based nonprofit to help close a widening literacy and achievement gap between African-American students and their peers. SPPF offers summer and after-school programs, with 80% of participants avoiding a summer learning loss and 12% advancing a reading level in eight weeks.

Girls on the Run Greater Tampa Bay received $1,000 for third place. The organization offers programs designed to inspire and build confidence.

Trained coaches utilize activities that accommodate girls of all abilities to build social, emotional and physical skills. The nonprofit also fosters meaningful connections while encouraging lifelong healthy habits.









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