Giving back is woven into Stefanie Ink Edwards’ DNA. So, it comes as no surprise she was nominated for and received Florida Gulf Coast University’s 2022 Alumni of Distinction Award, which honors a graduate who has upheld the tradition of excellence through personal accomplishment, professional achievement and/or humanitarian service.
Of the recognition, Edwards said, “It’s a very humbling experience. There are so many incredible people who come through FGCU, graduate, go out in the world and do amazing things.”
It is clear in talking with her, this 2008 marketing grad feels privileged to be included in this celebrated group of recipients. It is also clear to speak with Edwards is to begin to understand what giving back really means.
Edwards is chief executive officer of Community Cooperative in Fort Myers, an organization committed to eliminating hunger and homelessness in Southwest Florida. The nonprofit’s impact is powerful. In Lee County, one in six residents need food assistance. In 2021 alone, the Community Cooperative assisted more than 42,226 residents, providing more than 2 million pounds of food to neighbors in need.
Her position requires compassion, commitment, focus and, importantly, a willingness to work hard in service of others. At no time are these qualities needed more than during a massive community crisis – like a pandemic or Hurricane Ian. Managing the fallout of these disasters, along with the everyday reality of homelessness and widespread food insecurity, is a monumental challenge.
Leadership is, in fact, one of the factors influencing the committee responsible for choosing the Alumni of Distinction. “Stefanie’s application caught the committee’s attention,” said Kimberly Wallace, senior director of Alumni Relations at FGCU. “No matter what the hurdle is, Stefanie thinks creatively and finds solutions. Nothing stops her.
“She is a fearless leader, the epitome of how FGCU cares about others and serves. And she does it in such a way that’s it’s not about her, it’s about the cause.”
At no time was her leadership more needed and more visible than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and her staff and their army of volunteers stepped up to serve an entire community in dire need.
“We had a disaster plan in place,” said Edwards, “so when the pandemic hit, we were ready.”
However, they couldn’t have predicted the disaster lasting more than two years.
“No one could anticipate what COVID was going to look like. The goal post was constantly moving. Our mission is to help people in crisis,” she said, regardless of the difficulties.
“We had to overcome serious obstacles,” she said. “So many people were out of work, scared, living paycheck to paycheck. It was overwhelming. But there’s a lot of good in the community still.”
Edwards remembers how school closures were announced on a Friday, effective the following Monday. “Our plan was not just about collecting additional food. It also looked at how to deploy to neighborhoods we don’t normally serve and to people who never needed our services,” she said.
Working on the front lines, her staff and volunteers managed to serve thousands of families in the first week alone. But that need did not go away. However, with Edwards’ leadership and the dedication and commitment of staff and volunteers, they continued to find creative ways to get the job done.
Ian presented additional challenges. For starters, damaging winds and flooding threatened the organization’s Meals on Wheels delivery program, which feeds predominantly homebound seniors. The solution? Edwards foresaw Ian’s potential disruption of food distribution, so she orchestrated the assembling of hurricane kits including additional food and water to be delivered early.
One of Edwards’ proudest achievements, she said, was immediately creating the Lee County Strong Fund.
“We bought a URL and started fundraising to bring dollars into the community to provide relief and long-term recovery assistance to people impacted by the storm immediately,” she said.
As a result, the organization was able to help many individuals in danger of losing their homes or cars, or who were unable to pay water and power bills.
Edwards credits her family with imbuing in her the feeling of responsibility to give back.
“Generations of my family were great givers,” she said. But she also acknowledges the impact of FGCU’s focus on service-learning: “FGCU has a culture of giving.”
Wallace would agree. “FGCU alumni do amazing work, giving back in such a way that it is felt by others, and that’s what makes it truly remarkable,” she said.
2023 SOARING EAGLES
Alumni of Distinction winner Stefanie Ink Edwards was honored at a campus ceremony during Homecoming along with the Soaring Eagles honorees. Soaring Eagles are alumni who, within 10 years of graduating, have made noteworthy achievements in their professional or volunteer lives. This year’s winners:
Laura Metzler (’12, ‘15 Secondary Social Science Ed and History)
Troy Bolivar (’19, Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship Studies)
Rebecca Sullivan (’19, Elementary Education)
Jacquelyn Larocque (’14, Civil Engineering)
Ashley Kurns (’20, Clinical Mental Health Counseling)
Jack Hellmer (’22, Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship Studies)