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Cape women this year’s Grande Dame Tea honorees

By Staff | Feb 27, 2020

Three Cape Coral women will take places of honor next month at a fundraiser appropriately dedicated to making things better for the next generation.

Marie Ackord, Marilyn Stout and Barbara Watt-Biggs, selected for their roles in business, community and philanthropy, will be this year’s honorees at the Grande Dame Tea to benefit The Pace Center for Girls Lee County.

The fundraising effort first started in 2008, about a year after The Pace Center for Girls Lee County opened.

“The values and principles of the mission were so embedded in the female spirit,” the center’s Executive Director Meg Geltner said. “The Grande Dame Tea founders wanted to get the word out in the community about this program. So, they asked, ‘How do we do that? What do we do that’s different?'”

Now in its 12th year, the March 10th Grande Dame Tea honors influential members of the community who also get to mentor the Pace girls.

Pace Lee has been providing girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training and advocacy since 2007. The gender-specific, strength-based program is one of 22 centers throughout Florida. The not-for-profit organization has served more than 650 at-promise girls and young women.

“There are women in the community who make it what it is today,” Geltner said. “Why not find some of the top women in Lee County and introduce them to the Pace girls who have no idea what it’s like to be successful and come from an environment where you’re empowered and seek excellence.”

This is Geltner’s seventh Grande Dame Tea, which is presented by the Gunterberg Charitable Foundation.

Her favorite part about the event, held at the Broadway Palm at 1380 Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers, is that each year is different.

“You get to know the Grande Dames and their families,” Geltner said. “These are women who have impacted Southwest Florida. What I love is that it’s one event we have where the girls are center stage.”

It also allows the girls to get out of their comfort zones.

“Most of them don’t leave their ZIP codes often,” she said. “Knowing they will perform on stage, they’re exposed to the theater, they are going to be stars in the program. For them to walk out on stage and have the courage to do that, it is so powerful.”

Geltner says the girls exude courage they never thought they had.

“It changes them,” she said. “It changes their future.”

The Broadway Palm seats 450 people and this year’s tea is all but sold out. There are just a few tickets remaining.

“It shows how many people support this event,” Geltner said.

Last year the Grande Dames Tea raised about $50,000.

Proceeds from the event benefit Pace and its strength-based, gender-specific programs that guide Pace girls in finding their voice and achieving their potential.

Geltner says the money helps subsidize extracurricular programs.

It pays for things like a counselor, an opportunity for the girls to travel to Tallahassee to meet with their legislators, a program where they can potentially travel outside of Florida and be able to meet people and go on hikes in the wilderness, and for Pace to be able to afford to do things that allow the girls to be successful in their education and in the community.

The three women being honored on March 10 all represent the community in different ways, and they’re all from the Cape.

“This year’s Grande Dames are three phenomenal examples of women that have made great strides within their professions and who set the standard for community service through their years of impact right here in Southwest Florida,” Geltner said.

Marie Ackord, 81, was the first in her family to graduate from college. She moved to Southwest Florida in 1960 and has a 43-year-career in education. She taught math at Carver High School in Naples and at Dunbar High School, in North Fort Myers High and at Dunbar Seventh Grade Center in Lee County. She also was instrumental in establishing the Fort Myers Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

“If you look at Marie, she’s an educator,” Geltner said. “She was asked to be first teacher of color to go into all an all-white high school. Talk about courage. That’s a woman who, in my opinion, made history and was courageous enough to rise above many of the challenges most women wouldn’t have been able to do so.”

Ackord said it was very humbling to receive word that she was chosen to be an honoree.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with young people,” she said. “I’m just waiting to be able to go in and sit down with them and see what I can do.”

A piece of advice Ackord has for young women is to always set a goal and to continue reaching for that goal.

“Sometimes they might run into difficulties, but don’t give up,” she said. “Keep pushing. Just strive to reach that goal.”

Marilyn Stout, 83, is a council member for the City of Cape Coral. She began her political career in 1980 passing out literature for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. Over the years, she has fulfilled many leadership roles for political organizations including the Republican Women’s Club of Cape Coral, Fort Myers Republican Women’s Club and the Florida Federation of Republican Women.

“She has given her heart and soul to the community through politics,” Geltner said. “She’s used her position as an elected official to impact not only Cape Coral, but other women who share her political views as well.”

Stout said she is surprised and humbled to be honored.

“I have known a lot of women recognized in the past,” she said. “They are incredible.”

When asked what advice she has for young women Stout said not to give up on getting an education.

“That’s the key to success as you get older.”

Barbara Watt-Biggs, 83, is the founder of Century 21 Sunbelt Realty and a philanthropist in the Cape Coral community. Over the course of 36 years, she has grown the Sunbelt franchise from a four-person operation to a 400-person powerhouse covering Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties.

“This is a women who saw in Cape Coral what no one else saw,” Geltner said. “She had a vision and knew Cape Coral would be blooming and blossoming and expanding into what it is today. As a woman running a business for 36 years that’s generally run by males, she took Sunbelt and became the No. 1 Realtor in the state and the No. 1 Sunbelt in the world.”

Watt-Biggs says being honored is heart touching.

“These girls are an inspiration to our youth and I’m so proud of what they’re doing. The turnaround is amazing,” she said. “You do a lot of stuff in life. You can donate and all the things we do. When you see the turnaround, it’s just heartwarming.”

When asked what advice she had for young women, Watt-Biggs said it’s all about making a connection.

“If you can connect with the girls, you learn from each one of the kids. If you just listen to them and try to learn from each one, we are all so different but together it’s one big group.

“I’m just honored to be part of it in any way shape or form. It’s going to be fun watching these girls elevating to different levels of their lives.”

When asked what the event means to the community, Geltner said it means different things to each guest.

“It’s celebrating the female spirit and the impact the Grande Dames have had on the community,” she said. “All of us respect these women and they have earned the opportunity to be honored and what better event to honor them than at a tea.”

This year’s event theme is “The Wisdom of Time Honoring the Female Spirit.” It “represents the unique perspectives and powerful insight that these women have gained throughout their life journeys, and the importance of passing this knowledge along to future generations.”

The sponsors of the 2020 Grande Dames Tea celebration were announced Thursday.

Golden Tea Leaves sponsors are Broadway Palm and Eunice and Alexandra Bremner. Silver Tea Cup sponsors are Edison National Bank/Bank of the Islands and Ed and Connie Lizak. Fascinator sponsors are Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Company, P.A. and the Florida Lottery. Silver Teaspoon sponsors are Rebekah and Jeff Barney, Offshore Sailing School, DJC Insurance & Financial Services and Galloway Family of Dealerships.

Mark Loren Designs is presenting the beautifully designed Grande Dames pins for this year’s honorees, Ruth Messmer Florist is the Floral Design sponsor, Caloosa Tent & Rental is the Table Setting sponsor, Priority Marketing is the Public Relations & Design sponsor, Lady Cakes Bakery is providing confections, The News-Press is the Media sponsor, Red Door Photography is the Photography sponsor, and Jason’s Deli is providing meals for volunteers.

Admission is $60 per person and $500 for tables of eight and includes an afternoon tea menu.

The girls and young women of Pace have also created handmade tea party fascinator hats for guests to purchase and wear to the Grande Dames Tea, available through Pace Center for Girls, Lee County’s Facebook page.

To purchase tickets or to learn more, visit www.pacecenter.org/locations/lee or call 239-425-2366.