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Special Pops’ Guardian Angels to celebrate 25th anniversary

By Staff | Apr 1, 2021

Councilmember Tom Hayden

The young woman’s smile radiated throughout the ballroom. As she danced across the stage, modeling her new outfit, that smile only grew larger. As she left the stage, her joy for the day was not only fulfilling for her but also for the hundreds of people in attendance.

This woman was a part of Cape Coral’s Special Populations program – and they all have a guardian. Guardian Angels for Special Populations organizes events, like the fashion show in March at the Westin, and other life skills and social programs. It raises money for the men and women in Special Populations. Guardian Angels is celebrating a milestone this year, organized 25 years ago on April 17, 1996, to help a special group of people with special needs and challenges.

When Guardian Angels was formed, Special Populations — now 42 years old — was the only city Parks and Recreation program in southern Florida. But the people behind Guardian Angels not only saw a financial need but also an opportunity to improve the quality of life for those in the program.

“We had a vision way before vision became a buzz word,” said Mick Sheldrake, president of Guardian Angels for Special Populations.

The group’s first fundraiser, just months after forming, was focused on buying a wheelchair accessible van. It asked for items like appliances, sports equipment, fishing poles to raffle off. Guardian Angels raised $2,500 that year, purchased the van and since then has purchased every vehicle and many more items for Special Populations.

The Guardian Angels’ vision extends to what happens inside the Freida B. Smith Special Populations Center located within Lake Kennedy Community Park. Named for a woman who was a pioneer in special education in New York, the center is the heartbeat of hope, developing life and social skills, confidence and self-esteem for the approximately 140 men and women in the programs.

It is a state-of-the-art facility as well. Everything inside is touchless from washing hands to how participants check in and out. Guardian Angels was able to purchase a robot that makes the process much easier and much more efficient. The robot can take the temperatures of the participants to help keep everyone safe in this age of the coronavirus.

Participants can take art and cooking classes, as well as classes that teach them how to handle money. During the cooking classes, they learn to shop and read labels to select the healthiest foods.

Guardian Angels also provides scholarships for people who have a financial need, to enroll in the programs.

The rewards for the Guardian Angels come in smiles and the achievements of the participants. Sheldrake remembers a young man, who was non-verbal, walking into one of the group’s social events. “This young man walked in and said ‘yeah.’ He really liked the music,” Sheldrake said.

Those simple responses mean the world for those in Special Populations and to the Guardian Angels. Over the past seven years, Guardian Angels has raised about $100,000 each of those years — including about $50,000 from the March fashion show — to benefit the programs.

The art program also has flourished under the Guardian Angels guidance. Many years ago, the group rented a lecture hall at Florida SouthWestern State College to show off the artwork of the participants thanks to help from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and inspiration from Vincent van Gogh. Since then, Special Populations artwork can be found on Sanibel and at the Southwest Florida International Airport.

“The interesting thing about Guardian Angels is that it is a trident for our mission statement: we are in charge of raising funds, providing volunteers and increasing community awareness of our programs and our participants,” Sheldrake said.

Guardian Angels will be breaking ground soon on an outdoor learning center near City Hall, sponsored by the Gunterberg Charitable Foundation. Under the Tiki Hut style structure, more programs will take place to improve the life skills of many Special Populations participants.

Not far from the new learning center is another dynamic place of learning – the Special Pops Café. Inside participants learn how to handle money, prepare food and develop other skills to the joy and appreciation of the customers – many of them city employees. A young woman, named Jackie, has worked there for over 20 years and recently finished her cash management class.

“She came up to me and said ‘Mick, did you hear, I got my certificate in cash management,” Sheldrake said. “You could just see the pride in her face.”

That pride extends to the approximately 45 members of Guardian Angels.

“Over the next 25 years, we hope to grow this,” Sheldrake said. “We are looking at developing a footprint in the community.”

Tom Hayden is a Cape Coral Museum of History board member and Cape Coral City Council member, representing District 3. He writes a column twice a month on the city’s history for the Cape Coral Breeze.