The friends met often for lunch or dinner, in recent years coming together mainly at Cafe Ponte in Clearwater — a halfway point in their busy lives — where the menu runs to foie gras, bouillabaisse and fine wines. Conversation typically meandered from family to politics and to the nonprofits for which they volunteered, but always it returned to how they could provide more help to those with pressing needs.
"We talked about how fortunate we were and that it would be wonderful if we could bring like-minded women together and make a difference in our community,'' said County Commissioner Karen Seel, who had been mulling the idea for at least a decade.
A year ago, it took form in Plus One, a philanthropy designed to provide help with a minimum of fuss and bureaucracy. Today, more than 80 women from across Pinellas County and even a few from Tampa belong to the organization, which requires an annual $500 donation from each member. The money is then pooled for funds for Plus One's community grant program.
The idea originally had been to ask members to contribute $1,000, but then the economy went into free fall.
"We wanted to be mindful of that, so we came up with a $500 figure and it seems that everybody is comfortable with that figure,'' said Nancy Loehr, manager of major accounts for Progress Energy and a Plus One founder.
Seel said the organization is judicious with the money it raises. Everything is done electronically, she said, and 99.5 percent of the donations go to the community grant program.
Plus One recently awarded its first grants to three nonprofit organizations. The groups, which together received $30,000, had been winnowed from 26 applicants seeking more than $320,000 in help.
"We were overwhelmed by the need,'' Seel said.
"When we gave the checks to the recipients, I just had goose bumps and tears,'' she said. "It's a dream come true to help others in need.''
Michelle Albino, 42, her husband, Di-Harrison, 46, and their two children, Caitlynn, 12, and Cheyenne, 3, are among those who benefit from the Plus One grants. The Albinos live in emergency housing.
"We were doing fine until about a year ago,'' Michelle Albino said.
Their lives fell apart after her husband, a lawn technician, lost his job, couldn't find another and their savings were exhausted.
When money for their Clearwater Beach motel room ran out, they eventually found shelter at the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater.
"If it wasn't for HEP, we would have gone hungry,'' Albino said, adding that she and her husband had been selling their few remaining possessions to buy milk and food for their children.
The $15,000 Plus One grant will help HEP provide temporary shelter to families like the Albinos and assist them in moving to permanent housing.
The need is acute, said HEP president and chief executive officer Barbara Green. Last year, about 3,000 adults and children sought shelter at HEP.
Plus One also awarded an $8,000 grant to Clothes to Kids, which provides free new and used clothing to low-income schoolchildren in Pinellas County.
Lighthouse of Pinellas, which provides rehabilitative services for more than 40,000 blind or visually impaired residents, received $7,000. That money will be used for an early intervention program for children from birth to age 6.
Joining Seel and Loehr to start Plus One were Judy Mitchell, a former business owner and community volunteer; Lisa Faller, president and chief executive officer of FKQ Advertising and Marketing, and Katie Cole, a lawyer with Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruffel and Burns.
"We all have a real passion for the community," Loehr said.
"All of us are on four to five community boards. This was just a nice thing, to just write a check. … There are a lot of female networking groups. This is solely focused on philanthropy and giving and there's no staff."
Plus One differs from a group like the Junior League, which focuses a great deal on volunteerism, said Seel, a former Junior League president. Plus One, though, does have occasional outreach projects, she said.
The group meets four times a year and has a committee that selects finalists for its grants. Recipients are determined by the general membership.
Launched a year ago at the Belleair Country Club, the new philanthropy is drawing a diverse group of women, including community leaders, homemakers and women from business, government and politics.
Members of the group include former St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers; Holly Duncan, president and chief executive officer of Morton Plant Mease Foundation; and Stephanie Goforth, a senior vice president of Northern Trust.
News of Plus One is spreading by word of mouth, Loehr said.
"I went to about 45 of my closest friends and everybody showed up and wrote their names on a sheet'' for the inaugural meeting, she said.
The goal, Seel said, "is to keep growing and to help more organizations and to help more people."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.