In a small community, leaving an entire estate to a small group of local nonprofits is newsworthy. But for John and Sarah Bartus, who recently did just that through the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys (CFFK), they were hesitant to grant an interview to the Keys Weekly. And when I sat down with them for half an hour to talk about their reasons, they made one thing clear: “This is not about us.”

Calling the two a mainstay of the Marathon community – and that of the Florida Keys in general – is an understatement. A founding city councilman when Marathon incorporated, and later a four-time mayor, trop-rocker John can be found just about anywhere that needs live tunes or a helping hand. Sarah, meanwhile, is a licensed mental health counselor and founder of Presents in Paradise, a nonprofit providing clothing, toys and other items to working families in need around the holidays since 2003. As they tell it, the two “got frisky over Rotary lunch,” and the rest is history.

The pair recently inked an agreement to leave the bulk of their estate to three Middle Keys nonprofits and a scholarship fund: Presents in Paradise, Keys Area Interdenominational Resources (KAIR), the Rotary Club of Marathon and the Leaders of Tomorrow Scholarship, an annual award for graduating Marathon seniors that the couple started together just a few years ago.

Given the bulk of the estate upon the pair’s passing, CFFK will be tasked with investing the sum, with interest and dividends going to support all four branches in perpetuity. And though no one can predict the future of schools or nonprofits, the couple said running the administrative side of their gift through CFFK will ensure long-term flexibility should the status of any recipient organization change.

Known in its early days as a Key West-centric organization, Sarah said both she and John were impressed by CFFK’s continued commitment to expansion throughout the Keys, pointing to the foundation’s recent support of Autism Society of the Keys, Habitat for Humanity and the “life-changing” work of Keys AHEC’s dental program, among others.

“I’ve really seen this movement – (CFFK vice president of philanthropy) Liz Brown is just astounding, and Jennifer McComb has been diligent and fantastic in trying to give support throughout the Keys,” said Sarah. “What I liked about CFFK was, first of all, I could designate where I wanted dividends to go. But also, if Presents in Paradise ever fell apart, they would have to find a similar program in the area, and then they’ll transfer (the gift). That was the big appeal – I didn’t have to micromanage how this happens.”

Unbeknownst to the couple until after the decision was made, their gift triggered an additional $10,000 contribution to Presents in Paradise, made possible by CFFK’s Jean Sterns Legacy Society Challenge. Named after a longtime Key West resident, this new initiative provides the first 100 individuals to provide documentation of a gift from their estate to charity through CFFK with an additional award of at least $2,500, based on the documented value of the gift.

“Together, John and Sarah’s story is one of humble and unwavering dedication to our community,” Brown wrote in a press release for CFFK announcing the gift. “As Rotarians and Take Stock in Children mentors, they know what it is to serve each and every day. And their legacy gift serves as a testament to their profound belief in the power of philanthropy to create lasting change.”

The Bartuses said they considered making the donation privately, but allowed CFFK and the Weekly permission to share their story in the hope of inspiring others to give – in whatever way suits them.

“The thing is, it doesn’t take a huge bankroll to make a little bit of a difference,” said John.

“You think about charities having to come from someone like the Rockefellers,” added Sarah, who said the spark for a growing nonprofit like Presents in Paradise can happen as “almost an accident.” But the key, as both reiterated, is to start somewhere, no matter how small.

“The problems in the world are so huge that they can seem insurmountable,” said Sarah. “You might say, ‘How do we get shoes on all the kids at Christmas?’ You don’t have to try and solve all the problems. Find your little corner and work on it, and somebody else will find another corner. You might say ‘Let me get shoes on the kids in Marathon.’ If you just start, it builds upon itself.

“This doesn’t mean that we weren’t able to leave gifts for our family members and other kids in our lives,” she added. “But really, any amount can make a difference. You may have nine kids, but you could leave a 10th to CFFK, and that money is going into a big pot that can work a lot better.”

“It will help take care of your favorite charities for years to come,” said John.

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