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End of an era for Ellie McCabe, driving force for philanthropy


Eleonora McCabe, the driving force behind philanthropy in Indian River County, has decided at age 82 to begin winding down the direct and indirect support she has provided over the decades to what has become one of the most generous clusters of charitable organizations in the country.

At a Luncheon and Legacies celebration last Friday at the John’s Island Club, McCabe shared that her board will meet on April 11 with one final item on the agenda – to approve the dissolution of the Robert F. and Eleonora W. McCabe Foundation. 

“Today is one more step in winding down the McCabe Foundation and acknowledging the impact our family’s strategic and heartfelt giving has had on countless lives over the past 61 years,” McCabe told guests.  “It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter; one that will always include charitable giving, but through a different venue.” 

The decision was made after careful reflection and consideration with husband Bob, her “most trusted advisor,” and longtime board members Bob Harris and Beverly Mastrianni.

And, while its dissolution puts a halt to the day-to-day aspects of running the foundation, the McCabes have every intention of continuing their philanthropy through a donor-advised fund established at the Indian River Community Foundation, one of many funding groups she has nurtured along the way. 

McCabe says she inherited a moral responsibility to give back philanthropically from her parents, Magnus and Agnes Wahlstrom. Her father, a self-made Swedish immigrant, co-founded an extremely successful tool-making company.

Resolving to assist the less fortunate, McCabe’s parents in 1956 established the Wahlstrom Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn.  McCabe eventually assumed leadership of the foundation, and in 2003 it became The Robert F. and Eleonora W. McCabe Foundation. 

In addition to daily foundation business, McCabe spent hours counseling other nonprofit professionals on the business of philanthropy. To streamline the nonprofit granting process for funders and recipients alike, McCabe and the late Richard Stark formulated the Donors Forum, which was later modified to become the Funders Forum of Indian River County.

For the past 17 years, the unflappable Lenora Ritchie has served as executive director of the foundation, helping to guide and strengthen existing nonprofits and form new ones.

Ritchie will continue in that same vein as Vice President of Client Services for Carter, a nationwide consulting firm that assists nonprofits with their fundraising, organizational planning and governance.

“Not working with her every day may be the hardest part of this transition.  Bob and I gratefully credit Lenora for being the wind beneath our wings; we probably would not have been able to accomplish all we did without her,” said McCabe, adding, “We are still actually glued at the hip and the heart.”

Over the years, McCabe provided office space to start-up philanthropic funders such as Impact 100, which essentially evolved out of her Women & Philanthropy Steering Committee initiative. 

In 1999, McCabe instigated the establishment of the John’s Island Foundation, which has since granted more than $9.2 million to support nonprofit capital expenditure needs. At a JI Foundation reception this past February, McCabe explained simply, “I went to the United Way and said, ‘What are the needs?’  They said capital needs; that nobody was really contributing funds for that.” 

The McCabes were among the Community Foundation’s initial 52 founders, who in 2008 each committed to donate $25,000 over a five-year period to fund its operating expenses. And, during its first seven years, the Community Foundation called the McCabe Foundation home.

McCabe’s affiliation with the Vero Beach Museum of Art is a long one, beginning in 1983 when she headed the capital campaign to build what was then the Center for the Arts. Successful in opening doors to the museum debt-free on Feb. 1, 1986, she recognized shortly after being elected Board Chairman that same year that the museum urgently needed income.

With the offer of a black-tie dinner and a Broadway-caliber performer, McCabe enticed roughly 100 of her closest friends to contribute $1,000 annually. Those friends became the original donor base for the museum’s Chairman’s Club. It has since expanded to include several Chairman’s and Director’s levels which fund the Museum’s world-class exhibitions and programs.

The then-Wahlstrom Foundation also purchased the graceful Carl Milles Sunglitter sculpture at the heart of the museum’s lovely Wahlstrom Sculpture Garden, regularly the site of receptions, dinners and even visits from Santa. 

Also on the cultural side, thousands of little children have discovered their untapped talents at the Agnes Wahlstrom Youth Playhouse, which in 1991 became Riverside Children’s Theatre.

“My soft spot is with my four-legged friends, and I’m on the foundation board of the ELC,” said Bob McCabe, referencing support of the Humane Society and the Environmental Learning Center.  “But this is all about Ellie; she’s done so much over the years.” 

Despite all their many other contributions – quite simply too many to enumerate – what might be the McCabes’ greatest legacy is in the area of mental-health services.

“For the past 16 years, the McCabe Foundation has directed most of our time, concentration and funding on the desperate need for better mental health services for our fellow citizens,” said McCabe. “Building from the ground floor a continuum of services in a fractured and confusing healthcare system has been our calling and passion.” 

In 2009 the Foundation committed $2 million to establish an endowment for the University of Florida Center for Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, which provides clinical services to residents of Indian River County and the Treasure Coast. They were also at the forefront of the Mental Health Association, where a Mental Health Walk-In Center provides immediate access to services.

And in 2004, McCabe was instrumental in creating the Mental Health Collaborative of Indian River County, a partnership of agencies working together to educate and facilitate, support and find solutions for mental health issues. Two of its four initiatives, establishments of a Mental Health Court and a Community Connection Center, have come to fruition and should stimulate the others, reducing mental health stigma and incorporating behavioral health into primary care.

“Through its 13-year history, this organization has focused exclusively on improving the continuum of care for mental health in Indian River County,” said McCabe, deeming the MHC a “crown jewel.”

At Friday’s luncheon, the McCabe Foundation made special one-time gifts totaling $670,000 to support organizations holding a special place in their hearts. Locally, grants were awarded to the Environmental Learning Center, the Humane Society of Vero Beach and IRC, the Indian River Community Foundation, the Mental Health Collaborative and the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice Foundation, and in upstate New York, where Bob McCabe was raised, to the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, and the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. 

Included in the funding was the seed money for an endowment held at the Community Foundation called The Fund for Better Mental Health in Indian River County, which McCabe hopes others will consider as a tool for philanthropic giving to generate financial resources in perpetuity to support Mental Health Collaborative priorities.

“Although we were never a large foundation, our community impact far surpassed our asset size,” said McCabe.  “I am filled with pride when I think about the organizations, initiatives and projects we helped over the years.”