Women’s Board founder celebrates 100th birthday

Women’s Board founder celebrates 100th birthday
Ellen Cavert (seated) celebrated her 100th birthday with a small group of family. From left: Scott Wooten; Grace Martin Sarber, granddaughter; Grace Cavert Nelson, daughter, and former Senator Bill Nelson (both on phone); Dr. Mark Gould; Ellen Gould, granddaughter; Albert McCaffrey; Mac Walters, great grandson; BaBa Cavert McCaffrey, daughter; August and Luke Gould, great grandsons; Josephine Sarber, great granddaughter; Richard Sarber, great grandson (front).

Ellen Cavert, founder of The Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital, marked her 100th birthday June 30 with close family members and a quiet celebration over strawberry crème cake and ice cream, her favorite. Her family sang an exuberant rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and she was also able to view a video of birthday greetings from family members unable to attend in person. But perhaps most important, the centennial occasion gave some of her closest friends the opportunity to reflect on the special person she is and what she means to the Jacksonville community.

Forty-eight years ago, Cavert’s 8-day-old granddaughter, Abbie, died at Wolfson Children’s Hospital because the facility did not have the proper equipment to care for the needs of critically ill newborns. Cavert’s daughter, Ray Martin, had given birth two months prematurely to twin girls, Abbie and Annie, and Cavert watched anxiously while the tiny babies struggled to survive by taking turns on a ventilator designed for an adult. At the time, Wolfson had no neonatal equipment to support even one premature infant, let along two. After Abbie died, Annie was transported in an incubator in the back of her parent’s station wagon to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where she regained her strength and eventually returned home. 

Determined no other family would have to experience such a loss, Cavert hand-picked 40 of her friends and family who she knew had a heart for children, and The Women’s Board at Wolfson Children’s Hospital was born. Its mission is to raise funds so that every sick child in Northeast Florida can have access to the best healthcare possible.

Now nearly 50 years old, The Women’s Board probably would not continue to exist without the sustained commitment and motivation of the women Cavert brought to the organization, said Hugh Greene, retired CEO and president of Baptist Health. Greene, who called Cavert “a force” when it comes to fundraising, said her intense faith in God was instrumental in the board’s success. He recalled that the 1989 meeting where he met her for the first time began with prayer.

“I was the new chief operating officer and a relatively young man,” he remembered. “She came in, and we sat at a conference table and she said, ‘before we begin, is it okay if I begin with a prayer?’ She came next to me, got on her knees physically, reached out and held my hand and her prayer involved praying for me in my new job and praying for the children at Wolfson,” he said. “I tell that story because of the inseparability of her own faith and the mission she owned. You just don’t run into people who have that sort of sustained commitment and the force to motivate and inspire others. The people at Baptist Health and Wolfson will always be eternally grateful to Ellen and the difference she has made in children’s healthcare,” he said. 

Greene also added that throughout the years, representatives from other children’s hospitals have visited Wolfson in an effort to figure out how to duplicate its Women’s Board. 

“We would always say, ‘you don’t understand, but you don’t have Ellen Cavert. She’s not duplicatable.’”

Karen Wolfson, a former president of The Women’s Board, first met Cavert in 1985 through her mother-in-law, Hazel Wolfson, a founding member of The Women’s Board. “Ellen is a determined, compassionate, and passionate person,” Wolfson said. “She has a total reliance on God and the mission He had for her in relation to the children’s hospital. She is someone who takes a personal interest in people. She wants to know what you are doing, and she is a huge motivator for that reason. With her, you don’t look at what you can’t do, only what you can do,” she said, adding that she would often visit Cavert and her husband, Tillman, when she was board president. “She would help give you a perspective and a way to think about something, perhaps a new approach,” Wolfson said. “I would leave energized every time. Ellen is someone who, for me, has taught me the joy of living every day and that there is joy in every day you live. For her it isn’t thinking, ‘ain’t it awful,’ but ‘what is the joy that is in this event? What can we do that is positive?”

Susan Smathers concurred. Smathers, who first met Cavert years ago when she was a worker on Bill Nelson’s Congressional campaign, said she was immediately impressed by Cavert, who was introduced as Nelson’s mother-in-law. “She struck me as a gracious, elegant lady who had not lost her common touch. I was a grown woman who had just graduated from law school, but I thought, ‘when I grow up, I want to be like her.’”

 After Smathers married her husband Bruce, who was Nelson’s roommate at Yale, she moved to Jacksonville. She decided to look Cavert up and join The Women’s Board. “Ellen was a person who would not take no for an answer when she was asking people for financial assistance or in-kind donations in the early years,” she recalled. “People were willing to help, and Ellen would always say, ‘who can say no to sick children?’ We would literally get butter and sugar donated for an opening night party, and all of that was coming from Ellen. We learned it from her,” she continued. “When the party was over, we tried to sell everything if it wasn’t nailed down to reduce our expenses. It would mean more money for the children’s hospital. She has a sweet and infectious spirit and was able to use that to galvanize many other women and men to action.”  

Greene agreed. “Ellen is not the first person who has had such a tragedy, and people do make an impact with the funds they create, but there are very few examples of this kind of commitment being sustained over a number of years and the ability to motivate and inspire others to become involved in what you care about,” he said. “That’s what differentiates Ellen from other people who have done great work that has emanated out of personal tragedy. In her case, she was able to make a lasting, ongoing, never-ending difference and bring people with her. That is the reason we must pay tribute.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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