Photo By Brian Tietz

FORT MYERS, Fla. (May 28, 2015) – Homeless and absent much of her senior year in a Miami-area high school, Yajaida Vasquez was almost a grim statistic: A young woman without a future.

But Vasquez was motivated and determined to improve her life. Backed by a strong support system of mentors, family, professors and even strangers plus scholarships she received from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation (SWFLCF), Vasquez attended nursing school and realized a dream of becoming a nurse practitioner and serving the underserved.

“I didn’t think I would be able to accomplish anything,” the Cape Coral resident recalls. “I started having problems by the time I was 14 until I was 17. My mother was struggling, and we stayed with different people for a few days here and there. At one point, we lived in the car. It was a vicious cycle, and I went from school to school. My mother just couldn’t make it.”

When she returned to school during finals weeks, Vasquez was given an ultimatum: Pass her exams – many of them in honors classes – or repeat senior year.

After graduating that year, she relocated to the Fort Myers area and found opportunity first as a volunteer with the Lee County Homeless Coalition and eventually gained employment as a medical assistant to Nurse Practitioner Sue Bingham.

“Sue is my favorite person in the world and the reason I wanted to be a nurse,” Vasquez said. “She taught me wound care, triage and how to take one’s blood pressure. I just fell in love with the medical aspect of it. She pushed me to go to school. Seeing the stuff my mother went through also motivated me. I didn’t want to do that to my kids. I wanted to make something of myself.”

A scholarship from the Homeless Coalition gave Vasquez the initial push. She also received three other scholarships awarded by the Community Foundation from donors who had earmarked the funds for students pursing nursing degrees and similar careers.

“The support and scholarships I received made me realize there were people out there who cared enough to help a stranger,” said Vasquez. “It wasn’t just the financial help; their support gave me hope, knowing there were people I didn’t know who believed in me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.”

Vasquez started her education at Edison College (now Florida SouthWestern State College) in 2003 on $1,000 from the John I. and Madeleine R. Taeni Scholarship Fund, a fund of the SWFLCF. At Edison, she found another mentor in the late professor William Polk, whom she credits for steering her toward the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. She became president and a member of Edison’s All USA and Florida Academic teams, traveling to Dallas for a conference and earning additional scholarships through her involvement in the community.

“It was amazing. I was seeing a world I didn’t know existed. Mr. Polk was a lifetime friend and he became my patient,” she said. “I did things at Edison no one had done before. We got the honor society from a two-star to a five-star rating.”

Vasquez continued her studies in 2004 with $500 from the Community Foundation’s Faye Lynn Roberts Education Scholarship. She balanced schoolwork with marriage, motherhood and volunteer work with the Homeless Coalition, which she chaired for three years.

A third scholarship – $2,000 from the Doris W. Frey Memorial Fund – helped Vasquez complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously at the University of South Florida, where she graduated in 2008 among the top five percent of her class. She also received certification as an advanced registered nurse practitioner certified in internal medicine.

At 41, she was ready to return to serving her community.

“I had this crazy idea to open a clinic,” she said.

Vasquez started Suncoast Medical Centers in Lehigh Acres last October. She already has several hundred patients and limits daily appointments so she can spend time with each one.

“I came to Lehigh several years ago and realized there was a great need here,” she said. “I believe in empowering my patients with information, letting them know why they’re taking certain medications so they can make better decisions for themselves. I refuse to see 40 patients a day. It’s not why I wanted to practice medicine. I practice so people get better.”

While reflecting on her life, Vasquez realizes she could have earned a higher grade point average in high school, but she remains grateful for the caring donors who established scholarships to help students like her.

Vasquez attributes her success to others who nurtured and supported her and hopes to one day pay it forward with her own scholarship for nursing students and a legacy for her children, a son, 20, and a daughter, 13.

“I had encouragement every step of the way, and it was always in the back of my mind that people, complete strangers, were giving me a chance. I want those who supported me with scholarships to know they made all the difference in someone else’s life by taking their hard-earned money and saying, ‘Well, I’m going to invest in someone’s future,’ because I was supposed to fall through the cracks.”

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation recently granted 72 scholarships through a competitive process to local high-school students, and undergraduate and graduate students from Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The remaining scholarships awarded were by outside committee and/or designated by school. Approximately $518,375 in scholarship money was available through the Community Foundation’s scholarships this year.

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About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation

As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $88 million, the Community Foundation has provided $61.2 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $2.9 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services. It granted $782,000 in nonprofit grants including more than $551,000 in regional community impact grants and additional $450,000 in scholarship grants.

For more information about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, call 239-274-5900 or visit