It all began with a simple question: What do you need? The question was directed at Orange County Public Schools teachers and the questioner was Gary Landwirth, taking the first steps into what would become a success story among Central Florida charity organizations.
“He came to our school and gathered a bunch of us together and said, ‘We are going to start this free teachers’ store. What do you need?’ We gave him a whole list,” says veteran teacher Becky Reitzel. “Within a year, he had opened A Gift for Teaching and I have been there once a month for the past 25 years,” she says. “That’s a lot of lives changed.”
Indeed. A Gift for Teaching is a gift for underprivileged students and on Sept. 16, AGFT is honoring its 25th anniversary, though the celebration will last all year.
At its essence, it is a nonprofit organization that runs a supply store for teachers who serve students in the lowest-income neighborhoods of Orange and Osceola counties, says Jane Thompson, president of A Gift for Teaching.
Its mission is to supply the tools needed for learning. Pencils, pens, paper, markers, awards, incentives, toys, art supplies, those essentials. But AGFT also supplies students with items that cover basic human needs, such as underwear and socks and hygiene products, because a child who is ill-prepared for school is less likely to excel.
Thompson points out that AGFT is supported entirely by donations. It is a separate entity from the school districts and receives no taxpayer money.
A Gift for Teaching is a privately funded organization. Our funds come from a combination of individuals, companies, foundations and then what we call third-party events or special events,” says Thompson, who began donating to the cause long before getting a phone call to join as development director.
The man behind the program comes from a family well-known for its philanthropy. Gary Landwirth’s father, Henri Landwirth, a Holocaust survivor and Orlando hotelier, founded Give Kids the World Village in 1986.
The Kissimmee resort is a wish come true, giving terminally ill children and their families a free vacation to the theme parks. It is where Gary Landwirth cut his teeth in the world of nonprofits and it is where he found a deep desire to uplift children.
Longtime Orlando residents may remember the first seeds of that philanthropy, which grew into a little storefront operation on Corrine Drive. It was in September 1998 that AGFT first invited teachers in for free shopping sprees.
A lot of knowledge and thousands of square feet later, the operation is run out of the OCPS facility on Magic Way, just off South John Young Parkway.
The operation consists of a spacious store, meeting areas, a warehouse and distribution center, a mobile store called Pencil Boy and an online service. By all metrics, A Gift for Teaching is a wild success.
Some of the numbers tallied over the years could be surprising to those who were not aware of the need, says Denise Naranjo, director of marketing for A Gift For Teaching.
For instance, since 1998, more than $163.8 million worth of supplies have been distributed to teachers in Orange and Osceola counties, Naranjo says. More than 375,400 teacher visits have been made to shop for free supplies.
For the 2022-2023 school year alone, more than $11 million worth of supplies were distributed and more than 18,000 teacher shopping visits were made.
Reitzel, who has taught 20 first- and second-graders a year for 39 years, first at Grand Avenue Primary Learning Center and then at OCPS Academic Center for Excellence, doesn’t sugarcoat reality.
Her career has been spent engaging the minds of children in the Parramore and Holden Heights neighborhoods and being a consistent, trusted adult in the lives of our Central Florida youth.
Even with a free monthly shopping trip to AGFT, Reitzel spends thousands on her students. So imagine the impact a steady supply of pencils and paper has on kids who live in the shadow of theme parks they have never visited.
No one said teachers have to spend their own money. But they do. No one said teachers have to care about their students once the buses pull away. But they do.
And that is what makes A Gift for Teaching so valuable. It is a charity with a visible impact and Thompson says they couldn’t do it without the support of companies and individuals.
“I truly think one of the reasons we are such a wonderful community is that we have A Gift for Teaching here, something most communities don’t have,” Thompson says.
Being a special year, the team at AGFT has a lot in the works to show their gratitude.
“In late February, we are going to throw a street party back at our original site on Corrine Drive. We think that will be a fun way to have a nice evening of music and memories and friends with all the people who helped get us here. Our founder will be here,” Thompson reveals.
“We’re launching a few different initiatives. Some of them are geared for teachers, some are geared to our supporters. One of the things we’re doing for teachers is there will be 25 super-fun giveaways every month of the school year, thanks to our partnership with Universal Orlando. That’s called Club 25,” she says.
The goodies? Think class sets of something really special for all their students with some extra razzle dazzle courtesy of Universal.
“We are launching a $25 for 25 campaign. We have local foundations that are all big supporters that have built a matching pool of funds to incentivize people who want to give and have the gift matched,” Thompson explains.
Naranjo speaks of AGFT’s gratitude. “Our 25th anniversary would not be possible without the community. All that we have done is great and good but it would not have been possible without them,” she says. “It’s our birthday but we are thanking you.”