A young Jeanne Sweeney might have imagined motherhood as days spent blissfully reading to her kids, fixing them snacks, and shuttling them to and from the playground. But parenting came with an unexpected challenge; her firstborn was diagnosed with asthma, a chronic disease that required frequent emergency visits to Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan from their native New Jersey. This hardship, however, also launched the at-home mom into a new and unexpected role.
“My son was very ill and because of that, I was motivated to form the first lung association in my hometown,” Sweeney recalls. She went on to join the board of the state’s lung association and started a program in a local hospital to teach people with lung problems and their families about their conditions. “Like I always say, follow your passion and you’ll find your journey,” Sweeney says.
A passion for helping others was instilled in Sweeney from a young age—“I grew up in an Irish Catholic family; that’s just what you did,” she says. She brought that passion with her to Florida when she and her family transferred to the Fort Myers area in 1988 to follow her husband’s career. By the time she arrived, though, she was ready to move on from lung-related organizations. “The lung people did call me when we moved down here, but I had two young children to get oriented, my husband was starting a new job; I had to make sure everybody was good.”
But she wasn’t done with nonprofits—not by a long shot. Once her brood was settled, she got back to work, first for the American Heart Association, then as executive director of Charlotte County’s Council on Aging; she eventually became president of the Christian Chamber of Southwest Florida. Through it all, she says, she was amazed by the powerful relevance of nonprofits to Southwest Florida communities. “Everyone down here is either working for nonprofits or giving to them,” she says. “They drive the bus.”
In 2011, she was ready for another change. Says Sweeney, “I wanted to do something where I could teach business people about topics that would help them be better at what they do, in a place where they could walk into the room and feel welcome.” To that end, she founded the Above Board Chamber, which offers networking events, monthly meetings featuring panel discussions, and her own personal phone number—“So anyone can call me when life gets hard.” The chamber currently has 300 members, predominantly business owners, who get together at outposts in Naples and Fort Myers.
One of the chamber’s most useful and beloved programs, according to Sweeney, is its Member’s Check Up—a sort of one-on-one, semi-emergency intervention. “Every business owner has an Achilles heel, and there are times when they’re like, ‘What am I going to do now?’” says Sweeney.
“I set them up with professionals in whatever area it is—marketing, taxes, legal—who give them the tools to fix it, without letting the whole world know they’re having trouble.” Through this program and others, the chamber has nurtured an ever-growing group of business leaders who have, in turn, helped and nurtured each other and the nonprofits that bolster local residents and communities, in whatever ways they see as necessary. “That’s my mantra,” says Sweeney, “Look for the void in the community and fill it.”