By JERRY MEISENHEIMER

Correspondent

SEBRING — Ten years ago, the name Nu-Hope pretty much was viewed as just another second-hand store. It was a semi-government organization funded mostly by donations. It was a place you would go to for used clothing. Wanting to change that image and make Nu-Hope of Highlands County known more for its elder care, Board Member Luis Fresquez decided to advertise for a person who could turn things around.

Ingra Gardner happened to see the ad way up in Chicago. Armed with a degree in elder care, she accepted the position of managing director. She was happy to get away from the cold blizzards and relocate to sunny Sebring. Since then, Gardner, almost single-handedly, has made Nu-Hope a recognizable force in caring for the needs of the elderly community.

Today, Nu-Hope operates two newly renovated thrift stores in Sebring and Lake Placid. Besides the stores, there are four meal sites that are available to the elderly for breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday. They’re located in Avon Park, Lake Placid, Sebring, and Wauchula. Seniors love to hang out after breakfast for camaraderie, games, and arts and crafts. Meals are even delivered to shut-in’s who cannot attend.

Throughout the Nu-Hope system in Highlands and Hardee counties, nearly 160 friendly volunteers work in the stores and bistros. Some deliver meals, some pick up and deliver donated furniture and appliances, while others help customers in the stores. And, of course, all this activity helps to fund Nu-Hope’s elder programs.

One of Gardner’s closest friends, Cora Schwingel, brags that along with her “Full of Life” disposition, Gardner really cares about the elderly. In fact, she brought with her a six-week program titled “Powerful Tools for Care Givers.” She encourages all her staff to go through the training to help them as caregivers.

Schwingel jokes that Gardner gives so much of herself that every once in a while, they go off on a road trip or a cruise to ‘rest’ her brain. She loves to go places she’s never been to before. Schwingel says too that she herself enjoys watching people’s faces when Gardner starts speaking Spanish to them. “You just wouldn’t expect it from her.”

Another passion of Gardener’s is her love for animals. She now has two small dogs and three cats. Recently, she rescued some kittens and bottle fed them every two hours to help them survive. Of course, she just had to keep one for herself.

While Gardner has no family here, she and her mom, who lives in Las Vegas, are very close. They talk on the phone nightly and tell each other of the happenings of the day. Plus, they like to go on trips together too.

It says a lot about a person when the people around them can’t stop coming up with praises. Here are some of the ones they assigned to Gardner: a real leader, fair, honest, ‘has a sense of humor with a beautiful laugh,’ capable, highly effective, organized, conscientious, motivated, well-liked, and on and on.

Buck Christian, a retired Nu-Hope board member, worked with Gardner for about three years. He professes that she is “exactly what Nu-Hope needs! She’s aggressive in the business world, and has made revenues grow. But mostly she’s done ‘leaps and bounds’ to serve senior care.”

Meanwhile, Fresquez commented that Gardner has been instrumental in changing the way Nu-Hope does things. Instead of renting locations for their stores and offices, she has made it possible for them to own their locations. In fact, a new central office building is being built right now behind Dunkin’ Donuts and Arby’s in Sebring. He said he is so happy that he is the one who hired Gardner.

Fresquez goes on to say that the board of directors has a high level of confidence in her. She is very efficient at getting matching grant funds as well. Another thing she has been praised for is the way she handles people. She has a way of guiding, mentoring and encouraging staff members and the volunteers. She makes people feel appreciated.

Gardner also likes to participate in things going on in the community. Somehow, she always finds a way for those activities to benefit Nu-Hope. If she goes to an auction, she comes back with ‘stuff’ for the thrift stores. She just doesn’t stop!

So, next time you’re shopping for a rare find at a Nu-Hope thrift store or, if you’re a senior, having a meal at one of the bistros, think about all the hard work Ingra Gardner has done to make it a pleasant experience. She’s definitely deserving of thanks!

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