Lifetime Achievement Awards 2019 – Hospitality and Heart
Sandy Stilwell Youngquist connects community and charitable efforts.
By Melanie Pagan, Gulfshore Business
Photography by Brian Tietz
Here is the thing about Sandy Stilwell Youngquist: It’s impossible to list all of the professional and philanthropic accomplishments she’s packed into her life, so we’ll start with her two biggest, transforming the tip Of Captiva Island into a tourist hub and helping raise more than $ 18 million toward the creation of the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.
Stilwell Youngquist is the founder of Stilwell Enterprises & Restaurant Group and the developer of some of Southwest Florida’s mainstay restaurants and inns.
She’s been establishing businesses ever since she was 17 and launched a commercial cleaning business with a partner. By the time she was 23, she’d co-owned (along with her family) and then sold the SandCastle Inn on Fort Myers Beach.
Stilwell Youngquist moved to the area at age 2. She remembers what life was like here in those days. “You can’t imagine Cape Coral back then,” she says. “There were more alligators than people. We were the 16th family to move here.”
But Stilwell Youngquist knew this region would always be home, even if she had to develop areas herself.
“I love Southwest Florida and being a part of a community where I grew up,” she says.
Now, you can’t Cross into Sunny Captiva Island from Sanibel without encountering one of Stilwell Youngquist’s many attractions. She has multiple restaurants within walking distance of each other, plus Captiva Island Inn, the first business she purchased on the island in February 1999.
“This little inn, when I bought it, had six rooms,” she says, but it was charming and located in a place she loved. “I couldn’t believe it, finally driving over the bridge like, ‘l really own a place out here.’ ”
She has since expanded the whimsical hotel to 16 cottages, plus two five-bedroom homes. The rest of the businesses followed organically, with Stilwell Youngquist’s education from Cornell University’s hospitality program coming in handy along the way. Really, she started filling voids Captiva where she saw them.
“I started looking at the need,” Stilwell Youngquist says. She opened Cantina Captiva because the island lacked a Mexican restaurant and sold books at Latte Da Coffee & Gift Shop when the town had just a library.
Stilwell Youngquist has approached philanthropy the same way, embracing causes as varied as end-of-life care with Hope Hospice, to children’s health with SWFL Children’s Charities and its affiliated Southwest Florida Food Fest, to affordable housing With Habitat for Humanity. She also has a personal fund through the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to help fight hunger. A frequent figure at philanthropic events, Stilwell Youngquist has a track of lending a helping hand wherever needed. Twenty-six years ago, she served as president and on the construction committee of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southwest Florida, and about five years ago as president of PACE Center for Girls, Lee County.
Under her leadership, PACE moved to a new school that was 100 percent paid for in its first year. “It’s amazing how many girls we have helped that were struggling, and now they are living successful lives,” she says. “Ninety-five per- cent of the girls [at PACE] go on to live their lives without ever getting back into the juvenile justice system.”
At PACE. Stilwell Youngquist became close with 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Gail Markham, owner of Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. P.A. and co-founder of the Lee County branch of the organization.
Stilwell Youngquist succeeded Markham as PACE Chair more than a year sooner than she expected, Markham says. The hefty task might have thrown others through a loop, but Stilwell Youngquist took it on in stride.
“It was a huge responsibility for her, but she did it,” Markham Says. “She is always composed, positive and responsive. I admire her for that.”
It’s important for Stilwell Youngquist to be a part of the community’s moral fiber. “l grew up here, and I feel it is a responsibility to give back,” she says.
Stilwell Youngquist’s mentors and past business partners, James and Ellie Newton, taught her those very fundamentals, she says.
James, a Fort Myers Beach entrepreneur, wrote the book Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel &Charles Lindberg, based on his experiences with them.
“He taught me so many things that reconfirmed what my parents had told me, but from a friend’s perspective,” Stilwell Youngquist says. “He kind of set me on that path.”
Stilwell Youngquist now offers assistance to future leaders through her involvement on Hodges University’s Board of Trustees and Executive Committee and Florida Gulf Coast University’s School of Resort & Hospitality Management.
She has also prepped her two boys for success. The two have endeavors of their own outside of Southwest Florida, and she’s shown them firsthand what can happen with a little courage and conviction. “My parents didn’t hold my hand a lot. They would give me the ability and cut me loose and let me sink or swim,” she says. “l would like to pay it forward, and hopefully that tradition—which started with my grandparents—will continue on for generations and generations.”