Mary Asta has performed as an actress and model in New York, California, Las Vegas and Italy. She was a leader at the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation in New York. But her biggest conquest might be helping migrant children lead a successful life here in Southwest Florida.
In her second year as the director of the Gargiulo Education Center, Mary has introduced a plethora of programs aimed at showing the children the many possibilities for their future.
Now she is hoping to secure the future of the program. She is planning a grand fundraiser at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples in February. Her goal is to turn the ballroom there into Le Cirque, a famous New York restaurant known for its circus balls and tent shade decorations, for its food and celebrity clientele.
“Le Cirque is an institution,” Mary says. “It is an icon. It has grown to be global. It is very festive. The cuisine is spectacular.”
Mauro Maccioni, co-owner of Le Cirque, is coming to the event here. All the signature dishes from New York will be served, Mary says.
“Le Cirque means the circus, and the school has been juggling its funds for years, and that has to stop,” Mary explains. “They have never done a formal fundraiser. To get some attention, it has to be something grand. After working on Le Cirque in New York, I said, ‘Why don’t I bring it to Naples.’ That is how it snowballed into that.”
As chief operating officer for the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research, she put together a huge event at Le Cirque in New York where Hilary Clinton was the guest of honor.
“It was sold out in a heartbeat,” she says. “I had so many parties there that it was like a second home for me.”
Mary hopes the Le Cirque event here will be just as successful. Besides the decorations and the food, there will be an auction. Some of the items include two nights in a deluxe suite in The Peninsula hotel in New York, two nights at The Peninsula in Chicago and a vacation in a villa in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Tickets start at $500 for the 120 seats available. Mary plans to wear a grand floor-length vintage Holstein silver dress to the event. But her beginnings were nowhere near as fancy or famous.
She was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and started modeling there when she was 14. When she moved to Las Vegas, she added acting to her resume.
“I went to a modeling agency there, and I walked into the wrong room, and it was an acting class, and I decided I wanted to do that,” Mary explains.
In Vegas, she worked as a model, a producer, an agent and a casting director.
“I always had a thirst for knowledge and was always ambitious, and nothing scares me,” she says.
In the mid-1980s, Mary went to Rome, where she modeled and worked as an actress.
“Valentino used to give me clothes every few weeks,” she says with a smile. “But I had to give them back when I was done.”
She worked on a film called “Run For Your Life.”
“It was the best role that I had, but it was never run in the United States,” she says.
From there, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked for a management company. She worked in Toronto as the executive assistant to David Carradine, known for his Kung Fu movies, like “Kill Bill.” She co-produced an art documentary in Monaco and did public relations in New York.
Everything changed when her mother was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
“My mother’s passion was caring for Alzheimer’s patients,” Mary says. “She got to see me do something that she was very passionate about. With all the experience, it brought me to what I was supposed to do.”
She started off as an executive assistant and quickly moved to president and then COO of the Fisher Center foundation. She also started a Parkinson’s Foundation. Her work brought her to Florida.
“My family lived here,” she says. “I had been coming back and forth since the ’80s. Ten percent of all people with Alzheimer’s live in Florida, so it was a great place to come and fundraise.”
She moved to Naples in 2007 and began her own patent-holding company called Master Poe Innovations. Through her church she learned about the Gargiulo Education Center and became a board member. Then she took over as director.
“At first there was no money to pay me, so I did the position for free and then someone stepped up with a donation and I got a salary,” she says.
At the center she oversees 60 children in grades K-12 along with teachers and volunteers. The center provides a nourishing meal, homework help and educational enhancements for the children of migrant workers in North Naples. The Gargiulo family pays the rent on the building and helps with extras, such as fixing the broken air conditioning, but Mary says so much more is needed and that’s where the Le Cirque fundraiser will help. The 2,100-square-foot building is crammed with students.
“We need more space,” Mary says.
Money is also needed for additional programs for the students.
“They have been juggling it for years,” Mary says about the organization’s small budget. “These kids are not going anywhere, and we can’t do juggling anymore.”
Mary has high hopes for the fundraiser and big plans for the future.
“It would be great to raise a quarter million if someone wants to be generous,” she says. “We would put at least $100,000 into an endowment fund.”
Mary also hopes the fundraiser will bring awareness that there are migrant children in North Naples.
“We are not in Immokalee,” she says. “Sometimes they get off the buses crying. They are discriminated against. I want them to see they belong here. They can go anywhere. I want them to see they can be a success. I think that when people know what we are about, they will want to help. This is for a future for the school.”
Mary says it is now her passion to help make a better future for these migrant children.
“When I was working, I said to myself, ‘When I’m in my 50s, I want to have my own school, so I can make a difference in people’s lives,’ and here I am.”