By Rich Pollack
Nancy Zarcadoolas was driving along State Road A1A a short distance from her Ocean Ridge home when she reached out to a higher power for guidance.
A longtime financial supporter of the Caridad Center west of Boynton Beach — the largest free health-care clinic in Florida — Zarcadoolas was ready to step up her community involvement as her three school-aged daughters demanded slightly less of her time.
“I said to God, whatever you have for me, let me know,” she remembers.
The very next day, she received a call from Connie Berry, Caridad co-founder and board chairwoman, inviting her to be on the board.
It has been three years since Zarcadoolas joined the board, and Berry says she has been a godsend ever since.
“Her heart is with us completely,” Berry said. “Sitting at a board meeting, it’s important to have someone who really understands the people we serve — and she does. She understands what they’re going through.”
This month during the Caridad Center’s annual Call to Heart Ball, Zarcadoolas and her husband, Paul, will receive the Connie Berry Award in recognition of their outstanding financial and hands-on support.
Nancy, 40, and Paul, a business owner and entrepreneur, have been supporting Caridad since soon after they moved to South Florida 17 years ago from Costa Rica. They met while Paul ran a business there.
It was during a tour of the clinic that Nancy Zarcadoolas found herself drawn to the organization. “It was an amazing place full of love,” she said. “I just felt I belonged there.”
Her sense of belonging drove her to go beyond writing a check. You’ll find her at many of the events the center holds for clients — from Christmas parties to Mother’s Day celebrations — where she helps with whatever needs to be done and gets to know the families being served.
“What I care about is getting to be hands on and getting to know the people,” she said. “I sit there like one of them.”
Born in Costa Rica, Zarcadoolas can speak the language of many of the Caridad Center’s clients — literally and figuratively.
“Every time I go into a room and see the mothers, I know what they’re going through,” she said.
Zarcadoolas was 12 when her father’s business in Costa Rica failed. Hoping to raise enough money for a fresh start, he moved the family to New Jersey, where young Nancy knew no one.
“We had nothing when we came,” she said. They relied on the community for health care, just like the families at Caridad.
“I know what it’s like to have Caridad there to offer free dental and medical care,” she said.
After a few years, Zarcadoolas’ father brought the family back to Costa Rica, where Nancy earned a degree from Universidad Latina in 2001, the same year she and Paul got married and moved to Florida.
Zarcadoolas will listen to the clients she meets at events at Caridad, hearing their stories and sharing her own.
“I talk to them and want to be involved with them,” she said. “I want to help them understand that this is just a phase in their lives, that this will pass and that they’re going to grow.”
It’s that connection with the clients, Berry says, that makes Zarcadoolas’ volunteer contributions special. “She attends all the programs and when she’s there, she’s working.”
During the holidays, it’s not unusual to find Nancy’s three daughters — Dorothea, 14, Athena, 12, and Paulina, 7 — joining her at the party for the families served by the center.
If there was ever any doubt that Zarcadoolas was meant to be at Caridad, it may have disappeared a few years ago when she adopted a family for the holidays, which includes providing gifts for the children.
Her mother was visiting from Costa Rica at the time and when Zarcadoolas opened up one of the folders, she saw that one of the children in the family had the same name she had before she was married and was the same age when she first came to the United States.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
While Zarcadoolas gives a lot to Caridad, she will tell you that she gets much in return.
“I feel like Caridad came into my life for a purpose,” she said.
If You Go
What: Call to Heart Ball, celebrating the Caridad Center’s 30 years of service in Palm Beach County
When: 5:30 p.m. Jan. 26
Where: Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, 100 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan
Honorary chairs: Christine and Bob Stiller
Tickets: $500 per person
Info: 853-1638 or caridad.org.