Piloting Philanthropy in Tampa Bay and Beyond

John Auer retired in 2018 after starting and growing American Strategic Insurance (ASI) into an ultra-successful insurance company in St. Petersburg. John has a passion for flying, and they spend much of their time flying to their favorite places, with John in the pilot’s seat.

The Auers are as passionate about philanthropy as they are about flying. John and Sheila have touched so many lives in the Tampa Bay community and beyond. Truly giving of their time, talents and treasure, they dig deep to explore charities for which they feel an affinity, seeking opportunities to provide meaningful, transformative gifts to elevate those programs and enrich the community.

Sheila’s father received hospice care in Ohio that allowed the family to keep him at home in his last days. Then in 2020, both John’s mother and Sheila’s mother received hospice care at the end of their lives. John’s mother was cared for by Suncoast Hospice, and the Auers felt a strong desire to learn more about Suncoast Hospice and all the programs in Empath Health’s network of full life care, including their newest project, a Veterans Adult Day Center in St. Petersburg. John and Sheila provided the lead gift, naming the ‘Empath Health Auer Szabo Veterans Adult Day Center’ in honor of their mothers.

Sheila started visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs for puppy hugging. She and John began volunteering, learning about the organization and ways to help. They rallied ASI employees for the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon. John served on the board. They helped fund construction of the Puppy Academy, where puppies are born an early education begins. They provided the lead gift for the John and Sheila Auer Training Center at Canine University, where guide and service dogs receive advanced skills training. When puppies and dogs show they would enjoy life as pets, they can be adopted. The Auers adopted their beloved goldador, Penny. Penny now serves as an ambassador at Southeastern Guide Dog events.

When Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas in 2019, the Auers felt compelled to help the islands they love. John recalls the situation: ‘There was so much damage – homes destroyed, no food, no running water, no electricity. They needed so much help.’ John volunteered to fly people and supplies to the Islands. Working with Sol Relief in St. Petersburg, which provides humanitarian aid and disaster relief with the use of aviation, John flew over forty trips in his plane, often two trips per day to bring generators, water, diapers, food, and whatever else was needed. They even housed Bahamian refugees in their own home until they connected with family members, and matched donations for Sol Relief. Rebuilding is ongoing and John regularly returns to help. John has also flown with Sol Relief for hurricanes in the Florida Panhandle. Through these efforts, the Auers have directly helped thousands of people affected by disasters in their most difficult times.

John and Sheila and their family are Ohio State University Buckeyes, through and through. Over the years, they have made gifts to their Alma Mater, most recently supporting the Ohio State Athletics Facilities by creating the Auer Tennis Complex.

Introduced to Feeding Tampa Bay by friends, the Auers were impressed by how efficiently Feeding Tampa Bay collects food that would otherwise be destroyed and distributes it to individuals in need, and by their efforts to help people get on their feet so they don’t continue to require food handouts. They hire and train homeless and others, helping them become self-sufficient. Together with his friend and business partner, they are principal donor for a new warehouse facility to help Feeding Tampa Bay meet the growing need for food and services in the Tampa Bay area.

ASI and Tampa Bay Watch shared a common office building in the early days. Their relationship grew when ASI served as presenting sponsor of their annual fundraiser, Evening on the Bay. The Auers continued to be impressed with the mission of Tampa Bay Watch and its Marine Center in Tierra Verde. They provided a gift to name the Auer Marine Education Center in Tierra Verde and the Terrapin Turtle Exhibit in the TBW Discovery Center, a special favorite of Sheila’s.

Sheila and John feel they have been very lucky in their lives and have the ability to give back and support organizations that help others. With philanthropic hearts, curious minds, and a desire to roll their sleeves up and get involved, the Auers truly embody the definition of philanthropy.

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