By Matthew Hesters
Bob Levenson and his wife, Grace Dunlevy, seem to always be on the move. They actively volunteer with several local charities and make time for frequent travel. Both widowed, they met in March 2017 while volunteering for Hospice of Marion County. Levenson was chair of the organization’s philanthropy board when Dunlevy joined.
Dunlevy and Levenson had both lost their spouses to cancer a few years earlier, but their shared desire to help others in their area brought them together.
“Grace and I had similar philanthropic interests across the board and we hit it off,” Levenson said. “We were just trying to help people in our community. But we spent more and more time together, one thing led to another, and we got married by a judge in Marion County. Ever since we met, we’ve worked together on projects with a common interest in helping people. That’s just what we do.”
Levenson lost his first wife, Jeanine Pfammatter, to pancreatic cancer in December 2014. After struggling to find adequate diagnostic and treatment options in their area, Levenson brought his wife to UF Health to be seen by gastroenterologists. The pancreatic cancer diagnosis came quickly, and Levenson and his wife turned to Thomas George, M.D., director of the GI oncology program at UF Health, for treatment.
Grateful for the care that UF Health provided, the couple were motivated to make a gift supporting George’s research in gastrointestinal malignancies.
Through the Robert N. Levenson and Jeanine A. Pfammatter Gastrointestinal Malignancy Support Fund, George and his clinical research team are able to explore new options for treatment with the goal of improving and extending patients’ lives. George noted that without the additional resources from this fund, much of his team’s research would remain on a “to-do” list.
“Our patients and their caregivers are the real recipients of the generosity that has come from the fund,” George said. “Our research staff leverage these financial gifts to test new ideas related to the diagnosis and treatment of cancers in the digestive tract. Our goals are to turn this generosity into clinical advances that provide more quality time for future patients to spend with their families.”
Levenson and Dunlevy have become strong advocates for UF Health in their Marion County community, educating friends and neighbors about the range of specialty services available only a short drive away.
A friendship leads to funding for residents’ reseach
While most of the couple’s gifts to UF Health have been motivated by other patients’ encounters, one of the areas they support is a direct result of Levenson’s own experience. During a routine visit to the UF College of Dentistry, a resident spotted a suspicious area in Levenson’s mouth and referred him to Indraneel Bhattacharyya, D.D.S., M.S.D., a professor and the director of the division of oral and maxillofacial pathology, for further examination.
Bhattacharyya, known as Dr. Neel to his patients, immediately took biopsy samples to test the areas in question. Bhattacharyya diagnosed Levenson with oral precancer, which required multiple follow-up visits every six months over the next few years. The couple became friendly with Bhattacharyya, often discussing his work and research interests. Over lunch one day, Levenson asked how he could help with new research.
“Dr. Neel said his residents were often unable to work on the smaller research projects they wanted to due to funding,” Levenson said. “He explained that higher-profile projects often got more attention and funding. I told him we’d send $5,000 to see if that would help.”
Levenson and Dunlevy were blown away to learn that because of their support, seven of Bhattacharyya’s residents were able to begin research projects. Impressed by the reach of this gift, they decided to continue giving to the UF College of Dentistry, establishing the Robert N. Levenson and Grace B. Dunlevy Oral Pathology Research Fund. The fund supports Bhattacharyya and his team’s investigations in the area of oral pathology, enabling residents to complete research that has since been presented internationally and published in peer-reviewed pathology journals.
“I’m grateful for this generous gift, which has made the entire department of oral pathology shine on the national stage,” said Bhattacharyya, noting that the couple’s ongoing support has been useful in enhancing training opportunities for residents, which will impact patient care wherever these young men and women end up practicing.
Making connections to change lives
Always focused on helping those in their community, Dunlevy and Levenson are especially proud of one of their more recent gifts. Together, they established the Robert N. Levenson and Grace B. Dunlevy TLC Occupational Therapy Fund in May 2021 after the couple toured Transitions Life Center, or TLC, in Ocala. The center provides a safe, caring environment for adults with developmental disabilities. Staff focus on providing continuing education in life skills and training that will allow their members to live as independently as possible.
While touring the facility, Dunlevy and Levenson were moved by the center’s caring staff and curriculum — specifically the focus on empowering participants to live productive and independent lives. The couple spoke with Lucy Johnson, the center’s executive director, about ways they could help.
“We told her, ‘We’re not medical people, we can’t help you in that area; but we do have great connections at UF Health, so what can we do?’” Levenson said. “As soon as I asked the question, she replied, ‘occupational therapy.’”
Dunlevy and Levenson reached out to the department of occupational therapy at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions to find out how they could help deliver on Johnson’s request. The department responded enthusiastically, proposing that their students could provide occupational therapy to develop or enhance basic life skills.
Sherrilene Classen, Ph.D., the chair of the occupational therapy department, was instrumental in helping to establish and implement the cooperative program with Transitions Life Center. Classen called the program a “match made in heaven” with the goal of helping people master or regain abilities impacted by disability, disease, impairment or the natural aging processes that restrict them from performing everyday tasks.
The program launched in summer 2021 with 10 students from the occupational therapy program at UF, as well as a fieldwork educator, Heidi Horwitz, M.Ed., to supervise them. The following summer, the participant pool increased to 14 students.
“Students assess the clients’ abilities, roles and function and create occupational performance profiles,” Classen explained. “The training goals may range from getting dressed, eating and brushing their teeth to interacting with others socially, actively participating in their communities and/or fulfilling a variety of productive activities.”
While the occupational therapy interventions needed for these clients could typically be quite costly, Transitions Life Center is able to provide this service at no cost, thanks to funding from Dunlevy and Levenson.
“Once we connected with the department of occupational therapy at UF, this thing just mushroomed,” Levenson said. “We couldn’t be prouder. We cannot thank Dr. Classen enough for her leadership, support and encouragement as these programs grow for the future.”
Levenson and Dunlevy plan to continue supporting Transitions Life Center and are currently discussing how they can provide similar services to local veterans who experience difficulties returning from combat.
At UF Health, Dunlevy and Levenson strive to maintain close contact with their areas of support. In addition to receiving regular gift impact updates, they’ve built long-standing friendships with some of the doctors whose research they help fund. When asked why they’ve consistently donated to UF Health, they spoke about the level of trust and the relationships they’ve built.
“Communication with the folks we support is very important to us,” Levenson said. “Dr. Neel has become a good friend and we’ll meet for lunch when we’re in town and he’s free, or Dr. George will call from a conference where he’s just presented on research that we’ve helped fund. We value those relationships and it’s very rewarding to hear about the progress they’re making.”
When asked about future philanthropic projects, the couple already had some ideas brewing.
“There are things we hope to do with Veterans Helping Veterans Inc., which Grace and I are very involved in,” Levenson said. “They help veterans with food, clothing, navigating the VA system and coming back from combat, whether it’s issues with PTSD, etc.”
Dunlevy and Levenson also hope to expand services at the Transitions Life Center, specifically providing resources for those individuals who stop receiving state-funded assistance after they turn 21 years old.
“We want to see services for these folks expand,” Levenson said. “Transitions Life Center has the land to grow and become a longer-term residential facility. Family members can’t always take care of these folks at a certain point or they may require another level of care. We’re trying to bring in more medical assistance with UF, whether that’s dental or any other type of care they need. We want to get them every resource we can.”
Levenson and Dunlevy continue to build on their philanthropic efforts in Marion County and to grow their relationships at UF Health. When they aren’t busy working on ways to improve their community, their sights are set abroad. Avid travelers, they’ve visited numerous locations throughout Europe, Australia and Asia, and they show no signs of slowing down.
To learn more about the funds created by Bob Levenson and Grace Dunlevy and how you can contribute, visit the links below.