This article was originally written by Yvonne Ayala McClellan and published on Feb 22, 2014 at News-Press.com.
Raising $20,000 at a function for any charity is enough to excite a room, but raising that amount on top of last year’s record of $2.5 million had the crowd at the 2014 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest Grand Tasting & Auction jumping out of their seats.Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders fluttered their pompoms high, and event trustees danced at the clubhouse at Miromar Lakes Golf & Country Club as the signature event of Southwest Florida Children’s Charities achieved a new milestone. The event is the most successful fundraiser in Lee County, and proceeds benefit the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, the pediatric nursing program at Edison State College and music therapy program at FGCU.
“It’s been a great day for Southwest Florida and the children of Lee and Collier counties,” said Elaine Hawkins, president of the SWFL Children’s Charities and co-chairwoman of the Wine Fest. “We have raised enough money to give a lot of benefits to the children here and we’re excited about that.”
In the past six years, the Wine Fest has raised more than $11.4 million. It’s primary beneficiary is the children’s hospital, scheduled to open in 2016 at HealthPark Medical Center in south Fort Myers.
While many unique auction items were offered up, such as a 17-day tour of Southeast Asia or a trip to the Sonoma wine country as guests of Kosta Browne Winery, the auctions that caused a frenzy were those that benefited the hospital directly — the lifesaving lot and auction of child art.
In a 15-minute span, attendees donated about $455,000 for the lifesaving lot with all funds going toward the purchase of special equipment for the children’s hospital.
Several bidders waved paddles to give $5,000, but Joe Anderson, of Benovia Winery — the signature vintner in 2012, and Dave Copham, a Wine Fest trustee, each gave $50,000 for this item. As bidders kept raising paddles and the total climbed higher, Vicki and Richard Pitbladdo, also trustees, announced that if the room could bring the total to $300,000, they would donate $100,000 for this item.
The total — $2.52 million — includes ticket sales to the Wine Fest auction and sponsorships. As of Saturday evening, the auction raised more than $2.1 million. But in the excitement of the auction, bidders stepped forward to double down on some auction items, and the total may shift slightly when it’s officially counted Monday.
The crowd cheered as about 40 bidders, pledging $5,000 each, raised $200,000 for child artist Jay Aponte’s painting. The 9-year-old leukemia patient, a third-grader at Laurel Oak Elementary in Naples, created a watercolor and pencil painting of Lightning McQueen, his favorite car from the movie “Cars.”
The energy soared as emcee Kellie Burns, an anchor at NBC2, announced Aponte and his mother, Luz, would be going to the Daytona 500 today to take a parade ride in a race car.
In addition, the Aponte family would receive a new Chevy Corvette, she said.
In reply, Jay said, “That’s cool.”
For their $5,000 contributions, bidders will receive a plaque on the wall at the hospital.
Prior to the auctions, sponsors wandered by the pool deck of the clubhouse, mingling with 11 vintners who poured their boutique red and white wines, and sampled foods.
These chefs and vintners donated their efforts at 10 chef-vintner dinners across Southwest Florida on Friday, then followed up with the Grand Tasting on Saturday. The dinners alone helped raise $350,000.
Sandra Stilwell, a Wine Fest trustee and owner of Sunshine Grille, wandered through the stands sampling food and drink.
“I’ve been tasting food from all the different restaurants and each one seems to outdo the other,” she said. “My favorite I think was the foie gras from Miromar Lakes.”
At end of the day, she and others said the event was all about the children.
“This is so exciting,” said Jim Nathan, president and CEO of Lee Memorial Health System. “We’re working hard to keep children close to home and these folks have just poured their hearts out.”