Taboo topic helps SWFL Wine & Food Fest raise $3.16 million

Midway through the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest’s Grand Tasting & Auction on Saturday, somewhere around the $2.2 million mark, emcee Kellie Burns stopped.

She quieted the crowd of generous attendees, a crowd that had been sipping exclusive wines and eating plates from renowned local and national chefs for the last several hours at Miromar Lakes Beach & Golf Club.

She asked the drum line to set down their sticks. She asked the women in sparkly dresses and feather boas for their attention.

“I need everybody to listen right now, we’re about to get serious,” Burns said as the tent hushed.

She talked about the lack of mental health care in our state and region, touching on the battles her own family has faced with eating disorders and depression.

“We do a great job of taking care of the sick kids in this community,” she said. “We do a really (expletive) job taking care of the behavioral needs of the kids in this community.”

Burns introduced the crowd to Quinn Cavanaugh, who lost her 16-year-old son Jacob Tinkoff to depression and suicide in 2013.

Burns swiped at her cheek then turned to auctioneer Scott Robertson. They implored the now teary-eyed crowd to give, and give generously.

And just like that paddles flew.

Donations of $10,000, $50,000 — even $150,000 came pouring in.

When asked, givers doubled their donations, and in some cases tripled them. A few auction lots later, attendee Jeffrey Lagarce grabbed the microphone during a bidding war for a trip to the Masters Golf Tournament.

He asked Burns how much had been raised for the mental-health lot. $814,500, she answered.

“I’ll match it. I’ll bring it to a million,” Lagarce said as the crowd rose to its feet. “I can watch the Masters at home.”

And that’s when the 2017 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest came uncorked.

Thanks in huge part to the generosity of donors giving to that one single auction lot, this year’s Wine & Food Fest auction raised more than $3.16 million for SWFL Children’s Charities, a nonprofit that supports three local health care initiatives — Golisano Children’s Hospital, Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern College. The auction came just shy of matching its record-setting 2015 year of $3.353 million.

To date the Wine & Food Fest has raised more than $18.7 million for its causes.

Attendees gave and gave big Saturday, but few went bigger than Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane. The owners of Benovia Winery in Santa Rosa, California, donated their wines to one of the chef-vintner dinners held throughout the area Friday night to kick off Wine & Food Fest. They personally poured their wines during Saturday’s tasting. They donated an exclusive cruise aboard their personal yacht during the auction, then gave close to $200,000 in bids on other items, including $100,000 for the tear-inducing mental-health lot.

“This community is unique. It reminds me of home,” said Anderson who grew up in Prescott, Arizona, and has taken part in the Wine & Food Fest for seven years.

“I toured the Children’s Hospital the day before yesterday, and to think about the impact this auction has had on this community, it just makes you want to give.”

Children were front and center for another of the event’s top-grossing auction lots, an abstract painting done by twin 5-year-old artists and Golisano graduates Leo and Lola Grabinski.

In a quiet side room at the clubhouse of Miromar Lakes, father, Matt Grabinski, pulled a tiny swath of white cloth from his pocket, a square of fabric hardly the size of his palm.

He held out his phone, showing a picture of Leo when he and his sister were just itty-bitty preemies, born 13 weeks early and spending their first 98 days of life in Golisano’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“It looks big on him, right?,” Grabinski said of the baby in the picture half-swallowed by this tiny diaper. “Now look at him.”

Leo bounced across the room, slapping at the cream couches and marveling at the fireplace. His sister giggled alongside him, her blonde locks trailing behind her in curly waves.

The children’s artwork raised $180,000. The painting itself will hang in the hospital, for the twins to marvel at when they visit.

“This is irrational generosity at its finest,” auctioneer Robertson said as the fundraising total neared $3 million.

All told, organizers auctioned off 40 lots Saturday, including a grab-bag hat that went for $150,000 and included scholarships to FGCU and FSW, a 2012 Corvette, Jimmy Fallon tickets, a $40,000 diamond ring, various trips, and much (much) more.

While exclusive wine packages and once-in-a-lifetime trips to destinations around the world (a safari in Africa, tours of Cuba, Iceland and New Zealand) raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, it was that taboo topic of mental health that brought the best from this generous crowd.

“It’s something no one wants to talk about, but that’s touched everyone’s lives,” Wine Fest co-chair Debbie Toler said.

Cavanaugh, who lost her son four years ago, was speechless.

After her son’s death, she said she spent the next year in a fog.

“You pull yourself out of it, eventually you move forward,” Cavanaugh said. “So to be here, to see the outpouring of generosity from this community, it’s absolutely unbelievable. This brings everything full circle for me. I’m so proud to be a part of this. I’m so proud of the work and support everyone’s given today. It’s so needed, this is outstanding.”

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