NAPLES — The Naples Winter Wine Festival has grown to touch the lives of 20,000 children a year as it prepares for its 10th year of unprecedented philanthropy, with ambitions unwavering to help alter the course of disadvantaged youngsters’ lives.
Heralded as one of the top arts and entertainment events for wealthy Americans by the Luxury Institute, the festival has raised $74 million since its inception in 2001, changing the landscape of fundraising in Collier County and the 37 charities that have benefited to date.
This year’s festival is next weekend, Jan. 29-31, and its theme is “Expanding Horizons, Opportunities for Children to Soar.”
Festival trustees are upbeat for a good outcome, despite uncertainty in the economy, and for the future.
“I’m optimistic we will do better than last year but like everybody else, you don’t know,” said Brian Cobb, a founding trustee with his wife, Denise. “If economists can’t figure it out, I don’t think we can do it.”
Even with the recession center stage last year, the wine festival raised $5 million, far from paltry, but far from the high point of $16.5 million in 2007.
“Even in a bad year, raising $5 million was a significant number,” he said. “And now we are coming out of a recession and hope to rebuild it.”
Bob Scott, chairman of this year’s board of trustees, said the recession’s impact lingers but there are signs of an improving environment.
“It may take us a while to get to the level of exuberance we saw a few years ago,” Scott said.
For some trustees who were part of the original festival founders, the 10-year milestone is real because of the work involved every year. But there’s an element of surrealism by how far the event has come and how momentum remains strong.
“None of us thought it would be as successful as it has,” Cobb said, adding that part of the original planning included how to sustain the event and mission far into the future. “It looks like it will.”
Connie Galloway, another founding trustee with her husband, Tom, said it doesn’t seem like the wine festival is in its 10th year.
“It’s been a wonderful 10 years and we’ve done wonderful things for the community,” she said.
Looking back, Cobb remembers gathering 11 years ago in the home of Jeff Gargiulo and Valerie Boyd and talking about conducting a fundraiser. In all, about a dozen people were there but he doesn’t recall who came up with the idea.
“We’ve never been able to figure that out. I think it was a conglomerate of several people,” Cobb said.
Several at that first meeting were involved with the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County and wanted to have a fundraiser that was meaningful for the organization. The group also attended a wine auction fundraiser for Youth Haven, in which $170,000 was raised for the emergency shelter for abused and neglected children in East Naples.
“A lot of that came from our table,” he said. “That kind of lit the fire a little bit.”
The Naples Winter Wine Festival was born, along with the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF), to support the new wine festival’s mission and to oversee grant awards to qualified charities each year, along with developing long-term strategic initiatives.
Early on though, founding trustees decided proceeds for the first three years would go to the Boys & Girls Club and to Youth Haven.
In 2001 from the first wine festival, $2.4 million was raised at the auction, followed by $3.6 million the second year, he said.
“We thought it was a lot of money but by year four, we were raising $6 million or $7 million and that was huge,” Cobb said. “And then we got into the double digits.”
The success was hard to grasp, especially to skeptical outsiders.
Trustees would tell disbelievers to go to the Web site and read about the festival, the grants, and the strategic initiatives for larger multi-year endeavors, he said.
“Throughout all those years, a lot of us were almost like preachers on the road -- we were constantly bringing it up,” he said.
Half of the revenue comes from people outside of Collier, and that’s been instrumental in the continued success of attracting people from elsewhere for the weekend event.
The Friday “Meet the Kids Day Tour,” during which attendees get to visit charities and meet some of the children whose lives are being changed, stirs the emotions with the result that they spend more during the auction, he said.
Galloway is amazed how the chefs, vintners and auction bidders come from around the world to help benefit the community’s disadvantaged children.
“It’s a beautiful thing that these people are giving of themselves and we’re getting all of it together with their help,” she said. “With 40,000 children in Collier County and 20,000 at-risk we have helped, that’s pretty remarkable. And more people are aware there are pockets of poverty in Collier County.”
She has faith this year’s festival will do the best it can, even with the recession not over.
“People will do what they need to make it work,” she said. “Kids’ hunger doesn’t know the economy. They just know their tummy’s empty.”
What’s not likely to change is how the festival is presented every year, with the lavish dinners, the kids’ tour day and the much-anticipated auction with the focus on improving the lives of children in Collier.
“We decided we would try to impact Collier County,” Galloway said. “I think if we were to impact any other counties, we would have to grow.”
About three years ago, the number of participants at the auction exceeded 500 and afterward, trustees realized it was too crowded and a bit unruly, so the emphasis is keeping it at a maximum of 500 bidders, Cobb said.
“You could see they were not as focused,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see NCEF making any changes to the festival.
He subscribes to the belief that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
For certain, there are communities that would like to replicate the wine festival’s success, but he doesn’t believe that’s possible.
“There is a lot of copying out there and that’s OK, because if it works in another community, that’s OK. But a lot of things ... can’t be duplicated. It’s trying to duplicate the Beatles. You can come close but I think we are pretty good at it,” he said.
This year, NCEF is starting to focus on the mental health needs of children in the community, with findings from a commissioned study that highlights gaps in services to children. Addressing mental-health needs of children may evolve into a long-term endeavor, through a strategic initiative.
“It is an area we are expecting to be focusing on in the relatively near future,” said Scott, this year’s NCEF board chairman. “We’re now learning that the mental health of the children in Collier is a major issue and it broadly affects how the child does in school. We do believe it deserves our attention and support.”
Galloway agrees with the widespread mental health needs of children, reflecting on a family experience with a grandson who was diagnosed with autism several years ago and the therapeutic services he needs.
Statistics show one out of every 110 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, evidence of how widespread mental health developmental disorders are today, she said.
“We have a whole generation who has been impacted by autism and we should focus on it,” she said. “It is our future.”
For disadvantaged families without means, getting the appropriate therapies for their children is a hardship, she said.
“With our money and our impact, we can help with that,” she said.