Best of the Best: 2013's standouts

The Journal's picks for this season's standouts

There are so many things to love about December: the lights on Fifth Avenue, the holiday galas happening in every ballroom across town, and, did we mention Christmas cookies? But at The Journal, our favorite thing about December is getting to put together our Best Of the Best issue. Reliving the best events from the year is the next best thing to actually doing it all again (And trust us, if we could, we would).

When we stop to think about it, 2013 has been one of the best years in recent history. The year has been chock-full of memorable moments. So many that our editors had a very tough job picking which events to feature in this year’s list. But after much head scratching and hemming and hawing, here it is, our list for 2013’s best charity moments and events.

Best Surprise: Austin Mahone and Nickelodeon surprise Surfers For Autism Volunteer Mimi Fuentes

When Dave Rossman got a call from nickelodeon asking if the group Surfers For Autism had a particularly special volunteer they wanted to recognize, Rossman knew immediately who to pick.

“She is one of the most outstanding people I’ve ever met,” says Rossman, describing 16-year-old Miranda “Mimi” Fuentes. “She’s giving, she’s selfless, she’s caring,” he adds. Fuentes started volunteering with the group when her brother, who is on the spectrum, joined. Since beginning work with the group six years ago, she’s even become the Surfer’s for Autism’s youngest certified master surf instructor.

So having teen heartthrob Austin Mahone ride a beach cruiser up to meet Mimi on Barefoot Beach was the least Rossman could do to thank her for all of her hard work. “There was some shrieking and a few tears of joy,” says Rossman, remembering Mahone’s entrance.

The group also received a $10,000 donation from Nickelodeon, and Mimi and her family were invited to accept a special Teen Hit HALO Award at the Nickelodeon Studio in Los Angeles.

Best Speaker: Bob Ballard, Naples Town Hall Distinguished Speaker Series

After 30 years, the town hall distinguished speaker series has brought many famous names to Naples, including Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger and Sarah Palin. But ocean explorer Bob Ballard was this year’s hit. What perhaps made Ballard so successful was not just that he talked about his daring exploits — including finding the Titanic — but that he was able to relate his work to the greater world. His deep-sea adventures often had interesting and complex ramifications above the water.

Next year, the Naples Town Hall Distinguished Speaker series will continue, however it is under new management. New director Suzanne Leonard says to expect the same quality of speakers, if not even better. “I told a friend what we were planning and he said to me, ‘so like the Sturgis of Wisdom,’ and that’s right. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s going to be a very exciting year.”

Best Inspiring Story: Naples Daily News readers donate $25,000 to Angela Parziale

A few weeks ago, things were looking very bleak for 22-year-old Angela Parziale and the three teens she cares for. They were two weeks late on their rent and their apartment complex was threatening eviction. Parziale was working three jobs, but it still wasn’t enough.

“They always say God has perfect timing and it’s true,” Parziale says. A story printed in the paper chronicling Parziale’s struggles and her selfless desire to help the three teens she’s caring for. Almost immediately, the donations starting pouring in. To date, nearly $25,000 has been donated to the family.

“I’m still working as much as I can, I worked a 12-hour day yesterday and the day before; I know the money won’t last forever. But it’s nice to be comfortable, to know that things are taken care of for a bit,” she says. Next up on her wish list: a full-time job. “You can work two, even three part-time jobs but I really need a full-time job with benefits to be able to make it. I’d take anything, I’ve got secretarial skills, but I’d really like to get into nonprofit work. I really love helping others.”

Best Event Theme: An Evening in Venice, The David Lawrence Center

When the event committee was thinking up themes for this year’s gala, they wanted something that would give that feeling of a costume ball, but without the burden (or discomfort) of people actually having to get into costume. Since the past themes have been place-based themes, organizers chose Venice and made the event a masquerade ball.

“It was exciting to see everyone arrive all dressed up wearing their masquerade masks — they especially enjoyed not recognizing their friends — it was part of the mystery and intrigue to find out who was who and see how creative some people got,” said event chair, Gwyn Sanford. She added, “Many people had interesting stories around where they got their masks.”

Sanford thinks this year’s event was so successful because the organizers worked to incorporate the theme into every aspect of the event, from the food to the invitations to the decorations. And a true highlight of the night was having Venetian-costumed opera singers mixing with the crowd during the reception and then breaking into song as the ballroom was opened. “It was a very special moment,” she says.

Next year, organizers will have their work cut out for them topping this year’s gala, but Sanford says the committee is up for it, especially since they’ve picked the only other destination more romantic than Venice — Paris.

Best Venue: Riverside Park, City of Bonita Springs

With its verdant green lawn, its stately bandstand and its stoic memorials to both veterans and 9/11 victims, Riverside Park in Bonita Springs is both a beloved community gathering spot and the area’s hottest event venue. “It is really being used for what it was built for, which is serving the community,” says Lora Taylor, communications manager for the city of Bonita Springs.

From band and dance performances to Veterans Day ceremonies and even weddings, Riverside Park has really seen it all. And with the Historic Liles Hotel, the kids’ park and the Island Park all in proximity, there really is something for everyone. However, that means everyone wants to book the venue. “Book early,” Taylor says. “This season has been really great, we only have two Saturdays in season still available.”

Best Fundraising Concept: Empty Bowls Naples

You can always tell when empty bowls is happening in Naples based on the line snaking from Cambier Park out into downtown Naples. The annual event, which raises money for the Harry Chapin Food Bank, is always a sellout.

“This year we’ll have 2,500 bowls and maybe another 1,000 or so donated from local schools. We’re really working hard to make sure we have enough bowls,” says event co-chair Betsy Dawson. Dawson attributes the event’s success to the fact that it’s affordable for everyone, that it’s unique and that there’s always good food.

The original Empty Bowls concept was thought up by Barron Collier High School pottery teacher Donna Torrance. She recruited a few volunteers from the local pottery guild and they made 300 bowls the first year. This year, more than 600 volunteers have been throwing, firing and painting like crazy, just to keep up with demand.

Dawson says that the concept has brought in more than $50,000 in donations to Harry Chapin. “And for every $1 they receive, they’re able to turn that into $6 worth of food, so it’s really amazing.” But what’s especially amazing to us is that after a year of working tirelessly to make bowls for this year’s event, Dawson and her crew will take only a week off before starting on next year’s bowls.

Best Walk: Bonita Springs Relay for Life

While this year’s Bonita springs relay for life event wasn’t the most lucrative in terms of dollars raised, everyone in attendance agreed: it was the most emotionally impactful event they’d ever done.

“It was intense, but in this positive intense way,” says Anne Musselman, the senior representative for community engagement with the American Cancer Society. “You felt like everyone that was there was connected, that there was this real emotional bond.”

Musselman says that the feeling had a lot to do with the cohesiveness of all the 23 teams in attendance, and the diversity of groups that performed. From bands to dancers to even a 30-minute preview production of “Peter Pan,” entertainers kept the walkers entertained all night long. “A real highlight, though, was when Kate’s Cuts did a cut-a-thon on stage to music. Four stylists cut hair to be donated for wigs, and everyone gathered around to watch, it was really neat,” Musselman says.

Best Gala: Tails and Tiaras, The Humane Society Naples

By far, this was Naples’ hairiest ball. the Naples Botanical Garden hosted this annual fundraiser and welcomed guests with both two and four legs. And this year, the local no-kill shelter netted nearly 10 times its average annual amount, thanks to a very generous challenge grant from Patty and Jay Baker.

“Their donation was the largest single donation our shelter has ever received,” said Andy Reed, the shelter’s director of development. While the challenge grant energized other donors to give, Reed says this year’s event was also so successful was because of its chair, Rufino Hernandez. “He was just an absolute genius when it came to coming up with a theme and design elements,” Reed says.

The black-tie-optional event saw lots of well-dressed pooches and their people enjoying great food and music in the exquisitely-decorated gardens. “The food was human food, but I can’t guarantee that there wasn’t some sharing going on,” Reed jokes. And next year the fur-friendly tradition continues. “We are having our gala at the Ritz Carlton Beach Resort, which isn’t usually a pet-friendly property, but they’re making an exception for us.”

Best Charitable Contribution: MacDonald family donates $6 million to NCH

The MacDonald family has been involved with NCH since they moved to Naples in 2005. But even before they became full-time residents, the family knew NCH from their frequent family vacations and knew it’s pediatric emergency unit wasn’t up to par.

“The one thing that we did not understand was why if one of the children needed emergency care they always had to seek treatment outside of the county,” says Mariann MacDonald, who sits on the hospital’s board of trustees. “When we moved here in 2005 it seemed to us that there was a need for additional services for children in Collier County and we wanted to help and we also knew that NCH was the only choice for us.”

The $6 million gift will be used to create a separate pediatric emergency department and to renovate the existing emergency department. The new facility will bear both Robert and Mariann MacDonald’s name as well as their daughter Megan’s name.

“We have a great big family living in Naples. My husband is the oldest of 11 and there are eight other brothers and sisters who still live here and there must be at least 25-30 cousins many of which are still children,” says Mariann MacDonald, stressing why having this be a family donation was so important. “Due to our passion for the children of our community we decided to have the Pediatric Emergency Department carry our family name.”

Best New Event: South Florida Mud Run

When Stefanie Ink-Edwards pitched doing a fundraiser for the Golisano Children’s Hospital to her husband, he agreed, on one condition: it was something that wouldn’t require him to wear a suit.

So the duo planned a mud run. “We got some friends together and somehow pulled it off. We’d never even done one of these events, let alone put on something like it,” says Ink-Edwards. “Our stretch goal was to get 500 runners and we got three times that. A lot of them were people who had never done a mud run or even a 5k but they came out to support the cause and have fun with their families.”

The Edwards have made a $100,000 commitment to the Golisano Children’s Hospital, and the mud run got the pair well on its way to reaching that goal. Ink-Edwards says that next year the event, which is held at the Redneck Yacht Club, will be even better than ever, too. “We’re working on building even better obstacles.”

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