Lee County’s largest annual fundraiser, the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, didn’t get to where it is overnight.
Through the tireless work of a team of trustees who run its parent organization, SWFL Children’s Charities, the festival celebrated its 10th anniversary last year with a slew of accomplishments under its belt—the biggest being that the group was the largest donor outside of Tom Golisano to see through the construction of the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and remain the Fort Myers care center’s second-highest donor. Additionally, the group has become so influential in the community that it recently hired an executive director, Heidi Taulman, to help further its outreach and grant administration.
But the changes that have really caught our eye are those to its signature event. As the festival is entering its second decade, the entire format has undergone a shakeup to launch a new stage of growth: Now, it will be a one-day-only extravaganza, to be held on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at a new venue, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa.
Effectively, the Grand Tasting and Live Auction has sprung a life of its own, and the ticket cost has been raised to $1,500 (whereas previously, people could purchase a two-day package to include a vintner dinner the night before). The event, which will start at noon, will be the elegant tented affair we’ve come to expect, attracting boutique West Coast vintners, such as Paul Hobbs, Williams Selyem and The Spire Collection, as well as chefs from throughout our neck of the woods, including David Nelson of Timeless – an MHK Eatery, John Sexton of LaPlaya and Harold Balink of Harold’s. The auction lots are also as tantalizing as ever: A sneak preview touts trips to the Maldives and the 2019 Masters Tournament.
The board of directors has also relaxed the financial responsibilities and time commitments required of trustees. “We really want to bring in younger professionals as trustees, so it doesn’t have to be an exclusive circle of only 10 or 12 trustees—then you can have future leaders of the organization come from that trustee group,” says Sandy Stilwell-Youngquist, president of the board.
Another change is that, in addition to remaining deeply committed to the hospital and two local schools, Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College, the festival has committed to focusing on children’s mental and behavioral health this year with its fundraising and is bringing in new beneficiaries on an annual basis to further its reach throughout the five-county region of Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades. There are nine in total for 2019: Blessings in a Backpack, Community Cooperative, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Florida Lions Eye Clinic, Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, Help a Diabetic Child Foundation, Hope Kids Care, Lighthouse of SWFL and Make-A-Wish Southern Florida. “We’re trying to make sure we’re truly giving money to all corners of Southwest Florida,” Stilwell-Youngquist says. “Take Lighthouse of SWFL: They help the vision-impaired and the blind, and they’re very underfunded. To take them on as one of our recipients, we’re saying that we believe in them—and the hope is that other people will believe in them, too.”