In 1977, when Sandy Loevner and her late husband, Jerry, moved from Atlanta to Sarasota, she saw her partial retirement not as an opportunity to relax, but as a way to devote more time to volunteering.
She and her husband quickly became involved in local and national charity work, including the Glasser Schoenbaum Human Services Center, the Out-of-Door Academy, the Ringling College Library Association and the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.
For the past 15 years, Loevner has volunteered as the board president of the Florida Winefest and Auction — one of the largest non-profit charity events in the country. Michael Klauber started the event 23 years ago, modeling it after a similar festival in Napa Valley. It was designed to showcase different wines while benefiting children’s charities in Sarasota.
In its inaugural year, festival organizers hired an outside company to run the event — an expensive decision that left little money for the charities. The following year, Loevner stepped in and helped establish the event as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and formed a volunteer board, whose members would organize future events to keep expenses low and money local.
“We didn’t need a company to run it for us,” says Loevner, who began volunteering at Winefest in its second year. “We could figure all of that out by ourselves. My passion is for children, and this is a great way to benefit disadvantaged children in Sarasota, so it’s important to keep the money here.”
Originally held at the Ringling Museum and featuring only four events, the festival relocated to the Longboat Key Club and then the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota as it continued to grow. At its largest, Florida Winefest featured more than 25 events, but, in 2008, Loevner and her fellow board members were forced to make tough decisions to keep the event profitable for the charities.
“In that economy, we saw people weren’t spending as much,” says Loevner. “So, rather than continue to host as many events, we decided to scale things down, so we could give more to the children. We rode that storm for a few years.”
Today, Loevner says the economy has allowed the festival to expand again. This year, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, as well as local restaurants, will host dinners and wine-tasting events, and the festival grounds will be located at Premier Sports Campus, in Lakewood Ranch.
The 2013 Winefest takes place from Monday, April 4 to Thursday, April 7. In addition to the 17 traditional wine events, the festival will now boast 22 hot-air balloons. Attendees will have an opportunity to go for a flight or just admire the balloons from the fairgrounds.
“We didn’t want it to become tired,” says Loevner of the fundraiser. “It’s 23 years old now. She’s not a debutante anymore — she’s a young woman. So, we started brainstorming ways to bring back its festive spirit. People can go to a wine event any time.”
Loevner says she’s dedicated to the event because, despite its wealthy outward appearance, Sarasota has a lot of poverty, which is often hiding in plain sight.
“It might not seem like it, but there are a lot of needy children in Sarasota,” she says. “They’re in need of basic things, like clean diapers and baby beds. If not for this money, these are children who would go to bed with no hot meal until the next day at school.”
Since its inception, Florida Winefest has raised $7.7 million to benefit 76 local charities. With an all-volunteer staff, other than one paid office manager, Loevner says her work is never finished. She anticipates about 10,000 attendees and 300 volunteers this year. To ensure that everything runs smoothly, she and the other board members work year round. In her mind, the 2013 Winefest is already put to bed, and she’s beginning to plan for 2014. Despite the demanding schedule, Loevner says the cause is worthwhile.
“Some days, you just shake your head,” she says of the workload. “But, it somehow all comes together, and at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished something. That money wouldn’t have been there for those children.”
Loevner remains modest when discussing her role in organizing the massive charity event. She credits the dedication of her 18 fellow board members, who have all served together for the last 15 years.
“We’ve formed friendships, and everyone has a commitment to the team,” she says. “They’re all doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.”
With ticket prices ranging from $10 to $225, Loevner takes pride in the fact that Florida Winefest makes philanthropy accessible to a wide range of budgets.
“There’s something for everyone,” she says. “You can give back at any level. We want it to be sophisticated, but it doesn’t have to be a fancy gala.”
Each year, the Winefest Grants Committee reviews the grant applications. Loevner says reading their letters further drives her desire to raise money for the charities. Three weeks after the last event, the board members distribute the money to the charities at a small ceremony.
“The day we give the money away, there’s not a dry eye in the house,” says Loevner. “When you can tell a sponsor that because of your money this child is going to school with a hot meal and a backpack, it’s unreal. You can’t make that up.”
IF YOU GO:
Florida Wine and Balloon Festival
When: April 4 to April 7; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; Balloon rides are available, weather permitting, 7:15 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Premier Sports Campus, 5895 Post Blvd., Lakewood Ranch
Cost: $10 advance admission; $15 day of event; children under 10 are free. Balloon rides are $225 per person, which includes a general admission ticket, as well as champagne and breakfast upon your return to the festival grounds.
Info: The festival features 17 events. For a complete list, go to floridawinefest.org.
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