In January, world famous vintners served up boutique wines and top chefs dished out exotic foods to the well-heeled at the Naples Winter Wine Festival.
On Monday, it was all about serving a different crowd — the children. The festival gave out $6,685,000 to 18 children's charities in Collier County. It's part of the money generated in one day by a charity wine auction that followed 17 extravagant private dinner parties for festival guests held in posh Naples homes.
"I can't tell you it's not fun to eat good food and drink good wine," said Ned Sachs, chairman of the festival's 2006 grant committee. "But the end result is to let these charity organizations do what they do so well, which is to take care of children who are at risk."
This year's largest benefactor is Collier Health Services Inc., which received a hefty check for $1.2 million. The money will allow the nonprofit to add a third dental clinic, primarily to serve children in East Naples.
"What a great day, especially for the kids, right," said a gleeful Richard Akin, chief executive of Collier Health Services Inc.
With the new clinic, the agency expects to serve an additional 5,000 youngsters a year.
"We got what we requested," Akin said. "In a case like this it costs what it costs to provide the service."
Without the donation, the clinic couldn't get built.
"After a couple of years it will support itself," Akin said. "But it costs a lot to get it started and we didn't have it."
This year's second biggest benefactor is the ELLM Program, which received $800,000. ELLM stands for Early Literacy & Learning Model. The money will allow the organization to reach more students and provide more literacy materials to Collier County classrooms.
The third largest grant went to the Guadalupe Center of Immokalee, which provides subsidized child care to children. The group received $725,000 this year, which will help it serve twice the number of children in early learning, afterschool care and summer programs. That's on top of the $2 million it received from the festival over the past few years to help pay for a 17,000-square-foot addition.
More than 70 people attended the charitable grant presentation, held at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in North Naples. During a reception, they drank wine and ate fancy hors d'oeuvres at tables decorated with the same circus theme that molded this year's festival.
At the elegant dinners, stilt-walkers roamed, jesters juggled and clowns joked.
While the grant ceremony didn't generate the same roars as the charity auction, where guests screamed, cheered and egged each other on to spend more, the event brought its own kind of excitement — some "wows" from the crowd and a whole lot of thank-yous from grant recipients.
"This is amazing," said Caroline Martino, president of Naples Equestrian Challenge Inc.
The group offers a therapeutic riding program for children with physical and mental disabilities. It received $150,000 this year, which will help it acquire more horses and serve more children. Now, it has 83 riders. There are hopes to grow that to 120.
Thanks to past donations from the festival, the equestrian center off Goodlette-Frank Road is adding a 200-by-80-foot indoor area for riding that started going up last week.
"Even though it's just shade, it's going to be a blessing for every single being in our program — the horses, the riders, the volunteers and the instructors," Martino said. "It gets very hot in the summer."
And when it rains the center will no longer have to cancel its programs.
Eden Florida also received $150,000 this year. It was a first-time grant from the festival to the organization, which provides care to autistic children.
The money will be spent on an early intervention program for children 5 years and younger.
"The children that aren't getting the services are the newborn babies," said Eden's director, Vicki Isler. "The sooner you get to work with the child the better the prognosis for their life."
The wine festival has raised $38.7 million in the past six years for children's charities in Collier County, making it one of the most successful wine charity events in the world. This year, the festival generated nearly $12.2 million — the most on record and about $1 million more than last year's event.
Festival organizers have held back $8 million from the last two years that they plan to spend in another way. In the past, they've based their grants on the requests they've received for the money. They got nearly 60 this year.
After commissioning a study on the state of child care in Collier County, organizers are looking to be more proactive in distributing the millions of dollars they raise every year.
The study helped them identify four areas to focus on: early learning education, afterschool care, medical/dental health and social welfare. Committees with experts in each of these areas have been formed to come up with ideas, projects and wish lists the festival can support.
The first priority is early learning education. Festival organizers hope to start spending money in this area by fall, said Dawn Montecalvo, the festival's executive director.
"We don't know if we will fund all areas or not," she said.
The study, it seems, is already having an impact — as the biggest donation this year went to Collier Health Services to provide dental care to needy children.
"I think one of the greatest needs is oral health," said Donald Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida, which conducted the research.
The study found there were 17,000 children in need of dental care. The new clinic would fulfill about a third of that need.
Next year's wine festival is already in the works. Planning began before this year's festival took place.
Linda Malone and her husband, Jim, will co-chair the wine auction next year. She said the theme will focus more on the children.
"We want it to be more about the food, the wine and the kids," Malone said. "Our festival is about transforming children's lives. That's what people will hear of more this year."
While the theme may be a little different next year, the festival still promises the same opportunity to rub elbows with CEOs, venture capitalists and celebrities.
"As always we're going to have a lot of fun," Malone said. "It's a true happening."