HOPE: one word, four letters and so much more. For 46 Palm Beach County charities, the feeling of hope shifted into a reality on Feb. 6 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida. This year’s Great Charity Challenge pivoted to a blend of in-person competition for riders and virtual celebration for charities and supporters. Supporters cheered as equestrians and their mounts, representing local nonprofit organizations, competed for a share of more than $1 million in prize money.
Held during the Winter Equestrian Festival for the past 12 years, the GCC has become a highlight of the winter season and has distributed almost $16 million to 276 local nonprofit organizations.
Determined to show the power of united communities, the GCC is an exciting show jumping event that combines equestrian sports and philanthropy, bringing hope to Palm Beach County charities every year. Twenty-three teams, made up of junior and amateur riders competing side-by-side with top professionals, paired up with randomly selected Palm Beach County charities.
“Seeing the level of need in our community and knowing how difficult the past year has been, we quickly realized that we couldn’t turn our backs on our most vulnerable neighbors,” said GCC co-founder Mark Bellissimo. “We are truly grateful to see that the community was able to adapt to this format while stepping up to provide crucial funding to local organizations.”
A moment of silence at the beginning of the event paid recognition to the friends of GCC lost and those lost to the pandemic in the past year.
The GCC featured riders and horses dressed up in costumes that recognized the heroes who stepped up during the pandemic as well as those who have inspired us to push beyond our own limits.
The winning team of Lindsey Tomeu riding Bonapart, Ashley Vogel on Lucy In The Sky, and Shane Sweetnam aboard Heart On Fire, sponsored by team sponsor Spy Coast and Preston and corporate sponsor Diamante Dressage, came in the ring representing the U.S. Army. Their strategy and teamwork paid off for their assigned charity YWCA of Palm Beach County, a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, earning them the top prize of $100,000. The sliding scale for the balance of the proceeds, down to 22nd place winning a minimum of $15,000, ensured that everyone was a winner.
“I’ve been supporting [the GCC] since its inception,” said Lisa Lourie of Spy Coast Farm, “and I’ve been fortunate enough to win four times thanks to an incredible team. Shane is one of the top grand prix riders here at this show, and he still participates every single year. I think he might be passing on the baton next year, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have an incredible team. He trains these kids and brings them along to be like him so that’s really terrific. Monica [Preston] and I have been more than happy to contribute to this cause, and we’re very thrilled that we pulled the YWCA, especially thrilled about the causes they’re directing their money towards. Both Monica and I are all for empowering women, certainly for racial equality and helping children, so we’re thrilled to do it, and we’re honored and privileged to be able to do it in this way.”
“We are elated,” said Shay Spencer, executive director of YWCA of Palm Beach County. “We have been livestreaming all night, and we are so thankful to the sponsors, the supporters, the riders, everyone who livestreamed, and especially to the GCC for putting this all together. We have been supporters, and it is amazing to now be award recipients.
“We do have some very specific plans for the $100,000,” continued Spencer. “We have an amazing new initiative called the Women’s Health Institute, which helps to target the disparities that women face in the health industry, being both women and women of color. We have our child development center, which helps to provide free, quality child care for low-income families. We are going to use the funds to continue our mission, to empower women, to eliminate racism, and to promote peace, freedom and justice for all. It’s been an amazing night.”
Sweetnam commented, “Every year it’s a great event, and it’s a great cause for the community, especially this year. I know it probably wasn’t easy to organize, but these charities need it more than ever this year. It’s great that we could do our part and have something to cheer for and give back to our community.”
Coming in second was the team for Junior Achievement of the Palm Beaches, sponsored by Lothlorien Farm and corporate sponsor La Victoria Farm. The team consisted of Edie Wetzel riding Annabelle, Charlotte McLaughlin aboard Elmo, and Daniel Coyle on Essedon, who were just a second shy of the win, earning $90,000 for their charity.
Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County finished third and won $80,000. The team was made up of Keira Foster on Ash Ville Rock, Olivia Markman riding Zanta Fee Van T Hofterrijckel, and Zayna Rizvi aboard Chaplin W, sponsored by Peacock Ridge and corporate sponsor Rosner’s Appliances.
“Fidelity Investments is committed to making a difference in the communities where we work and live, and we were proud to be the presenting sponsor of the Winter Equestrian Festival and the 12th edition of the Great Charity Challenge,” said Dave Cvercko, regional head of Fidelity’s South-Central Investor Centers. “This important event distributed over $1 million to more than 40 charities in the Palm Beach community, which will help assist populations most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Great Charity Challenge co-founder Paige Bellissimo commented, “While this year’s event looked very different than our usual full stands, our focus remained the same: to ensure that local nonprofit heroes receive a financial ‘leg up’ during these challenging times. We are so grateful for the support and generosity of the event sponsors and donors who make this possible!”
United Way of Palm Beach County joined forces with the Great Charity Challenge, enabling spectators to donate to the event online for the first time.
With a focus on community impact, the event also teamed up with the Equestrian Cooperative, an initiative founded by Adrienne Sternlicht, Lucy Deslauriers, Paige Bellissimo and Chronicle staff writer Tori Repole, aimed at making social activism and community involvement more accessible to equestrians. Their first mission: to dissolve the medical debt of about 1,200 people in Palm Beach County. In working with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization that buys medical debt at pennies on the dollar, their $34,000 goal will eradicate approximately $5 million of debt at approximately $1.50 to the penny. For additional information on how to alleviate the financial burdens of those with whom we share our community, please visit: https://secure.qgiv.com/event/ec/
In addition to the 23 charities that were part of the GCC competition, an additional 24 nonprofits received funding through grants that were awarded leading up to the event. For a full list of benefiting non-profit organizations, visit: www.GreatCharityChallenge.com
Thanks to the annual support of the Ziegler Family Foundation, five nonprofits were surprised with $10,000 grants. Additionally, thanks to the generosity of elected officials and long-time supporters, the following nonprofits were randomly awarded grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000: The Alliance of Women Executives, Faulk Center for Counseling, Florence Fuller Child Development Centers, Help Our Wounded Foundation, JDRF, Kayla Cares 4 Kids, Nicholas and Christen Thompson Foundation, Sea Turtle Adventures, Speak Up For Kids and Unified Dream.
“We are truly inspired by seeing key players come together to support change in this community,” said Mark Bellissimo. “There are many charities within Palm Beach County that work tirelessly to do just that. We are grateful to our amazing donors who give them access to additional funding and riders who donate their time to compete on their behalf. They share one common purpose: empowering local nonprofit organizations to do what they do best.”
More information on the competition and winning charities of the 2020 GCC is available via www.greatcharitychallenge.com.
Event photos and fund use updates will also be shared via Facebook: www.facebook.com/greatcharitychallenge.