Empowering Children To Succeed Wellington’s Great Charity Challenge Helps Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center Raise Crucial Funds

Empowering Children To Succeed Wellington’s Great Charity Challenge Helps Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center Raise Crucial Funds

By Mike May

Thanks to the generosity of those in equestrian and bicycling circles, 2021 has been a banner year for the Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center.

This Palm Beach County nonprofit works to improve early childhood education. Through the Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center, children of working families are empowered to achieve academic and life success through educational programs and family programming that embrace the whole child.

Opportunity has been serving children and their families in the Palm Beaches since 1939. Earlier this year, the nonprofit was awarded $18,000 from the Wellington-based Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments. And this summer, a group of four cyclists, known as the Opportunists, participated in a cross-country bicycle race to raise money for Opportunity.

This was the first time that Opportunity had applied to be part of the GCC program, which has been distributing money to Palm Beach County nonprofit groups since 2009. To date, $15.9 million has been awarded.

According to GCC Executive Director Anne Caroline Valtin, Opportunity applied to be part of the GCC program, and its application was approved. There is always a vetting process for the charities.

“We request for all benefitting nonprofits to provide us with an ‘intended fund use’ prior to receiving funding, along with quarterly updates for a full calendar year,” Valtin said.

Being approved to participate in the GCC doesn’t mean that a nonprofit will always get funding. There is also a bit of luck involved.

Following the vetting process, all qualified applicants are assigned balls in a lottery drum. The balls are then randomly pulled from the drum to see which nonprofits will receive funding through the GCC. On Dec. 14, 2020, Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Marino pulled Opportunity’s ball from the lottery drum. It was the luck of the draw, as they say. For transparency purposes, all drawings are shared live via social media.

Once Opportunity’s ball was selected, it was time to align it with an equestrian funding partner, along with riders, who rode for Opportunity at the 2021 Great Charity Challenge, held Saturday, Feb. 6.

“As the event is a relay-style show jumping competition, each randomly selected nonprofit is paired with a team and corporate sponsor,” Valtin explained. “Team sponsors assign three riders, who compete on behalf of their assigned nonprofit with a chance of winning anywhere between $15,000 and up to $100,000, depending on their performance. Opportunity was assigned to one of our new team sponsors, the Eppinger Family, along with Starwyn Farms, a longtime corporate sponsor. These sponsors are what make the event possible through their generous donations. The Eppinger Family’s team of riders competed representing Opportunity and earned them $18,000.”

According to Opportunity’s Executive Director Ali Eger, the $18,000 GCC grant was much appreciated.

“The $18,000 was used to support our early childhood education program and to provide scholarship assistance to families struggling with the challenges presented by the pandemic,” Eger said.

According to Valtin, the $18,000 awarded to Opportunity was part of an overall $1.1 million allotment of funding, which was distributed in various amounts to 49 Palm Beach County nonprofit organizations in 2021, thanks to the generous support of 64 sponsors, donors and partners.

Since Opportunity was able to put this year’s GCC grant to good use, the nonprofit is already preparing to apply to take part in next year’s GCC. With a bit of luck, perhaps they’ll come away with the top prize. Learn more about the GCC program at www.greatcharitychallenge.com.

The equestrian program was not the only big win for Opportunity this year. The cross-country fundraising effort by four cyclists generated $100,000.

In mid-June, four local bicyclists participated in the 39th Race Across America (RAAM) in support of Opportunity. The race is 3,069 miles long and is often used by participants to raise money for charities throughout the United States. The Opportunists also rode in the race in support of Opportunity in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

On Saturday, June 19, the four cyclists — Kathy Petrillo, Matt Shippee, Chris Huffman and Michel Chabot — left Oceanside, California, and headed east for Annapolis, Maryland. Two members of the support crew were Chris Benkley of Royal Palm Beach and Theresa Goulet from The Acreage. Along the way, they traveled through 12 states — California, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

While the squad featured four bicyclists, only one rode at any given time. In essence, it was a team relay race.

“We had three race vans and one RV,” Huffman explained. “So, with four people, the racers split into pairs. Two racers were on for 12 hours and the other two racers rested.”

By working in two-person teams, the Opportunists covered more mileage in less time.

“The way the two-racer shift worked is that we went faster by being on the bike for half an hour at a time, and then we switched with the other racer who would race for a half hour,” Huffman said. “So, during a 12-hour shift, each racer did a dozen 30-minute shifts for a total of six hours on the bike.”

For the journey, their overall average speed was 19.26 miles per hour. On average, the Opportunists covered 462 miles each day.

Throughout the trip, the four cyclists dressed and worked as teammates.

“We had custom jerseys and bibs with our sponsor logos, team name and, of course, Opportunity printed on them,” Huffman said.

Throughout the race, the Opportunists were in touch with their nonprofit beneficiary.

“We sent videos during the race and did some Facebook Live and FaceTime with the kids,” Huffman recalled. “They followed us along the route, and they were our biggest cheerleaders.”

Although this was the team’s fourth year making the coast-to-coast journey, Petrillo, an experienced competitive cyclist, was the first woman to join the team. The foursome set a goal to finish the race in six days, 18 hours, a full day less than the previous trips.

When the Opportunists finished the race on the morning of June 26, they all experienced a combined feeling of relief and fatigue. Yet there was also a joint feeling of accomplishment. The team’s financial goal was to raise $100,000 to help Opportunity continue to provide educational programs, daily meals, diapers, books and clothing for the children.

“We were successful in achieving both goals,” Huffman said. “We broke the old record of seven days, 53 minutes by setting a new record of six days, 13 hours and 46 minutes!”

In addition to being physically present for the cross-country race, Petrillo was emotionally connected to the entire experience.

“As an educator and mother, I understand the importance of early childhood education,” Petrillo said. “I am also honored to be able to share the importance of setting goals with the kids at the Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center. I want them to know they can do anything!”

Huffman shared similar sentiments.

“To give is to invest yourself in the life of someone else,” Huffman said. “In the Race Across America, racers and crew faced 3,069 miles of adversity and opportunity over seven days. At Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center, the kids have the ‘opportunity’ to learn the life skills that will help them for a lifetime to overcome adversities.”

After returning home, the cyclists met with the children and staff at Opportunity.

“The $100,000 raised from the RAAM were used to cover the race expenses and to support our early childhood education program, which primarily targets our health and fitness curriculum,” Eger said. “All donated net-event proceeds are applied to our programs directly benefitting the children.”

After the successful race this summer, plans are already in the works for next year’s race.

“With one more year, we should be able to raise enough for our five-year total to exceed $500,000,” Huffman said. “We are thinking of doing an eight-person team for 2022. After all, we are all getting older, and with an eight-person team instead of a four-person team, we do not each ride as many hours, plus we can increase our donation base.”

Learn more about the Opportunity Early Childhood Education & Family Center at www.opportunitypbc.org.