TRINITY — It was right before the Christmas holiday and Tom Leopold was a little worried. For nine years, the residents of Heritage Springs had shown their support for Pasco County Special Olympics through an annual fundraising dinner and event held in the community clubhouse. Leopold and fellow resident Ann Poole are the longtime organizers of the benefit that had raised about $110,000 for local athletes over the years.
But it appeared the economy was taking a toll. Donations — both monetary and for services, gift certificates and other items to raffle off — were down for the Jan. 30 event. No way would they meet this year's goal of $20,000, Leopold thought. Probably wouldn't even match last year's check of $17,600.
"We're already about $6,000 behind what we usually have at this time of year," Leopold said back in December. "I think it's the times. Financially everybody's tight. When you beat the pavement, people say they'd like to help, but can't."
Turns out some could — and did — in a very big way.
While the final count isn't in yet, it appears that the folks in Heritage Springs and some local businesses that pitched in have surpassed the $20,000 goal. Leopold and Poole, who is the grandmother of a special needs child, will proudly present that check during the opening ceremonies of the West Pasco Special Olympics Summer Games, to be held Feb. 25 at River Ridge Middle/High School.
"It's amazing to see the turnaround," Leopold said. "At a time when finances are tight and the economy is in such turmoil, for people to step up like this — it's just wonderful."
"The people at Heritage Springs are just unbelievable," Poole said. "We're really, really blessed here."
That money will go a long way to help fund a program that has been growing by leaps and bounds, said Val Lundin, who coordinates the county games along with Judy Brunner. More than 900 athletes are scheduled to participate in the upcoming county games. About 200 people, including chaperones, will go on to the state games.
"They are our angels right now," Lundin said, noting that Heritage Springs is the second largest donor behind the Pasco County schools district office.
"Tom and Ann put so many hours into this. Their energy and their heart is there. We're so lucky that they have us under their wing," Lundin said.
"It's amazing," Brunner said, noting that 100 athletes were scheduled to go to the state basketball championships last weekend at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"You know there's absolutely no cost to the athletes who participate in the program. But we do have costs that are incurred: T-shirts for athletes, transportation fees, hotel fees. The things that people at Heritage Springs are doing help pay for that."
Those trips are a great boon to athletes, Brunner said, in more ways than one.
"They love to compete, but many of them never get out of their community except for these trips. Some of them have never stayed in a hotel before," Brunner said. "They work and train very hard to do well at county and area competition. They work very hard at that because they love to go on the trips and have these experiences."
And no doubt, Poole and Leopold like the feeling that comes with making those experiences a reality.
Now Leopold is taking it a step further. He's been pounding the pavement to enlist the help of local physicians and dentists to donate services for those with special needs. Already he has a couple on board.
"Let me tell you how good the people in this community are," Leopold said. "I asked this one dentist if he would sponsor just one child for a year. He's going to sponsor 10."
So far, so good.