TAMPA — They deserved to be honored.
They deserved to be celebrated.
They deserved to be saluted for their efforts to strengthen our community and improve the lives of our most deserving residents.
If Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik simply chose to gather winners of his Lightning Community Hero Award program for a festive reunion, it would have been enough. After all, he’s already given 366 Tampa Bay residents $50,000 each over the last eight years.
If you’re not good at math, that’s $18.3 million in philanthropic donations that has aided more than 500 nonprofit organizations in the market. Each winner received the royal treatment at a Lightning home match: a pregame tour of the arena, including a meeting with a player and, when he’s present, Vinik; seats in a suite for family and friends and a video presentation played before a sellout audience and on the Fox Sports Sun broadcast.
Why not get the winners together and have a hoedown? They deserve it.
Vinik, however, crafted a better idea in staging the gathering of greats at the Yuengling Center Sunday night. He not only brought together former winners and their guests — more than 450 people — but he invited them to collaborate, to share ideas, to create a collective of innovative goodwill.
It was brilliant.
Although a personal issue pulled Vinik away from the event at the last minute, team officials strategically seated related nonprofits together. After some salutatory greetings, the “heroes” began swapping ideas, sharing stories and talking missions.
The result of the collaborative conversations remains to be seen, but officials have already received dozens of emails from nonprofits about possible connections.
“We love our Community Heroes,” said Elizabeth Frazier, the Lightning’s senior vice president of philanthropy and community initiatives. “We also want to take it to the next level, and we know collaboration among this great group of heroes will make an even bigger impact.”
The new networking component should prove to be an awesome addition, but not all that surprising. Under Frazier’s guiding hand, the program has morphed into not only a game-day ritual, but a feel-good force for philanthropic organizations.
Frazier was humbled when the heroes gave her a standing ovation. But she deserved it.
The game-changing funding matters, but so too does the validation. The design of the program has always been about more than just handing out checks. The video presentation aims to illuminate the nonprofit and share the heartwarming story behind the mission with all the team’s fans.
The mantra: “Inspiration that sparks investment to make an impact.”
And that inspiration cannot be measured or overestimated. Consider this: former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, himself a community hero, sat at a table with educators, appropriate given that he once taught social studies.
Eric Johnson, a former U.S. Marine who now teaches at Wendell Krinn Technical High School in New Port Richey, sat across from Martinez beaming with admiration. A 2013 Community Hero for organizing a massive relief effort for Haiti, Johnson shared that Martinez addressed his class when he was a student at Young Junior High in Tampa.
The governor spoke of being the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college, and that inspired Johnson to get serious about education and turn his life around. Now he passes on those same lessons to his students.
Just two more heroes who deserve to be honored.
That’s all I’m saying.