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Quest for Meaning leads to Vinoy ball

(ran South, East, Seminole and Beach editions)

Rob Francis and six other Eckerd College seniors hadn't decided what to do for their community service project.

Two days before the group's proposal was due, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center.

The students' mission was now clear: They wanted to help families of the victims.

The seven decided to plan a formal ball at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and contribute the profits to the Twin Towers Fund, which helps the families of New York emergency workers who were killed or injured on Sept. 11.

The Attack on America Relief Benefit Ball will be held Saturday from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Vinoy in downtown St. Petersburg. It is open only to members of the Eckerd College community.

"Helping the people of New York just seemed to be a perfect project for our group," said Francis, 21, a political science major. "We all agreed upon the idea."

The seven seniors are in the Quest for Meaning class, which requires a 40-hour community project.

One of the group's first tasks was raising money to cover the overhead cost of the event.

"We knew it was going to be difficult because of the economic status the country fell into after the attacks," said Adam Griffith, 21, another political science major. "But we had decided early on that 100 percent of the ticket sales would go toward our donation to the fund, so we had to find a way to cover our overhead expenses."

The group worked with faculty, staffers and campus organizations such as the Eckerd College baseball team, the Office of Service Ministry and Palmetto Productions to cover the expenses.

"The campus support for our project was overwhelming," Griffith said.

The group received several sizable donations from families and friends of players in the name of the Eckerd College baseball team. In particular, coach Bill Mathews provided a lot of support, Francis said.

The Vinoy's support also was important.

"We went looking for a place that would be generous as they could with helping defray the costs, and the Vinoy was willing to help us," Francis said.

The Vinoy donated its grand ballroom and will have its staff cater the event.

"It is a honor for us to be involved in a project that will help our country," said Vijay Baviskar, director of catering at the Vinoy.

The college group also planned the Patriot Pyramid, another way for Eckerd faculty and staff to donate money directly to the Twin Towers Fund. The level of the donation is associated with a particular president. For example, giving $25 means you're a Jefferson Donor, while giving $100 makes you a Lincoln Donor.

"The pyramid was our way of making sure anyone who wanted to be a part of the relief efforts could be," said senior Andre Gonzales, 21, a management major.

James Annarelli, acting dean of students, said the Patriot Pyramid was a great way for the students to get the entire college involved.

"Everyone throughout the college is able to give donations and feel like they are helping their country," he said.

Gonzales also gave credit to Annarelli. "Without the help and generosity of people ... like dean Annarelli and the Vinoy, we wouldn't be able to have the ball."

Doing something for the community is what the class project is all about, said Rebecca Jacobson, coordinator of the Quest for Meaning class.

"This gives them the opportunity to give back to the community that they have been a part of for the last four years," she said.