TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, announced Sunday that they would pledge $10 million more over the next five seasons to continue the community heroes program that provides aid to area charities.
Started in the 2011-12 hockey season, the program is a partnership between the Vinik Family Foundation and the Lightning Foundation that recognizes a community hero at every home game during the season and provides a $50,000 donation to that person's favorite nonprofit.
Vinik said the program was the brainchild of former Bolts CEO Tod Leiweke, who is now the chief operating officer of the National Football League. About $11.15 million has been donated to 300 different groups in the past five years.
"There so much more need out there," Vinik said during a brief interview before an event at the TPepin's Hospitality Centre in Tampa, where he made the announcement. "We knew as leaders of the sports team, frankly, it's our responsibility to make an impact in the community. (Creating the program) was one of our proudest moments."
The people who have been selected as community heroes are those judged to have made a difference in the community and are often active with Tampa Bay charities working on a wide range of issues.
Most of the heroes selected in the past five years gathered for a dinner at the center Sunday wearing the Lightning jerseys they received when they were selected.
Vinik said the program would be adding a category of hero on weekend games honoring young people in local high schools, universities or colleges who are leaders driving social change and helping those in need. The tradition heroes will be honored during weeknight games.
Margarita Romo, founder and executive director of Farmworkers Self Help Inc. of Dade City, was honored in November and said the donation came not long after the group lost a significant grant. Without the money, she said, the charity would have been forced to let go of two critical staff members.
"They saved our staff," said Romo, who noted that her group, among other things, provides help for undocumented farmworkers. "That turns some people off. But it's part of what we were called to do. They are the least helped, the worst treated. And somebody has to do something there to help them."
Anna Rodriguez, founder and CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, was honored as a community hero in 2014 and shared the $50,000 grant with two other charities, including the Joshua House, which provides safe haven for abused and neglected children.
"It re-energized us so we could continue the work that we're doing," Rodriguez said. "I appreciate what the Lightning does for the people who are involved in the community, the invisible people who are trying to make a difference."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spoke at the event, saying in an interview beforehand that the program puts the public spotlight on people who don't seek it and often do the work out of sight of most Tampa Bay residents.
"They are the unsung heroes of our community," Buckhorn said. "They don't expect to be interviewed. They don't expect to see themselves on TV. But they get out there every day and do amazing work."