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Lightning’s Community Hero reaches $20 million milestone

The program has recognized 397 people and 518 nonprofit organizations with an impact that goes well beyond money.
The Lightning Community Heroes presentation honoring Dwight Raines as the 31st Lightning Community Hero this season during the first period as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 in Tampa. The program will reach $20m on Saturday, Feb. 29. Raines becomes the 396th Lightning Community Hero since Jeff and Penny Vinik introduced the Lightning Community Hero program in 2011-12 with a $10 million, five-season commitment to the Tampa Bay community. Through this evening's game, in total, the Lightning Foundation has granted $19.95 million to more than 750 different nonprofits in the Greater Tampa Bay area. During the summer of 2016, the Vinik's announced that the community hero program will give away another $10 million over the next five seasons.
The Lightning Community Heroes presentation honoring Dwight Raines as the 31st Lightning Community Hero this season during the first period as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 in Tampa. The program will reach $20m on Saturday, Feb. 29. Raines becomes the 396th Lightning Community Hero since Jeff and Penny Vinik introduced the Lightning Community Hero program in 2011-12 with a $10 million, five-season commitment to the Tampa Bay community. Through this evening's game, in total, the Lightning Foundation has granted $19.95 million to more than 750 different nonprofits in the Greater Tampa Bay area. During the summer of 2016, the Vinik's announced that the community hero program will give away another $10 million over the next five seasons. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 29, 2020

TAMPA — Everyone knows what’s coming. The whistle blows, and the ice crew takes the ice for the second time of the game. Normally, that’s a great time to hit the bathroom or concessions. But at Amalie Arena, people stay in their seats.

The second TV timeout is for the Community Hero presentation.

On Saturday, the Lightning Foundation reached the $20 million mark with Margaret McNutt, the 397th Hero. She awarded the full $50,000 donation to Noah’s Ark of Central Florida, an organization she co-founded to provide affordable housing and support to individuals with disabilities. It is also the 518th nonprofit to benefit from the Community Hero program.

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“Our Community Hero program is certainly one of the highlights and I think one of the signature events we do at every game,” Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said.

When it started, he didn’t necessarily see the program reaching this number.

The program was born in Vinik’s second full season owning the team. He and wife Penny pledged $10 million to the community of Tampa Bay and needed a way to make that happen. Granting $50,000 to a nonprofit organization through a deserving person at each game was a way to accomplish that.

In April 2016, the Viniks pledged another $10 million. And they see no reason to stop.

Jeff Vinik is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

The way numbers are thrown around between corporate projects, government budgets and athlete salaries, $20 million may not sound as impactful as it is. It might not be a lot for an evil genius demanding ransom in a quest for world domination, but makes a huge difference in the world of non-profits.

Ricky Gallon, a 2011 Hero, joked that there just isn’t enough time to convey how much he has seen the Community Hero program impact the area.

The center ice displays the Lightning Community Heroes presentation honoring Dwight Raines as the 31st Lightning Community Hero this season during the first period as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena on Thursday.
The center ice displays the Lightning Community Heroes presentation honoring Dwight Raines as the 31st Lightning Community Hero this season during the first period as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena on Thursday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The $50,000 awarded to Enterprising Latinas by Liz Guttierez, a 2017 Hero, went toward the construction of a physical location. The Opportunity Center in Wimauma is a place for women to receive workforce training and job search assistance.

The Boys and Girls Club created a designated space for teens who didn’t want to be with the little kids and were less likely to engage with the program when Gallon was named a Hero.

Voices for Children and the Guardian ad Litem program were able to recruit, train and support 35 volunteers to represent children in abusive situations in court courtesy of 2017 Heroes Ken and Dot Conklin.

A couple of weeks after the Conkins’ hero ceremony, Voices for Children held another recruitment session. The next day executive director Jennifer Starr called the Lightning crying. Half of the potential new volunteers had heard about the program watching the hockey game.

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And that was the Community Hero program’s goal, not just to make a donation but to give people very public recognition and help spread the word about their causes.

“We don’t want to be transactional and hand out checks,” said Elizabeth Frazier of the Lightning Foundation. “We wanted to create a program that would harness the power of having 20,000 fans here and a TV audience.”

They chose the second timeout to give people time to get to the arena but before the flow of the game has taken over people’s emotions. Yes, that power shows what the Lightning is doing in making the donation, but also tells the story of the person being recognized and the organization benefitting.

Frazier’s job as senior vice president of philanthropy and community initiatives means, in part, facilitating this program and building relationships with the Heroes, who keep in touch for years afterward. That’s the part of the Community Hero that goes behind the donation, which is made with no strings attached but for however the Hero directs it. The Lightning Foundation hosts events to bring the Heroes together.

Frazier enjoys playing matchmaker, introducing people whose missions complement each other, then watching what they come up with.

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Susan Jacobs’ organization, Driving for Success, provides cars and upkeep for those who need a reliable transportation to get to work. She’s been able to partner with Habitat for Humanity to grant a vehicle and a house to people in need.

“It brought us together,” the 2011 Hero said about nonprofits working in the area. “It gave us the opportunity to really talk to each other in a way that wasn’t competitive. It was a totally different way of dealing with each other and seeing how we could help each other.”

Gallon and the Boys and Girls Club partnered with Where Love Grows, whose founder, Vicki Anzalone, was a 2015 Hero, to teach kids about nutrition and share the importance of having a meal together.

Being connected with a Hero brings credibility to an organization. It’s something that others around the area recognize. People know to be a recipient, the nonprofit was fully vetted and does good work.

You know that whole saying about teaching a man to fish vs. giving him a fish? The Lightning have managed to do both with the Community Hero program.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.