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Nature Park fund-raising gala at Shell Factory collects thousands

By Staff | Nov 20, 2013

It was certainly a night to remember at the Shell Factory on Saturday.

More than 100 of Southwest Florida’s most noted givers came to Fishbones, many dressed in safari attire for the Nature Park Environmental Foundation Dinner and Auction.

When it was over, the first-of-its-kind event had raised more money than any fundraiser in the history of the Shell Factory, with tens of thousands of dollars raised through the dinner itself and the numerous items on the auction block.

This means many more trips for Lee County school children to one of the educational hubs in the area.

“Pam and I took it on as a challenge and so far we’ve kept up with it. We haven’t turned anyone away,” said Shell Factory owner Tom Cronin. “There are 120 schools in the system and we’ve taken care of them.”

The event raised money to bring elementary school students throughout Lee County to the Nature Park on field trips, as well as for upkeep of the park, which has seen a 31 percent increase in business.

Thus the need for a fundraiser much sooner than anticipated, said Rick Tupper, marketing director at the Shell Factory.

“With more attendance comes more upkeep and more new animals, and this is a benefit for the maintenance of the grounds for the park along with the buses,” Tupper said. “We had such great response to media day that we decided to have a benefit while awareness was up.”

Previous events for this cause were usually smaller dinners with donations at the door, without the auction format, Tupper said.

For $100 per person, the event featured a surf & turf dinner, music from Candace Zona & the Certified Band, dancing and many items for the attendees to bid on, including his-and-her Rolex watches, luxury trips, and a rare piece of artwork, with many items selling for several thousand dollars.

Auctioneer Mike Joyce donated an original Darryl Pottorf, Bob Rauschenberg and his animals, which was one of the last pieces he did before Rauschenberg died, as well as the watches.

“I’m a big fan of animals and the Cronins. I think they do a great job here and support their effort,” Joyce said. “I think it educates and creates a great entertainment forum and we need more of that in the community.”

And many came dressed in safari garb, whether it was thrown together with khakis and plastic pith helmets, or put together with panache as Sandy Stilwell did, complete with cowboy boots that looked like they cost more than some cars.

The event was sponsored by the Utley family. Tom, a psychiatrist, and Jane, a wine distributor, who said they support the Cronins’ charitable endeavors.

“I’ve known them for many years and it’s a good cause. They do a great thing for the kids, so if you can throw some funds behind that, it’s a great thing to do,” Utley said.

“This event is special because it’s for the children, to allow them to come here and see something they can’t see with their parents but with school excursions,” Jane said.

Among the dignitaries at the event were Randy Henderson and John Sorey, mayor of Fort Myers and Naples, respectively, State Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto, radio personality Gina Birch.

“It shows how we support the work of the nature center for all they do to educate the kids about animals,” Benequisto said. “Every child who comes here gains an appreciation for the environment.”

The foundation has already sent nearly 13,000 school children, teachers and chaperones on field trips to the nature park at a cost of about $150 per bus over the last four years.