Gallery: Community Foundation’s Inspire Gala delivers inspiration

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Posted March 4, 2023 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty
Photos By Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette

Nearly 300 locals answered the invitation from the Community Foundation for Ocala/Marion County for its first Road to Wine Country Inspire Gala at the Ocala Hilton.

The March 3 event was organized to honor individual and corporate philanthropists and thank nonprofits for their work to inspire charity in the community. Honorees were nominated and the foundation outsourced the selection process to prevent any favoritism in naming recipients of the inaugural Inspire Gala awards.

Community Foundation President and Executive Director Lauren Deiorio and Ashley Wheeler-Gerds, the director of strategic and community engagement for the foundation, emceed the presentation.

Frank Hennessey, founder and chairman of the board of the foundation, presented the Golden Circle award to Robert Reilly. The award recognizes those who have donated at least a million dollars to the Community Foundation. One of Reilly’s generous contributions helped turn an old armory at Tuscawilla Park into the Reilly Arts Center.

Stan Hanson, founder of the Adam Hanson Better Communities Fund, presented two Youth Philanthropists of the Year awards in a male and female category.

Brothers, Caleb and Luke Lombardo, ages 17 and 14, received recognition for organizing the Concert for Good to raise money for local charities.

Juliana Henningsen, now 15, was honored for creating the book, “Shop Pets of Ocala,” which was sold to raise money for the Humane Society of Marion County in 2021. The book featured a collection of photographs and stories of local dogs and cats that go to work with their owners.

Rusty Branson, Regional President of SouthState Bank, presented the Unsung Hero award to the city of Ocala’s Police Chief Michael Balken. Branson acknowledged that Balken was a well-known figure in the community but said that so much of what Balken does in the way of sacrificing time and energy has not been publicly recognized. Branson spoke to the crowd of Balken’s remarkable “commitment to serving our youth, improving mental services in our community, and tackling the domestic violence epidemic facing so many families today.”

McKenzie’s Moment was recognized as the Emerging Nonprofit of the Year. Ryan and Kait Gray accepted the award. The couple co-founded a golf tournament to honor their daughter, McKenzie, who died in 2018. Kait was 29 weeks pregnant with their second daughter, McKenzie, when Kait suffered a placenta abruption, which occurs when the placenta separates from the inner wall of the uterus before birth.

“When McKenzie passed, we were just short of seven months in Ocala, but the love the community gave us was like we had lived here our entire lives,” said Kait.

Kait told the crowd that the tournament, now in its fifth year, had already raised $2.5 million for local charities.

Frank Deluca presented the Nonprofit of the Year award to Marion Senior Services. DeLuca said the worthy nonprofit “ensures that no one goes without a meal, misses a doctor’s appointment” and looks out for the mental health of the elderly during sensitive times like the holidays.

As Jennifer Martinez, executive director for Marion Senior Services, accepted the award and spoke of her team, an unknown butspirited audience member yelled, “You knock it out of the park, Jenny!”

“What we strive for every day is to preserve the dignity of aging,” Martinez told the crowd.

Danny Schofield presented the Corporate Partner of the Year award to Mainstreet Community Bank, saying that the organization always steps in during times of need, expecting nothing in return. Angie Clifton, senior vice president for the bank, accepted the award and praised the work of the Community Foundation.

Roseann Morton received the Board Member of the Year award for her work with the Humane Society of Marion County. Morton has worked with the nonprofit for 25 years.

Morton accepted the award and told the crowd that she had enjoyed watching the Humane Society outgrow its original vision when she started.

“The next chapter of the Humane Society is about to unfold. We are opening a clinic to help the community’s animals. So many people cannot afford veterinary care and we will attempt to address that obstacle,” she said.

Ken Ausley, CEO of Ausley Construction, presented the Philanthropist of the Year award to David Tillman, who Ausley said personifies the Bible’s book of James admonition “to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”

The night ended with a tearful special presentation by the emcees of a new foundation award in honor of Frank Hennessey’s legacy.

Hennessey took the stage and recounted the vision of the Community Foundation when it was founded and encouraged the crowd to look for ways to come together and do good.

“I was thrilled to see people acknowledge the slow but steady efforts to build a strong community foundation. Had you told me it would be such a blowout night with 300 people and a waiting list- I wouldn’t have believed you,” Hennessey told the Gazette the morning after the event.

Pointing to important issues that need community attention with regard to housing, education and helping our youth, Hennessey felt hopeful. “Seeing that many people come together last night reassures me that we have the power to tackle anything.”

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