Fundraiser Benefits NICU at Winter Haven Women’s Hospital
by MATT COBBLE
photos PROVIDED BY WINTER HAVEN HOSPITAL FOUNDATION
Few fundraisers offer something for everyone, but Winter Haven Hospital Foundation’s Fore the Love event, benefitting the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), comes close.
Fore the Love had its beginnings in the Polk County Cup Juniors Tennis Tournament in 2012. John and Tracy Scheck were looking for something to benefit the NICU, but struggled with the direction at first.
“There’s always cocktail parties,” Tracy Scheck says. “We wanted to do something that stood out.” The Schecks had always had a passion for both youth and tennis, and a Juniors’ Tennis tournament seemed the perfect combination of their passions.
The Schecks have a very personal reason for supporting the NICU. “My nephew, Kenneth, was born with a heart defect,” Tracy Scheck says. “He only survived 12 weeks. He spent his whole life in the NIC Unit. But, in the middle of everything, the staff was so wonderful, we looked for a way to give back so that we could honor Kenneth.”
The first year, the Polk County Cup was able to raise $14,000 dollars for the NICU. However, the Schecks’ big dreams were not aligning with the amount they were raising. By 2015, the totals had grown to only $17,000. “We wanted to do more,” Tracy Scheck says, “but we found that most donors were not as interested in a tennis event.”
Little did the Schecks know that help was on the way. Mike and Janine Mahalak of Winter Haven also were looking into a fundraiser, specifically one built around Mike Mahalak’s love of golf. The Winter Haven Hospital Foundation suggested involving the Schecks to help bolster a fundraiser that had become a bit stagnant.
Tracy Scheck was all for the partnership, but with one condition: The funds would still benefit the NICU. The Mahalaks agreed without question. “Any time you do something with babies and moms,” Mike Mahalak says, “that touches a lot of people’s heartstrings.”
Rather than eliminating the tennis aspect, the Mahalaks added the golf tournament as a complement. The event was rebranded as Fore the Love in 2016.
“That first year, we scheduled the event for a weekend when none of the Florida college teams were playing,” Mike Mahalak recalls. “We advertised the afterparty as a partial tailgate event.”
The strategy was a success. Fore the Love brought in more than $20,000 that first year, and the amount has been climbing since. Last year’s event brought in $62,000. “It was a great marriage,” Tracy Scheck recalls, “and all to benefit the NICU. It’s a win, win, win!”
The event has grown so much that the Schecks and Mahalaks have extended it to a full weekend. The tennis tournament will take place Sunday, October 20, the golf tournament on Saturday, October 19, and new this year, kicking off the event on October 18 will be the Friday Night Bash. Alongside dinner, drinks, live music by B.Haven, and a silent auction, Tracy Scheck promises the whole evening will be focused on the NICU or, as she calls it, “our tiny community.” “I think it’s going to be a great addition. I’m very excited to be doing it.”
The impact of Fore the Love is certainly being felt. Nicci Lambert, NICU nurse manager at Winter Haven Women’s Hospital, spoke of the impact the donations raised by the event.
“We have over 200 admissions to NICU every year, so the proceeds of these events benefit each of these children, and therefore, the families connected to those children.”
Specifically, the funds raised in 2018 allowed the NICU to purchase a giraffe warmer bed, a type of specialty bed used to care for extremely premature infants. The newborns can be weighed, X-rayed, observed, and fully attended to while remaining in a constant, friendly environment with a heat source. “This keeps the baby in a developmental environment where unnecessary stimulation is minimized,” Lambert explains.
Lambert also expressed her own thanks, as well as those of the NICU nurses. “The staff is so thankful for the contribution that the foundations makes so that they can give extraordinary care to their patients.”
Even though the 2019 event is still a few months away, the Schecks and Mahalaks are looking ahead to 2020. “Next year is our fifth year,” Tracy Scheck says, “and we’re already tossing around ideas for how to celebrate.”
The Malahaks agree that while planning the event requires effort, they don’t mind putting in the effort. “It’s a lot of work to put it all together, but it’s the kind of work that’s very satisfying, very gratifying,” Mike Mahalak says.
The Foundation is still accepting donations for anyone who wants to attend the Friday Night Bash, or attend, participate in, or sponsor any of the events. For more information or to purchase tickets, please call (863) 297-1781 or visit the website at whhfoundation.org/events/fore-the-love/.