Pinellas County Urban League hosts 36th Annual Gala


ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County Urban League (PCUL) held its 36th annual Equal Opportunity Day Gala Saturday, Sept. 6, at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park. The function served as a fundraiser and an opportunity to speak of PCUL’s accomplishments and future goals.

The theme of this year’s gala was “Hall of Fame” in honor of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers football player Derrick Brooks, who was recently inducted into the National Football League (NFL) Hall of Fame and who served as the keynote speaker of the evening.

Early in the evening, guests lounged in the hall of the hotel, enjoying cocktails while writing down bids for items in the silent auction. Auctioned items included various paraphernalia autographed by Brooks, hotel stays, tickets for sporting events, gift cards and spa packages. According to PCUL President and CEO Watson L. Haynes II, people may continue to bid on items throughout this week.

Once again, Bay News 9 anchor Erica Riggins served as mistress of ceremonies, leading guests into a dining hall after the silent auction. Following a Presentation of Colors, Haynes welcomed the 470 guests in attendance. Individual tickets for the event cost $150, while corporations purchased platinum, gold and bronze sponsorships. With the auction on going during this week, Haynes said the total dollar amount raised by this year’s gala has yet to be calculated. As of press time, however, the amount generated so far is over $110,000, Haynes said.

After dinner, Riggins led the live auction in the hall. Auctioned off were four footballs that would later be signed and given a personal message by Brooks.

Haynes addressed the crowd to handout surprise “Hall of Fame” awards for four PCUL members. Evelyn Gardner, who volunteered for 35 years with the PCUL Nursing Tutorial Program, was honored with the Smith/Milton Award. The Chairman’s Award was presented to David J. Linesch of the Linesch Law Firm for legal services he provided to PCUL.

Jackie Baron, one of the PCUL Board of Directors members, was honored with the President’s Award for her technological assistance. Lastly, Jamaal Chaney was given the Volunteer Award for his work helping adults study for the General Educational Development exam.

The PCUL gala organizers showed a video to highlight the success of one of their more recent community programs, Summer Training in Youth Leadership and Employment (STYLE), which had its second run this past summer. While PCUL serves adults as well as youth through their many available programs, this year’s gala focused especially on the importance of helping and serving community youth. As keynote speaker and long-time advocate for youth programs, Brooks spoke of his support for PCUL.

“I want to be part of a group that’s changing lives on a daily basis,” Brooks said. “Particularly with me, my hot button is youth education. … I support a lot of educational programs because kids learn differently and just that diversity in their learning skill set allows me to be a part of all that.”

Brooks said his football career put him in a position to be able to serve others.

“What I did on the football field with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a really big part of my life and I really thank God for it,” Brooks said. “But more importantly is the life I live as a man. I want to do the best I can to serve our community beyond the football field.”

In addition to his support of PCUL, Brooks supports youth programs through Derrick Brooks Charities, Inc. During his keynote address, Brooks urged the crowd to invest in children. In response to a question posed by a gala attendee about how to help children maintain their dreams through adulthood, Brooks said, “A dream is going to stay a dream unless you wake up. … Your dreams have got to align with your decisions.”

According to Haynes, the monies raised by the gala will go toward PCUL operations and particularly toward expanding youth development programs throughout all of Pinellas County.

“We’ve been a partner of Lakewood Elementary school for about three years and now we’re looking at expanding some of our services to other identified failing schools in Pinellas County,” Haynes said. “We’ve always been labeled as the St. Petersburg facet of the Urban League, but … we really serve all 24 municipalities of Pinellas County and now have some programs in Tampa as well.”

Haynes said while most PCUL youth programs currently run in St. Petersburg, the Urban Youth Empowerment Program, funded through the Attorney General’s office, will be run in Tampa as well.

“That program works with 16-24 year olds who may or may not have had a brush with the law, who may have dropped out of school,” Haynes said. “It’s working to get them in school or on some track in a certain location.”

In addition to youth programs, Haynes said that in the past year alone PCUL helped restore utilities for 5,000 adults and helped weatherize 300 houses in the county. While the PCUL staff is small, Haynes said, community support allows the organization to expand its service.

“I appreciate the overwhelming support of the community,” Haynes said. “We did not anticipate a sold out house [at the gala], but it shows the kind of support that we have been garnering in the community and from the folks in the Tampa Bay area.”

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