FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. Just like Peter Pan, Joe Rizzo shall remain forever ageless to those who knew him. It was difficult to walk through the Josh Crews Gala on Friday evening and not expect to see his smiling face welcoming guests and amping up the party.

But on another level the event offered up a mellow, happy vibe of camaraderie for those stepping into the imaginary Never-Never Land, where a pirate ship hovered in the mist, fire pits warmed the cockles of the heart, and characters from the beloved Disney tale mixed and mingled.

Being exactly what was needed to make it through the first gala without Joe Rizzo, his successor and wife Teresa Rizzo shimmered golden from head to toe. Pixie dust and magic offered the illusion that Joe was out there somewhere, just beyond the woodline at Princess Place Preserve smiling down on the festivities with fellow Lost Boy Josh Crews, for whom the gala was created to commemorate.

Hosted by the Flagler County Education Foundation, the gala has become one of the signature events for the community over more than a decade. Not only does it offer a high quality theatrical element – each year is themed after a different novel or fairy tale, but the fundraiser affords aspiring student writers an opportunity to become published authors as part of each year’s anthology, through funds raised at the gala.

“It’s in honor of Josh Crews, who was my husband Joe Rizzo’s best friend. Josh passed away in a car accident over ten years ago but he was a prolific writer and reader, and so Joe started this event in Josh’s memory,” she said. “It’s just a fabulous honor to continue it in both of their memories.”

Carrying on the legacy of the best friends, Teresa Rizzo’s passion as a former teacher has infused the Flagler County Education Foundation with an expanded mission that private philanthropists and the business community are happy to support, including the Josh Crews Writing Project clubs at each school in Flagler County.

“Most curriculums are heavy in the opinion writing and informational writing, so creative writing really doesn’t get the attention that it should. It’s an opportunity for students to have an outlet of their voice. Especially as a literacy fan, it’s very important to me. If you are a good reader, you’re a good writer and if you’re a good writer, you’re a good reader. They go hand in hand. In the community we hear a lot about reading scores and this is an excellent opportunity for the Ed Foundation to support and impact students’ learning, and being successful writers and readers,” she said.

Gala co-founder Carla Cline was candid about working on the event without Joe this year, acknowledging the cathartic aspect of the planning and execution process.

“This event was very important to him so to continue it is not just in memory of someone that we love, but it became something that, I think that the success of Joe and the education foundation was because of this event. He loved it, so how do you not?”

“It’s funny because you have no idea of the finished product or how it will manifest or it will grow,” said Cline, recalling the writing club project’s inception.

“When you hear about a school needing two teachers to teach all the (writing club) kids, it’s amazing. I think what really hits home is, I had a conversation and somebody verified my feeling of starting this was, there’s stuff for the athletes, there’s stuff for the kids that put themselves out there that people see, but there’s not a lot of stuff for kids that are quiet and that nobody knows are writers. To be able to boost them up is great, it just filled in one more piece of a whole puzzle that needs to be put together. It’s nice to fill in a space where there might have been a void before. The payoff is when you show up to the event afterwards, which is what this is about, with the kids, and you get to see them celebrate themselves. It makes it worth it.”

For more information on the Flagler County Education Foundation, visit www.flagleredfoundation.org.