Flagler County, FL – Smashing their goal of $75,000, it was a tremendous success for the Flagler County Education Foundation on Tuesday evening as they hosted their annual dinner at the Hammock Dunes Club.
Marking the first event with Teresa Rizzo at the helm, the evening paid homage to the organization’s past executive director and Teresa’s husband Joe Rizzo, who passed away unexpectedly this spring.
Raising $90,000 Tuesday night, it was a resounding show of support for Teresa Rizzo, who has stepped in to lead the organization and grow the mission of supporting Flagler’s student success.
“This evening meant everything to us. It just a reflection of the last five years and the work that Joe did with the foundation,” she said. “This evening was extremely important. One to launch my tenure as leadership of the education foundation, and the fact that I get to launch it with such an amazing board, such amazing friends and a village to help us carry on, I’m just so excited. We have tons of opportunity to grow and expand this foundation. We’re thrilled and excited. This was a great evening to start it off.”
Laughter Through the Tears
Less than six months after the passing of Joe Rizzo, who was synonymous with the Foundation, the evening was filled with heartfelt tributes and several moments when it felt as if Rizzo was making his presence known from the beyond.
While most in attendance responded with a wistful laugh or nod of appreciation as each speaker shared their memories, it was the timeless story of the starfish and the ever hopeful little boy as told by House Speaker-designate Paul Renner that broke open the dam of tears among guests, himself included.
“I started to cry a little bit and forgot to tell the rest of the story, but Joe Rizzo was the young kid who was taking all the starfish to safety. He was a guy who touched so many lives as we heard tonight that without him would not have been rescued. He literally rescued kids and changed their life, and I can’t think of a night that I’ve walked away from an event feeling warmer about what a good guy or good lady can do,” he said.
Not all tears, Flagler Schools’ graduate John Overton, who went on to become a member of the Jacksonville Fire Rescue team, shared his experiences with Rizzo and the guidance provided to help him become a successful Fire Leadership Academy graduate.
“The Flagler County Education Foundation actually supports all the flagship programs throughout Flagler County. I graduated fully certified, ready to get hired, and because of Joe’s mentorship, advice and support of the programs, whether it’s through funding or coming in to get things done, I was able to graduate and get hired straight out of high school,” shared Overton, encouraging the continued support of the foundation’s work.
“Keep doing what we’ve always done, as if Joe’s still here,” he said. “Continue doing the best we can every time and make it happen, like the theme of tonight.”
An array of photos captured the full life lived by Rizzo and the relationships he cherished including those closest to him like Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin and Joe Wright, who were presented with “Make It Happen” awards during the dinner.
“It broke my heart the day we lost him. Joe Rizzo was everything to our family. He meant so much to us. He’s what drew me to the education foundation, he’s what supplied my family with the dreams and hopes that we have now for what this foundation will do,” said Wright, filled with emotion.
“We were left with a big hole when Joe passed. Last night a group of people decided to stand up and attempt to fill it,” he added, Wednesday morning.
Accepting on behalf of Alfin who was needed at a Palm Coast City Council business meeting were his wife Tammy McIlravy and daughter Melanie De Martino.
“To be able to step in and be able to accept the award on behalf of my father is an honor. It’s an honor for Teresa to ask my mom and I. Joe and my dad were best friends and I know that he’s with us tonight,” said De Martino.
It was an emotional plea by Rizzo’s beloved daughter Caroline that brought inspiration for the future to the room filled with dignitaries, close friends and foundation supporters.
“Joe personified the cause to all of us across the community. His passion, his total selfless commitment and his ability to make it happen is the spark that really drove the foundation, and now is in the great hands of Teresa,” said Brian Unger, who sees the path forward simply “by following his legacy and following her leadership.”
“I’m not surprised by the turnout tonight,” said Flagler County Education Foundation board member Maria Lavin-Sanhudo. “He was so loved by absolutely everyone, me included. He was just a special man with a great dream, and he loved kids. I have no doubt that Teresa will be so wonderful.”
Starting the evening with a $10,000 donation on behalf of Jeep Beach, Inc., Charlene Greer teared up when remembering Joe and cheering on Teresa in her new role.
“Joe’s passion and his impact is not just changing lives, he’s literally saving lives, and he is creating sustainability for our Central Florida community, right here in Flagler,” said Greer.
“To say that he’s a dear friend, is an understatement. But to watch Teresa and his children embrace his legacy, and to carry it on, is everything. This community is so fortunate to have Joe, not had, but still have Joe, to continue to make it happen. And they are making it happen.”
Project-based Learning Life Sciences and STEM educator Andrew Meaderis is one of the teachers on the receiving end of the support provided by the Flagler County Education Foundation, and shared his testimony with those ready to give.
“In terms of being able to be here and speak about the impact that Joe has had in my classroom, but not only in my classroom but the surrounding classrooms, that’s a story that needs to be told, because people don’t understand that as they’re donating money or giving access or finding opportunities for our students, what it really means to them and to our classrooms as teachers,” said Meaderis.
“Joe’s legacy is making sure the kids are taken care of, they have opportunities to be successful in whatever path they choose to have because that’s really what he did.”
“I have to tell you, Pete Russo is always Joe’s pick as head of technology. He wants him to always run his events. To see Pete start sweating, he’s messing with him,” teased Teresa after a double tech blip happened during Caroline’s talk, with Joe’s voice chiming in.
“I know without a doubt he’s here,” said Caroline. “I would expect him to make an appearance that way.”
Looking to the future, the bright young woman shared a bit of her father’s trademark wit while applauding her mother’s success.
“I think my dad definitely would be proud. The people in this room were his favorite people in the whole world. I think he wouldn’t want anyone else to do it but my mom,” she said. “I think she’s going to do an amazing job and continue to remember his mission and vision but she’ll also expand on that, which I think is the most important thing for people to remember.”
For The Future: Renner on Reading Literacy As a Priority
Pledging to make it a priority during his two years as Speaker of the Florida House, Renner spoke directly to supporting Teresa Rizzo’s passion for reading literacy among students.
“I would say that we need to spend a lot more time and energy on it because the prospects for kids that are not on grade level is not at all good,” said Renner. “I had some productive conversations right after we concluded about that and how the foundation here and Teresa specifically with her background can help us in that effort because we do intend to put a lot of focus on that, and it will change millions of lives if we can achieve that.”