LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The Florida Wine and Balloon Festival will celebrate 23 years of helping children in need by filling the sky with 22 hot air balloons this weekend over the Premier Sports Campus, 5895 Post Blvd.
The only balloon festival in the state begins Thursday with winemaker dinners and continues all weekend. Balloons will be launched at 7:15 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. General admission is $15 per person older than 10. Younger children get in free.
Upscale arts and craft vendors, gourmet food trucks, tethered balloon rides (weather permitting), a beer and wine tent, continuous music, a kids zone and car show will be part of the festival open to the public from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The kid zone is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Officially known as the Florida Winefest Auction, the nonprofit organization has raised $7.7 million for 76 different charities since 1991, according to board president Sandy Loevner.
"We have a formal grants process. We received about 54 applications last year and we are benefiting about 11 this year," Loevner said, including Feeding Empty Little Tummies, Just For Girls at the Manatee County Girls Club and ManaTEENS.
"It's the kids, giving the money
to the kids, that touches me," the volunteer leader said. "We've got so much that's not done in our two communities. Like this new one, Feeding Empty Little Tummies -- thinking that a child wouldn't have enough food on the weekend, It just breaks your heart,
"The arts, the town needs all these wonderful things, but the children have a special place in your heart," Loevner said.
Just for Girls Executive Director Becky Canesse calls the wine festival's ability to raise funds "amazing. Any charity can tell you it's not easy, especially in a time like this.
"These are good people. They are committed year after year with people who know what they're doing. They are a wonderful circle of friends," Canesse said. "They have a heart for children in need. The director cares particularly for those children who need to survive in a challenging situation."
That attitude drew in Paul Mattison, executive chef and proprietor of Mattison's Restaurants, who also serves on the Wine Festival board, "I just love the organization. They've got such a great mission. They help so many organizations in Sarasota and Manatee -- child and education based, single-parent families, people that really fall between the cracks."
Mattison will add his expertise to the festival as chef and wine expert, working hands-on at several related events beginning Thursday.
Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7027, or tweet @DeeGrahamBH.