MANATEE -- Backpacks full of school supplies, a free meal for a district tournament-bound baseball team, a free science program that has inspired hundreds of fifth graders to care for the environment. These are just a few things area businesses and organizations have given Manatee County's school children to offer them more learning and more fun in their school years.
This week, the school district showed how much they appreciate the help.
For 24 years, the district has said "thank you" through the annual Business and Education Partnership Awards. On Friday, 14 of the top donors were singled out as model representatives of more than 250 businesses that gave $5 million in goods and services to schools in 2014 alone.
Schools Superintendent Rick Mills said these donors, all members of the district's ePIE program, give to make a difference in the lives of students. ePIE connects organizations with schools to promote student learning and school involvement.
"Every time one of our businesses takes time to use its resources to help one of our schools, it makes a difference in the lives of many people including our students, our teachers, our other employees and members of the community," Mills said.
Sponsored by the Manatee Chamber Foundation and the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the awards event attracted 200 attendees and about 100 nominations. The top award, the "Partner in Excellence," went to First Baptist Church in downtown Bradenton for sponsoring this year's Day of Hope. Hundreds of students from Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary, Ballard Elementary and Palmetto Elementary schools attending the summer event received free medical care, haircuts and backpacks full of school supplies. Ballard nominated the church.
Pete Rodewald, the children's pastor and a former Manatee schools teacher, said the church rallied volunteer help, merchandise and money to make the event happen for financially challenged students.
"This is our future, our future leaders, our future decision makers," he said. "If we don't take the time to invest in them, what is our future going to hold?"
Some of the honored businesses undertook comprehensive programs to help students, while others came in with occasional gifts to make some special events just a bit better. Laura Roberts, a career and college advisor at Bayshore High School, praised "It's a Two-Way Street" winner Jersey Mike's Subs, who supplied a pre-touranment meal to the school's baseball team.
"It was so meaningful to have a meal provided to them before a district game," she said.
The school fulfilled its end of the two-way street by handing out Jersey Mike's coupons to all the fans at the big game.
Nature's Academy, winner of the event's "District Wide Partner" award, stepped in last school year to fill a need for outdoor science education. The program's founder, Dana Pounds, said she sees the benefits of the program every day.
"Over 90 percent of our students have mentioned that they now actively pick up garbage," she said.
That businesses and schools in Manatee County connect to undertake projects for students is no accident, something that was also recognized by an award. Kimberlain Zenon-Richardson, an assistant principal at Braden River Middle School, was named the district's "School Coordinator of the Year" for her work to seek out businesses to get involved at her school.
The relationship goes two ways, she said. Parents of students who learn of businesses that help at Braden River do tend to patronize them, especially restaurants. While that's a nice bonus, Zenon-Richardson said businesses tend to get involved in volunteer efforts at the school for the same reason staff does.
"We do what we do because we love what we do," she said.
Zenon-Richardson singled out another award winner, Mi Pueblo Restaurant and Cantina, for its help. The establishment provided free food for an anti-bullying event at the middle school last fall.
Mi Pueblo manager Valentina Della Volte said helping out is something the restaurant's owners enjoy doing. For its efforts, the restaurant received a "Special One-Time Project" award.
"We support the schools and want to contribute to the welfare of our students and the future of our community," she said.
Also recognized at the event was the Sierra Club as "Rookie of the Year," Elks Feeding Empty Little Tummies as "Civic Partner of the Year," Moricz & Varone Orthodontics as "Good Things Come in Small Packages," the Regions Bank branch on Manatee Ave. as "Good Things Come in Big Packages,Too," Firkins Automotive Group and IMG Academy as "Partners Together," Crystal Culver of Keiser University as "Business Coordinator of the Year" and Gecko's Grill and Pub as winner of the Barry Jones Business Partner Empowerment Award.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.