The Huntington Foundation celebrated public education at the organization's 20th annual gala last Friday night at The Woodlands, a former Gold Coast mansion in Woodbury. The evening honored retired Huntington School Board member Christine Bene for her lengthy volunteer service to the community.
The gala drew current and retired teachers, parents, district administrators, alumni and many of Mrs. Bene's family members. "She always puts children first, whether as PTA council president, school board trustee, Family Service League board member or through the foundation she established in her daughter's memory to help students who heed the call to become nurses," Huntington School Board President Emily Rogan said about her friend.
The Woodland's elegant rooms came to life on a cold January night. Gala-goers munched on an array of delicious foods and took chances on dozens of raffle items donated by local Huntington businesses and later participated in a live auction of an assortment of goods and services.
Four gifted Huntington High School strings musicians performed throughout the hors d'oeuvres hour. Christian Jamison, Ashley Melgar, Brian Gilbert and Adelia Witt were brilliant and drew rave reviews.
Famed auctioneer Jeffrey Klaverweiden induced ever higher bids from the crowd, much to the delight of Huntington Foundation officials. Over the past 20 years, the Huntington Foundation has provided more than $800,000 to the district through its mini-grant and Star grant programs, reaching into every school and every grade level, as well as athletics, music, art and even the after school club program.
"It was a great night coordinated by a great group of people for a great cause," Superintendent James W. Polansky said. "The event, once again, served to bring members of the school community together to enjoy each other's company and to further enjoy the fact that event proceeds will go to our kids and programs. Congratulations and a tremendous thank you to HFEE. Congratulations to Chris Bene on a well-deserved honor."
Mrs. Bene's long record of service through individual school PTAs, as a school board trustee and now as a member of the district's shared decision-making committee was saluted throughout the evening, including by Huntington Town Board members Susan Berland and Mark Cuthbertson, who were on hand to present a special proclamation.
"I got into this because of my love of children," said Mrs. Bene, who was presented with the Huntington Foundation's Spirit Award. "They are our future. They are our hope. One word of encouragement, enlightenment, belief in their abilities, someone who cares, can make a difference in a child's life. We are the ones responsible for this. So take care before words are spoken or actions are taken. We have a fabulous school district with caring people from the top down. There is change in the air. Let's work side-by-side to make this district what we know it can be."
Proceeds from last Friday night's gala will go toward replenishing funds for two grant programs that encourage innovative and ingenious programs and equipment that budget constraints prevent the district from supporting.
Speakers praised the work of the Huntington Foundation and said the organization was more important than ever. "Today, New York's public schools face unprecedented economic hurdles," Mrs. Rogan said. "The grants you award our educators help enrich, strengthen and enhance programs, better preparing our students for the challenges that lie ahead."
The large crowd dined, danced and vied to win one of the dozens of raffle baskets stuffed with gift certificates, fine wines, apparel, tickets, an assortment of products and even grilling equipment. Live auction items included a charter fishing trip, Hilton Head Island golf getaway, author visit, brunch or dinner for 10, Chanel polarized sunglasses, dinner for eight in the home prepared by a local chef, ballroom dancing for five couples, a day of beauty for four at a spa, a Movado ladies watch and a VIP booth and Founder's Room pass for a show at The Paramount.
Huntington Foundation President Maria Cassar spoke about some of the group's past achievements and said the group is boldly moving forward. The organization has never been more committed to the district and its students.
Gala chairperson Laurene Napurano organized last Friday's five-hour event right down to the smallest of details. A group of Huntington Foundation volunteers helped to make the evening an enjoyable one for those in attendance.
Mrs. Bene's husband, Andrew told of how the couple met as teenagers and how proud he is of his wife. Mrs. Rogan and retired trustee Kim Brown took turns extolling the virtues of their friend and provided some insight into their service together.
"Life is funny," Mrs. Bene said. "You never know what it may bring. Mine has been a rollercoaster with great happiness and great sorrow. I have learned from these experiences and hopefully made them work to make a better life for those around me. Now it is your turn. Celebrate all our children's accomplishments in this school district, as if they were your own. When there is a child alone at one of the celebrations in school, invite them to join you. We all have a story and you don't know what they may be going through. Your action may turn that child's life around."
The dance floor was filled most of the night with teachers, administrators, trustees and parents showing their moves. The crowd stayed late to enjoy music, dancing, dessert and friendship.