By: Dale King Contributing Writer
The Rotary Club of Boca Raton has “big dreams” and “audacious goals,” says its president, Vanessa Havener.
One is to make sure “students in Boca Raton realize their potential through mentorship and education, without crushing debt.”
Members of the Rotary organization that meets each Wednesday at noontime raises cash to help disadvantaged students make it through college and into the working world by presenting its prestigious OPAL (Outstanding People and Leaders) Awards each January at a fundraising gala.
Last month, the 22nd annual OPAL Gala drew more than 400 people to Boca West Country Club the night of Jan. 18 where OPAL trophies were handed out to eight people – three couples and two individuals.
Recipients, the Rotary says, are “citizens from Boca Raton who have demonstrated an on-going commitment to serve our city through philanthropic, professional leadership, education, civil, community and medical service endeavors.
During the past two decades and two years, OPAL events have raised more than $1.5 million and empowered more than 400 high-achieving, but financially challenged local students with scholarship assistance to attend schools of higher learning along with mentors to help the process.
“This year,” said the three co-chairs in the program book, “we are also providing that same mentorship to trade school and professional certificate seekers to give them a hiring advantage in today’s more competitive job market.”
Before the presentations, the club took part in an emotional tribute to philanthropist Bobby Campbell who, with his wife, Barbara, were presenting sponsors for OPAL.
Speaking with deep emotion, OPAL co-chair Neil Saffer offered a testament to the longtime benefactor. “Bobby Campbell motivates and inspires,” said Saffer. “In the 20-plus years I have known him, never once did I ask him for anything. He sees a need and he fills it.”
Campbell worked at his family’s bakery as a child and, later, took a job at a Kinney shoe store. He parlayed that experience into his life’s work, founding BBC International, a major children’s and athletic footwear design and sourcing company. He came to town when he moved the firm’s headquarters to Boca Raton.
Saffer, accompanied by the event’s two other co-chairs, Jan Savarick and Spencer Siegel, handed the award to Campbell, who was sitting with his wife, Barbara, local philanthropist Christine Lynn and other friends at a table directly across from the podium.
The crowd stood and applauded the benefactor as the audience crowded the Campbell table to take photos. Saffer noted that Bobby and Barbara have committed $100,000 to the Rotary’s scholarship program. “We can do this with zero administrative costs because of our relationship with Florida Atlantic University and Palm Beach State College and our great volunteer team.”
Among OPAL awardees this year were Toby and Leon Cooperman, introduced by Arthur Adler, chairman of the Boca West Children’s Foundation. Son of a plumber, Leon went on to work for Goldman, Sachs & Co. for 25 years. After retiring, he launched an investment-management business, Omega Advisors, which he ran for 27 years before converting it to a family office at the end of 2018.
His wife, Toby, has held a lifelong interest in people with special needs and volunteered as an advocate on their behalf.
Next, FAU President Dr. John Kelly introduced Jerry Kramer, a person he described as one who “truly started at the bottom.” He lost his mother at age 5 and his father offered little guidance. He went to work as a boy and later joined the Army, fighting in the Korean War where he received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“I will be 92 on my next birthday,” he said proudly. The OPAL award honored his success in the home and apartment construction field and his work with many charities, including one providing rescue dogs to returning military veterans.
OPAL honoree Laura Reiss created a free, after-school Kindness Matters program at Boca’s Sunrise Park Elementary School which has grown into the Kindness Matters 365 Foundation that educates children in the importance of being kind to themselves and others. Kindness Matters 365 has spread to nine states, with more than 500 ambassadors and 4,000 members in 90 chapters.
Doris and Neil Gilman have partnered with dozens of charities in Pittsburgh and in Boca Raton and have built their volunteerism and philanthropy around causes that involve children, animals and veterans. They endorse Sweet Dream Makers’ mission to provide beds to children and families in need.
Art is at the top of the agenda for Yaacov and Sue Heller. He is a world-renowned sculptor, painter and silversmith whose work has been used to convey messages of hope, tolerance, acceptance, remembrance and peace. Sue is a retired art educator with more than 30 years of experience.
The program for the evening says: “For Sue and Yaacov Heller, life individually, and as a couple, has involved giving back and creating awareness through the arts and education.”