Mental Health Association Swings Away the Blues

VERO BEACH — The nostalgic big-band sounds of the Melbourne Swingtime Band had guests eager to get out onto the dance floor as soon as they arrived at the Mental Health Association’s aptly named Swingin’ Away the Blues fundraiser.

Katie Kowanic, MHA Fund Development Manager, credited an active, hard working committee led by event co-chairs Pat Aprahamian and Nancy Bryson for the evening’s great concept.  The committee collaborated with Paul Malinos, who does the wonderful set designs at the Vero Beach Theatre Guild, and the talented William Bainbridge Steele, to transfer the Polish American Club into an elegant 1940’s ballroom. Gold table-clothed round tables surrounding the dance floor, had gorgeous pedestal floral arrangements set atop glowing bases.  The outer tables were just as stunning; adorned with blue table cloths and water-filled pillars atop glowing bases that shot soft light up to the floral bouquets perched at the top. Votive candles twinkling on all the tables complimented the softly elegant table decor.

The six “loggerhead” garden-sized turtles, exquisitely hand-painted by local artists, that had been nestled in a tranquil garden setting at Rock City Gardens since their hatching, were on display in all their glory, awaiting the high bids that would take them to their new homes.

A seventh colorful turtle would go home with a lucky winner at the end of the night.  All those who correctly counted the number of times the words “It’s Okay” were written in the program, were entered into a drawing to win the little beauty.

Money raised at the event will directly benefit the Mental Health Walk-In Center, a program of the Mental Health Association in Indian River County.

“The Walk-In Center is the only program in the entire county serving people without insurance,” said Patti Nugent, MHA Director of Operations.

“It’s often the working class, or people who have lost their jobs and no longer have insurance and are buckling under the pressure of these economic times that need the help.  We also assist them in finding other services such as housing help, or rent and utility assistance.  We want to make sure that when they walk in the door, they leave with a plan that will help them.”

During the cocktail hour, when I asked Presenting Sponsor Barbara Becker Hurley how she originally became involved with the Mental Health Association, she pointed to her friend Nancy Johnson and said, “She did!”

Johnson remembered, “It was when we were putting together the original TurtleTrax book back in 2005.”

“Mental health is so important; we all have people in our families who have been affected in some way or another with mental health issues because it takes so many forms,” said Hurley.

“The Mental Health Association also helps a lot of children at Gifford Youth Activity Center.  I love that organization too because they do so much,” said Hurley; again pointing to Johnson and adding with a laugh, “She got me involved in that one too.”

Hurley sponsored the event in memory of her parents Richard and Lillian Becker.  “Posh is not my criteria when picking a charity to support.  I try to pick things I know my mom and dad would like.”

Ann Zugelter’s normally event-shy husband Dan was itching to get her on the dance floor.  She smiled and said, “The big band and the Mental Health Association got him out.”

As members of the Swingsation Dance Team from 14th Avenue Dance Studio began an energetic jive demonstration, we were able to chat for a while.

“I’ve been involved with the MHA for a long time,” she said.  “It’s my passion and my mission to raise awareness of this devastating illness.  It destroys the mind, the spirit and finally the body.  And it doesn’t have to happen if we can get to it early.  We have to invest in the front end rather than waiting for a disaster.”

Zugelter was appointed by Senator Ken Pruitt to serve on the board of the Florida Substance Abuse and Mental Health Corporation, overseeing publicly funded substance abuse and mental health systems, and promoting early detection and prevention.

A delicious dinner, catered by Elizabeth Kennedy & Company, began with enormous wedges of hearts of lettuce, topped with a chunky blue cheese dressing, followed by melt-in-your-mouth beef short ribs over creamy celery mashed potatoes and finishing with a decadently rich chocolate bread pudding in a pool of brandy custard sauce.

During dinner, guests heard from a number of speakers, including MHA President & CEO Kris Sarkauskas, who reiterated “It’s OK to get help”; the overall message of the night.

Nancy Ofstie, MHA board vice chair stressed the importance of treating mental health issues before they become hospital or law issues.  She added, “The goal is to erase the stigma and have everyone become as comfortable speaking about mental health issues as about any other illness.”

Ann Lanier spoke eloquently about a documentary on eating disorders produced by the MHA that chronicled the struggles endured by her late daughter, and which is now part of the MHA educational program.

“I’m a mom who lost a daughter six years ago and I wanted to do something in the community to help others,” she said.  “My goal is to get people to get help early.  I personally know of three people in Vero Beach who, after seeing the video, were seeking help.”

A special appearance by the talented Orchid Island Singers and another demonstration from Swingsation followed the speakers.  And then it was time for guests to show off their own fancy footwork and dance the night away.

Toward the end of the evening, I asked Malinos about the liberal sprinkling of glitter on the tables that seemed to have attached itself to everyone.  He smiled and said he had done it on purpose.

“I wanted everyone to take a little something away with them to remember the evening.”  {igallery 168}

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