Fort Mill Times

Tasty fundraiser for Palmetto School exceeds goal

Event organizer Cindy Kelly, center, speaks with emcee Patti Mercer during the Taste of Fort Mill event Friday night at the Springfield Golf Club.
Event organizer Cindy Kelly, center, speaks with emcee Patti Mercer during the Taste of Fort Mill event Friday night at the Springfield Golf Club. STEPHANIE MARKS MARTELL

Friday’s Taste of Fort Mill raised more than $100,000 for The Palmetto School in Rock Hill, which serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The gala brought together restaurants and donors for an evening of food and dancing at the Springfield Golf Club. Five hundred tickets for this year’s event, which was organized by Ann Feldmann and Bob Weiner, sold out on the first day they were available. More than 100 sponsors, including Elizabeth and Craig Rollins, Piedmont Medical Center, Comporium and Charlotte Eye, Ear Nose & Throat associates supported the event, and more than 50 volunteers helped organize and staff the gala. Businesses and individuals chipped in services, original art, luxury vacations and even a golf cart to the silent auction.

A charter school, Palmetto School was started 10 years ago by the Children’s Attention Home to serve children residing there, but now operates as a separate nonprofit. It serves South Carolina students in kindergarten to eighth grade removed by DSS from abusive situations at home who live at other shelters, including Pilgrim’s Inn, Family Promise and Safe Passage as well as those in foster care. Students come from all over the state, many of them from York and Richland counties, says Dr. F. Hugh Wilson Jr., principal and executive director at the school.

In a crisis, kids can start school the next day, as opposed to waiting up to two weeks to enroll in public schools, Wilson said.

The Palmetto School is an arts-integrated STEAM school, “healing through the arts and learning (science, technology, engineering and math),” Wilson said.

The school incorporates arts education into the now standard focus on STEM. Ninety five percent of students arrive below grade level in reading and 85 percent are behind in math. Forty percent require special education, but teachers are trained handle the emotional needs of the school’s unique population and provide individualized instruction.

The school is sponsored by the Rock Hill School District and also receives funding from the state, including Title 1 funds. However, because the school has such a small enrollment and the Educational Finance Act distributes funds to schools based on average daily class size, the Palmetto School is responsible for raising approximately 60 percent of its annual operating budget, Wilson says.

The funding crisis hit home Wilson’s first year on the job. In 2012, a financial deficit forced the school to lay off a science teacher and educational assistant. Volunteer Cindy Kelly recalled the teachers’ last day:

“She was distraught, but she tried to hide it,” Kelly said. “The kids were devastated. This was more than kids having to say goodbye to a teacher they love. These are kids who have to say goodbye a lot.”

The financial crunch motivated Kelly to volunteer in a different role.

“I just felt at that point they needed help with fundraising,” she said. “I could do far more for this school helping raise financial resources than volunteering in the classroom. While what the teachers bring and what the volunteers bring is invaluable, their work cannot take place without the proper funding.”

She envisioned Taste of Fort Mill as a fundraising vehicle, a gala event that would bring together restaurants and donors for an evening of food and dancing at the Springfield Golf Club. The event raised $54,000 in its first year, 2013. Combined with the Taste of Fort Mill Golf Challenge, the events raised $81,000 in 2014.

This year’s golf event coordinated by Bernie Massari, Keith Ross and Randy Wilke grossed $13,000 for the school. The championship team included Neal Deaton, Ted Deaton, Trent Ganey and P. Burgress. Rabi Sagunarthy took the award for Best Dressed/Most Colorful Shirt.

Chefs, owners and staff of 18 businesses volunteered for the event, stepping out of their own restaurants on a busy Friday night to serve hundreds of guests at what was arguably the snazziest potluck in Fort Mill history.

A highlight of the evening’s offerings came from Flipside Café. Chef Joe Cornett managed to reduce salad, entrée and dessert into a single, magical bite with a dollop of Uno Alla Volta’s fresh, creamy ricotta flavored with lemon and topped with a drop of sweet South Carolina strawberry rhubarb jam and a sprig of Rosemary Pete’s arugula. The entire thing perched atop a rich, salty slice of crispy pork belly. Every taste bud was on overload.

Fort Mill Family Restaurant came to the table with more humble fare that was equally surprising. One measure of a cook is what he or she is able to do with the collard green, and Fort Mill Family’s Greek style greens didn’t disappoint. The collards, which were cut into strips and served steaming hot, were tender with a good bite, like nicely cooked pasta. Salt and spice were solidly balanced in the broth, and the clean flavor achieved by using olive oil instead of pork fat was blissfully free of the smoky heaviness so often inflicted upon the poor vegetable.

Local Dish’s country sausage dip was a favorite with guests, as were the pulled pork from 521 Barbecue and Akahana Asian Bistro’s pork dumplings and sushi bar. Italian fare was well represented by steaming pans of baked ziti and garlic knots from Danny’s Pizza & Pasta and a plethora of pizzas from Fratelli Ristorante. Bistro 160 offered a cash bar, as well as warm spinach artichoke dip with zucchini, roasted red peppers and pita chips. Reid’s Fine Foods in Indian Land brought house-made chicken salad and pimiento cheeses and fresh salsas. Offerings from Tipsy Bottle, Breadsmith and Southern Salads & Sandwich rounded out the meal.

Carolina Chocolate Co. was on hand for dessert. Fresh Springs Farms strawberries also took center stage in tiny shortcake form. Publix and Bruster’s dished out cake and ice cream, respectively.

“The Taste of Fort Mill including the golf event grossed approximately $115,000. The school will receive approximately $105,000,” after expenses, event co-chairwoman Ann Feldmann said. “We are all very proud and pleased with the success of the event for the children,”

Taste of Fort Mill’s fundraising goal this year was $90,000. Kelly said that the school plans to use the funds to help maintain the staff of 12 and support literacy, technology, after school and summer programs, as well as help provide transportation for students.

“It’s not like you pay for these expenses once and they go away,” she said. “We need these monies to continue.”