Southwest Florida loves a gala… The social aspects. The food. The décor. The ability to help a charitable cause.

Southwest Florida’s nonprofits love galas, too. Fundraising events amplify awareness for their causes and generate financial support that fuels their programs and services year-round.

One year ago, COVID-19 abruptly put an end to in-person gatherings. Today, the fundraising gala – a staple of high season in Naples – still hasn’t returned, at least in large gatherings.

Last spring, Guadalupe Center adopted a rallying cry of “The show must go on.” Education cannot stop because our children’s futures are riding on it. That’s why our teachers, staff and mentors immediately began connecting virtually to continue preparing students for the future.

Guadalupe Center’s annual fundraising gala, held every January, raises more than $1 million each year to fund education programs. Canceling the gala wouldn’t just cut $1 million from the budget; it would cut 1 million dreams and possibilities from the lives of students who depend on a high-quality education to overcome poverty. We couldn’t do that to our children, so, as we had been saying, the show must go on!

Circtacular was held Jan. 21 under the virtual big top. Going into it, there were questions about how the technology would work, whether guests would “attend” an event on their smart TV or tablet, and if attendees would donate in a less personal environment.

The livestream itself was entertaining, educational and enlightening. Circtacular played off its circus theme with special effects, circus acts, augmented reality and comedic performances. I was “volunteered” to take pies in the face if we met fundraising goals. We did, students gladly tossed cream pies at me during the livestream – nine times! – and I would gladly do it again to help raise money that supports our mission.

Circtacular was all about the unexpected. We didn’t know whether a virtual format would resonate with supporters, and they didn’t know exactly what the program would entail. We certainly didn’t want this to be just another Zoom presentation, so we set out to create a memorable, highly entertaining show that kept supporters on the edge of their seats.

During Circtacular, Guadalupe Center introduced its new “This is Me” campaign, which will tell the stories of Immokalee students whose lives are being transformed through education. “This is Me” stories showcase students’ determination, resilience and perseverance, and their stories prove that possibilities, opportunities and potential impact are endless.

The transformation in Immokalee has begun. It’s starting with education, and it’s starting at Guadalupe Center.

In-person galas typically feature live and silent auctions where guests can bid top dollar for exotic trips, once-in-a-lifetime experiences and unique gifts, but a livestreamed event presented too many logistical challenges. In-person galas also feature table sponsors, but that, too, couldn’t be part of a virtual event.

Instead, Guadalupe Center amplified its Jump Up for Education, which allows guests to make a donation and “jump up” to show their support. Unlike an auction, Jump Up supporters receive nothing in return. No trips to Europe. No dinner cruises. No jewelry. “Just” a donation to help transform a student’s life forever.

What were the results? Sixteen businesses and foundations stepped forward as Circtacular sponsors, and our virtual Jump Up for Education set an all-time fundraising record. In all, Guadalupe Center raised $1 million.

Our supporters stuck with us because they’re passionate about our cause and mission. Proceeds will allow Immokalee parents to send their children to a nationally accredited Early Childhood Education Program. It will allow elementary-age students to attend the reading- and math-focused After-school Tutoring & Summer Enrichment Program. It will allow high school students to participate in the Tutor Corps Program, which not only prepares teens for college, but also provides scholarships so they can afford tuition.

Support helps students like Immokalee High School senior Marc Dorcin, whose family moved to the U.S. from Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Thanks to Guadalupe Center, “my future is filled with possibilities, including a college education,” he said.

Former Tutor Corps student Erika Arvizu, whose parents were migrant workers, received a full-ride college scholarship through Guadalupe Center and attended an out-of-state, private institution.

“It changed the trajectory of my life, and that is why I came back to Immokalee,” said Erika, who is now a first-grade teacher in Immokalee. “I know what Guadalupe Center did for me and I want to make sure other students have the same opportunities.”

Our team, our students and our community are incredibly grateful that the show did go on. The impacts of Circtacular will be felt for generations to come.

– By Dawn Montecalvo, President of Guadalupe Center