Bobby Julien, CEO of the Kolter Group, and Sala Brown, his executive assistant, enjoy a comedy skit that was part of the poker extravaganza. Julien came up with the idea when he served on the Achievement Centers board. At left is Tarun Bhalla, Kolter’s IT chief. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Related Story: A place to thrive for kids — As it turns 50, Achievement Centers ‘at top of its game’
By Charles Elmore
The price to get in started at $6,000 a seat. Dress was chic Havana evening attire. Live music, dinner and a cocktail reception set the stage for a poker tournament of epic proportions at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
Lest anyone be shocked — shocked! — to find gambling going on here, the proceeds went to charities offering preschool and after-school education, meals, help learning to read and a host of other services.
The Havana Nights Poker Charity Tournament delivered its biggest jackpot yet, more than $1.6 million, for Achievement Centers for Children and Families in Delray Beach and other nonprofits in its latest incarnation Nov. 7.
More than 130 businesses sponsored the participants.
Fellow organizers said the concept goes back to a suggestion from Bobby Julien, chief executive officer of the Kolter Group, a real estate development firm based in Delray Beach. Julien, a former Achievement Centers board member, wondered if there might be a different route to raise money instead of, say, a golf tournament or formal dinner. He said he heard about a similar event in another market and thought it might offer an entertaining twist.
“I don’t like wearing a black tie,” Julien said, stepping outside the Cathedral Room at the Boca Raton Resort & Club as the din of festivities hummed inside. “I liked the idea of something more casual.”
Michael Neal, chief executive officer of Kast Construction in West Palm Beach and a former board member at Achievement Centers himself, remembered that Julien even had an idea for the venue.
“He said, ‘Let’s do it at the Boca Resort,’ ” Neal said. “Boom. Home run.”
A record night of giving
Charity watchers said the total amount raised ranks among the largest single-night events in a county with a history of big-ticket largess.
A February gala in Palm Beach raised a reported $1.5 million for Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County. Also early in 2019, the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society raised $1.75 million at its annual Tropical Safari Gala, according to published reports.
“Palm Beach County is recognized as one of Florida’s most philanthropic counties,” said Bradley Hurlburt, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties. “We are very fortunate to live in a community where people understand the importance and are committed to giving back to those in need throughout the year.”
The focus of the poker event is on nonprofits based in the communities they serve, Julien said: “We want to serve grass-roots charities.”
The total this year surpassed anything else seen in the four times the event has been staged, with planning and preparation taking as long as two to three years between galas, according to organizers. The 2016 event raised more than $1 million, a spokesman said.
The leading beneficiary is Achievement Centers, which is celebrating its 50-year anniversary of providing preschool and after-school care and education, among other programs.
“This is incredible,” said Stephanie Seibel, chief executive officer at Achievement Centers, sporting a fedora for the occasion. “The people on our boards are so willing to jump in and help. People are there for the right reasons.”
The event provides the single largest source of private-sector donations for her organization, Seibel said.
Precise contributions were still being tallied, but more than a dozen charities will benefit in all, organizers said. One of them is Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County, whose chief executive, Kristin Calder, was in attendance as well.
“It really is wonderful to be the recipient of the generosity flowing this evening,” Calder said.
Why do it? A place like Achievement Centers “steals your heart,” Neal said.
Julien said, “A lot of people need help. We love giving back.”