A longstanding high school tradition is bringing teams together to spread the spirit of the season – and to let the coaches play a little golf.
Founded in 1993 by Winter Park head coach Larry Gergley, the Coaches & Friends Toy Drive Challenge is an opportunity for players, fans, and families to provide some holiday cheer for children in need. Gergley’s call was answered by area schools including Cypress Ceek, Edgewater, West Orange and Boone with coaches rallying their players to organize toy drives. Donations are submitted and tallied at the start of a golf tournament that helps provide funding for the ongoing effort. Winer Park director of football operations Johnny Miller has been part of the event since the beginning and oversees toy collections.
“I’m the Santa Claus of this thing,” said Miller, who is also events manager for the City of Winter Park. He works with community centers, churches, and other organizations that distribute the donations where they are most needed. But the real challenge is meeting the need. “When it started, high school coaches were competing against each other; not for who’s going to win the golf tournament, but who’s going to bring the most toys,” he said. “As time goes on, we’re finding that some coaches have moved on and schools are not participating as much.”
That’s where the “& Friends” part comes in as fans of the tournament, longtime contributors, and members of the community pitch in with their own donations representing their local school. Miller handles the logistics of donation drop-offs or pick-ups for anyone offering to help. “I do everything in my power and go out of the way to pick up toys,” said Miller. “I’ll make it as easy as I can for anyone who wants to donate.”
But meeting the need also includes accounting for different age groups. According to Miller, holiday drives often overlook older kids who have aged-out of playing with toys. “You can give them a basketball or a football and they’re happy with it, but usually that group is my biggest concern.” To fill the gap, monetary donations are accepted and turned into gift cards.
A partnership with Orlando Sports Foundation provides another means of collecting donations at the Cure All-Star Football Game presented by Orlando Health. The matchup between Orange County high school players and their Seminole County counterparts will happen at Winter Park’s Showalter Stadium on December 13 – just four days before the Cure Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Fans can receive free admission to the All-Star game in exchange for a toy donation.
On the golfing side, registration is available for the Coaches & Friends tournament, which will be returning to Rio Pinar Golf & Country Club on December 17. Participants range from teachers and coaches to businesses and members of the community; all gathering for a good time on the course with proceeds benefitting the cause. Orange County Public Schools Principal Dusty Johns has been organizing the event since 2009 when he was assistant principal at Winter Park High.
“When I started it was pretty small; probably 12 to 15 foursomes in the tournament,” he said. “Now we’re up to about 25 to 27 foursomes every year.”
Johns has also seen an increase in local businesses signing on for tournament sponsorship levels. “These extra dollars go to more toys, more gift cards, and allow us to give better door prizes and incentives that keep players coming back,” he said. “People know it’s for a good cause, but they also know they’re going to have a good time.”
The corporate sponsorships not only bring in additional funds, they also open a new avenue for word-of-mouth advertising. Johns says event participation has gone from 90% educators to a 50-50 split between the education and business sectors.
While the administrative responsibilities coincide with the holiday season and a busy school calendar that includes football playoffs, Miller and Johns credit the coaches, families, and community for doing their part to make a successful turnout and a fun event.
“We’re just out there trying to make families happy and help them put something under the tree for their kids,” said Miller. “That’s what keeps us going.”
For more information and opportunities to contribute, contact Johnny Miller at email@example.com or call 321-377-2986.