Dining Out for Life continues to receive strong support from the restaurants and residents throughout the Tampa Bay area, and particularly in Gulfport. The outreach began 24 years ago in Philadelphia to raise money for a local organization that helped people affected by HIV/AIDS by asking restaurants to donate a percentage of their sales on a designated day. Today, Dining Out For Life has expanded to 60 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. With the exception of the annual licensing fee, all money raised in a city stays local. Changes have been made to this year’s event to provide a more consistent experience.
The most obvious change is that Dining Out for Life will be held on Thursday, May 19, instead of the last Thursday in April, as in previous years.
“This year’s date was changed to avoid a conflict with Passover,” said Sarah Varga, marketing and content coordinator at Empath Health. “The April date would not have been appropriate for a large population of people so we looked for a more appropriate date.”
So far, restaurants across Tampa Bay – with more being added daily up until May 19 – have committed to help fund Aids Service Association of Pinellas (ASAP) programs, which has, since 1998, been an affiliate of Suncoast Hospice, a subsidiary of Empath Health. Programs include counseling, testing, education, financial assistance and case management for those affected by HIV/AIDS. ASAP is located in St. Petersburg, with branches in Clearwater and Tampa, and also hosts the yearly AIDS Walk Tampa Bay.
Dining Out for Life has become one of the association’s most popular – and profitable – charitable events and rivals the AIDS Walk for money raised. To participate in Dining Out for Life, a restaurant donates at least 25 percent – or more if the restaurant chooses – of proceeds during breakfast, lunch or dinner to ASAP. In addition, approximately 45 percent of diners donate additional funds via mail or to roving ambassadors on hand at participating restaurants. In 2015, Dining Out for Life Tampa Bay raised $30,000, according to Kathy Rabon, executive director at Empath Health.
“We are excited about this year’s event. The goal is to bring people to restaurants for fellowship around an issue that affects a lot of people, especially in the Tampa Bay area,” said Rabon. “This year, we are focusing on three key geographic areas – Gulfport, downtown St. Petersburg and Dunedin. We are more strategically focused this year to provide the support our volunteers need.”
There were a few issues in 2015 with missing materials and fewer ambassadors at Gulfport restaurants than in previous years, due to staffing problems and the inclusion of Dining Out for Life Orlando under the Tampa Bay umbrella, which is not the case this year. To provide more consistency to this year’s event in Gulfport, a group of Gulfport residents, made up of Greg Stemm, Faun Weaver, Paul Ray and, initially, Daniel Hodge, decided to figure out a way to take the 2016 event to the next level.
“Last year, there were some concerns with the volunteer situation in Gulfport,” said Gregg Stemm, who has been a Dining Out for Life volunteer for the last five years. “In typical Gulfport fashion, we wanted to jump in and help. We take strong responsibility for what happens in our town so we took the initiative with a much more local flavor. This year, ambassadors at Gulfport restaurants are Gulfport residents. And the new staff organizers are doing a great job.”
According to St. Petersburg event coordinators Kristen Aguilar and Niki Pasek, this year’s event is running smoothly.
“We want to make sure that every restaurant has one or two ambassadors on hand,” said Aguilar. “Limiting our focus to specific geographic areas helps. And there are a great group of volunteers helping in Gulfport, as well as outstanding restaurant participation.”
To demonstrate the level of response of the Gulfport business community, every restaurant within the city has signed on to participate.
“We continue to be very proud of the overwhelming support in our town,” said Stemm. “And volunteers are welcomed up until the day of the event.”