Founder’s efforts help children with special needs in Southwest Florida
VENICE — The Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash has become one of Southwest Florida’s top destination events, drawing over 20,000 people in 2019 during its 10th year at the airport festival grounds.
The BBQ Bash is a major fundraiser for the Suncoast Foundation. The organization has constructed 75,000 square feet of buildings housing nonprofit agencies that serve 5,000 special needs children and their families at three campuses in Venice, North Port, and Sarasota.
The BBQ Bash poured $75,000 back into the foundation in 2019 and has had an estimated economic impact of over $25 million to date. The Suncoast Foundation has distributed more than $650,000 to area nonprofits.
Retired restaurant owner Don Fisher said he modeled the BBQ Bash after the popular Taste of Cincinnati event he started that draws 500,000 people annually to the Queen City. He envisions the BBQ Bash as a community picnic and hoedown. It hearkens back to his upbringing on a farm in southern Ohio.
“It’s really simple. There’s no magic to this,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve had a blessed life. I started on a farm and ended up in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the city. You get a feel for what people like, what they want, who people are.”He saw a backyard barbecue gaining in popularity, and his culinary background allowed him to attract some of the biggest names in competition barbecue, including Myron Mixon. The BBQ Bash first offered country music, but after a few years, he transitioned to the bluegrass music that he grew up listening to on the farm where he grew up.
The 2019 event drew record crowds when it was held the last weekend in March, which allowed seasonal residents to attend for the first time in the event’s history.
On March 28, 2020, three of the top national touring bands will appear at the event: The Grascals, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, and the Lonesome River Band. Venice band Swinging Bridge kicks off the entertainment on the evening of March 27.
The food is world-class, with barbecue, chili and other vendors on site. It’s a free family-friendly event that also includes a sporting clay tournament, cornhole tournament, a children’s play area and a car and truck show.
The BBQ Bash is free to spectators, thanks to the generosity of sponsors who are also passionate about the cause that Fisher has championed for decades.
Rough & Ready Media is redesigning the Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash’s website and is also managing social media for the popular annual event.
Earlier this summer, the foundation’s board broke ground on a new Challenger Baseball facility at the campus of Gulf Coast Boulevard in Venice. When the Challenger Field and building are completed, it will complement the adjacent Special Olympics track.
“You’ll have what I would call a sports complex for special needs athletes,” said Fisher, who attended Miami of Ohio on a football scholarship and played briefly with the Dallas Cowboys.
Helping children, especially those with special needs, has driven Fisher and his friends for decades. The late Gene Whipp talked Fisher into starting the Suncoast offshore powerboat races in the 1980s, and the proceeds from that event over the years went into helping build the foundation’s facilities.
At 77, Fisher is protective of the founders’ legacy and started the BBQ Bash to provide a fundraising boost. Every year, an Appalachian jam concludes the bluegrass music concerts at the BBQ Bash and offers a tribute to what Fisher calls “The Circle of Angels,” his friends who have passed on.
For his community service efforts, Fisher was named Sertoman of the Year by the Venice chapter. He also has logged 2,500 pet therapy hours with his beloved dog Lucky at Moffitt Cancer Center’s children’s oncology department. Lucky died earlier this year, but Fisher and his wife, Denise, are training another black Labrador retriever puppy to follow in his pawprints.
“I’ve always felt that helping children is the right thing to do,” Fisher said in an interview for a 2017 story in Venice Magazine. “My thing is trying to help disadvantaged kids and kids with disabilities because I feel that they need the most support.”
Article by Vicki Dean, Rough & Ready Media
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