- Sometimes in life, it's mostly about trying to make a difference. And commitment. And partnerships.
The 29th ShopRite LPGA Classic concluded Sunday afternoon at Stockton Seaview resort, just across the bay from Atlantic City's alluring skyline. By all accounts it was another successful week, for a tournament that once upon a time was just trying to survive. Now that seems like a long time ago.
In a region where many other attractions have come and departed, this is the biggest sporting event in South Jersey. And there's not a close second. There's a whole bunch to be said for that. Particularly when that imprint goes way beyond women's golf, extending immeasurably into the very core of the community.
In a world where relationships for whatever reasons don't always endure, this one thrives. And the relationship will continue for at least five more years. Wakefern Food Corporation, ShopRite's north Jersey-based marketing and distribution arm, just extended its title sponsorship through 2022.
Perhaps nobody celebrated the announcement more than Richard Uniacke, vice president of the southern branch of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. A good portion of the $1.5 million in charitable donations generated from this year's tourney went to his organization. Which means less people will have empty stomachs, many of them children. And that makes his job a little easier to face each morning. As opposed to the three years (2007-09) when the ShopRite went away after then-commissioner Carolyn Bivens took away its date on the schedule.
"It meant we had less food available," Uniacke said. "In Cape May county, one in five kids doesn't have enough to eat. So we need help. This is really crucial to us. When there was no ShopRite, it was tough. It's a harsh reality. Without question it takes a village.
"ShopRite has been our biggest supporter. It allows us to do all the work we need to do, even though there's always more to do. I've seen it firsthand. When the casinos closed, it hit a lot of families hard. So people around here are acutely aware of the impact this makes. It's such a basic need, but I think many tend to take it for granted. But it's very palpable. And urgent. And once you see it, you understand."
And you appreciate. Even if it's from afar. This is hardly the only sporting event that does good things. Still, ShopRite seems to do it about as productively as possible. Just ask the many health-care organizations that have benefitted. Or the Girl Scouts, to name another. We could go on.
"It puts a face on what we try to stand for," said Karen Gozzi, Wakefern's VP for social media. "When you see the work being done, it's humbling. We go to the food bank to do your part, because it's the right thing to do. Our business can't just be about filling refrigerators and cabinets.
"It feels like a family reunion when we come back every year. The bond is that strong. You can feel the energy. At the lunch on Friday, when we hand out the (donation) checks, it gets emotional. That's my favorite part of the week. You sit there and listen to all the stories. And it's like 'Wow.' That's when you think, 'It really wasn't so much work.' There's hugs and tears and thank yous. It's a privilege. They're the ones doing the hard work."
The tourney started in 1986, with a different name. For awhile it was held at another venue. Wakefern came aboard in 1992. And since then it's raised upwards of $31 million for the causes.
Tim Erensen became the executive director in 2010, when the tourney returned. Like the team of Ruthie and Larry Harrison before him, it's about being part of something so much larger in scope.
"Every sponsorship has a life cycle to it," said Erensen, who estimates that the tourney also brings in some $20 million in revenue to the local economy. "This just works. There's something special going on here. You hear it from the fans, the volunteers, the corporate partners.
"The valet guy at the hotel, Kyle, mentioned to me that his dad had started 'Field of Dreams' with his best friend. And some players went over there and talked to these handicapped kids. And they wanted to thank us. It's not me. I'm just the lucky one who gets to facilitate some of this. It's a monster effort. We already have a list of things we want to do next year . . .
"We knew people missed the event when it left. We just didn't understand by how much."
That's no longer a concern. At least for the immediate future. Hopefully even well beyond. Because it's more than birdies and bogeys to those who have no other place to turn to.
"It's hard to believe how close to the edge so many really are," Uniacke stressed. "This literally allows us to feed thousands upon thousands each and every day. This is a great state. But there's far too many who don't know where their next meal is coming from.
"Thank God I know we can count on another five years."