LADY LAKE | God’s grace flowed during the 10th annual Taste of the Villages fundraiser for the Lazarus Free Medical Clinic in Wildwood. Catholic Charities of Central Florida (CCCF) raised more than $80,000 thanks to the faithful community who generously gave of their time and treasure.

The record amount of donations is not only a true blessing and significant milestone, but it also covers most of the clinic’s yearly operating expenses. “Lazarus has been privileged for 10 years to serve the non-insured and under-insured,” said Gary Tester, executive director of CCCF. “Last year we provided approximately 1,800 patient visits (up 34%). Without this clinic, problems fester. Folks end up in the emergency room – getting one time care costs a lot of money. If calculated today, it would be about $8 million to the hospital system last year alone. We can serve folks for about $75 a visit.”

The clinic was founded in 2008 by Father Gianni Agostinelli, administrator of San Pedro de Jesus Maldonado Mission. The goal is simple: to promote health education and wellness while providing quality medical care to working poor families in Sumter, Lake and Marion County. “I think this clinic impacts the community immensely, beginning with the doctors and the volunteers. They’re doing the work of God and the Kingdom of God,” said Father Agostinelli. “Ultimately, we are all the body of Christ. So, we just have to open the door, and go out and let them in.”

“More than 74,000 people in Sumter and Marion counties are uninsured,” explained Tester. “Many are in low paying jobs where benefits are not provided or don’t come anywhere near meeting the actual cost of health insurance.” To complicate matters, “Sumter County is designated by the State of Florida as a physician shortage area. They average one physician for every 2,900 people,” he added.

That’s why people like Bob Puma, parishioner at St. Timothy in Lady Lake, keep coming to the fundraiser. “There are so many people in need in and around The Villages who give up on healthcare because they have a choice – feed themselves or go to the doctor… they can’t afford both.” He says Taste of The Villages event helps him pass on his own blessings.

The annual event began with 200 people striving to make a difference. Ten years later, nearly 600 came to support Lazarus Free Medical Clinic at Savannah Center. Fourteen area restaurants provided an array of appetizers, entrees and desserts to the selfless guests. In 2018, dozens of volunteers logged 3,800 hours of service.

“I like that this is local. These are really our own people we are helping,” said Mary Grace Martin. Martin and her husband David, also parishioners at St. Timothy’s, have been regulars at the event since it began in the community hall at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Summerfield a decade ago. “Everybody is important and everybody has basic needs. These are corporal works of mercy,” she explained. The Martins are also part of the Notre Dame Club in The Villages, great supporters of the clinic. Former Notre Dame Football coach, Lou Holtz, lives in Central Florida and also supports the cause.

For Bill Jolicoeur, helping organize Taste of The Villages is a family affair. It was a bulletin announcement at his church, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Wildwood, that caught his attention. That is when he, his wife Sharon and son, Billy, began working the 50/50 raffle and later coordinated the beverages for several years. “In Florida, unfortunately, we have a very large percentage of working poor. My wife and I see that struggle all the time… In 2008 (the year the clinic was founded), it became worse with the recession… The overwhelming need of protecting the family was important to us… All children in the U.S. have free access to healthcare, but the parents don’t. We should leave no one behind.”

Click here to view/download photos from the event.

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By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic – February 7, 2019