There were many stars at the 18th Annual Animal Refuge Center Starlight Auction this past weekend, but one that rose to the top was Phoenix, an abused canine who is now at the top of his game and up for adoption.
The event raised over $173,000 - the biggest fund-raiser of the year for the largest no-kill animal shelter in Southwest Florida. Believe it or not, that amount will only cover the first quarter of expenses for the shelter that currently houses over 500 cats and dogs, because of astronomical medical bills like the ones for Phoenix. But it was a triumph, said ARC Board Treasurer Betty Hughes.
"This was a record-breaking year," she said. "We had a record number of auction sponsors, and for the first time, we broke records for our Matching Donor Challenge - which was $50,000. The audience surpassed that with a pledge of $51,000."
Phoenix starred in the 18th annual ARC Starlight Auction held over Thanksgiving weekend. He’s pictured with handlers Dr. Laura Braun and board trustee Wayne Leinen.
The anonymous donor puts out the challenge each year, she said, but this was the first year the philanthropic audience donors ever met it.
Perhaps it was the inspiration of the special guest that night - Phoenix.
Phoenix's story was covered by nearly every local news agency after he was found starving in a sugarcane field barely hanging onto life over six months ago. He appeared on stage in a miraculous transformation - back up to his healthy nearly two times the weight, to strut his stuff on stage.
Today, the process has begun to find him a forever home in adoption.
The adoptive family will have to be special, said ARC Board Chairman Lee Allor. He even jokingly requested a "Homeland Security Check" for the many that have already expressed an interest in adopting him. But there are many adoptable animals there also in need of homes.
Allor and TV news personality Krista Fogelsong were emcees of the event, along with Phoenix, which was held Saturday at The Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa.
Key sponsors included Platinum Sponsor PETCO Foundation, Gold Sponsors Arthrex, Inc., Century 21 - Selling Paradise and Silver Sponsor Coral Veterinary Clinic.
A highlight of the evening was a video that featured Phoenix's journey - from being found by a Good Samaritan, to being nursed back to full health by many, including Hughes.
"Phoenix has 1,100 Facebook fans," she said in the video. The biggest part of her morning, every day, is to post his progress from day one. "If I miss a post I get a flood of mails, saying "Pheeny - are you OK?"
You can visit him at facebook.com/phoenixandarc.
The board is now considering all applications for his adoption.
Other heroes noted that night were the all-volunteer board and many volunteers. That included the new Junior Ambassadors. Earlier this year, this program was launched for young people to become involved with animals and the shelter.
"They are amazing - I salute the parents and the kids involved," Allor said.
He also noted the tireless work of volunteers such as Hughes and Sandra Thurman. Thurman sends out pictures and information on adoptable pets to all news media each week, and Hughes spends months on the auction event.
"Betty (Hughes) will start working on next year's event tomorrow," he said.
The Junior Ambassadors, among other duties at the function, sold the ARC 2013 Calendar - a big fund raiser for the shelter.
"These calendars make great Christmas presents," said Hughes of the item which features local pets each month of the year. "You can go online or come to ARC to order one now."
Allor also thanked the numerous veterinarians and animal-oriented business vendors who attended the event. He also noted that Century 21 - Selling Paradise's Bonney Leckie gives a portion of each of her real estate sales to ARC.
Auction items were "exquisite" said officials. From high-end jewelry to sought-after golf clubs, top resort stays to a weekend rental of a jaguar, many local businesses supported the animal welfare agency's mission.
That included a Pave Diamond necklace from Lily & Co. Sanibel and a necklace of interlocking circle of multi-colored sapphires and diamonds from Sanibel's Cedar Chest Fine Jewelry.
Two African photo safari trips were a hot item, as well as donated items from top local shops and artists and resorts.
Fogelsong said ARC was an important cause to her personally, an organization she has promoted for many years.
"I'm glad to be back and honored to be an MC for this great organization."
Incorporated in 1988, ARC is a not-for-profit animal welfare society dedicated to caring for all homeless animals brought to its sanctuary, located in North Fort Myers. The sanctuary houses 36 canine lodges, a Canine Training Center, a Cat Adoption Center and 16 feline facilities. It is home to more than 500 cats and dogs.
Volunteers are a "50/50" split from North Fort Myers and Cape Coral.
For information, go to animalrefugecenter.com or call 731-3535.
If you missed the auction, you can still donate, Hughes said.
"The challenge we are facing right now is the continual need in the community to offer shelter to these many pets surrendered by people facing economic challenges. In order to better accommodate the need in our community, our goal is to raise $259,000 by year end."
And mark your calender for the 19th annual event, said Hughes. It is always held the Saturday after Thanksgiving.