Lightning program highlights greater good

TAMPA, Fla. — Early in each Tampa Bay Lightning home game, Elizabeth Frazier takes a moment to reflect. Play stops during the second timeout of the first period, and the crowd at Tampa Bay Times Forum meets a hero whose impact goes well beyond the ice.

This is the second year of the Lightning Community Hero Program, a philanthropic effort by Tampa Bay’s NHL franchise that, beginning in the 2011-12 campaign, is scheduled to distribute $10 million to grass-roots community heroes in the region over five years. Each of the Lightning’s 41 home games includes a presentation of a $50,000 check awarded to a non-profit charity of the recipient’s choice.

Each story touches others, beyond sticks and pucks, beyond the game. Each tells of people influencing a greater good.  

“It just puts things in perspective,” said Frazier, the Lightning’s vice president of philanthropy and community initiatives. “You feel the same way when you get to meet these heroes. It’s like, ‘Wow, we are able to change lives with what we’re doing.’ And that’s why we do it.”

The heroes have varied interests, all with backgrounds that motivate and inspire. People such as Bruce Fyfe, who started a $3.2 million low-income housing program in Clearwater, Fla., targeted for the more than 15,000 projected homeless among Florida veterans in future years.

People such as Kathy Champion, who became active in many charitable efforts that benefit wounded soldiers after she was blinded and lost feeling in the left side of her body because of injuries sustained while serving in Iraq. People such as David Wright, a former Princeton linebacker, who started a foundation that operates sports camps for underserved fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students.

“We stop the game, and we tell a story,” Frazier said. “The goal is that if we could have 19,000 people hear a story about someone who’s using their life to make the community a better place, then we can give that person funding to give to an organization. But even more so, we can get those 19,000 people thinking about community service.

“I think that’s the true inspiration, to lead by example and to inspire, not just to give money.”

The program began when Lightning chairman and governor Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, launched the $10 million initiative. With help from Tod Leiweke, the Lightning’s CEO and alternate governor, the franchise envisioned a platform where non-profit organizations were helped and touching stories were told.  

There are no guidelines for potential heroes to be considered. The only “rule” is that he or she be inspirational. Frazier recalls some of the best nomination letters including spelling and grammatical errors, but passion in the message was clear.

“We like stories,” Frazier said. “It gets people involved. We’re giving money, but we’re also telling stories that we think can motivate people to make the community a better place.”

The nomination process includes these steps: After a subset of finalists are determined, an eight-person committee meets multiple times – this year it was after three deadlines – to choose the heroes. Opinions tend to vary, based on life experiences of the selectors, before members of the class are chosen. Names are given to the Viniks for final approval.

It’s a three-pronged benefit: Highlight good works in the region, use the Lightning’s platform to shine a light on issues that go beyond standings and scoreboards, and create awareness so others will benefit in years to come. When complete, the Lightning Community Hero Program will have honored 205 people and, by Frazier estimate, 600 to 700 organizations.

Each story touches others. Each is worth remembering.

“What I hope the legacy will be … (is) that we can use the profile of the Lightning to lead by example and for non-profits to work together and collaborate,” Frazier said.
“I think the legacy would be that we have all these great representatives and great causes, we’ve funded $10 million of amazing community work and have somehow inspired people to think bigger than just their own organization or their own cause and to work together.”
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