By Scott Graison 

For the last four years, residents of Estero have given generously to support high school kids with high ambitions in the arts.

The culinary program at Estero High School has been the primary beneficiary of an annual gala at Shadow Wood Country Club which has netted about $100,000 since its inception. Budding chefs show off their talents by preparing tasty food, and guests pay handsomely to enjoy the elegant evening. Proceeds from the $85 ticket fee, plus monies raised during live and silent auctions, all go back into the arts progFreddy Figueroa, Callie Layne and Tyler Thompson prepare crepesrams at Estero High.

At this season’s Evening Under the Shadow Wood event (held Dec. 16, 2019), students performed to the tune of $43,000 raised. With such generous community support, there are enough funds to share the wealth with other arts programs at the high school including music, dance, theatre and fine art.

Village of Estero Councilman Nick Batos — Estero’s first mayor and the council’s liaison to Lee County schools — cooked up the idea for Evening Under the Shadow Wood four years ago, and he has been the master of its growth ever since. His passion for making education in Estero outstanding is the driving force.

“One of the things I believe in firmly is top-level education,” says Batos. “I initiated a program called the Estero Education Initiative. My belief is that nearly nothing is as important as the education of our youths.”

Taco station prep

Chris Patricca, a board member for the School District of Lee County and an Estero resident, says she is overjoyed with the annual fundraising affair.

“To see the people in the room at the event open their wallets for our kids blows me away. So many didn’t grow up or raise children here; it’s just so encouraging,” says Patricca.“When the event is over, for me, the big joy is when it’s the kids who get a rousing round of applause for the meals they have cooked. It fills me, and them, with pride.”

Shanna Ross is the new chef educator charged with running Estero’s culinary program, which has been recognized at state-level competitions. Her favorite moment at the gala was when her students came from the back of the house to stand in front of guests and take questions.

“They felt enormous pride in the reaction they received from the guests,” she said. “I was beaming like a mom.”

The Estero High Orchestra Quintet plays at Evening Under the Shadow WoodSome of the funding for the culinary department is slated to start up a sustainable garden at the school. Students will grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and lettuces that they will then use in their cooking labs. Evening Under the Shadow Wood funds also enable Ross to purchase ingredients for students to use in cooking; sometimes they are foods students might not otherwise try. Culinary students hosted a chili cook off at Estero High School on Valentine’s Day to raise money for Make a Wish Foundation — proving they can also give back.

The school’s theater arts educator, Kea McElfresh, was bedazzled with the event.

“I was in awe about how many people in the community wanted to help our kids, to organize the event, offer up auction ideas and more,” she said. “Yes, the money is great, but building those relationships was so supportive, knowing people care about education. It was just incredible.”

Bob Lienesch interacts with culinary student Silas Sutton at Evening Under the Shadow WoodEvening Under the Shadow Wood helped to bankroll the purchase of the rights to Estero High’s upcoming show. “Clue! The Musical” is an interactive performance, and the community is invited to attend on April 2 and 3.

For the music department, Evening Under the Shadow Wood funds will help maintain and replace older equipment.

“A lot of the things we have, we have to fix constantly, and you want to give the kids these opportunities to go out and perform and compete,” says Music Director Rebekah Ortega. “We’ve been able to rebuild much faster. Now we can do the extra things for the kids.”

Several band and orchestra students provided elegant, live music, enhancing the guest experience at the gala.

“It was a great teaching tool for the kids involved,” says Ortega. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment. They are seeing how it is to get funds for the things they need, especially for the musical arts.”

Patricca says she knows teaching in high school can often be thankless. Receiving community support to purchase the “extras” boosts educators’ satisfaction.

“The motivation is to provide things that the typical school budget doesn’t have room for,” says Patricca. “There are more resources, and the teachers see their community willing to give. It significantly helps their morale.”

Estero High School Percussionists playing live music

Members of the Estero community have generously given their time, talents and treasures to make the event a success.

“I was encouraged to see those people willing to do all the planning, selling tickets and preparing for such a festive event,” marveled Patricca.

Batos, the engine who drives the gala year after year, saw its inception as a prime opportunity for community partnership: “I wanted to improve the schools in Estero. If we could find things that the schools felt they weren’t getting, we would try to allocate resources to help pay for them.”

The genesis of this thinking has gone a long, long way. Evening Under the Shadow Wood has greatly impacted young artisans, inspiring them to pursue their creative passions with pride.

Photos by Ashley Snizek