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Key Center kicks off a week of fundraising fun

By JORGE SANCHEZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

LECANTO -- The annual Key Center celebrity auction raised $39,893 Friday night, after guests finished bidding on items ranging from a meal cooked by a local chef to a tambourine autographed by singer Kenny Rogers.

The Key Center auction and the week of publicity events that follow it -- the Run for the Money, the Key Center Telethon and Key Center television and local radio station auctions -- are designed mostly to raise public awareness about the center, which provides housing and jobs to mentally retarded adults at its Lecanto campus and group homes in Inverness.

Today, a group of runners from the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and Citrus Road Runners will leave on their 180-mile trip from Tallahassee to the Key, where they are scheduled to arrive Saturday. The Run For The Money, as it's called, is designed to draw attention to the daily hardships and suffering that many mentally retarded people face, according to Chet Cole, Key Center director.

Cole started the run in the 1970s, and retired from it after 22 years, after age caught up with him. Cole is 57.

"I still miss it," he said Friday at the auction. "I may just go up there and catch up to them for a little while this week."

Even though the money raised Friday night was a drop in the bucket to the Key's annual budget, Cole said every penny raised makes a big difference.

"Yes, we've grown a lot in the past 32 years. We've got a $9-million budget, but we've also got $9-million in expenses.

"It's just as hard as it ever was to meet payroll," he said.

The Key Center strives to be a top provider of health care for its specialized clients, and that means improving staffing ratios, buying group homes and upgrading its facilities.

"The money from the auction is much more than just icing on the cake, it's literally the difference between making it or falling behind," Cole said.

Cole also acknowledged auction dinner's role in forging the bond which Citrus County has developed with the Key.

"It's a sense of stockholdership," Cole said.

"The county has grown. There were only 19,000 residents living here when we started the Key. We've grown along with it. They've seen our people grow up, get married, get jobs and buy cars and they've accepted these people. We've also been very good stewards to our cause."

That sentiment was echoed by many people at the dinner auction Friday. Among these was Rose Pellegrino, 90, whose 32-year-old daughter, Miriam, was one of the Key Center's first clients. She still lives in a Key-owned apartment.

"This was the answer to our prayers," Pellegrino said. "To find a facility like this, especially out here in the sticks, was just unbelievable."

The auction will continue this week, with Country Fox disc jockey Larry McMillan selling items from 8 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday. The Key Center's TV station, WYKE, will auction items from 7 to 8 p.m. daily and Citrus 95 will take bids from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

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