By Eric Pera
LAKELAND – Alliance for Independence celebrated its 62nd anniversary Tuesday night with a dinner and silent auction at The Lakeland Center.
The annual fundraiser drew approximately 370 guests who helped celebrate the Lakeland-based nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities with a day program that instills independence along with an appreciation of creative arts.
Tuesday’s dinner was especially poignant, as it served to bid farewell to Shirley Balogh, AFI’s president and CEO, who is retiring at the end of the year. A search is underway for her replacement, though there was no mention of its progress.
Instead, the spotlight was placed on Balogh, who joined the agency in 1973 as a case manager following a short stint with the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Six years later, she was promoted to her current position, taking the agency through good times and bad with a dogged determination, AFI board chairman John Doran said during Tuesday night’s celebration.
“Time and again, we’ve seen Shirley accomplish the impossible on behalf of AFI clients,” he said. “She makes sure our clients have rewarding lives.”
Balogh, greeted with a prolonged standing ovation for her 43 years of service, thanked her many supporters.
“I have been extremely blessed,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to live in any other community. Thank you for all your support.”
Paul Noris, chairman of the board and CEO of the Bank of Central Florida, served as honorary chair of the evening’s presentation, along with his wife, Lynn. He echoed the comments made by Doran, noting Balogh’s devotion.
“Many lives have been improved over the years” thanks to Balogh and her staff, Noris said. “The work they’ve done is unbelievable.”
Tuesday’s ceremony included the presentation of several key awards.
Troy Garcia was named volunteer of the year for his many hours of work behind the scenes, including a devotion to AFI’s annual benefit wine festival on Lake Mirror.
John Burton, an AFI board member, was presented the second Carol Asbill award. The annual award honors the memory of the late board member who was cherished for her warmth and smile.
The Board Member Extraordinaire award went to AFI’s William Wheeler.
“Whenever we ask him, he is there,” Balogh said.