The Education Foundation has more than doubled its success in the three years since Joe Rizzo was hired as executive director.
When Joe Rizzo applied to be the executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation in 2017, he didn’t have the typical resume. He had never led a nonprofit before; he was in the restaurant business.
Catherine Evans was on the hiring committee at that time, and she recalled thinking, “Joe Rizzo is doing what?”
But, Evans said, “I’m really glad we took that chance on him.”
Since hiring Rizzo, the Ed Foundation has increased its fundraising effort to support Flagler Schools students and families from about $375,000 the year Rizzo was hired to about $1 million this year.
Ed Foundation Assistant Director Becca Bower credits Rizzo’s passion and connections for vaulting the foundation to new heights. She said that at the fundraising events, Rizzo often addresses the attendees and gives all the credit to the staff.
“He ends up in tears when he talks about why we do what we do,” Bower said. “That shows his passion and his belief.”
Rizzo is a Flagler Palm Coast High School alumnus, which sets him apart from the previous Ed Foundation directors who had no local ties. He played football in college and then earned a business degree in Sweden before returning to Flagler County in 1999. He teamed up with the Crews family, who had just started Woody’s Bar-B-Q restaurant, becoming a co-owner.
Rizzo later tried other restaurant endeavors, including a Woody’s in St. Augustine for several years, the Bull Creek Fish Camp, and the Island Grill in Flagler Beach.
To go from there to the Ed Foundation, he said, “I don’t think it could have been a more unusual leap.”
But the school district was always important to him. He and the Crews family agreed to help the schools with discounted or free food for events whenever possible. Rizzo also got to know just about every organization in town through networking at catering events.
Rizzo said former Superintendent Bill Delbrugge encouraged him to join the volunteer Board of Directors several years ago, and eventually became president of the board.
David Alfin, who was one of Rizzo’s partners in the Island Grill, said his restaurant experience prepared him well to lead the Ed Foundation.
“I see a very connective line between the two, and it all has to do with his ability to engage with people,” said Alfin, who is this year’s volunteer president of the Ed Foundation.
While Rizzo was volunteer president, he was also part of the Flagler Chamber’s Leadership Class XVII, and he and Carla Cline supported creating an annual event to benefit a cause that was dear to the Crews family. Named for the late son of Scott Crews, the Josh Crews Writing Project forms clubs at schools and helps students publish their writing.
A dinner event raised the first year cost about $5,000 to host, and it raised about $5,000, effectively canceling out the profit. But Scott Crews matched the $5,000, and he has done so each year ever since, Rizzo said.
Bower said the Josh Crews dinner is an example of how far the Ed Foundation has come in the last several years; it now raises more than $50,000 per year.
A kickoff event to thank donors used to cost the foundation about $7,000 according to Evans, who was the 2019-2020 volunteer president of the Ed Foundation’s Board of Directors. Rizzo had the idea to turn it into a fundraiser, and last year, the event raised about $65,000, she said.
Evans said Rizzo has done more than anyone to help community partners see the value of supporting the Ed Foundation’s mission.
One example is the Ed Foundation’s new virtual reality tours of classroom programs, such as the Fire Academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School. They’re led by students, and they are impactful in helping donors to see how their dollars are being spent.
"Your dollars are really going to go to the hands of the children," Rizzo said.
“Our donors are invested not just financially but also emotionally,” Evans said.
The Ed Foundation was primarily a fundraising effort since it began in 1990, Alfin said, but as director, Rizzo transformed it into a true nonprofit organization. Rizzo hired a staff that he is constantly praising: Bower, Operations and Database Specialist Shelley Wheeler, and Student Services Coordinator Christy Butler. The Ed Foundation also leans on Flagler Schools for accounting services.
Rizzo has helped make the Ed Foundation sustainable for the future, Alfin said.
In true Rizzo fashion, Rizzo credits his team and the donors — including the Freytags and Ungers — for the success of the organization. Public-private partnerships are the future of successful schools, he said.
Rizzo noted that Beaver Toyota is a new sponsor, contributing $20,000 this year. Chiumento Dwyer Hertel Grant donates $10,000 per year. Quantum Electric has been a significant partner, as has DME Sports Academy in Volusia County.
And then the pitch: to support the Ed Foundation in mentoring, teacher grants, school supplies or its latest effort, which is to deliver to every student a mask and hand sanitizer, donate at flagleredfoundation.org. You can also text "FLAGLERSTRONG" to 44-321 or email [email protected].
"If we can really get every person — parents, guardians, grandparents — to invest in these kids just a little bit more than what the state tells us to, that’s when you're going to see this place transform," Rizzo said. "The way you solve the world's problems is you educate people."