Philanthropy

Big Top Backers

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Big Top Backers

By Steven J. Smith

Bernie and Lauren Walsh and the Circus Arts Conservatory

If life is a circus, then Bernie and Lauren Walsh have chosen Sarasota as the right town to live in — and the Circus Arts Conservatory as the right organization to direct their philanthropy.
“This is a circus town,” Bernie said. “And I have been representing accident victims for a very long time. Some of my clients have been members of various circuses throughout the country or have been retired from the circus community. So it was my desire to give back to this community that has been so good to me.”
The Walshes have both lived in and around Sarasota for decades. Lauren is originally from Massachusetts and Bernie is from Long Island, N.Y. Lauren worked as a medical esthetician in a Sarasota plastic surgery office when they met. Bernie, a personal injury attorney, was friends with the doctor.
“I just kept bumping into Bernie in town while I was doing volunteer work,” Lauren said. “We were married in 2001.”
Bernie is a partner with the firm Shapiro, Goldman, Babboni & Walsh. Firmly committed to community service, he is an active member of the Manatee and Sarasota Sheriff’s Advisory Board, the Florida Highway Patrol Advisory Council and the One Hundred Club for Law Enforcement. He is also a board member of the Florida Justice Association (a statewide organization of trial lawyers) and the founder and president of the Manasota Trial Lawyers Board and The National Advisory Board of the Association of Plaintiff Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America.
The Walshes got involved with the Circus Arts Conservatory through Lauren’s volunteerism with Sarasota-area organizations.
“I was on the friends board of the Sarasota Ballet and was involved with them,” Lauren said. “Then I was an ambassador with Designing Women Boutique and we gave grants to the circus. They also have sent their performers to help us at our Designing Women’s gala, so it’s always been a wonderful collaboration with Dolly Jacobs and Pedro Reis, who founded the Circus Arts Conservatory. It’s been special, seeing what Dolly and Pedro do.” Bernie agreed.
“Our interaction with Dolly and Pedro is so rewarding that I wanted to get more involved and one of the ways was to support the Circus Arts Conservatory,” he said. “Our law firm sponsors a table at their annual fundraising gala.”
According to the CAC website, Sailor Circus started out in 1949 as a small high school gymnastics class and has grown into a top circus school in the U.S. Students learn circus arts in a safe and nurturing atmosphere. Over the last six decades, thousands of students have completed the Sailor Circus training program. Each year, students train with coaches and volunteers to create performances that have evolved into a major tourist attraction in the Southwest Florida region. The Sailor Circus Academy also offers a summer camp for children ages 6-15, which takes place in one- and two-week sessions during June, July and August.
Lauren said the annual CAC gala is a special event.
“We put a few tables aside that we call the VIP tables,” she said. “When we have our circus performance at the event, people at those tables are literally underneath the performers, watching them perform above. You get such a beautiful view of them that we normally splurge to do that. It’s a real treat.”
Lauren added supporting the CAC is an honor to her, because it teaches kids leadership skills and discipline.
“They’re coming after school and working on the programs,” she said. “They’re learning hand balancing acts and how to trust each other. The exercise they’re getting is phenomenal. Most important, I love the confidence they get from the experience. That’s an attribute that will continue on in them through life, whether they choose a circus career or not.”
Bernie added the CAC’s outreach program is another valuable part of the organization’s impact on the community, in which performers demonstrate principles of science, engineering, art, math, technology, communication and theater, all through a prism of the circus world.
“They’ve reached out to 32 schools in the area,” he said. “They also go to nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities to apply what they call ‘humor therapy,’ which is the process of brightening up the day for the people in these places. Giving back to the community is embedded in their philosophy. With one contribution to this organization, you’re touching many, many, many people.”

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