Free theme park tickets? One local business owner decides it’s better to give than receive.

Michael Eckersley won two tickets to Legoland Florida, thee region's newest theme park, but he decided he had a better use for them than visiting the park himself. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

KISSIMMEE – Michael Eckersley raised his raffle ticket, glanced at it, then lifted it in the air. To strong applause from the crowd in the room, he noted that he had won the gift item being generously raffled off: two tickets to Central Florida’s newest theme park, Legoland Florida.
But once Eckersley stood up, he then made a surprise announcement. He didn’t plan to use the two tickets, and had a better idea, instead.
“I’d like to donate the tickets back,” he said. “They’re probably worth $140, and I’d like to give the money back to the Green Bag Project.”
Eckersley is the manager of Sunsplash Vacation Homes in Davenport, a firm that oversees vacation homes in this region. He’s also the treasurer of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group representing the region’s fast-growing vacation home industry, where fully furnished houses are rented on a short term basis to families who come here on a vacation. These homes appeal to families that want to stay in a house with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, game room, and private pool, rather than a hotel room.
The association held its final meeting of the year this morning at Falcon’s Fire Golf Resort in Kissimmee, and raffled off several gifts to its members, including the Legoland Florida tickets. The new theme park opened in Winter Haven last October.

“It’s a lot of fun to go to, especially if you bring little kids,” said Colin Young, the association’s outgoing president, as he raffled off the tickets.
But after Eckersley realized he had won the tickets, he made it clear the money that was spent on them should go to the organization that CFVRMA adopted as its charitable cause this year.
“They do a wonderful job,” Eckersley said.
Green Bag Project is a program based at 1503 Legends Drive in ChampionsGate, which collects and distributes food to needy families. It started modestly more than a year ago, with volunteers dropping off green shopping bags in local neighborhoods, with notes attached asking people to put any spare food they could spare inside it. The bags were collected, and the food was given to local food pantries.
From that modest start, the Green Bag Project has grown considerably, helped by the fact that a rising number of business organizations have signed on to assist their mission.
There’s even a web site now, www.green-bag-project.org, and the non-profit opened four summer feeding locations on U.S. 192 this past summer, as special locations where kids could stop by to get a free lunch.
CFVRMA is one of the program’s leading supporters, and the association has been honoring Green Bag Project all year. Late in 2010, the association voted to make Green Bag Project its charity for the year, and every month members were asked to donate to it.
“I think we’ve raised over $4,000 this year,” said Young. “The more money they get, the better, because 100 percent of the money they raise goes directly to food for children and feeds them over the weekends, so we all need to keep raising money for that cause.”
Eckersley said he would keep doing that as a member of the Four Corners Kiwanis Club. The civic group has been on a mission all year long, to ensure that students who don’t have enough food to eat at home can get the meals they need in school. The Kiwanis have been giving out more than 100 bags a week, so students can take food home with them on Friday afternoons to eat over the weekends.
The Four Corners Kiwanis Club — which has been in existence for about eight years — also decided to support the Green Bag Project. The Kiwanis have been helping Green Bag collect food to give to students who would not otherwise have anything to eat when they go home from school at the end of the day.
That support is sorely needed. There are estimated to be nearly 1,000 children living in cramped motel rooms along U.S. 192, from Four Corners to Kissimmee, because their parents can’t afford to come up with the money to get into an apartment or house.
Eckersley said that’s why the Kiwanis teamed up with Green Bag Project last week, to host a Christmas party for the students at Westside K-8 Elementary School on U.S. 192 in Four Corners. They brought gifts as well as food for the students.
“You should have seen their faces,” Eckersley said. “Even if you just give them something small – a deck of cards, a magic kit – they’re so pleased you’re doing this for them,” he said.
That’s why, he said, both organizations would keep raising funds for these students in 2012, and why Green Bag Project deserves the money from the Legoland Florida tickets, rather than using them himself.
“I’ve already seen it,” Eckersley added.
To learn more about this charity, log on to Green Bag Project.

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