BJ Meeks and Pablo Perez have been a constant on the horse show circuit for decades. Often seen sitting in their shop at BJ’s Hunt Room, chatting with fellow equestrians, they’re known for their kind hearts and exceptional taste in gifts. Thirty years ago, BJ and Pablo witnessed a scene that would forever change the way they viewed the spirit of Christmas. Feeling somewhat fulfilled after a day of shopping for friends and clients, they came across a sight that brought tears to their eyes: a local soup kitchen hosting a Christmas gathering for South Florida’s migrant farm workers and their children. In an instant, a light bulb went off. Why are we buying gifts for people who have so much when we could be bringing joy to those who have so little? And thus their Children’s Christmas Party came to life.
The following year, BJ and Pablo presented their friends with cards wishing them a merry Christmas and letting them know that the money they would have spent on their gifts was, instead, going to buy holiday gifts for children of migrant farm workers. Friends and volunteers rallied behind their efforts and a small party took place in a church in West Palm Beach. Equestrians and local friends wrapped and tagged toys and books, Tim Gannon donated lunch from Outback Steakhouse and James Leslie Parker offered free family photos with his Polaroid camera. Ralph Caristo and Bruce Duchossois dressed as jolly Santas and handed out gifts to children and Publix gift cards to their parents for a holiday meal. The gratitude expressed by the families assured BJ and Pablo that they had created something special.
In 2006, BJ and Pablo paired up with the Caridad Center, a free medical and dental clinic in Boynton Beach, to facilitate access to the families in need. Caridad Center provides for over 26,000 patient visits a year, many of which are the children and families who attend the holiday party. Scarlet Fave, social services director at the clinic, makes sure that new families have the opportunity to experience the event each year. In that same year, the Wellington Equestrian Group was formed with Nancy Hooker and Caroline Moran at the helm, assuring that the tradition would be carried on for future generations.
Flash forward to December 10, 2016, when 125 families, totaling 600 guests, will be celebrating at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center under a massive tent, thanks to Equestrian Sport Productions and the Wellington Equestrian Partners, filled with face painters, music, entertainment and a visit from two very special Santas (Danny Robertshaw and George Wallace). After a delicious lunch, prepared by Cilantro’s Deli and served by an enthusiastic group of volunteers, and a raffle filled with small appliances and holiday decor, each family will take home a bag of Christmas gifts, Publix gift cards and in most cases, a bicycle or two. Each family has been “adopted” by local equestrians and Wellington residents who receive a family profile in advance of the party. The profile includes information about the children’s sizes and their interests. Depending on the size of the families, some Wellington-based schools and local equestrians will “adopt” multiple families and include their own children in the shopping experience to teach them the importance of giving back. It’s become a holiday tradition for many friends around the country. Thanks to the power of the internet, bikes can be sent with the click of a mouse!
Along with the holiday party, BJ and Pablo have raised close to $1 million over the years to be used primarily for college scholarships, school supplies and summer camps. “Education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty” said BJ. “We’re able to provide an opportunity for a son or daughter to be the first in their family to dream of going to college.” With the funds raised from the 2015 event, 40 children enrolled in a Homework Enrichment Program, over 1,000 received backpacks filled with school supplies, 250 received school uniforms, 100 children attended summer camps with lunch every day, and 20 college scholarships were given out.
Thirty years after driving past a Christmas party at the soup kitchen in Boynton Beach, BJ and Pablo have proven that the kind hearts of two men can change the lives of hundreds of children in need. Thanks to the generosity of the equestrian community, the true spirit of Christmas lives on in the legacy they’ve created.
If you’d like to be an elf for this year’s event by volunteering, donating a bike or funding the education/children’s fund, please contact Caroline Moran at Goshenhill@aol.com or Nancy Hooker at NancyHooker@mac.com. To learn more about the Wellington Equestrian Group or Caridad Center, visit Facebook and caridadcenter.org.