PARRISH — A helicopter carrying 2,000 golf balls began to circle over the greens at the River Wilderness Golf and Country Club, and Jane Lynch raised a megaphone to her mouth to announce its arrival as several spectators began to cheer.
“As you can imagine, I’ve done this a few times,” joked the actress, who plays feisty cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on the hit FOX TV show Glee.
Lynch was in town this weekend to support Palmetto High School’s fledgling rowing team, to which she and her wife, Lara Embry donated $15,000 in February.
On Saturday, the team hosted a fundraising brunch at the country club in Lynch’s honor. Tickets sold for $50 apiece, with all of the proceeds going toward the purchase of rowing equipment for the team.
The event culminated in the “Chopper Dropper," in which a helicopter circled over the golf course dumping out buckets of numbered balls toward a designated pin below. The raffle participant whose ball landed closest to the pin would take home $25,000.
The grand prize was split evenly between two ticket holders, as two balls happened to land in the hole. Prizes of $5,000 and $1,000 apiece were given to two lucky runners-up whose balls landed closest the pin.
The event also featured a silent auction, in which participants were able to purchase autographed Glee memorabilia.
Although the numbers were still being totaled as the event came to a close, rowing team coach Trish Jackson said that at her most recent estimate, the fundraiser had drawn approximately $40,000 — an amount that astounded her.
“We never set out to verbalize a total amount for our goal because we really weren’t sure how much we would make," she said. "But this is just amazing. It's safe to say that, yes, we definitely made our goal.”
While a long line snaked around the country club’s dining room and fans took their turns taking pictures with and receiving autographs from Lynch, Palmetto High’s rowers and volunteers kept the event running smoothly from behind the scenes.
The team already had an opportunity to meet Lynch on Friday morning, when she paid them a special private visit prior to the pep rally held in the high school gym that afternoon.
“Getting to meet her was amazing,” said sophomore rower Lauren Bedford. “You see a celebrity and kind of assume that she’ll be just like her character on television, but Jane is really down to earth. It’s a miracle that she’s come out here and done so much to help us.”
Hunter Rayl, one of the team’s four senior captains, agreed.
“I’ve never seen a celebrity in Palmetto. It was pretty cool to see her roll up with my coach,” he said.
“She was so inspirational to the kids and so supportive,” said Eileen Blackburn, a team mother. “The amount of time she spent with them was so awesome. She spent the entire morning just hanging out and talking to them.”
Blackburn’s daughter, Emily, a sophomore, is a transfer student from Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota. Emily believes that the rowing team at Palmetto is a draw that will attract other students to the school.
“This has given our school and the sport more recognition than you can believe,” Rayl said. “It’s brought so much attention to Palmetto High and helped people realize what a great school it really is.”
When asked about their experience on the rowing team, the students’ answers are resoundingly positive, from a number of different angles.
Bedford confessed that before she began rowing, she was much more shy, but through her participation in the sport and the people she’s met during her involvement in it, she feels that she has had an opportunity to truly come out of her shell.
Chris Rich, one of only three freshmen on the team, said that his grades have improved since he became involved in the sport.
“It keeps me in shape and way better conditioned than I ever imagined it would,” said senior Marc Mailloux. “I played football before I joined the team, and that’s nothing compared to rowing.”
Moms agree, too.
“I told Trish Jackson that I never thought there would be another sport that would rival her love of volleyball,” Blackburn said of her daughter. “But rowing did that, and it’s just amazing to see.”
Manatee County Project Manager David Gustafson, who was instrumental in the development of the rowing team and facilities at Fort Hamer, pointed out the magnitude of scholarship opportunities that the sport opens up as well.
According to Gustafson, scholarship opportunities for high school rowers are 10 times greater than they are for students who participate in other sports.
“Thirty to 35 percent of rowing kids have opportunities for scholarships as opposed to the 3 or 4 percent in sports like soccer or tennis,” Gustafson said.
Even in the fledgling program’s first year, Palmetto High rowers have received scholarship offers due to their participation in the sport.
Gustafson also shared that plans are in the works for a rowing team at Southeast High School, which he hopes to be established this summer.
Jackson said that she is proud of how much dedication her students have devoted to rowing, especially in light of Lynch’s involvement with the team.
“The kids have taken her visits very seriously,” Jackson said. “I know they’re going to continue to keep working to make her proud.”
As much admiration as Palmetto’s rowing team has shown for Lynch, the star made it clear that the feeling is mutual.
“How jazzed they are absolutely thrills me,” Lynch said. “I’m so glad that I get to be here and see the fruits of my efforts. These kids have come alive — and the community has come alive around them. I love seeing it.”