New beginnings: The Learning Center for Families celebrates 25 years with first gala, new identity

CEO Suzanne Leonelli unveils the new name for The Learning Center for Families during its first gala to celebrate 25 years in St. George, Sept. 22, 2018 | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — During its first charity gala ever, The Learning Center for Families celebrated 25 years of operation with an elegant event that included an auction, food, tears, laughter and perhaps most important, a new identity.

As guests from the community enjoyed their dinner Saturday evening, a video was presented featuring the CEO of the organization, Suzanne Leonelli, as she announced that the center will now be known as Root for Kids, with the motto “Nurturing strong beginnings.”

Read more: Past of sexual abuse, poverty doesn’t define CEO of The Learning Center for Families

“As we’ve grown through the years, we’ve recognized recently that we have also outgrown the name of our organization,” Leonelli said in a video shown at the gala for the unveiling of the new identity.

Suzanne Leonelli, CEO of Root for Kids, speaking during the center’s first gala in St. George, Utah, Sept. 22, 2018 | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

Before revealing the new name, Leonelli announced the recipients of this year’s awards, including presenting Outstanding Donor to Heather Carson, a graphic designer of more than 20 years who also helped with the rebranding of TLC to Root for Kids.

Other awards included the following:

  • St. George Area Chamber of Commerce for Outstanding Community Partner.
  • Guild Mortgage for Outstanding Business.
  • Dixie Regional Medical Center neonatal and intensive care unit for Outstanding Health Partner.
  • Laura Keefe for Outstanding Volunteer.

Leonelli also announced a new award: the Debbie Justice Legacy Award, named in honor of the founder of TLC, Debbie Justice.

Brad Hafen, St. George insurance salesman, accepts the Debbie Justice Legacy Award during Root for Kids’ first gala, Sept. 22, 2018 | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

The first recipient for the Debbie Justice Legacy Award was Brad Hafen, a St. George insurance salesman who has provided over a decade of service for TLC.

“It has been a real pleasure to see the good TLC has done over the years,” Hafen said after accepting his award – a piece valued at approximately $1,600 that was sculpted and donated by artist Matt Clarke.

The evening also included a silent auction, which featured baskets with goodies from multiple companies such as Squatty Potty, I Heart Oils, Mack & Sons Jewelers and Tuacahn Center for the Arts, and a live auction with Ed Tracey as auctioneer.

The paddles guests held up during the night were painted by children from Root for Kids.

Attendees hold up their paddles during the live auction portion of Root for Kids gala in St. George, Utah, Sept. 22, 2018 | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

Although the exact amount raised during the night hasn’t been calculated yet, Leonelli said, an estimate of more than $30,000 was raised after a man in the crowd held his paddle up to donate $5,000 and award winners Keefe and Hafen presented a large check of $25,000.

The night’s festivities also featured special guest Thurl Bailey, a retired NBA player whose career spanned from 1983 to 1999 playing for the Utah Jazz and the Minnesota Timberwolves. He also played overseas in Italy. Now he’s an inspirational speaker.

Bailey spoke about his career and the journey it took to finally be picked as a player for his high school basketball team. He said he was cut from the team the first two years he tried out. He finally made the team the third year he tried out.

“If you persevere,” he said, “other things start to happen that you never really expected. … I truly believe that every kid has potential to be great.”

Retired NBA player Thurl Bailey sings with St. George Mayor Jon Pike and musician Jonni Lightfoot during the Root for Kids gala in St. George, Utah, Sept. 22, 2018 | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

The night ended with Bailey singing a couple of songs with guitarist Jonni Lightfoot, who has toured with the band Air Supply. St. George Mayor Jon Pike also joined the stage to sing a duet with Bailey.

To signify its new motto, Root for Kids gifted flower bulbs to the guests to be planted in the fall and watch them bloom in the spring. Bailey also gave his CD “Love Shines Through” to all of the guests.

Root for Kids will host an official ribbon cutting and open house Oct. 15 to celebrate its new identity at its location, 2044 Mesa Palms Dr.

To learn more about Root for Kids and its mission, go to the organization’s recently launched new website.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews | @markeekaenews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.



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