Friday, November 17 , 2017, 2:14 pm | Fair 72º


Competing for Cash, Nonprofit Leaders Deliver Their Best ‘Fast Pitch’

Bethany Markee of Solvang Elementary School’s Viking Café scores the top prize in Santa Barbara's inaugural competition

A strikingly gross picture of brown and pea green-colored food struck a chord with attendees of Thursday night’s first-ever Fast Pitch SB competition.

Fast Pitch
Chef Bethany Markee of Solvang Elementary School's Viking Cafe won both the $15,000 Grand Prix and $10,000 Audience Choice awards, earning the most of 10 finalists competing for their nonprofits in Thursday night's Fast Pitch SB competition. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The image appeared after Bethany Markee — a professional chef turned nonprofit founder — asked hundreds of potential donors, supporters and others to raise their hands.

“How many of you have ever seen a public school lunch?” Markee said. “And how many of you hate them? Unfortunately, most school lunches have become frozen, processed food from far, far away.”

She left the restaurant industry as a concerned mother and then established Solvang Elementary School’s Viking Café, preparing fresh food from scratch daily for 400 students, saving the school thousands of dollars.

A poster of colorful fruits and vegetables appeared next.

“My goal now is to feed a community,” Markee said. “Here’s what I need to feed them.”

Applause erupted at the end of her three-minute pitch, and two of seven judges — including Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider — complimented the thorough, inspirational presentation.

So the night went for the inaugural Fast Pitch at the Music Academy of the West, where 10 finalists gave brief, impassioned speeches to earn cash prizes for their Santa Barbara nonprofits.

“This is like American Idol for nonprofits,” said Seth Streeter, who emceed the contest as chief energy officer for Social Venture Partners Santa Barbara, the lead event organizer.

The competition culminated nine months of planning, whittling down 1,000 nonprofits to 20 and coaching a seven-week communication-training boot camp that helped narrow finalists to just 10.

Santa Barbara is the smallest city so far to host the collaborative contest, which originated in Los Angeles in 2008 and spread across the country.

“Our goal is to turn this entire room into a catalyst for change,” Streeter said.

Contestants asked the audience to “picture” or “imagine” a number of scenarios, all aimed at creating a human connection between a nonprofit and those who might help.

Some used props to illustrate potential positive change, such as a toy delivery truck held up by Bob Williams, founder of Santa Ynez Fruit and Vegetable Rescue.

Fast Pitch
Lynn Houston, founder of A Different Point of View, tries to wow the judges and crowd Thursday night during Fast Pitch SB. Houston's nonprofit took home the $5,000 Mission Award. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

Dressed in a bright orange apron, Williams energetically explained that a truck could help him save and deliver more squash and other produce farmers can’t use.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “How can I get my hands on one of those aprons? Well, we need more volunteers.”

Others told personal stories, including Miki Garcia of the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, who shared the origin of her art interest and why she wants to add more children’s art education programs.

Lynn Houston, founder of A Different Point of View, tapped into experience as an airline captain to tell the tale of a 14-year-old student who stays off the streets because of a mentor she gained through the nonprofit connecting youth with aviation.

“I want to thank you for teaching me how to fly,” Houston said, reading from her letter.

Houston’s pitch earned her organization a $5,000 Mission Award, and a $5,000 State Street Award went to Miechelle Arntz of Angels Foster Care of Santa Barbara.

The school lunch photo resonated with judges and audience members, as Markee took home the $15,000 Grand Prix and $10,000 Audience Choice awards.

All finalists received a $1,000 grant courtesy of Social Venture Partners Santa Barbara.

Other finalists included Stephen Jones of Sarah House, Mark Tollefson of the Center for Urban Agriculture Fairview Gardens, Amy Winslow of Sanctuary Psychiatric Centers of Santa Barbara, Kim Davis of CASA of Santa Barbara County and Jennifer Freed of AHA!

Markee said she will use her winnings to buy a delivery truck to feed nearby schools — eight to 10 eventually — and to improve a kitchen that allows the chef to teach lifelong lessons in healthy eating.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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