Achilles set to kick off Mar-a-Lago’s first charity gala of the season

The Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets, one of only three charities that did not flee Mar-a-Lago this summer, is gearing up for its winter fundraiser, the first charity slated to hold an evening gala at President Donald Trump’s private Palm Beach club this season.

The non-profit, which helps disabled veterans participate in running events, will hold its “Spirit of America” dinner concert on Saturday, Dec. 2, said Mary Bryant McCourt, president and co-founder of the Achilles organization.

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The event originally was slated for Nov. 30. But the Dec. 2 date opened up after the Lady in Red gala for philanthropist Lois Pope’s LIFE Foundation decided to leave Mar-a-Lago, following Trump’s controversial Charlottesville, Va., comments this summer.

McCourt, a longtime member of the Mar-a-Lago club, expressed no reservation about deciding to keep the Achilles event at the club.

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“Everyone was trying to pressure everyone else to be a follower,” McCourt said on Wednesday. “They said, ‘Why don’t you leave, too?’ But this has been my club for 15 years.We’ve been treated very well by the staff. Why would I walk walk away? We have nothing to do with politics. We’re trying to raise money to continue our program.”

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Achilles Freedom Team, the Palm Beach Police Foundation and the World Affairs Council of Palm Beach were the only charities that decided to keep their fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago, bucking the summer exodus of 20 other charities that pulled their events from the club.

Many event organizers and philanthropists were stunned by Trump’s comments following the Charlottesville protests, which featured neo-Nazis, white supremacists and counterprotesters. The conflict left one counterprotester dead.

Those that stayed at Mar-a-Lago risked the wrath of donors appalled at Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people” on both sides, when juxtaposed against the anti-Semitic chants of “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” by marching, torch-carrying neo-Nazis and others on Aug. 11.

Within days of Trump’s comments following the protests, charities such as the Palm Beach Zoo, Susan G. Komen, Cleveland Clinic and Salvation Army marched away from Mar-a-Lago. Big Dog Ranch Rescue, the largest no-kill dog rescue in the southeast U.S, announced in August that it, too, would leave.

But last month, Big Dog said it was staying at Mar-a-Lago after all for its 5th annual Wine Women & Shoes event on March 10.

McCourt said she’s glad Achilles kept its event at Mar-a-Lago, not only because the venue is on one level and easy for disabled guests to access, but also because of Trump’s longtime support.

In prior years, McCourt said Trump has donated money to the Achilles group. McCourt said she brought the charity to Trump’s attention during her visits to the Mar-a-Lago club.

She said Trump also has provided free lessons at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach to Achilles participants. “He’s been incredible,” McCourt said.

In 2016, Achilles received its best-ever donation via Trump: $200,000, including $100,000 from the Trump Foundation. The contributions were made following Trump’s January 2016 campaign spat with Fox News, when he decided to boycott a debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses and instead hold a fundraiser in Iowa for veterans.

McCourt said Achilles didn’t receive money from Trump this year because he decided to shut down the Trump Foundation to avoid any conflicts.

But McCourt said Achilles does receive a discount on expenses related to the fundraising gala, as it has since it began holding a dinner fundraiser there a couple of years ago.

McCourt said Trump has been impressed by Achilles’ work to help people with disabilities set a goal, participate in a marathon “and show how strong they are.”

She said the effort results not only in physical growth but also emotional growth. “They become more independent. It changes them,” she said.

Still, the loss of the $200,000 contribution hurt Achilles, which means it needs to try extra hard to raise money from its gala. “I’m looking for the community to step up,” McCourt said.

Ticket sales, at $500 apiece, are off to a strong start, she said. She’s hoping the event will exceed last year’s attendance, which was said was just under 200.

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