By Kalhan Rosenblatt firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published 08:57 p.m., February 22, 2014
Updated 11:30 p.m., February 22, 2014
The wine was flowing, the paddles were flying and the Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders were cheering at the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest Saturday afternoon.
But one of the festival’s beneficiaries was more content to sit next to his mother, ignoring it all and playing his Nintendo DS.
It was a moment for 9-year-old Jay Aponte to be a kid, a rarity since he was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.
“This is why we’re here today — for Jay and the other kids — because there was a time not so long ago that maybe Jay wouldn’t be here with us. Our children’s hospital is saving lives. He’s a hero and a fighter,” said NBC-2 anchor Kellie Burns, as festival patrons wiped away tears.
Jay Aponte, of Naples, was this year’s child artist for the festival. Under the guidance of award-winning artist Ellen Sheppard, Jay used watercolor and colored pencil to create his painting “Lightning McQueen,” depicting the race car from the Pixar film “Cars.”
“I play mostly racing games — Cars, Hot Wheels, and stuff like that,” Jay said.
And bidders at the Wine & Food Fest liked Lightning McQueen, too. So much so that the winning bid was $200,000 for the painting — the most any child artist has raised in the festival’s history. It was donated back to the hospital, where it will hang with other child artists’ work.
“I don’t have words to say,” said Luz Aponte, Jay’s mom. “It’s overwhelming. I can’t thank everyone enough. There are so many people. It’s like one big family. I come from a big family, but this is huge.”
Jay didn’t expect to break the record. He says he might tell his friends, but he doesn’t want to brag.
He might, however, brag about his surprise. Before the bidding opened, Burns told Jay she had something special for him.
“Have you ever heard of the Daytona 500? You’re going to go to that race tomorrow,” Burns said. “You’re going to ride on a private plane, you and your mom. You are going to take a tour with your mom on the track with those riders and you’re going to ride it first in front of millions of fans.”
The crowd erupted with thunderous applause. Jay’s grin blossomed across his face as he looked up at his mother.
When Burns asked what he thought about his surprise trip, Jay said he thought it was “really cool.”
Auctioneers encouraged as many bidders as possible to contribute to Jay’s cause, which would help fund the Golisano Children’s Hospital where Jay has blood work done every other week and chemotherapy every 12 weeks.
Once bidding began it was hard to keep track of how many paddles were in the air. But by the time the bidding concluded, 40 people had bid bringing Jay’s total to $200,000 — the most of any child artist at the Wine & Food Fest.
With the community’s overwhelming support, Jay will continue to fight leukemia for one more year.
“He’s been going for treatment for two years,” Luz Aponte said. “He’s got about another year and two months left. By the end of April 2015, I know God has a plan that he’ll be declared cancer-free. Jay is my hero.”
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