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Veterans, First Responders Maintain Local Support
Pacific Project Heroes board member, Lana Casey at the 2018 Dinner, Dance and Live Auction event with guest speaker and distinguished guest Jose Jauregui. Jauregui was the only survivor of a tank fire while serving in Iraq. Photo Contributed

Bob and Lori Lutz haven’t served their country in uniform. While not in the traditional sense when one thinks of a US Veteran, the husband wife team are both self-described “military brats.” They are also the “brain child” behind Pacific Project Heroes.

The 501c3 non-profit serves military veterans as well as first responders in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. The Ninth Annual Project Heroes Dinner, Dance and Live Auction will be hosted Saturday, Oct. 19 at the FES Hall in Oakdale.

Inspired by the hardship of a neighbor, Bob, a son to the Air Force and Lori, a daughter to the Navy, felt called to find a way to help the family, as well as other veterans. Nine years ago they began the non-profit through a partnership with the United Way.

As time evolved and the couple gained more experience running a not for profit event and organization, the decision to break off on their own became clear. In 2016 Pacific Project Heroes Inc. was formed complete with Bob as CEO, as well as a team of 11 board members. During the formation of the independent non-profit the decision was made to add first responders to their beneficiaries.

“Every year we look at two or three different organizations or groups that help veterans and first responders and we vote on how much money to give them each year,” Bob said of the group’s mission. He noted they typically donate to two to four groups, as well as individuals as needs arise locally.

According to the couple the annual dinner/dance event is their sole fundraiser which nets close to 95 percent of the funds raised for later distribution. The success of their event has prompted a decision to establish two Oakdale High School scholarships for the Class of 2020. Recipients will be children of veterans or first responders.

Lori shared due largely to the generosity of the community, as well as the hard work of the board the event sells out every year. This year, however, the event experienced a sell-out of the 400 plus spots six weeks in advance.

“We’re way ahead of the spectrum here, finally,” Bob said.

“It’s a relief,” Lori said of the growth and early sell out. “I used to panic every year. If I wasn’t sold out a week before the event I would think how much is this going to cost me this year?”

It was a mindset earned honestly, as the founders shared, the first year was the only time to date which they did not sell out, funding the initial event with money pulled from their retirement. That, however, is a problem of the past. With weeks still left before the tables are rolled out and guests come in, the non-profit event is already in the black.

Through the beauty of raffle, silent auction, live auction and card cut the event collects approximately $45,000 each year in auction alone. Once all is said and totaled with ticket sales as well, the organization looks at a purse of close to $60,000.

“I’m a firm believer in the better the raffle, the more they’re going to spend,” Lori said. She noted through the efforts of an active board the hall is filled each year with over 60 raffle items.

“They all supported us long before,” Lori said of their early days, before breaking from United Way. “They knew what we were about, so it became a passion for them.”

“We owe a lot to the Bacigalupi family,” Bob added. “From day one Mike has promoted us with all the movers and shakers in Oakdale.”

Primarily through the success of the annual October event, the organization is now considering offering a second outdoor event in May of each year. Details for the inaugural event and launch year are in the infancy phase, yet Bob feels strongly that it’s an event which will be well received by the community.

“We need for people in Oakdale to know who we are,” Pacific Project Heroes Vice President, Bill Adams said. “These two being who they are, they’re not real big about tooting their own horn.”

“I think a lot of it is just getting our name back out there,” Bob said of the continued support, as well as keeping the funds local as an independent non-profit.

“When there’s a genuine need that comes up, everyone works together,” Adams said of his experience from the behind the scenes. “It’s been very neat and very humbling to see.”

Nine years later when posed with the question of what maintains their dedication and keeps them committed to not just the organization, but this large event, Bob speaks candidly.

“We have young 18- and 21-year-old kids out there fighting for our freedom and putting their life on the line to do it,” Bob stated. “Unfortunately most people know someone who has a family member or a friend who has been affected by the wars. It’s a volunteer military and that’s what blows me away. These kids are going in voluntarily.”

“We just have so many people that inspire us to keep going,” Lori added.

While seats are sold out, persons interested in making donations either toward auction/raffle items or monetary are still able to do so. Information on Pacific Project Heroes can be found on their Facebook page of the same name or at Donors may also contact Lori directly at (209) 765-1528.