Pirates bring fun and philanthropy to the Tampa Bay region

Avast, me hearties! Be prepared for great fun and high adventure when Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla kicks off its epic annual celebration on Jan. 18. You probably already know Gasparilla is the biggest festival in the region. What you might not know is how much time and effort the civic leaders and business professionals who make up the Krewe, dedicate to supporting philanthropic efforts that promote the well being and welfare of the overall community.

Inspired by the legend of swashbuckling pirate Jose Gaspar, a Spanish buccaneer who allegedly sailed the waters of Southwest Florida in the early 1800s, Ye Mystic Krewe was founded in 1904 to promote the region’s trade and tourism industries. The mock pirate invasion that is the highlight of the festival pits the pirates against the mayor for the key to Tampa. The pirates’ victory kicks off the main parade, where float participants toss beads to screaming crowds.

The parade is a boon for the region. According to several studies, it has a local economic impact of more than $22 million. The combined events bring in over $400 million.

Behind this main event, the krewe quietly goes about helping the community year ’round. It founded a community fund in 1998 that since its inception has awarded over $890,000 in college scholarships to Tampa high school students.

During the parade, the krewe hosts a charity beer garden with proceeds benefiting a rotating roster of local nonprofit organizations.

“Each year eight charities are given a booth to sell alcohol and they average about $15,000 for one day of sales,” says krewe Capt. Richard M. Chapman. He’s quick to point out that this encourages responsible consumption as every ID is checked and revelers are limited to two beers each.

Gaspar’s Grenadiers, Ye Mystic Krewe’s outreach pirates, make as many as 45 charitable public appearances each year. Members visit hospitals, assisted living centers, children’s venues and schools, in full pirate attire to engage the community and spread the fun of Gasparilla. During the holiday season, the krewe volunteers at Salvation Army collection stands throughout Tampa.

Perhaps most meaningful to the krewe are the sailing adventures it arranges for children fighting cancer. Working with the National Pediatric Cancer Fund, a Tampa-based nonprofit organization dedicated to finding more effective treatments for childhood cancer, the krewe first arranged an adventure in 2014 for a 9-year-old with brain cancer and his family.

“He was the captain of the ship,” says Shamus Warren, chairman of Gaspar’s Grenadiers and the director of development for the cancer fund. “We had a bunch of our guys dressed up and making a big deal out him. He got off and was smiling and wasn’t thinking about going through treatment. That was really special.”

Last year, seven kids battling cancer were given the opportunity to board the ship and be pirates for a day. During the Gasparilla celebration, Grenadiers also go to the children’s units of local hospitals to brighten their days with a bit of piracy.

“We create a mini parade for those who can’t go to the big parade,” Warren says. “We’re in full pirate gear, and we bring beads and stuffed animals. When you walk in the room, they light up. They’re having fun, hanging out with pirates and not thinking about cancer. It’s very meaningful for all of us.” ♦

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