Actress Loretta Swit hosts annual Ayla’s Acres gala


There was a “whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on” at the fifth annual Ayla’s Acres No-Kill Animal Rescue gala, Shake, Rattle and Roll Casino Night, to raise funds for its Peter’s Friends Animal Resource Center.

Fang, the Jacksonville Icemen hockey team mascot, greeted guests at the door Saturday evening at the River House in St. Augustine. On the patio overlooking the Matanzas River, the full moon rose behind the lighthouse and glistened on the still water. The air was chilly, but inside the gambling, bidding and dancing was hot.

Ayla’s Acres is raising funds to build the St. Johns County-based Peter’s Friends Animal Resource Center, which will serve as an adoption facility, low- or no-cost spay and neuter clinic and education and outreach center. The 10,000-square-foot facility will be located on 17 acres in St. Johns County at 5051 County Road 208 at the intersection of 13A. It is designed to house up to 40 cats and 40 dogs, but 60 animals would be optimal.

The nonprofit receives no government funding, relying instead on private grants, donations and fundraising activities. Ayla’s acres also benefits from donated items that are sold through its thrift shop in St. Augustine.

Award-winning actress, Loretta Swit, supports the mission and vision of Ayla’s Acres through her nonprofit, the Switheart Foundation. Swit greeted guests warmly and posed for pictures in what seemed an endless line of fans and supporters.

Susan Welch was especially eager to connect with Swit. She started watching the television series M*A*S*H after her late shift at Wendy’s when she was about 14.

“She’s the reason I became a nurse,” Welch said of Swit’s character, Major Margaret Houlihan. “My entire goal in life was to become an Army major.”

Welch understands Houlihan is a character, but believes it was Swit’s own strength showing through the role that made it so believable. Welch, although not a major, made the rank of captain in the Army, and currently works as an emergency room nurse in Palatka. She also shares Swit’s love of animals. Welch and Rick Sheldon have a “mini-farm” with about 120 animals off County Road 208 and hope to make room for more.

“She’s probably guided a lot of my life,” Welch said.

And that sentiment was shared by many at the gala. One guest pointed out that, at the time M*A*S*H was airing on prime time, there were really no other strong, independent female characters on TV. All in the Family had Edith Bunker and The Waltons had Olivia Walton, both wives and mothers who were relegated to traditional female roles. Swit’s character served as an empowering role model for women.

Ayla’s Acres supporters played the slots and table games like craps, poker and roulette to win “funny money” to exchange for raffle tickets. Players placed a raffle ticket in a cup near the prize they wanted to win, like the “Crazy Cat Lady” basket, hand-painted wine glasses or diamond earrings to name a few. Between games, guests sampled a variety of heavy hors d’oeuvres or danced to live music by Little Jake and the Soul Searchers. Silent auction bid sheets filled up for tours, art, jewelry and more, all donated by generous businesses and individuals. Out on the terrace, patio heaters warmed evening air for guests to enjoy the view with a glass of wine or beer.

Precisely at 9:15 p.m., Swit took the microphone in the main ballroom and announced, “This is your major speaking.” The noisy audience hushed under her command and Swit thanked everyone for coming and for supporting the shelter. “Now, let’s win something,” she said.

As raffle ticket numbers were called, enthusiastic winners rushed to the stage to pose for pictures with Swit and their prizes. After the final ticket was drawn, the band turned up the volume and guests filled the dance floor.

“It was a wonderful evening with a full house and guests who gave a lot of positive feedback,” Fran Charlson, executive director said. “We appreciate the support. It’s very meaningful to us.”

With the Peter’s Friends site plan finalized, civil and environmental engineers are reviewing the plans. The next step is to receive County approval. Charlson hopes to break ground by June.

“We need the whole community behind us to make this project work,” she said. “I think it will be a big win for St. Johns County.”

Several sponsor levels are available to fund the $3.2 million Peter’s Friends project. For example, sponsor the vet clinic for $100,000, the memorial park for $50,000 or one of the cat kennels for $10,000. Walkway bricks are available for $500 each. For a complete list of sponsorship opportunities, call Fran Charlson (650) 520-5201.

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