Cuba has been much in the news lately, with even the Pope stopping by the country for a visit. Meanwhile Havana visited Hudson County for a few hours on Friday Night, Sept. 18 as Round 2 Resources and the United Way held a joint fundraising event complete with hot food and music, cold drinks, and cool cigars.
The second annual Havana Nights event was held in the spectacular ballroom at Lido Restaurant on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen, which donated the space for the evening. The United Way distributes items to people in need.
“What I love about it is the elevated stage and the sunken dance floor,” said Wendy LaMotta, CEO of Round 2. “It’s got that retro ’50s Cuban vibe, with seating up above the dance floor so you can sit and watch the dancers and be entertained that way.”
A sprawling buffet was included, along with wine, beer, and sangria; a live band and DJ; and a Latin dance performance. Raffle prizes included fine crystal, jewelry, and a Jets autographed picture.
Jonathan Lucas and Cheryl Riley from Jersey City came out to support the charities. “You have excellent food, you have drinks and cigars,” said Lucas. “It’s a no-brainer.”
LaMotta put together the first Havana Nights event last year to raise money for United Way and her not-for-profit organization, which protects the environment by collecting and distributing items to other groups and people in need, predominantly in Hudson County.
The fundraising event included a sprawling buffet; wine, beer, and sangria; a live band and DJ; and a vivacious Latin dance performance.
Founded in 2007, Round 2 Resources partnered periodically with United Way on a small scale before LaMotta coordinated a large recognition reception for them in February 2014, honoring local individuals who contributed in an especially meaningful way, including Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
That led to more joint projects, and ultimately Havana Nights. “I always said I want to throw a party I want to go to,” said LaMotta. “I love the Hispanic community. The food, the music is so lively and energetic. And they’re such a big part of Hudson County. I thought it would draw people out.”
The first event was a huge success, bringing in over $5,000, which went to United Way. “I gave them the cash and they donated back resources that were more important for me to have, like helping with pickups and deliveries and other resources I needed,” she said.
This year the proceeds were split evenly between the two charities.
Round one: prize fighter
With a name like Wendy LaMotta, she was perhaps destined to become a boxer. Although not related to former World Middleweight Champion (and inspiration for the film “Raging Bull”) Jake LaMotta, Wendy found herself in the ring as an amateur fighter from 2000 to 2003, after a trainer in her gym noted her skills.
She went on to box professionally from 2003 to 2007, ranking number 10 in the country and 23 in the world, with a record of 6-1 with two knockouts.
LaMotta credits her Puerto Rican trainer, Luis Negron, with instilling her love of all things Hispanic. “He’s the one that started this whole mess,” she laughed. “I am Italian and Polish, but when I used to fight I would say that I was Italian-Puerto Rican.”
Upon retiring from the ring in 2007 and graduation from NYU with a Masters in public administration, she founded Round 2 Resources, the name referring to her second career after boxing.
Among the attendees at Havana Nights was Dr. Josef Tuazon, founder of A Better Life Physical Therapy of Jersey City and West New York. A former boxer himself, Tuazon held a fundraising boxing event last year at Schuetzen Park to generate funds for typhoon victims in the Philippines.
“What’s funny is Wendy and I know each other, we hang out together, and we didn’t even realize we fought on the same boxing shows,” he said. “We found a flyer, both of us are posing. It was like, ‘That’s you? Get out of here! That’s me!’”
“This event is wonderful,” said Natalia Novas, spokeswoman for the Town of West New York. “The cause is great. There was a huge fire in town over the summer and Wendy donated clothes, furniture, and books to the fire victims. It was fantastic. She really came through.”
In addition to her not-for-profit work LaMotta is the administrator of a surgical center in Millburn.
The changing face of fundraising
Emory Edwards is the advancement director at United Way of Hudson County, helping to find programs and funding. He is their point of contact for Round 2 Resources. “We work with a lot of corporate investors and with a lot of nonprofit agencies,” he said. “One of our biggest focuses right now is homelessness and affordable housing. We’re building affordable housing for veterans on our property in Journal Square.”
Six units of veteran housing are currently going up under the United Way umbrella. The organization already houses 85 chronic homeless individuals in scattered site housing around Hudson County, paying the rent and providing a social worker. They are building a public educational program and raising funds to open up a club for non-English speaking children of low income families. “We’re working to get a six week summer program for next year for reading literacy,” said Edwards.
But the nature of fundraising has changed dramatically, according to Dan Altilio, president and CEO of the United Way of Hudson County for the past 15 years. “Less and less we get contributions from individuals,” he said. “It’s more foundation money and grant money as opposed to grass roots money. That’s a dying trend everywhere.”
The reason, in large part, is the Internet. United Way used to serve as a conduit between donors and deserving programs and organizations. Now, that can be done with the click of a mouse. To complicate things, United Way doesn’t have a clearly defined goal and identity, like many other charities.
“We’re that nice organization. We do good things,” he said. “But we’re grass roots and we do what’s needed in our territory. You can’t unify a message that way. So when you have to make a contribution at your work place and you have a choice between this nice group that you know is good, or Susan G. Komen and your sister had breast cancer; where’s that money going?”
Nowadays United Way focuses on what they call community impact: working directly to resolve issues in the immediate region. “In Hudson County we have a homeless problem so we’re working on that,” said Altilio. “In Des Moines it’s out-of-work farmers, so they’re working on that.”
Some of the funding comes from government agencies, including the Federal Housing Authority and HUD. But that money is earmarked for specific causes, and doesn’t keep the lights on and the doors open. For that the organization relies on things like fundraisers.
Attendees at this year’s Havana Nights event were entertained by wildly spirited performances by the world champion Colombian dance team Grupo Baila Conmigo. In between performances the dance floor was filled with patrons enjoying the music of Danny Matos Y Son Candela Salsa Band. Michael Guiliano was the emcee for the evening.
Rolling cigars from scratch was Vince Rigo from Ciboney Cigars. Main sponsors for the event were CarePoint Health, Dr. Richard Stillman, and Reidel Glass, who donated many of the raffle prizes. AW Designs also donated three pieces of jewelry.
Round 2 Resources is currently planning a Valentine’s Day event. For more information, or to donate, contribute, or volunteer, visit their Facebook page, email email@example.com, or call (908) 705-6495.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.