“I was always an entrepreneur in my heart,” said John Wilczak, sitting near-poolside at the Coral Casino and sharing a story about how when he was 12 years old, he started a neighborhood lawn-mowing business with 30 other kids as his employees. The Brown University and Columbia University grad, who has worked as a strategist for General Electric, founded a software company, presided over a pharmacology company, and started a Dallas-based business that creates inspirational videos for kids and teens, is now taking on a new role, one that makes him remember his time as a Brown student when he taught English to illiterate federal prisoners. “It’s a personal thing,” he said of his role: board president of the revamped fundraising team for the Sheriff’s Office, the Benevolent Posse.
Ahead of Bill Brown’s election as Sheriff in 2006, the department’s nonprofit fundraising team was in the throes of what some termed a “meltdown.” Known as the Sheriff’s Council, the team attracted attention more for its members’ antics than its philanthropic efforts and was disbanded. When Brown came into office, he revived the council, revised the bylaws, and encouraged a sharper focus on raising money to support the needs of the Sheriff’s Office above and beyond what the department budget allows.
Earlier this year, with new goals in sight, the department decided to kick the council up a notch. Enter the Sheriff’s Benevolent Posse, a new name for the council that conjures images of department supporters on horseback, ready to lasso up some money for a good cause. Wilczak served on the previous council and now heads the 16-member team, which held a “Western cocktail attire encouraged” introductory party at the Biltmore this spring.
On the posse’s horizon is raising money — about $170,000 — to build a new equestrian facility for the department’s mounted unit in the Santa Ynez Valley. They recently inked a long-term lease with the Equestrian Center there, where they want to house the mounted unit and reestablish a unit for kids so they can learn to ride from the officers and interact with law enforcement in a positive way.
Continuing to support the DARE program — which encourages kids to stay away from drugs, violence, and bullying — is also a top goal, with a plan to expand it to South County schools later this year. This spring, more than 500 North County fifth-graders graduated from the program. The largest ceremony, at Mary Buren School in Guadalupe, celebrated 140 students, whose parents packed the room, cheering with balloons in hand. Sheriff’s Deputy Leslie Avila runs the program, after volunteering to stay on during retirement after budget constraints posed a threat. The approximate $55-per-student cost to run the program is free to students and paid for with donations. Overall, Wilczak said, hopes to raise at least $350,000 this year.
Helping students focus on school over other things, Wilczak said, is what drew him to this role. “I’m a product of education,” he said. “Education helped me get to do many of the things I’ve gotten to do in my life.” He spoke of growing up in a lower-middle-class community on Long Island and attending public school. He saw “a lot of bad stuff” going on, he said, and was motivated to take a different path. The posse, he said, wants to help prepare Santa Barbara County kids to prepare for similar tough situations. “Everybody understands up front what we’re here for,” he said. “It’s not just about money-raising — it’s about doing good with the money raising.”