Every spring, hundreds of Sarasota’s elite don chic attire and gather at the Ritz Carlton Members Golf Club for an exquisite dinner and private concert by world-renowned musicians such as Pat Benatar, Blondie, KC and the Sunshine Band, and this year’s headliner, Bret Michaels.

The Firefly Gala provides a spectacular night for a spectacular cause: Forty Carrots Family Center, a local non-profit organization that provides a host of parenting education, early childhood education, and mental health services for Sarasota and Manatee families.

Firefly is the brainchild of Sarasota resident, Ariane Dart, who in five short years has transformed a dwindling fundraising program into one of Sarasota’s most successful philanthropic events. We spoke with her to learn how she has turned her passions into successful projects to benefit our community.

Ariane Dart was nearing her due date when she and her husband, Robert, moved to Sarasota to be closer to his aging parents. When she gave birth to her son two weeks after the move and found herself seeking a community of young mothers, Forty Carrots opened its doors to her and her baby.

“Coming here was scary when I didn’t know anybody, but I thought this would be a good way to make some friends and gain some knowledge. It was a great way to meet people who were at the same point in life,” says Ariane.

When her son turned two and entered The Preschool at Forty Carrots, Ariane had the opportunity to become better acquainted with its administrative staff. Once they learned of her experience in sales and marketing management, her involvement with the organization followed a natural trajectory. Five years ago, Ariane went to her first development committee meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees and left in a state of shock, having just been tasked with reinventing the organization’s spring fundraising event.

“They pulled me in, but it was a match. I liked the people and they liked me. It was exciting and invigorating. It felt great to have my pre-mommy skills employed in a way that benefitted other families.” She knew from the get-go she had to get creative for the event to become a success. “I wanted to make it unique and special. Something different from the other black-tie events in town,” she said. Ariane turned to an old high school connection – her friend Mitch Davis, son of Arista Records founder Clive Davis – with the hopes of finding well-known musicians to perform at her event.

Ariane already knew how to throw a successful fundraiser. What she didn’t realize was how much went into navigating the world of band contracts and negotiations. Mitch proved to be an invaluable resource when it came to choosing a musician to perform at the gala. “He can provide me with insight as to which bands are still on top of their game thus providing background knowledge to help me select a band each year. And therefore I’ve felt very confident each year with the band I’ve chosen to go with, and that they have a great reputation in the music industry as performers.”

Ultimately, Ariane’s goal is to raise awareness regarding the incredible services Forty Carrots provides to the community. “My biggest wish for the event is that people realize that we’re holding over 1,200 FREE classes for families all over Sarasota and Manatee Counties each year in twenty-seven locations.”

Highly trained and educated professionals teach all classes offered by Forty Carrots. Every attendee receives a top-notch experience, and that’s expensive. The cost of the educators’ and therapists’ salaries, transport, supplies, and numerous other expenses take their toll. A tremendous amount of money is being spent on classes, and the organization gets very little back. Ariane asserts, “I think there is a great misnomer that all the money raised goes to the school. This is absolutely incorrect as the vast majority supports all of the free parenting classes. In addition, the preschool offers a large number of scholarships for children to attend.

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The Preschool at Forty Carrots and parenting classes benefit tremendously diverse adults and children from our region.” When Ariane isn’t busy planning the Firefly Gala and focusing her efforts on the Dart Foundation, she incorporates her desire to help communities into her hobbies. An avid fan of cars and racing, she participates in several car rallies each year, most notably, the Fireball Run. Over the course of eight days and approximately 2,000 miles, participants “race” to various locations by solving geographically and historically based riddles correctly. From turning on Thomas Edison’s original light bulb to touring President Truman’s office, the race offers once-in-a-lifetime experiences—but it’s about much more than that.

Every year, each team represents a missing child. As contestants drive along the route, they pass out missing child posters to anyone with whom they come in contact. To date, the race has helped bring home over forty-two missing children. Thanks to Ariane and her team, one year a child was reunited with his father. “It’s incredible,” says Ariane. “We meet with the parents and siblings of missing children, and really get the full perspective. It’s about giving exposure to these missing children in hopes that someone will recognize their photo and help to bring them home.”

From racing cars to organizing numerous charitable efforts, Ariane doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. As a driving force behind the Dart Foundation, Ariane is always looking for ways to improve education in her local communities. In addition to sponsoring and funding the musicians for the Firefly Gala, the Dart Foundation has funded eleven different STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) smart classrooms, six digital learning labs in Sarasota County, an evaluation room in the new NICU unit at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and research sections at Selby Gardens. “We want to provide learning centers that are accessible for everyone, both young and old,” says Ariane. “Every day you learn something is a good day.”

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NOTHING TO LOSE

This signature cocktail is named after a song written by Bret Michaels, originally a solo, now a duo with Miley Cyrus, who has collaborated with Michaels on several occasions.

  • 2 ounces Titos vodka
  • 1 ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 1/2 ounce St. Germain

Shake, serve in a glass over the rocks, and garnish with an orange wedge.