A philanthropic group, the Sophisticated Gents of Florida, is devoted to youths and community.
A handful of men first met to socialize 12 years ago, and now they’ve grown to 110-members strong and are devoted to extensive community outreach in Lake, Sumter, and Marion counties.
Meet the Sophisticated Gents of Florida.
Club President Vernon Haley says 99 percent of the members are retired African-American professionals living in The Villages. More men in the tri-county area are invited to join the organization.
Vernon is a retired vice president of student affairs at Palm Beach State College and worked for 30 years in higher education at four different colleges. He says other members of the club have had significant careers in many fields, including government, law, medicine, and the postal service.
Realizing some young males grow up without father figures was one of the reasons he says the group was formed and began its community outreach.
“We are very interested in minority males and seeing them succeed,” says Vernon, who is in his fourth year as president.
The Sophisticated Gents club has 10 mentors serving youth at Wildwood and Leesburg High School. The club also works with The Villages Charter High School and Lake Weir High School.
“We went out to the high schools and what we saw was a lack of minority role models in the high schools,” Vernon says. “There are very few minority professionals or teachers in the schools, and as a result, we needed to reach out to them. When we come into the schools to interview students, we sit in the cafeterias and they are so pleased to see minority males because they don’t see them in the schools. We try to talk to them about various opportunities for them.”
The group is also committed to providing college scholarships. “The majority of the scholarships that we give out are to minority males because that is our focus,” Vernon says.
The members first began their scholarship fund by asking each member to put in $50. Five years ago, they expanded their scholarship fund by having the Friendship Golf Tournament, an annual event that is now hosted every November at Harbor Hills Country Club in Lady Lake.
“In the last four years, we have raised over $90,000,” Vernon says. “We are most proud of the scholarship piece. We are reaching out to basically first-generation students, the first person in their family to go to college, and that is our priority.”
He says the schools work collaboratively with the group. School counselors are involved in recruiting students from November to April, and the Sophisticated Gents, along with their friends in The Villages African-American Club, aims to provide 20 scholarships this month to students of The Villages Charter High School, Leesburg High School, Wildwood Middle High School, and Lake Weir High School. The scholarships range from $500 to $1,000.
Vernon expects about 200 people at the June 2 scholarship luncheon. Each scholarship recipient was encouraged to bring two guests to the all-expenses paid meal, and the event is hailed as the highlight of the year for the Sophisticated Gents and their friends in the African-American Club.
“Every year, we give out scholarships to students from those four schools, and we are now entering into a scenario where we are giving out awards to prior students to help them in terms of retention,” Vernon says. “Now that we have a financial stream, we thought there was a need to start looking at some of the retention of our students—those students who meet certain criteria and are in good academic standing at their institution can apply for a second scholarship as well.”
Vernon says this was the first year his group was able to consider retention-based scholarships, “and that’s because we have doubled the amount of money that we were receiving from our golf tournament. Before, we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have enough resources.”
The group has come a long way from its early days.
According to the organization’s website, Lawrence Parker gathered a group of African-American men at Katie Belle’s Restaurant in The Villages for a meet-and-greet session. To keep the camaraderie going, the group agreed to continue to meet monthly at a local restaurant. Nelson Bickley helped Lawrence make phone calls inviting men to the monthly meeting, and both Lawrence and Nelson are hailed as the club founders.
“Both are very proud of the group,” Vernon says of the founders being pleased of the group’s initiatives and success. “At our first Black and White Ball, they were our keynote people that we recognized as being the founders of the organization. We are probably the largest minority male professional group in the area. This is a group that serves as role models in the tri-county area.”
A waitress is credited with helping the group get its name.
At one of the earliest meetings, before taking food orders, a server asked the men, “What can I do for you gentlemen?” Lawrence took the phrase to Nelson and suggested the group be called Sophisticated Gents of The Villages, which was later changed to Sophisticated Gents of Florida, so the group could be open to more men.
Vernon says the Sophisticated Gents strives to be active in community outreach in more ways besides mentoring youths or providing college scholarships.
“We felt the best way to do that is to go out into the community and be visible,” Vernon says.
The Sophisticated Gents club participates in parades in the tri-county area, including the annual Martin Luther King Parade in Leesburg and Royal, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Breakfast in The Villages. Members also are active in the Adopt-A-Highway program, and in their club-sponsored activities, such as the Friendship Golf Tournament, golf trips, annual beach party at Eaton’s Beach, fishing trips, auto show, variety show, fashion show, Super Bowl parties, Washington, D.C., trip, and the annual Black and White Ball. The next ball—the third annual dinner and dance event—will be hosted March 9, 2019, at the Eisenhower Recreation Center in The Villages.
“At this dinner and dance, we recognized various member and outside members who have done some things for the organization,” Vernon says.
The club president also is pleased with the Sophisticated Gents’ civic activities, including Wreaths Across America, Camp Corral, Hot Dogs with Dads, the Florida A&M University Alumni Golf Tournament, Relay for Life, The Villages Vietnam Veterans Golf Tournament, and The Villages Memorial Park Brick Program.
As the Sophisticated Gents become more visible and popular in the tri-county area, Vernon says the organization has been invited to participate in several other events, yet they can’t do everything they are asked to be involved in.
“We are trying to pick out the events that have the biggest impact,” he says, including events that allows the Sophisticated Gents to focus on community service and raise awareness about their mission and scholarships.
Men in the tri-county area interested in learning more about the Sophisticated Gents are invited to attend a monthly meeting or call the club president.
Membership: Open to new members and to all men in the tri-county area. There is no age limit. Men can be of all ethnic groups.
Annual dues: $25.
Meetings: Hosted at 4pm the first Wednesday of each month at Golden Corral, 3950 Wedgewood Lane, The Villages.
Vision: Informal nonprofit men’s club that will strengthen and embrace brotherhood of men in The Villages and surrounding communities of Central Florida.
Mission: To establish and maintain an organization composed of men in The Villages and surrounding communities of Central Florida who will come together for intellectual, spiritual, educational, and emotional fellowship as well as community service and scholarship.
Motto: “Emerging in Excellence. Exceeding all expectations.”
Contact: Club President Vernon Haley, 352.444.0734.