BY SARAH LESSLER
Anne Caroline Valtin leads the Wellington International event that has raised over $19 Million for Palm Beach Charities.
Amid the succession of competitions at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Florida, stands a remarkable event, the Great Charity Challenge (GCC), sponsored by Fidelity Investments, where top riders swap their typical attire for extravagant costumes. Sparkling ensembles, inflatable outfits, and wigs adorn riders and horses during the Saturday Night Lights event, adding a whimsical touch to the typically serious sport of show jumping.
This evening transforms the International Ring into a vibrant display of themed team unity and creativity, all supporting Palm Beach County charities. Anne Caroline Valtin, the executive director of the Great Charity Challenge, stands as an exceptional individual, dedicating her career to enhancing the lives of others. Her influential efforts have significantly impacted the equestrian world, offering a powerful means to make a difference.
Anne Caroline, originally from Belgium and France, discovered her passion for horses at age 11 and says, “Once I was in the barn, I never left. It was like an instant connection for me.” She now calls Wellington, Florida, home. Fresh out of college and working in sales for equestrian brands, Anne Caroline attended the inaugural Great Charity Challenge at WEF. Witnessing the event as a spectator, she had an epiphany: “This is what I’m meant to be doing. This is where I am meant to be.” Initially founded by the Bellissimo family, the event raised $500,000 in its inaugural year.
“I’ve always been passionate about horses and charitable activities,” notes Anne Caroline, “and this was a unique opportunity to actually merge both.” Hired by Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP), she persistently advocated to lead the GCC. At only 24 years old, with no non-profit or management experience, Anne Caroline stepped into the position to direct the GCC with ESP’s confidence and belief in her. “I felt so strongly about the event’s mission and refused to let it fail in any way, shape, or form,” she affirmed.
Anne Caroline credits Mark and Paige Bellissimo as the major driving force behind the success of the GCC. When she assumed the management reins for the event’s second year, she focused on making it run smoothly rather than reinventing the wheel, and the challenge raised $1,000,000. Witnessing the event’s profound effect on the community, she reflects, “When you start meeting the people that those funds impact, it builds a fire. We wanted to create a legacy that would be solid and continue even beyond us.” Along the way, some key donors took time out of their schedules to hold her hand and help lead the way. They recognized Anne Caroline’s passion and invested in her to ensure the event’s success.
The GCC stands out for several unique reasons, particularly because the horse show covers all the expenses associated with hosting the event. Anne Caroline notes, “By covering all costs, 100 percent of the proceeds go directly back out into the community. We operate as a pass-through entity using an account through the Fidelity Charitable Fund ensuring complete transparency.” The event presents a substantial investment from the horse show, yet the return experienced within the community is profound. Beyond the equestrian sphere, Palm Beach locals, initially not involved in horse-related activities, have become familiar with the GCC, recognizing its deep commitment to their community.
The GCC class is a relay race with a sliding scale of prize money distributed. Typically, each team includes one professional rider who jumps at 1.30 meters and two junior or amateur riders who jump at 1.10 meters and 1.20 meters. The course has seven jumps at each jump height. First, the 1.10-meter rider jumps their course. As soon as they land from their last jump, the 1.20-meter rider begins, followed by the 1.30 rider to cross the finish line. A team’s final score includes points added for each refusal or rail. The team with the lowest time and total score wins with $100,000 awarded to their charity. Even with an elimination, the team placing last is still awarded $15,000 for the charity they represent.
Initially, extravagant costumes weren’t a part of the event. It wasn’t until the seventh year that Anne Caroline proposed the idea to Mark Bellissimo. She believed integrating costumes could help spectators outside the sport to relate and engage. This innovative addition took the event in a new direction, attracting not just younger athletes, but also their families. “Each year, I’m amazed by the costumes. I often find myself asking, did they really just arrive on a horse dressed like that?” Anne Caroline chuckles. Traditionally structured and sedate, the International Ring takes on an unconventional dimension through the GCC, fostering a space for innovation and creativity.
About two years ago, Annabelle Garrett of Postage Stamp Farm Foundation approached Anne Caroline. She wanted to incorporate younger riders who weren’t old enough to compete in the event. As a result, they started the “Pet Parade.” Children now parade with a colorful mix of pets dressed up in costume on behalf of an organization. Also, Anne Caroline brought on a colleague/partner, Kelly Arani, to support the event’s growth as event and marketing director. Kelly is an accomplished equestrian herself with a passion for creating change.
Before the competition even begins, $50,000 has already been given to non-profits. The Great Charity Challenge has fostered an inclusive and inviting atmosphere for community members, encouraging them to attend with their families. This engaging environment allows everyone to enjoy the showgrounds and easily connect with the competition, thanks to the presence of costumes and pets.
When discussing Anne Caroline’s notable achievements, she spoke with admiration about the dedicated team behind the event. Recalling the 2021 Great Charity Challenge, which faced restricted public admission due to COVID-19, she praised the team’s unity and commitment to execute the event despite the challenges. “It was a genuine showcase of how important the event is to the community. The accomplishment truly goes to the donors, sponsors, and the horse show that makes it possible. It is teamwork at its finest,” Anne Caroline emphasized. In 2023, the Great Charity Challenge raised $1.8 million.
Anne Caroline happily reports that the new ownership and management at WEF truly supported the vision of the GCC and enabled them to keep the legacy going. Currently, Anne Caroline handles all the charitable and philanthropic efforts for Wellington International.
The event’s impact spans diverse charities, from supporting veterans to education and housing, such as the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County Inc., Project Lift, Caridad Center Inc., and Quantum House, among 300 others. Anne Caroline emphasizes the benefits of collaborating with a broad range of organizations to support individuals in need, saying, “That is how you lift a person out of their current situation. It allows for a true holistic approach.” Approximately 30 to 35 non-profits are chosen annually, and Anne Caroline facilitates connections among them to empower clients. Afterward, Anne Caroline says she hears that these connections end up working together.
Since its inception in 2009, the GCC has granted $19.4 million to Palm Beach charities. Anne Caroline remains committed to using the equestrian community’s privilege for local benefits. “Enabling the privilege that the horseshow community brings to help the local community is what I want to continue my focus on,” she states.
Anne Caroline is currently raising her young family and cherishing those moments. While taking a hiatus from competing, horses are part of her everyday life living on her farm. Through her work, Anne Caroline says, “Creating connections allows for great things to happen. It’s fantastic to have a seat at the table and know what people are doing in the community.”