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Meet Gary Peters, Board President Of Boca Helping Hands

In Martin Scorsese’s 2013 dramedy, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort, a real-life rags-to-riches stockbroker who builds then quashes a billion-dollar empire by finagling his investors out of millions. Gary Peters chuckles when asked if he shared any of Belfort’s Caligula-like experiences while trading municipal bonds on Wall Street.

“No, we (colleagues) didn’t act like that,” he says, “although we were well aware of people who did. For me, family values always took center stage.”

Today, the Tennessee native is savoring his role as Boca Helping Hands’ board president where he has turned giving back into a full-time profession.

On April 13, Peters, who’s also a two-time U.S. Monopoly champion, will host Boca Helping Hands’ Monopoly Event & Casino Night at Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club. The annual fundraiser, which celebrates its 13th year, showcases a 90-minute Monopoly game, casino games, a crowning ceremony and more.

Standing on his 5-acre property in Le Lac, a bucolic, gated community spread across 200 acres in western Boca Raton, Peters remembers growing up in Memphis when saying “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” were natural responses and while Elvis Presley was still crooning in the local dance halls.

After high school, Peters became an operating superintendent for Bry’s Department Store then made an about-face by accepting a job at a Memphis-based municipal bonds firm. In 1969, he relocated to New York City to open the firm’s northeast office, but when the company told him to return south, and with his team in tow, he left and launched his own. Ten years later, he moved to Hallandale Beach where he eventually founded LaSalle Bank’s Broker-Dealer Services Division.

Forty-one years after joining the securities industry, Peters was ready to bid it good-bye. Before retiring as LaSalle’s executive vice president in 2008, he established the Gary Peters Family Foundation in 2004 to grant financial support to the myriad charities and non-profits close to his heart. During the following October, Hurricane Wilma ripped through South Florida. Peters remembers watching TV with the generator running.

“I felt terrible,” he says.

Looking for a way to help the hundreds of Boca Raton residents who’d been left without electricity, food and other essentials, he discovered a small soup kitchen nestled in the shadow of the Florence Fuller Child Development Center. At that time, Boca Helping Hands was feeding about 36 people daily the reclaimed food they sourced from good-Samaritan restaurants and heated with food warmers. He wrote a check and asked them not to call him. “I didn’t want to get involved,” he says. “Fortunately, they did call me.”

About a month later, he was elected board president and his first order of business was to expand the charity’s pint-sized footprint. With assistance from the board of directors and added funding from Arthur Remillard Jr., the late-founder and CEO of the Commerce Insurance Company and whom Peters calls the charity’s “patron saint,” he discovered an unfinished, two-story building near Glades Road.

After two years of renovation, retrofitting and approvals, the new-and-much-improved, 15,500-square-foot facility opened in 2010. It boasts a $150,000 kitchen and a dining room where visitors can congregate and enjoy meals in comfort. Refrigeration systems and groceries are kept upstairs, along with a staging area for their backpack program. Every week, the charity delivers 1,600 backpacks filled with meals and snacks to Palm Beach County schoolchildren. During the recession, the center served 225 to 250 meals a day, but now Peters says that number is closer to 175 because jobs have become more plentiful.

Boca Helping Hands also distributes hundreds of grocery bags every week to qualified families and provides additional resources, like job training, mentoring and language and wellness classes in its resource center. For a small fee, people can get medical, dental and eye care off site. The charity offers a complimentary, $200 coupon for the initial doctor’s visit.

Peters and his staff of 16 keep the charity going day to day, but he credits the volunteers for their heavy lifting.

“It takes 40 to 60 volunteers to run Boca Helping Hands everyday,” he says. “We have hundreds who work endless hours every week. It’s really very impressive.”

Peters says it was the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, in 1980, which placed him on a philanthropic trajectory. He became involved with Sheridan House Family Ministries, a non-profit that provides children and families around Broward County with resources like counseling and shelter. He’s also created altruistic alliances with other local charities, including Place of Hope with which he’s funding a residence for kids who’ve aged out of foster care. For Saint Andrew’s School, Florida Atlantic University and Vanderbilt University, he’s established scholarships for economically disadvantaged students.

Gazing around the spectacular, lakefront property he’s called home for 19 years, he says, “I sleep better at night helping somebody. You may not be able to help thousands of people, but if you can make a difference for one person, then that’s a lot.”