by Jessica Langdon
SHAWNEE — Ben and Betty Zarda love to shake the Midwest winter for Florida’s sunshine.
Even on vacation, though, Kansas and its people never stray far from the thoughts of these parishioners of St. Joseph Church in Shawnee.
Ben Zarda works the phones from Florida just as hard as he would if he were home, pulling together donors, vendors and volunteers for a longstanding springtime tradition in the Kansas City area.
True to form, he has spent the past several months working tirelessly on the Ben and Betty Zarda Family 32nd Annual Golf Classic.
The golf tournament — consistently ranked among the top five in the area — will take place May 13 at the Lake Quivira Country Club.
As always, the event will benefit Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
That fact alone keeps this event close to the hearts of the Zarda family and the many people who help make this event possible.
And it’s why, even three decades after Ben Zarda first agreed to help, he shoulders as much of the work as he ever has.
As the golf classic nears each year, Ben Zarda knows quite a few friends are awaiting a call from him or his committee, whether it’s to hit the greens as a golfer or to donate items, money, or time.
People love it and look forward to it.
“They start calling and saying, ‘Can we work?’” said Betty Zarda, who loves to greet people each year at the golf classic.
“It’s really a delight,” said Ben Zarda, “and it’s because of the reputation of Catholic Charities.”
He actually didn’t know much about Catholic Charities in the early 1980s when he and his brother Tom Zarda were asked to underwrite the fledgling event.
The two brothers, then at the heart of the Zarda Dairy empire, have been partners in business ventures since childhood.
After digging into what Catholic Charities was all about, Ben Zarda said he couldn’t think of a similar effort that came close to the impact it made on the community.
The lion’s share of every dollar it receives goes toward the people who need the organization’s help.
The brothers readily agreed, and now, said Ben Zarda, “We’re hooked.”
Tom Zarda eventually broke off to help launch the Catholic Education Foundation (but continues to help where he can), while his brother continued to lead the charge for this Catholic Charities fundraiser.
When people hear Ben Zarda’s voice on the phone, they know he’s calling for Catholic Charities.
“What’s really nice is they always talk about our mission,” said Wendy Doyle, executive vice president of development with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
“They’re really connected in that capacity,” she said.
Through its many programs, Catholic Charities stabilizes and strengthens families and offers compassionate health care for patients and families.
This is one of the more expensive tournaments for golfers, said Ben Zarda, but organizers work hard to make the experience worth it.
With help over the years from people like John and Joanie Muehlberger, Craig Gaffney, who now heads up the committee, and Charlie Schorgl, who has consistently contributed gift certificates to the event, Ben Zarda says they usually raise between $100,000 and $150,000.
It’s been more challenging in recent years with the economy, but supporters continue to make it a priority.
Plus, Ben Zarda taps free family labor to cut costs.
Bill, Mike and Dennis Hendrix — sons of Ben Zarda’s sister, Mary Hendrix — have long provided the much-anticipated lunch through Go Chicken Go.
And Tom Zarda’s daughter Diana, still in the family business with Roberts Dairy, stocks the event with ice cream treats.
Dana Zarda Rieke, daughter of Ben and Betty, helps with the legwork on the day of the event.
Gaffney credits the Zardas with introducing him to Catholic Charities. Their love for the organization inspired him.
Now serving as vice chairman of the board of trustees for the Catholic Charities Foundation of Northeast Kansas, Gaffney will take the reins as chairman this fall.
“It lifts me up when I see Ben’s eyes just kind of light up when he starts talking about the golf tournament,” he said. “It’s safe to say it’s part of who they are.”