It was business as usual at last Saturday’s 21st annual Irish Festival at Key Largo’s Caribbean Club. Despite the growing coronavirus fear, hundreds of people still came out for the event in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

“It’s been a weird couple of weeks, but we are happy to see you here with smiles on your faces,” said Irish Fest co-chair Tiffany Zepeda as she addressed the crowd before introducing the Upper Keys Irish Dancers. “We’re really happy to be in the Florida Keys right now!”

Irish Fest attendees said they were thankful the event was not canceled.

Kris Bishop and Roger Gray decked out in green for Caribbean Club’s 21st annual Irish Festival.

“This is what the people need,” said Margaret Bodchon, who was attending for the first time with her son and daughter. “Just take the precautions and live your life. Come out and embrace the love and laughter.”

There was no shortage of uncontained fun at this year’s festival, which featured an exceptional parade, live performances, green beer provided by Islamorada Beer Company, corned beef hash provided by Mangrove Mike’s, a silent auction, live music by the band PEAR and more.

Though the day was lighthearted, Zepeda and the Irish Fest organizers took the coronavirus warnings seriously.

“We were very, very careful about making the decision not to cancel because we were concerned about doing what was right for the community,” said Zepeda. “Local authorities directed us and we had to make sure we had extra things in place, like extra cleaning solutions, Clorox, extra everything. There was a heightened sense of being careful and Caribbean Club took extra precautions as well.”

There’s more to the Irish Fest than simply gathering in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. The money raised during the event goes to Teen Intervention & Prevention Services (TIPS), a nonprofit that partners with the Florida Keys Youth Basketball League and donates money to Key Largo School’s athletic program.

Initially formed as an anti-bullying and social-emotional education program, TIPS has grown in the last few years to adopt athletics as well.

“Before TIPS, we had to make our entire seasons for the kids only five or six games because we couldn’t afford to run the buses any more than that,” said Zepeda, who is also a KLS teacher and TIPS chairperson. “We melded with TIPS and three years ago, myself and other teachers joined the board.”

Zepeda said the funds raised do not go toward paying coaches. Instead, they go to KLS athletics to cover costs like transportation, uniforms, equipment and referees and to kids of the Upper Keys for summer camps and social-emotional education. The board also wants to further expand their support to more children in the community.

“In addition to our athletic donations, over the last year we hired a motivational speaker and we sponsored six local high school and middle schoolers to do summer camps,” said Zepeda.

Tim McCarthy and his dog, Rio, attend the Irish Fest for the first time after recently moving to the Upper Keys. HOLLY HOUSER/Keys Weekly

Caribbean Club’s Irish Festival has donated money to TIPS for the past three years, but its fundraising roots run much further than that. The late Norman Higgins ran the Irish Fest for 15-plus years, donating the money to various local groups and organizations, before handing it off to Zepeda.

“Five years ago, [Norman] sat me down at the Irish Festival and said, ‘I want the money to go back to the kids, but I need new people to come in and take this over,’” explained Zepeda. “He passed away within two months of speaking to me. He’s such a great man, so we wanted to honor him and his wishes, which was giving back to the kids. We got people involved and it’s just grown each year. We thank the community for all their support.”

Join Our Blast – Keys News Right to Your INBOX