Normally when a lawyer describes “laundering money,” they’re describing a criminal act where “dirty money” obtained through wrongful conduct is transformed into funds that cannot be traced to a crime. But when Steve Yerrid explains how he uses his fees paid by wrongdoers, often large corporations, to help others make a positive difference in the world, he means something much different.
“Instead of taking “dirty” money and laundering it, we take money from wrongdoers and “clean” it by giving it to good causes and those in need,” Yerrid says. “Corporations can’t feel pain and suffering. But families certainly can. Whenever we can use that money in that manner, I think that’s a wonderful opportunity to do good and help those less fortunate that simply deserve a fair chance in life. The result we achieved in Florida’s case against Big Tobacco is a great example of the ‘clean laundering’ process.”
The nationally renowned attorney started his charitable work back in the 1970s, cheering up young cancer patients with gifts, “Christmas in July,” and accompanying Bootsy the Clown during frequent visits to hospitals, nursing homes and retirement centers. As Yerrid’s career has developed, he has continued to serve as a modern-day Robin Hood, redistributing many of the resources he’s accumulated from over 300 verdicts and settlements of $1 million or more to people in need. He established the self-funded Yerrid Foundation in the late 1990s, after he served as the youngest member of the “Dream Team,” made up of 11 private trial lawyers hand-picked by the late Governor Lawton Chiles to bring down Big Tobacco. They won a stunning $13 billion settlement along with massive changes in tobacco advertising restrictions that created a societal sea change and resulted in the “Truth” campaign and a drastic decline in cigarette smoking, especially among our youth.
Yerrid used part of his fee to expand both the magnitude as well as the scope of his philanthropy. The Yerrid Foundation has become familiar to many in the Tampa Bay area through its annual Grand Slam Fishing Tournament, held for the benefit of pediatric cancer research and helping families fight this dreaded disease. The event has raised millions of dollars as it enters its 22nd year.
Additionally, in partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning, The Yerrid Foundation created the annual Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Night. Virtually every cancer organization in the area participates and, at least for that special evening, there is no competition for charitable dollars. Instead, the organizations all come together to promote awareness of the vital need to fight cancer and show support and appreciation for this essential quest. Now entering its 22nd year, the Lightning-Yerrid partnership has hosted over 100,000 people as their guests. The partnership has joined in supplying hockey tickets, food, beverages, shirts and illuminated bang sticks to cancer victims and their families, as well as their invaluable doctors, nurses and caregivers, so everyone involved can enjoy a great night of hockey.
“I recall many years ago when the Lightning was an expansion team and, frankly, not very good,” Yerrid says. “Attendance was lacking and sell-outs were rare. But then-Lightning president, Ron Campbell, general manager Jay Feaster, and top-notch executive Bill Wickett believed in the partnership, the cause and the value it brought to our community. The Lightning went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2004, and sell-outs became routine. Still, we continued to provide that special night to our very special guests.”
“Fortunately, when Jeff Vinik bought the team, he not only supported the annual event, he embraced it,” Yerrid continues. “In my opinion, Jeff is easily among the best, most charitable, community-supporting owners in all of professional sports. Our friendship aside, I am amazed at what he has done and continues to do for Tampa and its surrounding region. I am particularly grateful for all the support he and the Lightning provide in our fight against cancer. Certainly, the cancer kids and their families have also been a great help to the team. On that special night, the Lightning have only lost one time in over two decades. The players play with amazing inspiration even in the years where the team wasn’t so good. This year, we once again enjoyed the ultimate success when our Lightning won the Stanley Cup.”
While The Yerrid Foundation (and before its creation, Yerrid himself) has primarily focused on pediatric cancer and children’s causes, it has assisted in helping many other efforts as well across the decades. To name a few, it has long supported the Ronald McDonald House, Hooked on Hope (for breast cancer), the American Heart Association, the Crisis Center, the Hillsborough County Bar Association, and the many worthy causes our lawyers support, hurricane relief funds, victims of domestic abuse and on and on. We supported the fight against AIDS in the 1980s, purchased upgraded and modern armor vests provided to the Tampa Police Department for first responders who risk their lives every day to protect our welfare, as well as significant assistance to St. George’s Hospital for Children in Beirut, Lebanon (the home of Yerrid’s paternal grandparents) in dealing with the flood of injured refugee children. His work in that mission earned Yerrid the Lebanese American Man of the Year Award.
“I didn’t anticipate receiving the award before a thousand people in Washington D.C., and sitting with the ambassadors of the United Emirates, Lebanon, as well as other diplomats, celebrities, and leaders from the Georgetown medical community,” Yerrid recalls. “It was an amazing night.”
“The reach of the foundation can be from here to Haiti to Beirut,” Yerrid adds. “It could be to benefit pediatric cancer, help feed those in need, or support our youth by giving them resources and positive direction through such organizations as the Boys & Girls Clubs.”
As a trial lawyer, Yerrid takes on cases that often seek to right a societal wrong, and his family foundation serves the same mission. He finds the areas of need and fills them however he can. So, when the pandemic struck and many Tampa Bay families were in dire straits, Yerrid immediately donated $100,000 to Metropolitan Ministries for COVID relief. This month, the Foundation purchased all of the hot meals that the organization will serve on Thanksgiving Day. For him, those decisions are easy. “It’s a tough time, and a lot of people are finding it particularly difficult,” Yerrid says. “Metropolitan Ministries is one of our premier organizations, and it is an absolute honor and blessing to be in a position to be of some help.”
And that’s just how Steve Yerrid operates. Whether he’s in the courtroom or on the water fishing with pediatric cancer patients, he is always looking for ways to give back. He has dedicated his professional career to serve the cause of equal justice for all.
“I have been blessed with a wonderful life and much success,” he says. “Long ago, I outlived my dreams, and without exception, that has occurred only because I have been fortunate to have the help of others. Through that experience, I learned giving is much more valuable than getting and that we are all in life’s struggles together.”
Here’s more of what Yerrid has to say about giving back, having hope and finding the good in life.
WHAT’S ONE CAUSE YOU’RE ESPECIALLY PASSIONATE ABOUT RIGHT NOW? Given what our soldiers have done and continue to do, I believe we’ve got to help in the reacclimation and treatment of veterans returning home after their service is over. Often, they’ve been serving in hostile territory or safeguarding our interests in other parts of the world. This coming year, I am really excited that we have formed a new partnership for our Grand Slam Fishing Tournament with an organization called Team ADDO. ADDO is Latin and means “to inspire.” We made that connection through my dear friend Wade Boggs, who has co-hosted The Yerrid Foundation’s Grand Slam Fishing Tournament since its beginning over two decades ago. His nephew, James Boggs, is the executive director of Team ADDO and the work he, his brother Wynn, and his folks do for our veterans is simply outstanding.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE CAUSES YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH? Those choices are always difficult because there are so very many worthy causes. It could be almost anything. If I just open my eyes and look, I see many ways to help others. Unfortunately, though we have supported hundreds of organizations, people and causes, I’m not Bill Gates, and our resources are limited. But regardless of wealth no one can give more than anybody else when it comes to our most precious commodity . . . which is time. We give varying amounts of financial support, but we also give our time. That’s the one thing no amount of money can buy, not even one second. When we get involved, we really enjoy doing things that we can see actually see making a difference. There’s really nothing like that feeling.
YOU HAVE MET SOME VERY SPECIAL SPORTS FIGURES, CELEBRITIES AND MANY OTHERS THROUGHOUT THE YEARS. WHO HAS HAD THE MOST IMPACT ON YOU? Many of them for sure, but one young person I’ve made a deep connection with is Connor Hernandez, who I’ve gotten to know through the various cancer organizations. Over a number of years, Connor and his family have been told he is going to die on multiple occasions. He doesn’t believe that, nor does his family, and neither do I. Every year, he shows up at our events. He is a featured “star” of our annual Steve Yerrid Kids’ Fishing Derby. Of course, naming that special day after me was one of the greatest honors I have ever received. Connor attends in his wheelchair, supposedly still under that death sentence, but he is very much alive and well. Connor, and the love and courage shown by his family, inspires me and, most likely, everyone he touches. He’s got two brothers that are like his bodyguards. They go with him everywhere. I’ve watched Josh and Jake since they were young boys. Now they’re young men. His brothers and Tracy, their mother, treat Connor like the warrior he is. He simply won’t quit, and neither will they. He will not give up the fight, not ever. Those are the people in my life who are the real heroes.
Joey Ruiz was another very special person. He was diagnosed with brain cancer and his wish was to travel to Lourdes, France, where there is a spring with holy water that is known throughout the world to provide miracles. Joey told me that he wanted to go there because he didn’t want to leave his mother alone, and he thought the water might change his fate. The young man didn’t care about himself. That is what grabbed my heart. He said, “They tell me I have brain cancer and I’m not going to live, but my mother needs me.” I said, “Well, what people tell you and what happens are not always the same.” Joey quickly said, “That’s why I want to go to Lourdes.” Along with the assistance of Make-a-Wish, I sent him and his mother to Lourdes. They brought me back a bottle of that special water and I still have it, 25 years later. Sometimes, I put the holy water on my forehead and I can actually sense a warmth from within. Joey lived a lot longer than was predicted. I saw him and his mother off at the airport, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. The smile on his face could have lit a thousand Christmas trees. That rocked my world.
WHO DO YOU LOOK TO EMULATE IN YOUR PHILANTHROPY? I was fortunate to have the late George Steinbrenner as a good friend. So many times, I saw him reach out and help people and causes in our community, and almost always, he did those things anonymously. To me, that demonstrated the best of intentions, his wonderful heart, and his willingness to give back without any expectation of receiving any recognition in return. I have known George’s family for a number of years, and I greatly appreciate Mrs. Steinbrenner, Hal, Jenny, and the entire family’s continued support through the New York Yankees being a cornerstone of the contribution to the Boys and Girls Clubs, hospitals and a number of other charities. I also look to the hundreds of volunteers and leaders who work tirelessly for so very many charitable organizations as examples of true dedication to the cause of giving.
THE FOUNDATION’S SIGNATURE ANNUAL EVENT IS THE GRAND SLAM FISHING TOURNAMENT, WHICH YOU HELPED FORMER TAMPA BAY RAYS GENERAL MANAGER CHUCK LAMAR START BACK IN THE LATE 1990S. THAT LED TO YOU RECEIVING A PRETTY SPECIAL AWARD IN 1999. TELL ME ABOUT THE TED WILLIAMS AWARD. Ted Williams, by many accounts, was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. The Ted Williams Award is given out annually to people who have supposedly done something outstanding to help the fight against pediatric cancer. When the Ted Williams Award was given, back when he was alive, Mr. Williams always insisted on personally meeting with the recipient. I drove to Citrus County with Chuck LaMar and Wade Boggs, and we sat down with Mr. Williams for three hours in his kitchen and exchanged fishing stories, and life experiences. Until I saw a photograph hanging on his kitchen wall, I did not realize that during the Korean War, John Glenn, the astronaut and U.S. Senator, was Ted Williams’ wingman. Can you imagine the impact on our history if they had been shot down? Ted Williams and John Glenn were two real American heroes, and I had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Williams himself, and when I worked in the Senate while attending Georgetown Law, John Glenn as well. Those are wonderful memories and tremendous honors that I will never forget.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT WAS THE MOST MEANINGFUL HONOR YOU’VE RECEIVED RELATED TO YOUR PHILANTHROPIC WORK? I cannot say. There have been just too many meaningful and deeply valued moments in my life. One of the most meaningful honors I’ve ever received was when my man Connor looked up with tears in his eyes and he put his hand on my cheek. That was as special as it gets. Then there was another young man named Ovi Mendez. I was at one of our annual fishing events after Ovi got cancer. His father was a pediatrician and both of us ended up at another event many years later. Dr. Mendez was telling this story about watching his son waiting to cross the street outside the Vinoy, where a children’s fishing tournament was being held. I guess Ovi was waiting for his dad or mom to get him in the car, but I didn’t realize that at the time because no one else seemed to be around and he looked very weak. I asked him if he wanted a “ride,” and I put him on top of my shoulders and carried him across the street and up three flights of steps. He was very sick and weakened by cancer. I was listening to the father tell this story all these years later. Ovi had successfully gone through treatment and his cancer went into remission. He went on to graduate with honors and achieved a perfect 4.0 average from Jesuit High School. It was during his father’s speech that I learned the cancer came back and killed him. His father was talking about an act of kindness that he had witnessed, and I didn’t realize he was talking about me at first. He had seen me give Ovi that ride and never said a word. That was immensely impactful to hear such an unexpected story of life’s hidden blessings.
The trophies and the public recognition, those are nice and I appreciate them all. But the best honor comes from seeing the joy in a person’s eyes when they realize they’re not alone. That we are all in this fight together. To me, that’s the trophy. That’s the award. That’s the goal: to make people believe in themselves, give them help, take away the loneliness, and provide hope.
WHAT DOES “HOPE” MEAN TO YOU? My definition of hope is believing something great can happen even though all objective evidence tells you it cannot. When you can give people hope, you give them a world where dreams can come true. With hope and the right amount of love, it’s amazing what can occur. The people at my law firm and our family foundation know that the people who say it can’t be done are all on the other side of my door. The people inside my door do not tell me it cannot be done. They help me figure out a way to do it. “Can’t” is not a word we use. It’s not a concept that I accept. We can all make a difference, and I firmly believe there’s good in life and if you look hard enough, you can find it.
WHAT DO YOU TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR WORK WITH THE YERRID FOUNDATION? Whenever I look around and say, it’s too bad that didn’t happen, or I’m disappointed about this or that, it doesn’t stay with me very long. I see all the people who have real problems. Getting your car dented? That’s not a real problem. Getting a cancer diagnosis or losing a loved one… Now those are real problems. It’s hard not to appreciate life if you just walk outside and look. Look anywhere. Life is full of blessings and full of goodness. You can find bad in life as well, but who wants to look for that? I seek to find the good, and I have rarely been disappointed.