After careful consideration, these 25 nominees were chosen to be the 2017 Allen & Allen Hometown Heroes because of their untiring commitment to helping others.
Travis Bell credits his father as his inspiration, who was an example “to work closely with members of my community and to give hope to others.” He carries on the family tradition as the director of child care and leader of the praise dance ministry at New Bridge Baptist Church, and also helps provide meals to those in need as part of the Inspire Outreach program. An instrumental part of the Highland Springs community, Travis serves as mentor and coach for several sports teams, including the Glen Lea Lions football team and the East End Youth Basketball organization. He believes that “every child should have somebody outside of their parents that they can look up to for motivation,” and that “everyone has a purpose, and this is my calling.”
Fonda Bell is a tireless advocate for homeless animals in Nelson County, Virginia, where she is a board member of Almost Home Pet Adoption Center. Over the years she has fostered hundreds of dogs and worked with Nelson County's Animal Control Department to make sure every adoptable dog finds a safe, secure, and permanent home. “So many people are not able to devote their lives to their passion but I’m blessed to able to do that. My favorites are the super shy puppies, seeing them not scared and friendly around people means a great deal to me. I always tell people, when you adopt a shelter animal, you’re saving two lives, the one you just adopted and the one you just made room for.”
Jim Darin has a love of sports and is active in youth and church programs in the Charlottesville community. For more than 25 years, he has volunteered his time as a coach for several local teams and sports leagues, including Monticello High School. During the summer, he travels to the Dominican Republic where he serves as a coach and language tutor for a baseball camp. “What keeps me going is that I want to build a better future for those who come after me. I enjoy the fact that I’m able to see my players grow from boys into men. They come back and visit with me from time to time and to hear them say the lessons I taught them are helping in their lives, means a lot to me.”
Jenny Derr helps facilitate a local support group for those who have loved ones suffering from substance use disorders. After losing her son to substance use disorder in 2016, Jenny began to share his story in hopes that other families could be spared the pain of losing a child to this disease. “It’s important to me that people understand what this disease is and who it impacts. This disease doesn’t discriminate.” She passes on her knowledge through speaking engagements at schools, helping parents and teens to understand the dangers of substance use. “Educating people is the only way we’re going to do something about this.”
Vincent Ellis White
Vincent Ellis White is a motivational speaker, activist, and author whose passion for addressing fatherlessness and empowering others led him to write his memoir "Finding Chris, My Father", which has gained national recognition for its impact and has also been adapted into a stage play. He takes an active role in the educational, social, and emotional development of youth in the Richmond community and is dedicated to helping others achieve in the wake of adversity. “Finding my father inspired me to reach out to members of my community who could relate to my story. I became an advocate for fathers and those who experience fatherlessness because I want to uplift fragmented families. I tell them my story so they don’t feel so isolated.”
Brandon Farbstein, a 17-year-old from Glen Allen, is dedicated to helping others expand perspectives and defy limits through motivational speaking. Diagnosed with a rare form of dwarfism at age two, he has an incredible perspective on the world. In 2015, Brandon gave an RVA TedTalk that launched his career as a motivational speaker. Since then, Brandon has contributed over 50 hours to speaking to nonprofit organizations, professional business groups, youth, and senior citizens about the beauty of embracing those who are different, thriving in spite of negative circumstances, and the immense power of one person. “My goal is to empower, inspire, and impact people every day. I just want people to realize that you can overcome anything, if you want to. Don’t let people tell you otherwise. It is truly amazing what people are capable of.”
Mike Lee created MAKING MEN, an after-school program that focuses on character building, education and etiquette training for boys at Bellevue Elementary in Richmond. A volunteer with Big Brothers, he serves as a mentor for underprivileged children in Richmond City Schools. Blind since the age of 24, Mike uses this experience to teach youth how to face adversity and realize their potential. “I grew up in a single parent home and saw the work that my mother did as a social worker and that gives me the motivation to work with children in similar circumstances. I share my story of overcoming adversity to inspire others to reach their full potential.”
Debbie Leidheiser serves as the Senior Advocate in Chesterfield County, where she provides information and resources to Chesterfield’s senior citizens, their family members, and caregivers. She says, “I enjoy helping others, particularly retired people. Trying to help people find solutions along their journey, whatever it may be, is my passion.” During her tenure, Debbie has established several programs including the Kinship Connection, a support group for grandparents and other relatives raising a child. She also founded the Lifelong Learning Institute, a Chesterfield organization that provides educational, fitness, and social programs for senior citizens.
After a friend’s child was diagnosed with cancer, Andie McConnell founded the Fairy Godmother Project, a nonprofit in Fredericksburg that aims to alleviate stress from caregivers, families, and patients of pediatric cancer. Andie is dedicated to helping families through the struggle of cancer treatment, providing financial, emotional, and daily life support. “I saw these families had no support and I wanted to change that and make them feel whole again.” Her services range from household chores and grocery shopping, to offering financial assistance with medical bills, but she hopes it does a whole lot more. “I want to inspire people to see that you can change things that are wrong in this world. Find the drive to change it. That’s what I tell my kids.”
Inspired by her mother, an RN, Anna McRay has dedicated herself to emergency medical services and emergency management for more than 30 years. She started at the Henrico Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program as a volunteer coordinator before becoming the Virginia Department of Emergency Management's state CERT coordinator, leading this outreach program for all of Virginia. Anna is passionate about community outreach and educating residents and business organizations about disaster preparedness. “Protecting my family, serving the community, and being a good resource to help people be prepared is what drives me.”
Karen Mick works to help women obtain access to health care by volunteering at Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services (GFCFS). She was instrumental in the development of the Well Woman Program, which provides free women's healthcare services, including breast exams. Seeing seven of her friends struggle with the diagnosis motivated her to teach others about the importance of early detection. “Having friends that beat the disease has driven me, and working with a great team makes it that much easier.” Through her advocacy, Karen has helped hundreds of women get mammograms, and for those diagnosed, has supported them through their treatment.
Pam Mines is a passionate advocate for her son and for families who are part of the special needs community. After working with Autism Walks, she was motivated to establish the JP Jumpers Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on bridging the gap between children who have special needs and children who do not. “I want to make sure the Autism and Special Needs community is considered, respected, and remembered. That is what motivates me to be a voice for them.” Her advocacy efforts led to the creation of a law in 2014 that allows individuals to voluntarily add an innocuous code to their Virginia issued driver's license or identification card noting they have an intellectual disability, which will help police officers interact with drivers from the special needs community and better understand behaviors these drivers exhibit during interactions.
Though only 12 years old, Martina Myers already understands the importance of volunteering and the positive impact she makes through her work. “I volunteer so much because I believe I’m doing what God has put me here to do…I don’t expect anything in return.” An activist for the autistic community and victims of domestic violence, she is an ambassador for the National Autism Awareness Foundation and the youngest member ever to be selected for the Autism Society of Northern Virginia's summer training program. A motivated example for her peers, Martina also takes an active role in the Fredericksburg community, volunteering her time at animal rescue shelters and working with senior citizens.
Jim and Susan Nagy
Jim and Susan Nagy coordinate the Buck Mountain Food Pantry, a food donation service through Buck Mountain Episcopal Church. The BMFP also distributes non-food necessities including toilet paper, hygiene products, and toothpaste to over 100 families monthly in the Earlysville community and surrounding areas, providing food for more than 200 individuals. Northern Virginia transplants, the Nagys wanted to give back to a community that has been so welcoming to them. “Knowing that there’s always more you can do to help those in need really motivates us.” They have this inspirational advice for other people who want to make a change in their community—“You don’t have to do something big, go volunteer at your own pace because you don’t know who will be impacted by your work.”
Angela Patton is the founder of Camp Diva and the CEO of Girls for a Change, a nonprofit that enables African American girls and other girls of color to create social change in their own communities. Her primary focus is to address the lack of opportunities and resources in minority communities. “I am a champion for my girls and I want to give my girls access to the world and the world access to them. I hope my journey makes it easier for others, just like Harriet Tubman did for me. Hopefully, my work makes a difference.” It must be, as the Obama Administration named Angela a White House Champion of Change. And we call her a Hometown Hero.
Pat Payne, a former ER nurse, founded Farmville’s Heart of Virginia Free Clinic in 2012, and currently serves as its Executive Director. The clinic provides compassionate, quality health care at little or no charge to low-income, uninsured Virginians in Prince Edward and the surrounding counties—in fact, it is the only free clinic in South Central Virginia. To date, the Heart of Virginia Free clinic has served almost 400 patients with over 2,000 office visits. Pat wants others to understand how important this sort of clinic is. “I hope that people hear this and learn more about free clinics. I truly believe they are a big factor in helping solve America’s healthcare issues.”
After 16-year-old Kalista Pepper saw the effects of Alzheimer's on her great grandmother and grandfather, she was determined to educate other teens about this disease. Working locally, she started an ALZ Awareness Group to educate her fellow classmates at Glen Allen High School. “I do this work for my grandfather. Seeing the horrible, horrible effects it has had on my family made me realize that it was necessary for me to get involved.” She recently gave a speech at the “Reason to Hope” ALZ fundraiser, alongside the Richmond Mayor, telling her story in hopes of raising awareness and compassion for those suffering from this disease. “One third of the population will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at some point of their life and we need to fight for a cure.”
Retired Navy Seal Al Quist helps coordinate the Mobile Food Pantry and the Bread of Life food distribution service for local Scottsville churches, where he organizes food pickups, volunteer training, and registration for the pantry and distribution center. Always one to stay busy, he tutors at-risk elementary students, and recently, Al assisted in building the new storage facility at the Southside Health Clinic. He explains his desire to serve his community by saying, “Throughout my life I have been inspired by many people who have taught me that we are all brothers and sisters and it is our responsibility to help one another. There are so many opportunities to serve and we all have something to offer.”
Joey Reinhardt has volunteered for the Tappahannock-Essex Rescue and Volunteer Fire Departments for the past 30 years and is currently serving as the President. His leadership as director of the Tornado Response Team during the February 2016 storm led TEVFD to receive the 2016 Governor's Award. He views volunteering as a choice that is easy to make. “Volunteering doesn’t cost you anything but time and makes an impact on so many people. It doesn’t matter if you live in a rural, suburban, or urban area; there are always opportunities to give back to your community.” Joey also supports his community in many other ways, including hanging the American flags down Main Street for holidays, donating at blood drives, and cutting grass and clearing snow from driveways for elderly residents.
Brian and Susan Rich
Brian and Susan Rich are the founders of A Grateful Nation, an organization that has supported military troops worldwide for more than a decade. They collect donations from businesses throughout their Chesterfield community and send them to troops overseas—and have managed to send more than 1,000 donations since they started. Brian and Susan are adamant that troops know how much patriots back home support and care about them, and are proof that sometimes making a difference takes perseverance. “You might get doors slammed on you at first but if you just do it, eventually someone will realize how important what you want to do is and you start making a difference. The feeling of helping others makes the challenge worth it.”
Ryan Rinn is the Executive Director for Storefront for Community Design, a nonprofit organization that improves the quality of life in the City of Richmond through planning and design. What started as a school project for Ryan evolved into a full-time passion to revitalize the Richmond neighborhood of Highland Park. During Ryan’s tenure, Storefront has been named “Best in Community Development” and “Best in Urban Planning” by Richmond Magazine.
Gabe and Sonya Silver
Gabe and Sonya Silver established the Rivanna River Company in 2015, where they provide tour guides and outfitting services with the goal of helping the Charlottesville community learn about and explore the Rivanna River. As part of this effort, they organize river-oriented events, including trash clean-up days, to make sure they are doing their part to protect and preserve this natural resource. They take as much inspiration from others who volunteer as from their own passions. “People are doing amazing work and we are learning so much from them. There is a lot of bad news out there, so it is great that all of this good news is being spread.”
Kelly Sydnor is the founder of RollwithCole, an organization that fosters active, healthy, accessible, and mobile lifestyles for the physically challenged within the Commonwealth of Virginia. As a full-time caregiver, she provides round-the-clock support to her son, Cole, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2011. Both she and Cole are community advocates for those with spinal cord injuries and participate annually in fundraising and awareness efforts for Sheltering Arms Rehab Institute, Sportable, United Spinal Association of Virginia, and VCU Health. Drawing from her own experiences, she says, “I want people to realize that if they suffer a traumatic injury and are in a chair, it is not the end of the world. Life is not over. You can live a beautiful life in a chair.”
Marcy Williams has been a Richmond youth mentor for more than a decade, and is the founder KaKY (Kollege and Kareer 4 Youth), a program that provides upcoming college students with resources for college preparation, job readiness, and life skills. Marcy has hosted several social media safety, financial literacy, and sex trafficking workshops to ensure youth and their families have the information they need to be safe and successful. In recognition of her efforts and community leadership, Marcy received the Metro Business League Community Service Award in 2015. In 2017, her organization received the Metropolitan Business League's Non-Profit of the Year award. Her giving spirit is evident when she says, “The real heroes to me are youth that are underserved and go unnoticed. I think they are courageous when they come to me and ask for help. They make me a better person.”
Jenny Witteborg, MaryRose Gonzalez, and Sallie Mae Pauley
Jenny Witteborg, MaryRose Gonzalez, and Sallie Mae Pauley are Fredericksburg advocates for language equality through LEAD-K, a nonprofit organization that aims to ensure pre-Kindergarten deaf children have language skills before entering school. Jenny, MaryRose, and Sallie Mae work tirelessly presenting to educational groups and state legislators, and also work closely with advocates at the Federal level. Jenny, MaryRose, and Sallie Mae are passionate about bringing equal language awareness to the hearing community, and determined to make a difference. “Despite the work that we have been doing so far, we're still not done. We have a lot of work to do to try and get this bill passed in the 2018 General Assembly Session, and if it doesn't, we will keep at it every year until it does pass.”
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