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Mason Dixon Award for Volunteerism

One person can make an extraordinary difference. These award nominees were culled from an online poll driven by votes from the general public in the WEDU PBS viewing area. This honor will be bestowed upon the individual, family or group that has lent a unique voice to bring awareness, credence, support, or action to an issue or cause faced by our citizens and thus making a tremendous impact within an organization in our community. Local media personality, Mason Dixon, will ultimately choose and present the award to the most deserving recipient from top nominees that receive the most online support during the voting period.

Read the essays for each nominee.

NOTE: The essays below have not been edited and are presented as originally shared by the author. They may contain grammatical or spelling errors.


GTE Financial

Brian Best leads by example in all that he does, and that extends to his good work in the community. Brian volunteers and donates to a handful of charities he truly cares about, but also supports those causes cherished by both credit union employees and members. He initiated a Monthly Charity Project where GTE Financial collaboratively chooses a nonprofit making a difference in our community and fundraises to help support them. Last year alone, under his leadership, Brian helped GTE Financial raise $610,000 for multiple charities around Tampa Bay, and GTE Financial employees volunteered over 4,000 hours in service as a part of this program. This program has helped more than a dozen local charities, including Southeastern Guide Dogs, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, Tighten the Drag Foundation, YMCA, Life Link, Trinity Café, Boys & Girls Club, Eckerd Kids, A Brighter Community, American Heart Association, Wheels of Success and Make Hope Real Project. GTE Financial’s great work with the charities was highlighted by a visit from Hayden. A 10-year old that was in a terrible car crash when he was six, leaving him a quadriplegic. Hayden wanted to meet the great people that helped him with his recovery, so he went visited GTE Financial’s headquarters. GTE Financial donated $35,000 to the Florida-based Tighten the Drag Foundation to help Hayden. Another great example of Brian’s philosophy occurred during the 2017 hurricane season. He encouraged his team to move fast to ensure help for those affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria both in Tampa Bay and in Puerto Rico. Since many affected by Irma were left without power for days, Brian provided a safe space and a hot meal for employees and their families. Brian’s leadership has had a profound impact on GTE Financial employees wanting to give back and do more.

NOPE of Hillsborough

In 2008, Cathy Valdes lost her only child to a prescription drug overdose. This devastating experience led her to establish the Michael Valdes Foundation and to partner with NOPE (Narcotics Overdose Prevention Education) in bringing awareness of this epidemic to the students and families of our community. As NOPE of Hillsborough’s Chapter President, Cathy shares her emotional story of Michael’s addiction and accidental overdose death to educate other students and parents about the dangers of substance abuse that can happen to anyone. Cathy and her husband fought tirelessly to hold responsible those at the top of the pill mill chain to help other families avoid the loss of a loved one from a prescription pill overdose. Cathy has been instrumental in establishing the close partnership that exists between NOPE and Hillsborough County Public Schools which has allowed the NOPE chapter to reach more than 130,000 students with the NOPE stories of local teens dying way too young from a substance-related death and the NOPE messages of how this generation of youth can help break the cycle of addiction and accidental overdose deaths. Every middle school and high school student is learning about the 911 Good Samaritan Law that is helping save lives across the area. They are also learning about the dangers of vaping. . For three years Cathy has designated an annual scholarship from The Michael Valdes Foundation to go to a Hillsborough County student who exemplifies the characteristics of an ambassador for decreasing youth substance abuse. The hope is that this recipient of the scholarship will continue the good work of NOPE in the community. Cathy’s legacy will be to have helped shape the lives of the youth of our community to a more productive life free of substance abuse, thereby honoring the memory of her child.

Building on Frameworks’ social and emotional learning (SEL) programming from pre-K to 8th grade, Teens In Action (TIA) is a civic engagement and leadership development program for high school students. The 23 students in Frameworks’ 2019-2020 TIA cohort join more than 350 teens who have been positively impacted by the program since its inception in 2010. “I have learned how excited you can get…when you connect with…the people you are helping…It really is not even community service at this point anymore, I just love going there every day.” – from a 2019 Teens In Action Graduate Throughout the year, monthly workshops focus on building social and emotional skills that students then apply in their weekly community service volunteer activities, at home, and at school. The TIA program has added four new service sites for a total of ten partner organizations this year, including: Cornerstone Kids, Feeding Tampa Bay, The Florida Aquarium, Stageworks Theatre, Teen Court at the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court, Community Stepping Stones, Dress for Success, The Spring of Tampa Bay, United Way Suncoast Reading Pals, and the Collaboratory Preparatory Academy. Each teen earns a minimum of 80 community service hours during the program year. SEL education and skills-building offered through programs like Teens in Action contribute to higher graduation rates, reduced high-risk behaviors, and fewer school disciplinary referrals. The combined economic impact of 1,911 hours served by the 26 teens in the 2018-2019 cohort is estimated at an impressive $48,596. The ripple effect of their program activities extends to the clients of the agencies where teens perform their community service. Frameworks was selected as a 2019-2020 project partner with Tampa Connection, a leadership development program for young professionals, who will create a marketing and PR plan to expand the TIA program to reach more teens and increase diversity.

Feeding Pasco’s Elderly works to ensure that no senior is left forgotten or hungry. Pasco County has nearly over 150,000 seniors, many of which are no longer able-bodied and able to properly take care of their day-to-day needs. 16% of the county’s elderly do not know where there next meal will come from – that is why Feeding Pasco’s Elderly was formed. Based on a mission to ensure that no senior is left forgotten or hungry, a team of dedicated volunteers personally delivers meals to the hungry elderly throughout the county. The organization has no employees, with 100% of the contributions being directly passed through to those who desperately need this vital help. With no employees, Feeding Pasco’s Elderly has served nearly 8 million meals to the hungry elderly throughout the county. Without this program, many hidden and forgotten seniors will be left alone, hungry, and filled with doubt about when they will eat next. That is why I believe Feeding Pasco’s Elderly should be awarded through their efforts to Be More Involved, as an organization that has brought awareness, support, and vital action to feed Pasco’s hidden hungry.

The Kind Mouse Productions, Inc.

THE KIND MOUSE PRODUCTIONS, INC., fondly referred to as The Kind Mouse, helps fight food insecurity and chronic child hunger in Pinellas County. Their mission is “To assist families in transition and their chronically hungry children while developing the next generation of volunteers to carry on the mission of The Kind Mouse. No hardworking individual and their family should ever go hungry.” The Kind Mouse provides an essential community service by kindly and quietly serving food, kindness and hope to low- and no-income individuals and families who do not have the financial means to provide for the basic day-to-day needs of their children. Since 2012, The Kind Mouse has filled more than 300,000 hungry tummies in the following ways. Evelyn Nakelski is a valued and indispensable volunteer and supporter. With her wonderful smile and shining eyes, she has been a Godsend to The Kind Mouse. Evelyn is always cheerful and willing to lend a hand in so many different ways including public speaking, event planning, assisting the children’s outreach programs, packing food, delivering food, picking up food, organizing food drives, organizing the pantry, food ordering, running 50/50’s, selling tickets, making phone calls, working on the donor management system, taking photos, general back office work, serving on the Advisory Board, and assisting with social media and pantry organization. Because of Evelyn’s passion, commitment, hard work and generous heart, The Kind Mouse has distributed over 83,000 pounds of food to individuals and partner agencies. This equates to 70,000 meals valued at over $145,000. Additionally, Evelyn has helped generate over $10,000 in contributions by selling event chances and influencing donors to contribute to the cause. Evelyn has made this community a better place by enabling little children to go to bed with full tummies and easing the heavy hearts of their parents.

Julie Weintraub’s Hands Across the Bay

Julie Weintraub founded Hands Across the Bay in 2010 for the purpose of providing stabilization to families in crisis to no fault of their own. She takes each individual under her “mama bear” wings and guides them back on the road to success and independence, emotionally and financially. Julie’s volunteer work doesn’t stop there. Many of the families she takes under her wings have fallen victim to domestic violence or horrific assault. Julie stands next to these survivors in court as they fight for life sentences for their abusers. She spends many days and nights encouraging these families and giving them the guidance and support needed to courageously face their abusers in court. If she is not advocating along side domestic violence survivors in court, she is trying to change laws as how our society views violence as a whole. She is passionate and will not back down until our world has a different view on violence, especially against women. Another passion of Julie’s is her Random Acts of Kindness Program where Hands Across the Bay “Kindness Warriors” spread love, kindness, and positivity back into our community. She loves to bring smiles to perfect strangers’ faces to remind them that someone, somewhere in this world cares about them and their ability to overcome any obstacles. She goes out of her way to pay for someone’s coffee or hand out supplies during hurricane preparation. Her goal is to bring positivity back into everyday. Julie is able to do all of this volunteer work because of her and her husband, Steve’s kind and charitable hearts. Together they own Gold & Diamond Source, which donates Hands Across The Bay’s office space and two employee salaries! All of Julie’s time dedicated assisting the families touched by Hands Across the Bay is 100% volunteered.

Pinellas County Neighborly Services, Meals on Wheels

It is with great pleasure that I nominate Robert (Bob) Muller for the WEDU Be More Award for volunteerism. For more than 25 years, Bob has been committed to delivering hot nutritious meals to homebound seniors for Pinellas County Neighborly Services. Delivering meals sounds like an easy chore, but that’s not the case. Homebound seniors can present the most interesting challenges: they might reject the delivery; they aren’t always home or they may be waiting somewhere else; they want you to pet their cat; they want you to stay and listen to them gossip about the people down the hall; the elevator taking you to their 11th floor apartment breaks down with you in it; or they want you to bring the food into their home while they are sitting there naked! They may have fallen and be injured; even dead. Over the course of 25 years, Bob has seen it all and has approached every delivery with humor, unwavering patience, and gentle grace. Nothing keeps Bob down. When he was injured in a motorcycle accident, he sought help from his friends and co-workers with deliveries. Bob’s good friend Walt Jaap signed on, and together with their team, they deliver the goods and even expanded their involvement. Every week Bob coordinates his team to organize both his and Walt’s delivery routes. Getting things together is not always easy because ideally each delivery route needs two people to load the meals into the vehicle, sort them, and deliver them to the recipient, get signatures, and many times includes hiking up and down more than a few flights of stairs. Through Bob’s extraordinary commitment to homebound seniors and their need for food assistance, he has demonstrated that his efforts are genuine and far-reaching, making him deserving of this nomination.

The Kind Mouse Productions, Inc.

Through the use of video, Kind Mouse volunteer Stan Wilkins has assisted in filling over 300,000 local hungry little tummies in 7 years. Stan is a seasoned freelance television videographer with an Emmy under his belt who loves to share his knowledge with The Kind Mouse Outreach Groups Mice In Training (ages 5-12) and Mice Interns (ages 13-18). Through an intense video course so cleverly called MOUSEVision, Stan is teaching this dynamic compassionate group of children to write, produce, direct, act in and edit their own Kind Mouse awareness videos as well as shoot website commercials for local businesses. Stan has a passion for The Kind Mouse and the chronically hungry children of Pinellas County. Knowing there are children who do not have food outside of school breaks his heart. He loves the uniqueness of the charity that has Kids Feeding Kids – Outreach students who are learning how to run a nonprofit and to provide food and hope for those less fortunate. These young future leaders are the next generation of influencers in the fight against childhood hunger. Stan recognizes and respects that these children are our future. When Stan is not shooting video, he works endless hours at The Kind Mouse pantry loading and unloading food, delivering food to those in need as well as general repairs in the pantry. For the past 7 and ½ years Stan has been a face of The Kind Mouse. He networks for the Kind Mouse, sits on the board of directors and advisory board. He attends galas and assists with all Kind Mouse events. On average Stan volunteers 15 hours a week all with a smile on his face.

Children First

Tom Cook has been a steadfast supporter of Children First since 2007, and a volunteer since 2010. He took a tour with his wife, Kathy, and when a little boy ran right up to him and grabbed onto his leg, not wanting to let go, the rest became history. For the last nine years, Mr. Cook has been a constant companion for hundreds of the children and families we serve. Head Start learners in the Purple Crayon classroom refer to him fondly as “Mr. Tom” and eagerly look forward to their weekly “Tom Tuesday” visits. There, you will find him reading stories, interacting with children in learning centers, or helping out on the playground. Mr. Cook is known by our children to be the best and highest swing-pusher around. Mr. Cook is a stand-out volunteer, providing myriad types of support as needed, from event logistics to assisting teachers in the classroom. He is often one of the only volunteers to attend full-day staff trainings, and gives generously of his time at off-site events. He can always be counted on for a smile and a “can-do” attitude. His belief in education, giving back to the community, and sharing of knowledge with young people and children has inspired many. He worked at NASA as a computer scientist, and with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, he spent several years teaching chemistry to nursing students, which he credits with seeing the value of education for those without immediate opportunities. Through his philanthropic sponsorship of classes at Children First’s Families First Institute, such as Nurturing Dads and English for Speakers of Other Languages, Mr. Cook brings direct impact to hundreds of families. “When we were away for two weeks, I missed the kids so much. The kids are really important to me. I love them!”

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