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Grassroots heroes

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By Ret Boney

Three people have been named the 2004 winners of the Nancy Susan Reynolds Awards, an honor that includes $25,000, for their work in personal service, race relations and advocacy.

The 19th annual awards, given by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, are named for Nancy Susan Reynolds, one of the foundation’s founders, who believed societal change starts with ordinary people at the grassroots level, the foundation says.

“We’ve heard a lot about values in our country,” says Mary Mountcastle, foundation president and board member.

“Our award winners today embody many of the values we hold dear at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation,” she says, highlighting tolerance equal opportunity and stewardship of natural resources.  “Those are true American values and the foundation of our American democracy.”

Winners receives $5,000 each for personal use and $20,000 to be donated to the nonprofit of their choice.

The award for personal service was presented to Maria Pavon, a Mexican immigrant and outreach counselor for the Coalition for Family Peace in Siler City, for her work helping domestic-violence survivors in the Hispanic community.

Pavon, who speaks only Spanish, was a victim of abuse for several years before seeking help from the coalition, and now is a resource for the group and her community, helping survivors recover and serving as a public speaker locally and throughout North Carolina.

“The community is part of the foundation in my job, in my life,” she says.  “I’m only a part.  I do it with love and care because it is what I hold in my heart.”

Tony Foriest, a retired IBM executive, won the race relations award for his work to close the achievement gap between white and minority students in Alamance County through the Closing the Gap committee, a group he helped found and now co-chairs.

Since the group started four years ago, the percentage of students performing at grade level has increased for all populations, white and minority, and the group hopes to bring nine in 10 of all students to grade level by 2006.

“We are not where we want to be, but we certainly have come a long way,” he says.  “The real winner is the community.  We are better today than we were yesterday.”

The award for advocacy was presented to Burke County native Paul Braun for his eight-year crusade to save Lake James, created by Duke Power in the early 1900’s, from unrestricted development.

Braun challenged, and eventually won over, Duke Energy’s real estate subsidiary using petitions, editorial and letter-writing campaigns and grassroots community organizing, and 9,000 of the lake’s 10,000 acres are due to be publicly owned by early next year.

“A woodpecker don’t get a hold of a tree with two or three pecks,” the self-described “ordinary guy” says of his perseverance.  “You got to keep on peckin’.”

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