Volunteers honored for selfless commitment to improve their communities

By Jill Warren Lucas

Last month, Philanthropy Journal invited readers across America to submit nominations to recognize outstanding volunteers in their communities in recognition of National Volunteer Appreciation Week, April 21-27. We wanted to know about the people that nonprofits count on to make good things happen as part of an overall mission to effect positive social change.

We posted stories to our subscribers and several reminders on our social media pages. We reached out to volunteer services coordinators in every state. And we were grateful when so many of you – as volunteers are wont to do – shared the call for entries through your own networks.

Faculty and staff of the Institute for Nonprofits, of which Philanthropy Journal is a program, were thrilled by the positive response that this first-time effort generated. Along with colleagues from partner institutions, we read and were moved by each nomination.

It was not an easy task to narrow the field, but we finally did. Below please find honorees recognized as Philanthropy Journal’s Volunteer of the Year, Exceptional Volunteer and Honorable Mention Volunteer.

Each honoree will receive a certificate recognizing their accomplishment, which we hope will be celebrated during National Volunteer Appreciation Week by their respective agencies and communities. Please join us in commending and thanking them for serving as models of selfless commitment and compassion.

All-volunteer nonprofit located in North Carolina

Philanthropy Journal Volunteer of the Year Rose Greene is the volunteer coordinator and vice chairwoman of the board of Feed My Sheep of Durham, a nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate hunger among the diverse citizens of Durham County.

Through its food bank and community partnerships – many of them built by Greene – Feed My Sheep provides meals, nutritional  education and social interaction to vulnerable citizens, including those who are homeless or have no family. The organization also provides access to health screenings and emergency medical care and services for at-risk teenage mothers and their babies.

Nominated by Program Director Herbert Johnson, Greene is hailed as “the driving force behind this operation.” Coordinating the support of 75 volunteers comes easily to Greene, who works a full-time job and cares for her own family while making her community a top priority.

In 2004, the organization began serving 3,500 citizens.  “In 2008, with Mrs. Greene’s help, we served 8,000 families hot meals and groceries,” Johnson says.  “Today, because of her and her volunteers, we serve over 30 percent of Northeast Central Durham.”

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, Johnson estimated that Greene’s team will serve nearly 3,200 volunteer hours. He added that Greene’s commitment makes her a constant in the lives of young people who may have never experienced having a caring adult in their life.

“Mrs. Greene assists young people in correcting their lives and often takes them into her home for short periods of time while helping them get their life on track again,” Johnson says, adding she even has cared for young babies while the mothers receive services. “Mrs. Rose Greene is a blessing to our community.”

Nonprofit with paid staff located in North Carolina

Philanthropy Journal Volunteer of the Year Billy Honeycutt became a founder of the Rutherford Housing Partnership (RHP) in 1995 and has served on its board of directors, most often as president (his current role), ever since. RHP provides urgently needed repairs to the homes of low-income county residents – most often senior or disabled adults living on fixed incomes. RHP provides materials; volunteers provide labor.

According to Nell Perry Bovender, RHP Executive Director, Honeycutt leads by example. “He enjoys nothing more than putting on his overalls, getting out his hammer, and going to work,” she says. “He has become known in Rutherford County as the go-to man for volunteer roof labor, and he has turned dozens of unskilled men and women – even teens – into confident construction repair teams.”

Bovender says he guides with “quiet yet contagious confidence, without embarrassing or judging anyone.”  He also cooks for and cleans up after spaghetti fundraisers, a task he embraced in 2000, before RHP had paid staff.

Honeycutt’s commitment has helped to grow RHP while reducing the number of substandard houses in Rutherford County. While it once aspired to 10 repair projects annually, it involved 600 volunteers to repair 87 homes in 2012. He also leads a core group that speaks to groups and participates in fundraisers to ensure that RHP can meet the needs of its community.

“He never expects anyone to do something that he himself would not do,” Bovender says.  “Billy’s work with RHP is making a difference in lives – lives of poor homeowners and lives of volunteers whose eyes are opening to the world around them. His personal service causes others to take more seriously their responsibilities to those in need throughout their community.”

Philanthropy Journal Exceptional Volunteer Rich Van Tassel is a guiding force behind the success of Operation: Coming Home, a joint volunteer project of the Triangle Real Estate and Construction Veterans Association and members of the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Raleigh-Wake County. The program’s goal is to benefit local military service members who were severely wounded in combat by “fulfilling his or her family’s desire to live the American dream of home ownership.”

“We needed a builder to donate considerable time and money for this new project amid a poor housing market left many homebuilders struggling to stay afloat financially,” says HBA Executive Director Tim Minton. “Rich gladly took the risk, wanting to help veterans returning from service re-adjust to civilian life. He knew that setting a precedent for community service by completing an exceptional home for a soldier in need would result in other committed vendors contributing to the program’s long-term success.”

Minton says Van Tassell goes above and beyond by providing families with costly customized features that allow accessibility for disabled veterans, such as wider doorways, kitchens and bathrooms, and lower counters and light switches. Operation: Coming Home’s first recipient, Joey Bozik, who lost both legs and an arm in an explosion while serving with the Army in Iraq, spoke glowingly of the work Rich and his team accomplished when he received the keys to his home in 2008, saying, “This is the final piece that will allow my wife and I to put the injury behind us.”

“Rich is one of the most determined individuals I have ever met,” Minton says. “He is focused on making his dreams a reality, and refuses to take no for an answer as he pursues his vision.”

Because judges were so impressed by this category, which generated the greatest number of submissions, Philanthropy Journal also recognizes the following volunteers with Honorable Mention Awards: 


All-volunteer nonprofit located outside of North Carolina Philanthropy Journal Youth Volunteer of the Year Leo Coltrane Kivell stands out as an effective advocate for the poor and hungry in Philadelphia.  “Though only 17, his support for St. Peter’s Food Cupboard (SPFC) is longstanding and deeply significant,” says program director Kathryn Dunn. “Year in and year out, he’s raised thousands of dollars, helping SPFC double its program, feed more people and buy a commercial fridge to add healthy fresh produce.”

Kivell’s highly active volunteerism includes lugging crates of canned goods from the church basement to the pantry. He’s there just after dawn each Saturday morning to hand out food to families and elderly immigrants, with whom he feels a deep connection.

Kivell was born into poverty and spent his first two years in a Moscow orphanage. His compassion and empathy were evident early in life as he sought ways to help others who were poor or sick. “The first time he was confronted with a pile of birthday gifts, he opened one, then gave the rest to his guests,” Dunn says. “Leo’s a born sharer.”

Since age 6, Kivell has donated 20 percent of his allowance to charity or church. He suffers from joint pain but does not let it stop him for participating in fundraising walks or toting food supplies to needy families. He also has traveled extensively to help those less fortunate, including service trips to post-Katrina New Orleans and Guatemala; this summer, he will go to Haiti.

Philanthropy Journal Volunteer of the Year Rebel J. Morris  is “tirelessly focused, with her heart and her brain engaged at all times, and dedicated to the plight of America’s unidentified,” says Terri Ann Palumbo of the founder and executive director of Can You Identify Me? (CYIM).

Morris launched the Las Vegas-based project in 2007 as a blog, “giving over a thousand of the 40,000 American unidentified victims a voice and temporary name,” says Palumbo, a former producer of TV’s America’s Most Wanted who now serves as president of the CYIM Board of Directors. The website quickly grew from a few hundred views a month to thousands a month by 2010.

Inspired by Mary Weir, a mother who experienced the horror of looking through photos of deceased persons for 18 months on the internet until she finally found her missing daughter, CYIM became a national nonprofit in 2011. The organization uses its website and social media outreach to connect individuals and families searching for missing people with unidentified persons in its database of more than a thousand John and Jane Doe’s.

“Without Rebel, who works for no pay, seven days a week, America’s Unidentified would be without their strongest advocate” Palumbo says. “We have a wonderfully dedicated team of volunteers who work with us, but really, the heart of Can You Identify Me? resides within Rebel J. Morris. She is the epitome of a volunteer for the voiceless.”

Philanthropy Journal Exceptional Volunteer Tom Yarboro lives and volunteers in Goldsboro, N.C., but he was nominated for recognition of his national service as president of the National Area Council Committee of the Atlanta-based Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“As a national volunteer for 10 years, Tom has been at the forefront of strategically increasing movement-wide capacity and impact,” says Mary Ann Dudley, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wayne County. Dudley credits him with leading strategic reform and innovation of the national organization’s delivery service model to the 4,100 local clubs across America, which has enhanced programs and life-long outcomes for the organization’s 4.2 million members.

On the national and statewide level, Yarboro has stressed governance and board development to support the long term stability and sustainability of individual clubs. He has fostered coaching, mentoring and creating partnerships with local organizations to provide services that help clubs enhance their capabilities. And in his community chapter, he has led successful financial, facilities and mission-related initiatives.

Dudley says Yarboro is motivated by knowledge that “America’s kids are in crisis. Three out of 10 young people are overweight or obese. One out of 5 lives in poverty. Three out of 10 kids won’t graduate on time,” she says. “Tom believes this is simply not good enough – for our kids, our communities, or our country.” And rather than just talking about, she adds, he’s actually making change happen.  

Nonprofit with paid staff located outside of North Carolina

Philanthropy Journal Volunteer of the Year Sandy Blevins has assisted with Make-a-Wish Oklahoma for just four years but already has “voluntarily signed up to help more than 50 children” to receive services. “This is by far the most wishes a volunteer has ever signed up to help,” says Katie Robinson, chapter volunteer manager.

Blevins is responsible for helping each child identify their one true wish, something that would provide joy in the midst of a difficult medical challenge. “As these children face scary obstacles such as surgery, shots and chemotherapy, a wish gives them strength to keep fighting,” Robinson says.

Typical of her outreach is a recent trip Blevins made with a “wish mom” from Oklahoma to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. “Not only is the child battling a life-threatening illness, but mom is sick, too,” Robinson says. “This was far beyond Sandy’s job as a volunteer. She spent her own money to fly with her to appointments, just to be a comfort when she needed one most.”

Blevins makes a personal investment of time and heartfelt care in every child she meets. “Sandy is at every event and works with kids all over the state of Oklahoma. She’ll travel anywhere to help.”

Blevins has never said “no” to a request for help and, in fact, is often specifically cited by name when referrals are received by the chapter. “She is an exceptional volunteer and deserves this kind of recognition, even though she doesn’t need it in order to continue serving,” Robinson says.  “We need more Sandy Blevins in the world!”

Philanthropy Journal Exceptional Volunteer Doris Hardy brings “enthusiasm, belief in conservation and protecting our wildlife for future generations” and is “inspiration to everyone who knows her” at the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge in Sanibel, Fla., according to director Birgie Vertesch.

As an advocate for future conservation stewards, Hardy spearheaded and created a scholarship program to help local students attain degrees focusing on the environment, conservation and wildlife protection. Hardy also chairs a conservation awards program to honor peer-selected middle school teachers and students.

Hardy regularly leads volunteers in kayaks on clean-up efforts to remove harmful monofilament fishing line from the refuge, saving countless wildlife and educating others about the dangers. She’s also an active fundraiser and recently joined the society’s $1.8 million Preservation Campaign committee.

“She has such an inviting and comfortable presence, with the authentic passion for preserving land for our wildlife and educating future generations, that she has become one of the campaign’s biggest assets,” Vertesch says. “She helps others when they are in need, trains new volunteers and always goes above and beyond the call of duty, asking for nothing in return. Our refuge succeeds because of volunteers like Doris, and we are blessed to have her in our ranks.”  

Volunteer Services Coordinator

Philanthropy Journal Volunteer Services Coordinator of the Year Kavita Hall is praised as a “people connector, a skill-set matchmaker and a champion for doing good in the community” at Raleigh-based Band Together NC by Communications Co-Chair Lauren Brown.

Hall (pictured on the right) serves as “chief cheerleader” and leader over a team of more than 500 currently active volunteers who use live music as a platform for social change.

“Since Kavita took on the role of volunteer coordinator just two short years ago, Band Together has grown its list of volunteers or prospective volunteers from 2,800 to 4,700,” Brown says. “With only one paid staff member, Band Together relies 99.99 percent upon volunteer steam power, so it takes a very dynamic, inspiring and motivating leader to keep them organized and goal-focused year round.”

In fact, Hall is largely credited for growing the nonprofit’s activities into 12-month programs through the 2011 creation of Band Together Roadies. The group coordinates and participates in monthly “day of service” activities at various nonprofits around the Triangle.

“The Roadies help Band Together be seen not just as a giant entity that raises large sums of money at an annual concert event, but as a hands-on organization throughout the year as well,” Brown says, adding that the tireless Hall also coordinates an after-work social committee to boost networking opportunities. “Kavita really is the true definition of a leader.”

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