Passionaries

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Can one person change the world? You bet, says Barbara Metzler, author of Passionaries, which profiles 35 men, women and, yes, youngsters who took their compassion for humanity and created nonprofit organizations that altered their neighborhoods—and the world—in some pretty amazing ways. A San Diego resident and successful entrepreneur who’s founded five companies, Metzler spoke […]


Can one person change the world? You bet, says Barbara Metzler, author of Passionaries, which profiles 35 men, women and, yes, youngsters who took their compassion for humanity and created nonprofit organizations that altered their neighborhoods—and the world—in some pretty amazing ways. A San Diego resident and successful entrepreneur who’s founded five companies, Metzler spoke at The Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s Legacy Society luncheon earlier this year. “It’s the power of one plus others—donors and volunteers—that makes our country great,” she says.

Meet some Sarasota passionaries who are living proof of her creed.

Dominic Harris, Brotherhood of Men

Sarasota native Dominic Harris graduated from Booker High in 1991 and went off to a community college in Yuma, Ariz., on a football scholarship. When a knee injury derailed his athletic career, he returned to Sarasota and trained to become a plumber. “I had the opportunity to get away and see how big the world was,” he says. But as he got re-involved in his Newtown community, he saw scores of youngsters who didn’t have that same advantage.

“We have a bunch of young black males who have the potential to be successful, but nobody took time to guide them and help them,” Harris says.  “God put it on my heart to give back.”  

In the summer of 2007, Harris gathered four friends from his motorcycle group—an oncologist, pest control technician, waste management worker and youth ranch director—and distributed flyers throughout Newtown that the Brotherhood of Men would be meeting every Thursday at 6 p.m. at the James L.  Taylor Community Center. Any boy age eight and up was welcome to come, for free. “That first meeting, 25 kids showed up, the next week 10 more, the next week 10 more,” he remembers. “Before long, I was looking at 66 kids and thought, ‘Wow, we’re on to something here.””

Some 35 to 40 boys participate regularly. “We talk,” says Harris, about whatever they want: “low self-esteem, lack of role models, lack of identity, courage, bullying, belonging.” Sometimes there’s a guest speaker; some days they play sports. “We open and close every meeting with prayer,” he says. “One day, one kid asked to open up the meeting, and he prayed to God, ‘Thank you for sending us to love him and help him.’ It meant so much to me.”

Their messages are fundamental, he says: “Concentrate on your grades—grades are No. 1—and watch out for friends who don’t have the same goals and ideals. We teach them to put God first, love and respect themselves, believe in themselves and know, ‘Hey, man, you can do it.’”

Harris, himself the father of two, says his eyes welled up in June when the oldest youngster, who’s been with the Brotherhood of Men from the beginning, graduated from high school. “It was the best feeling,” he says. “I told the boys, ‘I will be with you ‘til the youngest graduates,’” he says. “I’ll keep driving if you do.”

The Community Foundation in February chose the Brotherhood of Men as one of its Unsung Heroes. Harris used some of the $6,000 award to take the group to Busch Gardens. “We had a blast,” he says. “I told them, you stick with this group and you’re going to go places we’ve never been before.”

Katie Self, Teen Court

Katie Self had just packed her youngest son off to college in 1989 when she got the call that would change her life—and the lives of tens of thousands of youngsters across Florida.

How would she like to organize a brand-new project of the Sarasota Junior League aimed at reducing the backlog of juvenile delinquency cases jamming the court system? Modeled after a similar program in Texas that Junior Leaguer Debbie Dye Gigliotti had discovered, it would be a misdemeanor court for at-risk juveniles, overseen by volunteer professional attorneys and judges and run by teenage “lawyers” and “jurors” who would sentence them to community service—a concept just emerging on the national scene but until then not known in Florida, called Teen Court.

A new empty-nester who’d been active in her two sons’ schools and was “looking for what I was going to do the rest of my life,” Self says, “my first reaction was, ‘Now why would I go and work with delinquent children? I just got through the challenge of raising two.’ But something clicked. I saw a lot of potential, and I was impressed with the commitment Debbie and Judge Paul Logan had for it.” She told them she’d give it a six-month go.

Twenty years later, with Self still on the job, more than 7,800 at-risk youth have gone through Sarasota’s Teen Court

About 200 students volunteer annually as “attorneys” and “jurors,” and many of them have gone on to law school. (In fact, several who’ve returned to practice law here now help oversee the program.)

Sarasota’s Teen Court

was the inspiration for programs in 57 of Florida’s 67 counties, making it one of the largest networks of teen courts in the nation. Together, Self says, they serve 30,000 at-risk youth each year. “It didn’t take too long before Polk County called, then Manatee County replicated it, then it began to spread like wildfire,” she says. “Debbie and I would get in the car and drive all over the state getting these things going.”

The statistics speak for themselves: For first-timers who go through Teen Court the recidivism rate is 12 percent, vs. the state recidivism rate of 42 percent.

Self was elected the first president of the National Association of Youth Courts, which was formed in 2007 with support from the U.S. Department of Justice. Sarasota‘s Teen Court is listed as a model delinquency and prevention program by DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention.

“To say it has been a journey is an understatement,” Self says. “I still laugh about the ‘six-month job.’ It has enriched my life beyond expectations.”

Arlene Willis, co-founder, Grapes for Humanity U.S. and Canada

Arlene Willis moved to Toronto with her Canadian husband and jumped into volunteerism with gusto, at one time raising $1 million through wine auctions for the Toronto Symphony. “I worked for so many organizations and served on so many boards, but I never knew where the money was going,” she says. So after the Canadian Landmine Foundation asked for her help, she started her own nonprofit, Grapes for Humanity, with her friend and former longtime Toronto Star wine columnist Tony Aspler.

“We started with landmines because my brother was killed in Vietnam by a landmine,” she says. “He’d just turned 20 and had been over there two weeks. His death was very sad, but we’ve done so many wonderful things with it.”

Nine years later, Willis—a part-time Longboat Key resident for 25 years—has raised $2 million for humanitarian causes around the world, primarily to aid victims of landmines. The all-volunteer group draws on the generosity of the world’s best wineries, which donate rare wines that are auctioned off at exclusive dinners in New York, Washington, Toronto—and Sarasota.

Willis’ first U.S. wine dinner, in 2004 at Sarasota’s Ritz-Carlton, drew 200 and raised $100,000. Michael Klauber supplied the invitees. “He gave me a list because he was really excited about the quality of the wine producers who were coming,” she says—Baroness Philippine Rothschild and other members of the Premium Familae Vini, an international association comprised of 11 of the world’s top wineries.

“It’s a great community of people who love wine,” Willis says. “They come to our events because of the wine, then they get involved with Grapes for Humanity because of what it does.”

Her latest focus is establishing an arts camp for disabled children in Cambodia, an outgrowth of Grapes for Humanity’s work in funding prosthetic clinics. Seed money came from Viola Wheeler, whose family originally owned the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colo.

A New Jersey native, Willis learned about staging events on a grand scale when she went to Long Beach College in California and started working for Tommy Walker, the rally campaign manager for Richard Nixon; he also produced the New Orleans Saints halftime shows. “We did the [Republican] convention in Miami; we brought an elephant over from California,” she remembers. “Money was no object then. But with this not-for-profit, I get everything donated. You don’t want to spend everything [on producing the events].”

Grapes for Humanity will host a wine dinner in October at Michael’s On East with guest of honor Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of Maison Louis Jadot, who has donated some of his finest wines in celebration of the winery’s 150th anniversary. Sarasota Magazine is the sponsor, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit Oak Park School. (To learn more, call 1-800-218-1422.)

Sandy Loevner, the Loevner Family Foundation

Sandy Loevner has set out to create the first national kidney registry for transplant patients, a cause that is deeply personal.  

In 2007, she and her husband, Jerry, were involved in the first-ever five-way kidney transplant, which took place at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Sandy gave one of her healthy kidneys to a 63-year-old woman from Maryland in exchange for a healthy kidney from a California woman to be implanted in Jerry, who’d been desperately ill for two years with kidney disease. Jerry subsequently passed away—not from the transplanted kidney, she says, but because his heart had been so weakened by longtime dialysis.

In her first entry in her online blog, www.thekidneyblog.com, Loevner sums up the emotional journey that led to that groundbreaking medical event: “My late husband, Jerry, and I were not unlike so many other devoted couples,” she writes. “We were happy, active, hard-working and resourceful. So you can imagine our frustration when we were suddenly faced with the medical challenge of a lifetime and found little in the way of organized and focused information and practically nowhere to turn to. Believe me, it’s not that we didn’t try.”

Loevner spent last summer establishing the Loevner Family Foundation to create awareness about kidney donations and to begin to create the national kidney registry. The need is crucial, she says. Now “everybody does it regionally and independently, which makes it very hard to get a match if you’re hard to match. [Plus] it’s a life donor registry; heretofore donated kidneys came from cadavers, and live donors are much better.

“We’re sending people to the moon,” she says. “If someone in Georgia is very sick and someone in Utah has a match, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to match them up? The woman who got my kidney was waiting for eight years!”  Loevner received a thank-you card from that woman in June. “She wrote that every day she thanks me. It changed her life,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

It’s very much a grassroots campaign, but Loevner is undaunted. “I hope to get information into every dialysis center in the country as to how they can get on a national register,” she says. And she’s been in contact with several nongovernment organizations that are vying to manage her registry.

The volunteer executive director of the Florida Winefest & Auction for the past 18 years, Loevner plans to bring the same passionate commitment to her new goal. “As she writes on her blog, “Hope is a precious thing.”

Tish FitzGerald, Joining our Youth (Joy)

What happens to Florida foster children when they turn 18? On a tour of the YMCA youth shelter four years ago, Tish FitzGerald was surprised to learn they are “pushed out to live on their own, with little more than their clothes, often during their senior year of high school, so many of them drop out.” Moved by their plight, FitzGerald co-founded with her friend, Mary King, a nonprofit organization that provides these foster youngsters empathetic adult listeners and support. They named it JOY, or Joining Our Youth.

A former art teacher in Rockford, Ill., who has lived in Sarasota 34 years, FitzGerald had been a fund-raising consultant to the Guardian ad Litem program before becoming a guardian herself. On that fateful tour, she and King asked the youth shelter director what the youngsters need. Her answer: “Human contact; someone to listen to them—ordinary people, nonjudgmental, people who will accept them for who they are.”  

FitzGerald and King spent two years researching mentoring programs across the country, incorporating their organization, earning their 501c3 status and recruiting like-minded volunteers. In 2006, they teamed with Randi Pickle, a USF behavioral analyst with a federal grant to develop listening courses. Pickle has since trained 23 JOY volunteers as certified listeners. Volunteers must be year-round residents and commit to meeting with their youngster one or two hours each week—year-round “because [the youngsters] have been abandoned so many times,” says FitzGerald—and they must submit to background and fingerprint checks. 

Besides a caring ear, JOY supplies housekeeping starter kits—bedroom, bath and kitchenware, plus cleaning supplies, personal hygiene items and a tool kit. To help them get to work, JOY has raised enough money to buy each kid a bike and a year’s bus pass.

FitzGerald has big plans for JOY, including starting the mentoring program at age 17 and creating a task force to help them look for jobs. In this area, four to five young people age out each month, FitzGerald says. “Next year, they tell us 60 kids will be eligible.

“I am so worried about them—they are so immature and unprepared to go out,” she says. “They’ve been moved so many times and gone to so many schools, they’re like gypsies. They’re branded by their peers; they never have an opportunity to make friendships.”

JOY was one of three local charities chosen last spring by the Community Foundation to participate in ABC7’s local promotion in conjunction with Oprah’s Big Give television show. “We raised $26,603,” says FitzGerald. “As a relatively new organization, we were absolutely floored.”

WANT TO SHARE YOUR PASSION?
Here’s where to call to learn more about volunteering or contributing to these causes.

Brotherhood of Men: brotherhoodofmen@comcast.net , (941) 400-0444

Teen Court of Sarasota County: www.flteencourt.net/sarasota/index.html, (941) 861-8467

Grapes for Humanity: www.grapesforhumanity.com, (800) 218-1422

The Loevner Family Foundation: Sandy Loevner, gloevner@aol.com

Joining Our Youth (JOY): Tish FitzGerald, (941) 360-9207; or Marian Strickland, summertime.summertime@verizon.net