Meet FLORIDA TODAY’s 2017 VRA winners
FLORIDA TODAY’s Suzy Fleming Leonard recaps the top honorees from the 2017 Volunteer Recognition Awards. Video by Rob Landers. Posted 11/16/17
When a disabled resident needs help finding a job, Bridges steps in. But not for the recognition.
When a hungry child needs a good meal, Sandra Price Pelham feeds them. But not for the recognition.
When a cause arose in town, the late Bill Ellis volunteered his time. But not for the recognition.
And when Hurricane Irma blew out power for most of the state, Florida Power & Light worked until it was restored. But not for the recognition.
These recipients of FLORIDA TODAY’s 26th annual Volunteer Recognition Awards were honored at Eastern Florida State College’s Cocoa campus on Thursday night for their endless work to better Brevard County. Former FLORIDA TODAY publisher Mike Coleman started the Volunteer Recognition Awards in 1992 to celebrate the spirit of giving back.
Bridges, a nonprofit serving children and adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, was awarded Organization of the Year.
Pelham, a retired social worker who now volunteers with Connecting Children to Reading, the Community Feed and Read and her local neighborhood watch, was awarded Volunteer of the Year.
Last year: Read about the 2016 VRA winners
Ellis, a man who never said “no” to the call to volunteer his time whether for the environment, health care or tourism, was awarded Citizen of the Year. He died in July.
And Florida Power & Light, a utility company that serves 4.9 million customers and has supported energy-driven projects in schools and the environment, was awarded Business of the Year.
Additionally, Jim and Jonnie Swann received the inaugural Bjorg and Bjornar Hermansen Legacy Award, a new award that recognizes a lifetime of philanthropic achievement. The award is named for the Hermansens, who along with the Swanns, were past recipients of the VRA Citizen of the Year award.
Throughout their lives, the Swanns have worked with Nature Conservancy, the St. John’s Water Management District, Florida Institute of Technology and the Marine Resources Council.
Jim Swann’s stepdad also founded the Eckerd Family Foundation, which supports the Boys and Girls Clubs in Brevard’s low-income neighborhoods, the Brevard Neighborhood Development Coalition’s DOCK Program, Crosswinds, the Brevard Zoo and the Space Coast Early Intervention Center.
Along with the award, the Swanns received a $1,000 check from FLORIDA TODAY that they plan to donate to the Eckerd Family Foundation, which provides foster care and social services to children in need.
“From an impressive slate of finalists, four were awarded the 2017 Volunteer Recognition Award. All of the finalists are deserving of the exposure for their commitment to the Brevard community,” said Jeff Kiel, president and publisher of FLORIDA TODAY. “Additionally, I am thrilled that Jim and Jonnie Swann were the recipients of the inaugural Bjorg and Bjornar Hermansen Legacy Award. They are deserving of being the first to receive this award.”
“They are a shining example of what it means to be giving and charitable,” Tom Hermansen said of Joe and Jonnie Swann, who received the award named for his late parents.
Read about all of the 2017 finalists here.
Organization of the Year: Bridges
Bridges in Rockledge serves more than 400 people every day. Through their life skills classes, computer training and career development, disabled children and adults can become active members of society.
Formerly ARC of Brevard, Bridges is the oldest disability organization along the Space Coast. With the award, Bridges will receive $2,000 to further its mission.
“Bridges is the only agency in Brevard that offers this full range of services,” said Judith Kelso, vice chair of the Bridges board of directors.
The other finalists were the Brevard Zoo and the Brevard Humane Society.
Nominee spotlight: Bridges
Volunteer of the Year: Sandra Price Pelham
A retired social worker with Head Start in Central Florida, Pelham’s passion to help children in need can be seen throughout the Melbourne community.
As Chairperson Emeritus and Organizer of the Powell Subdivision Neighborhood Watch, she promotes community and police partnerships in her neighborhood. Her work to transform Powell Subdivision into a safe area five years ago prompted the city to rename Randolph Street to Pelham Street.
Pelham also volunteers with “Connecting Children to Reading” and is involved in the county’s Read and Feed, which during summer break serves meals to thousands of low-income students.
“I looked at my community and it had so much drugs, and the Lord told me to start there,” Pelham said. “I didn’t even have to go outside my neighborhood to see hunger. Kids knock on my door.”
Pelham will receive $1,000 to donate to a charity of her choice.
The other finalists were Stephen Young (First Baptist Church of Merritt Island House of Hope executive director) and Kay and Rodney Ford (volunteers with Aging Matters/Meals on Wheels, Keep Brevard Beautiful and other church projects).
Nominee spotlight: Sandra Price Pelham
Citizen of the Year: Bill Ellis
Known around the county as a tireless volunteer, the late Bill Ellis touched nearly ever pocket of his community, including tourism, the military and education. The list of organizations he’s worked with is long and includes United Way, Eastern Florida State College, the American Hospital Association and the Economic Development Commission.
“He didn’t do this for personal gratification, but because he was committed to improving the quality of life in our community,” Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, wrote in her nomination.
“How do I want Bill to be remembered? That’s a tough and emotional question,” said his wife, Carol Ellis, who also joked about her and Bill’s two disagreements: politics and college football. “I guess I want him to be remembered as someone who loved Brevard County more than anyone that I know. He wanted to see only the best for Brevard, which was the reason for his involvement in so many organizations.”
The other finalists were Kim and Bud Deffebach (founder of Club Esteem Youth & Family Center and Groundswell startups incubator, respectively) and Mark Pieloch (owner of the American Muscle Car Museum).
Nominee spotlight: Bill Ellis
Business of the Year: Florida Power & Light
Florida Power & Light is best known for their speedy response after Hurricane Irma knocked out power for all of the company’s 4.9 million customers in September. But it’s the company’s everyday work that earned it the distinction of Business of the Year.
FPL works with local schools and in the environment to spearhead energy-efficient projects and aims to serve their customers who are senior citizens and live in low-income areas.
Through the company’s Power to Care Week, more than 1,500 local nonprofits have benefited from FPL’s charity. FPL was nominated by some of the same organizations it’s helped, including the Brevard Zoo, Junior Achievement, the Central Florida Council Boy Scouts and United Way, to which employees and the company combined have contributed more than $1 million since 2003.
“We live in this county, we’re one of the neighbors, and the point is to make this a better place in which to live and work,” said Bart Gaetjens, area external affairs manager with FPL.
Mike Sexton, lineman with FPL, who accepted the award alongside Gaetjens: “We don’t do it for this, we really don’t. It’s really about putting people’s lives back together.”
The other finalists were Triangle Auto and LifeStyle Homes.
Nominee spotlight: Florida Power & Light
Caroline Glenn is the education reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 321-576-5933, and follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn and like “Education at Florida Today” on Facebook.
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