“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” —Winston Churchill
If you ask the average Alachua County resident what they love about our community, chances are he or she will mention the generous spirit of the people here. While we are fortunate to have a seemingly endless supply of compassionate individuals, it’s important not to lose sight of the incredible sacrifice these do-gooders make every time they decide to step outside of themselves.
On the following pages, we invite you to meet 16 community members who selflessly donate their time to benefit our collective quality of life.
#tommiestrong benefitting PACE Center for Girls Alachua
Some people stand for their beliefs. Tommie Bost runs for hers.
Last year, she ran a half marathon for charity. Her goal was to raise $1,000 for PACE Center for Girls of Alachua County, a school that focuses on at-risk girls from middle school through high school. Tommie met the challenge, finished the race and exceeded her goal ten times over, raising $10,495.75.
There are many ways of parsing those numbers — that’s roughly $801 per mile, for instance — but only one number truly matters. She was nine years old at the time.
This year, at the ripe old age of ten, she did it again. Tommie ran the Gate 2 Gate 25K (15.5 miles) and will run a half marathon on Thanksgiving Day, raising money to help fund a new health clinic at PACE.
“These girls need a second chance,” Tommie said. “What I am doing is a small part, but if more people do what I am doing, I feel it can make a difference in their lives. We need to lift them up.”
Tommie was introduced to a life of charity by her parents, Katy and Craig, who are longtime supporters of PACE. When the opportunity came to help PACE develop a clinic that will provide desperately needed health care for its girls, Tommie’s father Craig says she was immediately on board.
“You didn’t have to explain it to her,” he said. “She understood that a lot of girls need that additional assistance.”
So far, Tommie has raised $3,425 toward her goal of $5,000.
“She fully understands the impact of what she’s doing,” said PACE Development Manager Becker Holland. “When she met the girls and realized how different her life was from theirs, I think that’s what really compelled her to become so dedicated. She’s a little super girl; that’s what we call her.”
For the average ten-year-old, running a half marathon would mostly likely require super powers, but Tommie comes by her abilities naturally. Craig is a runner and he trains with her.
“When I was eight my dad would let me rest on his shoulders on long races,” Tommie said. “I saw my dad finish his marathon and I wanted to push myself.”
“Every time we finish a run, she says, ‘Thank you for running with me,’” Craig said.
PACE is still in the fundraising stage for the clinic, but Executive Director Natalya Bannister says they hope to raise enough to hire a nurse three days a week. “A lot of our girls lack basic health care and it would improve their attendance and their health dramatically if they had a place to receive health care,” she said.
They also plan on naming the center for Tommie, who is an inspiration to the girls at PACE, according to Bannister. “She’s like their mascot,” Bannister said.
For Tommie, that inspiration goes both ways.
“When I am running, I think of them and it pushes me through the hard times I may have in the race,” she said. “I want them to see me doing this and for them to realize that they can do it too.”
To help Tommie meet her goal for PACE, donations can be made at https://app.mobilecause.com/vf/TOMMIESTRONG.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida
“I need some butter,” Deb Stull calls out at the Ronald McDonald House of North Central Florida’s kitchen.
Stull commands the stovetop, her figure looming over a stainless steel pot of leftover rice, veggies and pulled pork. A lanyard with a badge that reads “Volunteer Deb Stull” holds her hair up. Stull is certainly a student of the school of improvisation.
Stull began volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House through their “Sweet Treats” program before she was given the role of main cook for their “Breakfast Brigade” program. The “Breakfast Brigade” program is where volunteers cook continental breakfast for the resident parents, guardians and other family whose children are currently in the hospital. When she’s not gardening or renovating her own house, Stull’s schedule includes making a large, comforting breakfast for the families at the House four days a week.
Deb Stull volunteers in the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida kitchen.
Stull cooks with the same creativity as her Czech mother, yet runs the kitchen like her WWII veteran father, she joked. “I like to cook. My mom cooks. My grandma likes to cook. That’s how I know what to make — healthy, old-fashioned whole foods,” she said.
Nomadic by nature because of her husband’s military career, Gainesville is only one of a multitude of cities Stull has lived in. Because she might one day have to move on, her volunteer shifts double as a cooking class for the other volunteers, she said, in order to keep the “Breakfast Brigade” program going strong for long after she’s gone.
“I enjoy instructing [the volunteers] and helping them to learn,” Stull said. “A lot of [the volunteers] have never cooked before — that’s a challenge. But they’re very receptive. I enjoy it and I love the camaraderie amongst the younger students.”
With so much life experience under her belt, it’s surprising that her work with Ronald McDonald House Charities is Stull’s first experience with volunteering, but for her, it’s a wonderful one.
“A lot of [the patients] are struggling going from the hospital to the bed to sleep back to hospital. Kids are getting heart transplants,” Stull said. “Kids are getting cancer treatments and the last things these people need to do is to wake up early in the morning to make their own coffee, make their own breakfast and have a healthy start to their day.”
The Education Foundation of Alachua County
Former teacher Amy Whitaker has found a new way to pursue her passion of inspiring children outside of the classroom. Four years ago, Whitaker began volunteering with the Education Foundation of Alachua County’s “Take Stock in Children” program, where she became a mentor to a middle school girl. Williams became interested in the program after hearing her friend talk highly of it.
For the past four years, Whitaker has met with her mentee once a week to help in any way she can. Some days, this might involve guiding her through personal problems, while other days it might include talking about an upcoming homecoming theme, she said. But her bond with her mentee transcends beyond their weekly meetings, as Whitaker also enjoys participating in outside activities with her and supporting her at personal events like dance competitions.
She feels honored to be able to help someone in a rather simple way, she said. To her, it’s just about letting them know that someone is there. Whitaker is very proud to be a part of the organization because she recognizes how great of an impact the program has had on students. It doesn’t just change the trajectory of the student’s life, but “Changes the trajectory of their family tree,” Whitaker said.
United Way of North Central Florida
Some days you can find Denny Gies playing bluegrass music at a local retirement home. He takes to heart the transformation that occurs when he begins playing. At first the residents sit there despondently — but slowly a foot starts to tap along to the music, mouths move along to the words, and before Gies knows it, everyone is smiling and having a blast. For some, this would be enough of a good deed. For Gies, it’s just one of many ways he gives back to the community.
It started with a workplace campaign at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center, where Gies works as an administrator. He wanted to get further involved with United Way of North Central Florida, so Gies joined the Allocations Committee — and kept coming back when United Way asked him to.
All of the years Gies has spent with United Way is because of the good work they do, he said. He knows for a fact that people’s lives are changing for the better. It’s a rewarding experience to be able to improve a community that has been so great to him and his family.
Gies was part of the push that evolved United Way into a data-driven organization. It doesn’t matter how many lives are served, Gies insists, if no one’s life was changed for the better. Now the system looks at results, or what difference was made in a person’s life. Gies remembers it being a bold move and that some people didn’t like. “If I’m going to give you money I want to see you change somebody’s life for the better,” he explained.
He used to get flak for giving people too many chances, but Gies said he’s witnessed too many turnarounds to give up on anyone. That’s who Gies is: a man committed to positive change. As far as sticking around goes, “As long as they’ll have me,” he replied with certainty.
United Way of North Central Florida
If you ask Lacey Jones to talk about herself, she’ll first tell you that she’s a huge Florida Gators fan. She likes exercising at Orangetheory, distance running and spending time with her family. She recently became an aunt, and is completely in love with her beautiful niece. Jones is also passionate about bettering the lives of the youth in America.
An exemplary role model for youth herself, Jones does her best to encourage and challenge young girls to be good roles models, as well. She knows that the youth are the future, and their lives are an important cause that needs people’s attention. Her desire to give back to the community is exactly why Jones was thrilled when she was asked to fill in a position for United Way of North Central Florida’s Community Investment Council.
For Jones, it’s all about holding the businesses under United Way accountable for the goals they’ve set. She believes it’s important to be able to measure progress. She currently manages RTI Surgical campaigns for United Way in eight locations across the United States. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding work, and Jones plans to stick with United Way because it’s her opportunity to do good work in a good community.
The best part of volunteering for Jones is that it promotes personal growth, she said. “You think you’re volunteering to help someone else, [and] when you reflect you’ll see you’ve grown and become a better person,” Jones explained. Her advice? “Try [volunteering] out one time, even if you don’t think you have enough time.”
ElderCare of Alachua County
Georgette Peters spends every weekday volunteering with ElderCare of Alachua County at the Archer Community Center. Peters began volunteering this year for a personal reason: Peters’ sister Danette died in January 2016 of brain cancer. Peters was with her sister in Pennsylvania until her passing, she said. “I knew after I left my sister that I was unhappy. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Peters said. “She saved my life because I saw her fighting for life.”
Peters was inspired to volunteer with ElderCare after a chance encounter with some staff at the Archer Community Center. She’s the only volunteer who devotes every weekday to the center. Every day she helps prepare the meals for the seniors, who then have it delivered. On some days, Peters even helps to deliver the meals herself. She says she averages between 40 to 50 hours of volunteer time per month.
“Some of [the people we provide meals for] can’t get around at all, but they’re happy to see me and they’re just so grateful,” Peters said. “It makes me grateful for what I have, and grateful that I’m able to do it for them.”
Gainesville Pet Rescue
Two years ago, 18-year-old Taylor Spruce visited a local shelter in her hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida and adopted the dog that would change her life: Luna, an eight-month-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
Last June, right before the University of Florida freshman moved north to Gainesville for college, Luna passed away.
Before meeting Luna, Spruce always thought she’d like to pursue a career in medicine. After Luna passed, though, Spruce found a new path, and a new certainty for her future career. She began studying to become a veterinarian and volunteering at Gainesville Pet Rescue between classes.
“[Volunteering] started out wanting to be that difference, wanting that recognition. Wanting to really change something. But now I’m seeing that just the smallest things can help,” Spruce said. “Even if it just means taking the dogs out when nobody else does.”
Spruce’s effort certainly makes a difference for the dogs, but it also makes a difference for the people who work there. She will often clean the facility or do the dishes without being asked. Whatever she can do to make one dog’s or one person’s day easier, she explained.
Spruce makes it a point to volunteer at Gainesville Pet Rescue at least once a week. Between volunteering, her job and her student life, the twenty-year-old said she wishes she had more time to donate. Always going above and beyond, Spruce began fostering a dog from the rescue. As a college student, it would be too costly to adopt, she explained. But through fostering, Spruce gets to have a pet of her own while helping the animals at Gainesville Pet Rescue.
“After I’d get done with school, after I’d get done with all my responsibilities, I’d be like, ‘Okay, now it’s playtime, now I get to go to the rescue and see all the dogs,’” she said. “I think their energy is contagious.”
Southwest Advocacy Group
At the Southwest Advocacy Group (SWAG) Family Resource Center, Jane Doig volunteers once a week to tutor and take care of the kids. On school days, she gets there right when the kids get off the bus. Doig gives them a snack and immediately starts them on their homework.
At SWAG, people know her name. Doig has been working with the kids for about three years, and she feels like she’s invested personally, she said. To the kids, she’s Mrs. Jane. “They’re so sweet, you know, I just love ‘em all,” reflected Doig. “They know me now. Somebody told me they asked when Ms. Jane is coming in this week.”
Currently in charge of the monthly community dinners for SWAG, Doig takes care of the shopping and the cooking, with some assistance serving. “I try to make fresh, healthy things. People are always saying ‘thank you so much’ on the way out. Never anything negative,” she said. “Sometimes I’m tired afterwards, but that’s okay.”
For Doig, volunteering with SWAG is a very rewarding experience. She’s never left feeling like she wasn’t needed that day. She does it all for the kids, she said, to make sure they leave better than she found them. “I go in even if I’m very busy with work. And I’ll come home and tell my husband, ‘I’m so glad that I went,’” she said. “It’s sort of like food for the soul.”
Girls Place of Alachua County
For softball player Cassandra Wells, the sports concept of contact and follow-through goes well beyond her time on the field. Especially the follow-through. “Your word is bond. If you don’t follow through, then what’s your word? If you’re telling me something, you’ve got to go through with it,” she said.
This ethos pervades Wells’ work as a volunteer at Girls Place of Alachua County. Whether it’s coaching a softball team during after school programs or helping young girls with their homework, the girls come first. “Mentorships are huge asset for our community,” Wells said. “It’s a huge deal [for a child] to be a good mentor these days. There’s a lot of kids that can use it.”
A former marine in charge of supply administration, the Gainesville native recently returned home prepared to find her calling. After her deployment to South America, Wells said she was inspired by the children who lived there and who had so little, yet smiled so much. “[That experience] made me realize I really want to help people,” she explained. “I feel that kids don’t have a voice. They’re just born into a situation and it’s just a situation that they have, and they have to make a life of it.”
Wells’ voice in particular resonates with these girls. Having experienced her fair share of trouble as a kid, Wells draws from her childhood experiences in order to relate to the girls. The key, she said, is striking the right balance between respect and trust.
The well-being of the girls is always number one for Wells. With every pitch or swing of a bat, she focuses on honing the girls’ confidence and building a sense of self-efficiency. For Wells, making a difference for even just one girl is more than enough — and it’s the ultimate goal. “I have a big, big, big heart,” Wells said. “I’ve learned [through volunteering at] Girls Place that this is what I want to do.”
Child Advocacy Center
Sometimes a couple of toys and a warm, familiar face is all it takes to cheer up a child. For Eliany Perez, a senior anthropology and psychology student at the University of Florida, she’s that familiar face for many kids at the Child Advocacy Center (CAC).
Perez’s best experiences are borne out of the interactions she has with the kids, she said. Perez remembers a recent interaction after spending some quality time with a young girl at the CAC: “As [she was] headed toward the door, she turned around and said, ‘Thank you, that was the first time I have smiled this week.’”
Over time, Perez’s role at the CAC graduated from assisting in the playroom to assisting in the courtroom. As a former volunteer, she mainly played with kids and provided snacks. As a current intern, Perez helps with collecting information for the children’s cases.
The CAC’s main goal is to improve the community’s response to child abuse and to minimize the trauma to children and their families. This is accomplished through the coordination of law enforcement, child protective services, prosecution, medical services, mental health services, advocacy and education. The center strives to provide this comprehensive service that benefits abused children in such a way that all the kids are as comfortable as possible.
“If you’re at a hospital, the kids aren’t so taken to people around them. At the CAC, they’re used to people because they play with them and help them. You can really see that,” Perez said.
Although Perez doesn’t engage with the children as much as she used to, she’s still helping them, albeit from a legal standpoint. Now, she communicates with child victim advocates and the families of these victims. From this perspective, she sees the much darker aspects of working with victims.
“There’s this perception that people of a certain demographic are more likely to be abused, but it can happen to anyone or any family,” Perez said. “I see a lot of the worst in people — and a lot of the best.” Perez has learned to disassociate herself from the saddest moments and focus on what’s most important: the kids. “I want to ensure that there’s an environment where [the kids] can be the best they could be, where they can be happy,” Perez said.
PACE Center for Girls Alachua
People tend to know little about the inner workings behind the curtain before an event. With every successful production or program, there are equally stellar volunteers. Daniela Lozano, a political science and international relation studies major at the University of Florida, is one such volunteer with both drive and dedication to her work.
“A lot of people say ‘I want to change the world — I want to like a Facebook post and hope that it does something,’ but that’s just not the reality of the world,” Lozano said. “The reality is that you have to go out there [in person].”
Lozano, a volunteer and outreach intern at PACE Center for Girls – Alachua, has a packed schedule. Like an appendage to the volunteer coordinator, Lozano performs a variety of tasks, such as creating databases, representing PACE at fairs, or coordinating events. “I’m an intern by label, but it’s just a volunteer that has a set schedule,” Lozano added.
Daniella Lozano represents PACE Center for Girls at a rally alongside UF’s Alberta and an unnamed volunteer.
With a deep interest in humanitarian work, Lozano has seen firsthand the value of community service and outreach. Even growing up, she saw her mother give back to their country of Colombia by organizing events or collecting money for organizations there. “I’m [volunteering] because it’s something I want to do, because I think it’s important to give back to our community, especially to a program that helps at-risk girls succeed,” Lozano said.
Lozano stresses the importance of leading by example, such as providing the motivation to help one girl write a paper for class. “It’s not just for your personal experience, it’s not just to ‘give back to the community,’” Lozano said. “If you can be a mentor to another person who’s then going to give back to their own community, it’s just going to create a cycle.”
Despite having different backgrounds, experiences and hardships, Lozano said that persistence and dedication counts. Lozano notes that she has gained a greater sense of purpose since beginning her time as a volunteer. “Not everything that you do is going to give you a [tangible] reward,” she said. “The reward is that you helped someone out.”
Tyler’s Hope for a Dystonia Cure
As the saying goes, “Work hard, play hard,” but why not do both? Every year on at the Gainesville Country Club, don’t be surprised to hear music blasting from the golf course. Tyler’s Hope for a Dystonia Cure may be hosting its annual The Hope Weekend. “You’re around a family of organizations that are all working toward the same goal. It’s not stuffy, it’s not corporate,” explained William Moore, an InterMed employee and Tyler’s Hope volunteer.
Moore is one of many volunteers for Tyler’s Hope, a foundation dedicated to raising awareness and money for dystonia research. As a father of two, Moore many not be able to offer financial support to the cause, but that doesn’t stop him from donating his time. “We can always give out time,” she said. “We can always find time in our lives to help others, whether it’s at the Ronald McDonald House cooking a dinner for those less fortunate, or if we need to roll up our sleeves and shuttle a golf cart around all day in the rain.”
Will Moore and Rob Pettie volunteer at the Tyler’s Hope for a Dystonia Cure Hope Weekend.
Moore is in charge of organizing some of the logistics of the golf tournament that is typically the main event of the three-day weekend. This means acquiring golf carts, tents and coolers. Essentially, he makes sure everything runs smoothly. “Mainly whatever I sign up for as a volunteer, I’m able to meet that commitment and give it 100 percent,” Moore said.
It’s time well-spent according to Moore, and he has seen the effects of the organization’s work firsthand. A family of friend of the Staabs, whose son Tyler the organization was named after, Moore has seen the technological advances made possible by their efforts firsthand.
“It is rewarding to see that, because of [Tyler’s Hope] research and bringing those doctors here, you are seeing the kids — not only [Tyler] and Samantha Staab — but others, getting the relief it provides until a cure is found,” Moore said. As tournament participants slice their golf balls down the green during The Hope Weekend, they’re not only aiming for the same hole, but also the same goal.
As a seasoned Haven Hospice volunteer, Sam Williams recognizes the value of living, regardless of the condition one might be living in. While battling a disability of her own, Williams proves to be someone who recognizes her blessings. “I might be in a wheel chair, but I’m very blessed,” Williams said.
She believes everyone has a story and enjoys learning about those stories, side-by-side w with patients, she said. “I love to sit and look at people’s hands,” Williams noted, “And I wonder what their lives were like.”
Twice a week at Haven Hospice, she does just that. Williams tries to fill rooms with warmth by providing comfort, care and compassion to patients and their families, three acts that are held close to the core values of Haven Hospice.
But while Williams has provided a great amount of service to Haven Hospice, she feels the organization has served in teaching her as well. “Haven treats death with dignity,” Williams said. “And it isn’t always treated that way.” Williams plans to continue volunteering at Haven Hospice, as the staff have become “like family to her,” she said.
Bread of the Mighty Food Bank
After retiring from her government job of 21 years, Jane Dickerson decided to devote her life to a new challenge: serving others. She recognized just how blessed she was to have been provided with a job for so many years, so she took it upon herself to provide for others, she said. “I can do more than just donate money,” Dickerson explained. “I can get in there and do the physical work.”
Dickerson does not shy away from that statement. Two to three times a week, she serves the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank by purchasing food for families and often delivering it to their door. Dickerson gets joy out of knowing that she was able to help someone eat their next meal and feeling like she’s made a difference in someone’s life. But despite the contentment she feels, Dickerson recognizes the urgency for providing food, especially in the community.
“[People] talk about foreign countries, and about the kids [there] not being able to eat,” Dickerson said. “But we have people right in our area that have not eaten.” As a result, she makes it her mission to serve in the hopes that one day no one in the Gainesville area will be hungry.
United Way of North Central Florida
Once in a position where she had to accept help from assistance programs, Cecilie Lynch is now in a position to give back to a community that never stopped believing in her.
Staring as a young temp at Nationwide, Lynch is now a leader in charge of 190 other associates. She’s a strong role model in the community, with coworkers coming to her for mentorship and two daughters who are just now realizing what an inspiration their mother is.
Cecilie Lynch attends the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida’s 2016 Red Shoe Affair fundraiser with her husband.
Cecilie Lynch attends the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida’s 2016 Red Shoe Affair fundraiser with her husband.
When Lynch started off as a member of the Community Investment Council, she was flooded with bittersweet memories of being a young, single mother. As a leader at Nationwide, it dawned on Lynch that it was people within the company or community who made it possible for her to work every day while her children were in daycare and afterschool activities.
“Sometimes people don’t realize that there are working professionals who need a little uplifting,” Lynch explained. “Anything you can give comes back… you could be helping your coworker.”
Knowing that she has a voice and an impact in the community keeps her motivated, Lynch said. She wants to inspire people, especially young workers, as she was once a single mother who “just needed a job,” and now she’s a leader at a major company. As if that weren’t enough, Lynch also balanced earning her bachelor’s degree while working and raising kids.
Lynch truly enjoys being part of positive change, and United Way of North Central Florida isn’t the only charity that receives her help. Lynch also volunteers with Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida.
Boys & Girls Club of Alachua County
A few years ago, Edith Williams was able to combine two of her greatest passions — working with computers and assisting students. As a graphic designer, Williams has years of knowledge related to coding. As a mother, Williams also has her fair share of experience with children.
Once she was no longer active in volunteering at her children’s school (only because they were out of the “elementary-school age,” she notes) Williams began volunteering once a week at the Boys & Girls Club of Alachua County.
Williams enjoys educating students about coding by teaching them the curriculum of “Code Club World,” a network to help develop children’s skills with coding. Because computers are such a big part of our world, Williams said she feels that coding skills are valuable and necessary for children of all ages. “It’s a language every kid needs to know,” she added. Williams hopes to continue volunteering as long as there’s a need for it, and she doesn’t see that need disappearing anytime soon.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”—Mahatma Gandhi
Photography by John Sloan