The Kindness of Strangers




Michael Hanley (center) on stage with cast and crew members of Dr. Phillips High School’s production of A Christmas Carol

Photo By Scott A. Miller

Q: What does the Magic’s Dwight Howard have in common with a semi-retired dentist, a Holocaust survivor, a Rotarian, a foundation director, a bereaved couple, an animal shelter honcho and an elementary school student?

A: All of these local people have hearts big enough to devote a lot of their time and energy to make this a better community.

Although these very good neighbors make their contributions in various ways, they all care enough about our town to do something substantial to improve the lives of the people in it. They set a high bar for the rest of us and collectively demonstrate that community service is everybody’s business. Read about them on the following eight pages.

 

Michael Hanley
Community volunteer

His Commitment: He spends about 10 hours a week on various volunteer activities in the Dr. Phillips community.

His Passions: Dr. Phillips Rot-ary and Holy Family Catholic Church. As a member of the former, Hanley, 61, helps raise money for local charities and Dr. Phillips High School, with an emphasis on its theater department (DPHS is the theater magnet school in Orange County). For the latter, he works on efforts that benefit Holy Family’s K-8 school.

Contributions: Hanley has been volunteering for about 20 years. He has led Rotary’s efforts to raise money, sometimes as much as $10,000 to a particular group, to benefit students in the theater magnet program and for scholarships awarded to DPHS students. In December, Hanley virtually ensured a sold-out night of the play A Christmas Carol at DPHS after he arranged to have AXA Advisors, the company he represents as a financial planner, buy 600 tickets. He gave away the tickets to promote the school’s theater program. He is working on a Rotary fundraiser called “The Taste of Bay Hill,” a wine and food gathering that will debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. Proceeds will benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and local charities. And he is brainstorming on what he calls the “big idea” that Rotary can use to raise $100,000 for various causes. “It’s out there,” he says.

Memorable Moment: A couple he met with to discuss financial planning told him they weren’t able to have children and couldn’t agree on whether to adopt. Hanley told them his experiences with adopting two children, the youngest of his five, ranging in age from 17 to 39. The couple didn’t use his professional services, but they decided to adopt. “I’ve become a resource for other people who need help,” he says.
 

Why He Helps: “We’ve been blessed, my wife and I. We have good health, a great family and great faith. We’re only doing the things our parents taught us. We don’t think of it in terms of doing anything more than you would do.” —Mike Boslet


 

Thomas “Doc” Dorsey
Teaching kids the game of life

Why Golf?: “Every kid needs to play golf,” says “Doc” Dorsey, who founded the Orlando Minority Youth Golf Association in 1991. Dorsey, 66, a lifelong Orlandoan and semi-retired dentist, sees the game of golf as the embodiment of values—discipline, respect, honesty, work ethic, etiquette, punctuality and something he calls “stick-to-itness”—that he believes many children aren’t being taught. So he is teaching kids—whether black, brown or white—not only how to grip a club but also how to get a better grip on life by following golf’s code of conduct: For example, remain quiet and still while another player hits (discipline and respect); count every stroke and call penalties on
yourself (honesty); and practice often (work ethic).

The Kids: They are girls and boys, ranging in age from 6 to 18. Several have gone on to play for their high school golf teams, and a few have landed college golf scholarships. There are 85 participants in the current group.

Time Commitment: It’s year-round, with practice sessions on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and play on Sundays at Dubsdread Golf Course. On Friday nights, from February through October, Dorsey also holds life skills lectures at a community center in downtown’s Parramore district.

Keeping Score: Dorsey estimates that 2,000 kids have participated in the OMYGA since its start. “That number is not important,” he says of the total. “What’s important is the number you can help today.”

His Golf Story: Dorsey used to play competitively in Orlando. His personal best? A 2-under-par 70 at the old Cypress Creek Golf Course. He doesn’t play much nowadays, but still shoots in the 70s when he does. His commitment to OMYGA earned him induction into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.

What OMYGA Needs: “We have clubs. We have balls. We have kids,” Dorsey says. “We need money to help to make our organization better able to perform its mission.” To help, mail a check, payable to the Orlando Minority Youth Golf Association, to Dr. Thomas Dorsey at 708 W. Jackson St., Orlando, FL 32805. Your contribution is tax deductible. —Mike Boslet


 

Krissy Todd
Giving HOPE to people in need

Birth of HOPE: A chance encounter in downtown Orlando with a married homeless couple expecting a baby led Krissy Todd to try to help them get off the streets. What she found were obstacles and government red tape that prohibited a pregnant woman and her husband from staying together in a shelter. Todd turned to her church and friends to lend assistance to the couple. But what about others with similar needs? In 2006, she founded the HOPE Foundation to “prevent and reduce homelessness in Central Florida by equipping individuals and families to become self-sufficient through housing, outreach, prevention and education.”

One-Stop Shop: HOPE runs the Sonshine Community Thrift Store, a food pantry and a resource center, in Oviedo. There, people in need have access to food, housing placement, job training and financial assistance for rent, utilities and car repairs. In 2008, HOPE assisted more than 34,000 people with donations valued at more than $2 million.

How HOPE Gives: HOPE is able to provide certain kinds of assistance to the needy, such as money for car repairs, that it otherwise would not be allowed to do if it relied on government funds for support. To be free of red tape and restrictions, HOPE survives on private donations and partnerships with a network of local schools, businesses and charitable organizations.

Inspiration: Todd says her mother, Irene O’Neill, taught her “to care for others above ourselves.” When Todd was a teenager, her mother brought home a woman she found living under a bridge. The homeless woman lived with them for a year until she got back on her feet. The example set by Todd’s mother instilled in her a sense of compassionate generosity.

A Life of Service: “I have found my purpose in life,” Todd, 46, says. She sits on the Seminole County board of directors for Habitat for Humanity and the University of Central Florida Campus Kitchen advisory board. Her service earned the HOPE Foundation the distinction of being named the 2009 Non-Profit of the Year by the Seminole County Regional Chamber of Commerce. The desire to help everyone can be overwhelming, Todd admits. “It is a heavy burden because I can’t move fast enough sometimes to do all that I want to accomplish.”

What HOPE Needs: “We need doctors, dentists, lawyers that would be willing to donate their time to even just one family a month,” says Todd. Most of all, Todd needs donations of goods and money to continue serving the needy. To help, contact the HOPE Foundation at helpforthehomeless.net or at 407-366-3422—Tyler King


 

Dwight Howard
All-star giver

Profession: Now in his sixth NBA season with the Orlando Magic, Howard, 24, has grown into one of the best basketball players in the world. Last season he led the Magic to the NBA Finals, was named Defensive Player of the Year and received a record 3,150,181 votes for the NBA All-Star team.

Why He Gives: “There’s a side of me—and I don’t know where it came from—that has wanted to help others since as long as I can remember. . . . Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to help people. When I was little, if my parents gave me $5, I’d try and share it with someone else. I’d give away my last $5. If I saw you didn’t have a shirt on, I’d probably ask if you wanted to wear mine.’’

Acts of Charity: The list is long and varies widely, from helping to build playgrounds to visiting hospitalized children to donating presents and money—all done locally. Five-figure donations are common for Howard. Among them:
• $25,000 to Parramore Kidz Zone. The money went to equip the “PKZ Teen Shack’’ with laptop computers, video games and a photography lab. Howard has been known to stop in unannounced to mingle with the kids.
• $30,000 to Florida Hospital for Children to help fund a recreation room for young patients undergoing treatment for serious illnesses. Howard has spent many hours on hospital visits over the holidays, playing video games with children.
• $25,000 to BETA Center in east Orange County to help fund a learning center for teen-age mothers.

Taking Note: Howard received the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for October in recognition of his ongoing philanthropic work. It was the third time he had received the national award, given each month to a league player.

Memorable Moment: Howard arrived 30 minutes late—practice had run long that day—to make the $30,000 check presentation at Florida Hospital on Oct. 27. After the ceremony ended, he hung around for two hours to visit with the young patients. —Tim Povtak
 


 

Zach Wilson
Feeding hungry pets

A Pet Project: In 2008, Zach, a student at Wekiva Elementary School in Longwood, visited a pet shelter with his mother, Erica. He asked a volunteer why so many animals ended up there and was told that many of the animals’ owners couldn’t afford to feed themselves and their pets. The following morning, Zach said, “Mom, we have to feed the dogs.” She replied that Brandi, their German shepherd mix, already had breakfast. “No, Mom, all the dogs.” With encouragement from his mother, Zach began collecting pet food from his classmates.

Food Floods In: “Zach sees things from a clear perspective,” says Erica Wilson. “Adults, we just see hurdles. He said, ‘It can be done.’ And it happened almost effortlessly.” The Wilsons’ garage was not big enough to store all the pet food that came flooding in, and the family eventually found donated space at the Main Street Shopping Center in Fern Park. Today, Zach’s Central Florida Animal Pantry houses 11,000 pounds of pet food. Those in need can visit the pantry and pick up a 30-day supply.

It’s His Job: Zach works at the pantry every Thursday, going in after spending an hour at school so he’s not marked absent. He takes his school work with him to the pantry. “My friends are surprised,” says Zach when he tells his classmates what he does. “They think, ‘A 9-year-old with a job? How is that possible?’ ”

Small Boy, Big Heart: Not content to only feed animals, Zach’s next dream is to open a pet sanctuary for pets too sick, old or disabled to be adopted. He envisions a place with a living room, kitchen and television set, everything a pet is used to in a real home—somewhere safe, secure and happy.

How You Can Help: Donations of pet food, toys, leashes, crates and cash are needed. Erica
Wilson’s biggest wish is for a truck or van so they can start delivering food to needy pets. Central Florida Pet Pantry is at the Main Street Shopping Center, 7800 S. US Highway 17-92 in Fern Park, near the Goodwill store. It’s open Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call 321-252-2327 or visit petpantry.org —Shelley Preston


 

Judy Sarullo
Pet rescuer

Her Story: Judy Sarullo has rescued unwanted but adoptable dogs and cats since 1992, placing them in her nonprofit shelter, Pet Rescue by Judy. The Sanford-based group houses about 100 dogs and 100 cats at any given time. Sarullo and her band of 250 volunteers place about 2,000 pets into homes every year.

Not Enough Room, Never Enough Money: Shelters all over the country contact Sarullo to see if she could take animals that would otherwise be put down. She often can’t bear to open an e-mail from a shelter begging her to save a litter of puppies from being euthanized. “I kills me when I have to say no,” she says, because she doesn’t have the room. It costs $25,000 in donated money per month to run PRBJ. “We are always hanging by a string to keep this going.”

A Bittersweet Memory: She fights back tears recalling Maisy, a female pit bull who was mentally damaged from being fed street drugs. Though once severely neglected and abused, Maisy became the shelter’s greeter before succumbing to frequent seizures. Sarullo tried to give Maisy the dignity she deserved for her remaining days. “She lived the life of a queen. She ate fish and sweet potatoes. She was my queen.” The way pit bulls are often demonized pains her. “Pits are wonderful animals. It’s mean people that make them bad.”

Where You Can Find Her: Sarullo, 62, works 15-hour days at her shelter. On weekends, she and her volunteers operate an adoption meet-and-greet out of a donated space in the Oviedo Marketplace. There the public can see pets that need homes.

How You Can Help: Pet Rescue by Judy needs financial help and adult volunteers. If you are looking for a pet, consider adopting from her shelter. To make a tax-deductible donation, send a check payable to Pet Rescue by Judy and mail it to 2620 Iroquois Ave., Sanford, FL 32773. Call 407-302-4497 or visit petrescuebyjudy.com for more information. —Shelley Preston


 

Anthony and Kristen Bencomo
Helping parents cope

Their story: Anthony, 33, and Kristen Bencomo, 30, lost their daughter Gabriella Grace only 12 days after she was born prematurely in 2006. But they found a friend in the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for parents of hospitalized children with serious illnesses. Two years later, when daughter Bella was born with complications, RMH again was there for them during their newborn’s hospital stay. Today, Bella is healthy—and the grateful Bencomos are giving back to the RMH, as well as leading a community project to erect an angel statue in remembrance of children who have died.
Supply Line: The Bencomos reg-ularly drop by RMH with carloads of donated household items like toilet paper and paper plates. “Having those little things helps when families already have to deal with so much,” Kristen says. The couple also participate in events like the share-a-meal program that feeds families staying at the house. And they act as community ambassadors for the charity, regularly speaking at RMH events, including fund-raisers.

Every Little Bit Helps: The Bencomos have helped raise money for RMH by collecting, with the help of friends and family, countless soda can pull-tops. The tops, which contain a better grade of aluminum than the actual cans, are given to RMH. The charity then has them melted down at a recycling plant and receives about 40 cents a pound.

Statue Without Limitations: “When you lose a child, you want to find ways to validate or figure out how to do something in their honor to remember them,” Anthony says. So, separate from their RMH activities, the Bencomos are heading up a nonprofit group called Central Florida Angel of Hope. Its goal: to raise money for a bronze statue to be erected somewhere in Central Florida as a memorial to children who have died.

Why An Angel?: Angel of Hope statues have been put up in numerous American cities. The original idea came from The Christmas Box, a book by Richard Paul Evans in which a fictional angel statue called the Angel of Hope helps a grieving mother come to terms with the death of her child.

How To Help: Go to rmhorlando.com for information on donating or volunteering. (Orlando has two Ronald McDonald Houses—at the Walt Disney Pavilion at Florida Hospital for Children and at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.) If you want to help bring the Angel of Hope to Central Florida, visit angelofhopecfl.blogspot.com for more information. —Carmen Carroquino


 

Helen Greenspun
Sharing her story of survival

Her Story: As a 15-year-old Jewish girl in the Nazi-occupied Poland of 1942, Helen Greenspun was taken to the first of seven concentration camps, in Poland and Germany, where she endured disease, malnutrition and violence for much of her adolescence. She witnessed the deaths of many of her fellow prisoners before American forces liberated her camp in 1945. She settled in Central Florida in 1973 and now lives in Longwood.

How She Helps: Since 1981, Greenspun has donated her time and energy to speak to groups of students at all kinds of schools and at the Holocaust Memorial Resource Center of Florida in Maitland. She talks in detail about her experiences during the Holocaust and describes what she calls “the three miracles” that saved her life.

When She Helps: During busy periods, Greenspun may give as many as three talks per week. According to Mitchell Bloomer of the Holocaust center, she gives such talks, in connection with the center, more frequently than any other survivor in Central Florida.

Why She Tells Her Story: “The world should know it really
happened,” Greenspun explains.
“A lot of people say a Holocaust didn’t happen. I was there. Believe me, it happened.”

Her Reward: The many, many letters she receives from the children who hear her speak. “I can’t keep all the letters,” she says. “But [when] there is a certain letter or a card, I keep it. . . . It means a lot.”

Her Pledge: “As long as my feet can take me, I’ll walk and tell my story.”

How You Can Help: To make a donation to the Holocaust center, visit holocaustedu.org or call 407-628-0555. —Jay Boyar
 

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