Community Angels

They help get the vote out, minister to the homeless, counsel the grieving, give kids a sense of purpose.

A woman who lost a child and now helps bereaved moms. A teacher who mentors at-risk kids in the neighborhood where he grew up. A barbering instructor who feeds the homeless—and gives them a measure of dignity through free haircuts. These are just some of the countless numbers of individuals who give their time, as well as their hearts and souls, to make our community a better place. Read about 10 of them.

Carol Davis

The past fuels a passion for the present.
By Michael McLeod

Since retiring from her job after 30 years as an elementary textbook editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Carol Davis has chaired the voter services committee of the League of Women Voters of Orange County, which registered more voters than any other committee in the state during the last election. Her efforts are a personal passion, based on the traumatic experiences of her youth in the Jim Crow South.

She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, in a family that followed politics closely but could not vote. “They had all kinds of laws that had been passed to keep African Americans from voting in those days. In their whole lives my grandparents never voted. It wasn’t just the laws. They were afraid.” Her family’s doctor, Thomas Brewer, was a civil rights activist who tried to get more blacks to vote. In 1956, a white store owner killed him, shooting him seven times after an argument. A grand jury declined to indict the store owner, accepting his argument of self-defense. “A lot of the African American professionals moved away from town after that. It was a terrible time.’’

Davis often visits high schools to talk about the importance of voting, knowing that young people today find it hard to imagine a time when people died fighting for the right to do so. “I try to talk about subjects that are relevant to the students. I talk to them about the minimum wage. That’s important to them. They have jobs that can be affected by political decisions. I tell them their vote, just one vote, could make a difference in their future.” 

Though she became politically active in the 1960s, she missed one of its greatest moments. “A lot of change started happening, and we were young. We got out there, we didn’t care, we were too young to be afraid. But my mother was worried for me. When it came time for the March on Washington, she wouldn’t let me go. And I always teased her about that. I would tell her that if it hadn’t been for her I could have been present at one of the greatest speeches in history.” The culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to end racism, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

“I don’t think people are bad. I just think this country has a history it has to work through. And it hasn’t been that long.”

Sarah Dewitz

Tackling literacy Just 1 Book at a time.
By Cheri Henderson

Sarah Dewitz, 15-year-old bookworm, thespian and quintessential overachiever, is a sophomore in the Boone High School criminal justice magnet program. At age 10, she founded Just 1 Book, a nonprofit that accepts new and used books to be donated to underprivileged children. More than 500,000 books have since been distributed. “We’re not even counting anymore,” says Sarah’s mom, Sharlene, who acts as the organization’s president until Sarah comes of age.

Orange County commissioners and County Mayor Teresa Jacobs gave Sarah’s organization a bus. It has been converted into a bookmobile that takes books throughout the Orlando area. 

Sarah recently was named the winner of Nickelodeon’s HALO Effect Award, scoring her nonprofit a $5,000 check that will go toward upgrading the bookmobile and recruiting new members to the nonprofit’s board of directors. “The bookmobile [bus] is 21 years old. Some days it doesn’t start at first,” Sarah says, adding she wants to beef up her board with a grant writer and a sponsorship liaison.

“This can be done anywhere,” Sharlene says. Adds Sarah: “It’s as simple as getting a box, putting it in a classroom, and asking people to donate books they don’t read.” Sarah thinks of Just 1 Book as a recycling program that benefits kids. The teenager’s vision: “I really do want to see Just 1 Book go nationwide—and after nationwide, worldwide—because every child needs a book.’’

“We’ve been partnering with Just 1 Book for five years,” says Sonya Hill, director of Orange County Head Start. “A lot of our families don’t have libraries in their homes, or they’re not able to visit a library on a regular basis. Our children’s literacy outcome scores for 4-year-olds have exceeded the national scores, and I think this has a lot to do with it.” 

Sarah—who has won a fleet of awards, including the $10,000 Kohl’s Cares Scholarship—intends to become a criminal prosecutor. Already the teen entrepreneur has earned the respect of Just 1 Book board member Beth Carr. “I see Sarah as an innovator who will do great things with her life in whatever path she chooses. She will be a force to be reckoned with someday.”


Phillip Gordon

Returning to his roots to make a difference.
By Loraine O’Connell

When Phillip Gordon was 8, the Dr. J. B. Callahan Neighborhood Center in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood became his home away from home. It’s where he did his homework, hung out with friends and, most importantly, developed relationships with the center’s youth counselors. Gordon, now 25, credits the counselors’ willingness to “teach and preach” with helping him to resist the negative peer pressure in his community. Their influence on him is why Gordon eagerly volunteered to become a counselor when the City of Orlando launched a program for at-risk youth in 2006 called the Parramore Kidz Zone (PKZ). Today, the Pine Hills Elementary School physical education teacher continues to make time for mentoring PKZ kids. “I feel like since I’ve grown up here, it’s my duty to take the extra mile just to help the children,’’ he says.

The Callahan counselors recognized Gordon as a kid with great potential and urged him to attend college. No one he knew had ever gone to college, but his mentors persuaded Gordon that he could become PKZ’s first college graduate, and he did. Gordon pursued a degree in criminal justice at UCF, hoping to steer his neighborhood’s kids away from trouble by being a role model in uniform. But as he continued to work with the PKZ kids, Gordon realized that this is what he was meant to do: Make a difference in Parramore kids’ lives one-on-one, just as his mentors had done.

Kids following the crowd, succumbing to peer pressure—Gordon sees it daily and remembers it well. He can relate to these kids because he was one of them. He can offer empathy and advice born of experience. He’s living proof that “it’s not about where you come from; it’s about where you’re going,” says Joseph Caesar, manager of the Callahan center.

Gordon loves his neighborhood and knows that he’s having an impact on its kids. He proudly relates instances of youths who avoided bad decisions because they talked to him first. He knows the kids look up to him and that he can guide them toward rewarding lives. Because of the mentoring he received as a youth, Gordon says, he owes it to his community to help shape Parramore’s future success stories: “The kids got hold of me, and I couldn’t let go.”

Ellareetha Carson, Fabiola Gaines, Roniece Weaver

An oasis of healthy eating amid the deserts of food.
By Cheri Henderson

Heart disease, stroke and diabetes are the bane of low-income minorities. “Seventy percent of diseases are diet-related,” says Fabiola Gaines. But, as Roniece Weaver points out, greasy, high-carb, sugary food is cheap and readily available.

Twenty years ago, the three dietitians founded Hebni Nutrition Consultants Inc., a nonprofit that began by “going house to house,” according to Ellareetha Carson, to having an office with a well-equipped professional kitchen where adults and children take cooking classes. But teaching the value of fresh, wholesome food isn’t very helpful if those who need it don’t have ready access. Weaver says many areas of Orlando are food deserts—neighborhoods where grocery stores are 1 mile or farther away, forcing people to rely on processed foods found in nearby convenience stores.

In a Hebni program funded by Orange County, Florida Hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation, the LYNX transit system donated a bus that became a mobile farmer’s market called the Fresh Stop. The refrigerated, produce-filled vehicle makes regularly scheduled stops in 16 Orlando-area neighborhoods. “It’s very convenient, and it’s very inexpensive, so it definitely helps with my budget,” says a woman named Missy, who takes a break from work to buy produce at the bus outside Orlando City Hall each Friday. Hebni also partnered with the owner of SunLife Grocery in the Parramore neighborhood to revamp the store to offer fresh produce, dairy products and fresh meat.

Weaver likens bad food choices to a bad relationship. “My sister always said, ‘When you’re in a bad relationship you work hard to get rid of that joker. How come you can’t take health the same way?’ When you talk to people that way, they say, ‘You’re right. I have to make that change.’ ” 

Each week Hebni offers nutrition and cooking classes for children in partnership with Orange County Schools. Carson, 81, focuses on teaching nutrition to seniors. The organization also partners with churches and community centers.

Says Gaines, “I often tell people we’re three poor black women trying to make a difference one person at a time. Twenty years later, here we are, making a difference.”

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Ginger Malcom

A disability is no match for the energy of this ‘professional volunteer.’
By Loraine O’Connell

Early in her college life at the University of Central Florida, Ginger Malcom was like many women her age. She’d go nightclubbing with friends on weekends, wanting to be seen and wondering what interesting people she might meet. “My focus was pretty much all about me,” she recalls. But the Type 1 diabetes she had struggled with since childhood suddenly exacted a brutal toll: Malcom lost her sight at 22. As she learned to cope with her new reality, Malcom entered the world of nonprofits. She was so grateful for the rehabilitation training she received at what is now Lighthouse of Central Florida that she began volunteering at the agency. At the same time, she started volunteering for a 24-hour crisis hotline. She realized there were a lot of needs to be met in Central Florida. 

More than 25 years later, Malcom is a prodigious volunteer, serving on three nonprofit boards, volunteering for six nonprofit agencies, working on Rotary Club projects, and serving as a volunteer mediator for the city board that hears cases of discrimination related to housing, employment and public accommodations. Supporting Orlando’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth is her passion. Besides serving on the Orlando Youth Alliance board, she is board chair of GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

“People ask me what my profession is, and I say I’m a professional volunteer,” Malcom, 49, says of the hours she devotes to community service. Relaxing isn’t in her nature. She’s tried it a few times in the form of yoga and massage. Didn’t work. “My mind is racing,” she says, “thinking of all the things I need to do and remember and write down before I forget them.”

For a woman who has been dealt major blows in life—blindness, the deaths of her mother and husband—Malcom remains positive and determined to help others. “I wake up every morning and have two choices,” she says. “I can either be angry, hate the world, and walk around with a frown on my face, or I can choose to be happy, make the most of the day and never pass up any opportunity that comes my way. I’m not going to get to do today again.”

Noelle Moore

From tragedy comes a program to help mothers heal.
By Kristen Manieri

In August 2013, Noelle Moore faced every parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child. After more than 30 hours of labor followed by 27 days on life support, Moore’s baby girl, Finley, died of medical complications. “I began a journey of feeling alone and not knowing where to get help,” she recalls. “Immediately I looked for counseling, but I couldn’t afford it so I was looking for resources to help.”

It struck Moore that while the hospital staff was supportive, not much support existed elsewhere. “I realized there was a huge gap between the hospital and the home that no one was stepping into. After three months of research, Moore says, she discovered that no one was approaching the loss of an infant from a holistic perspective. “There were some support groups, but no one was taking a mother’s hand and holding it the moment the tragedy starts.”

Moore, of Maitland, created The Finley Project, a seven-part holistic program. Women are first paired up with a volunteer support coordinator, most of whom have lost a child as well, and who support a mother for five years after the loss. Mothers receive, at no charge, 12 sessions of counseling, three weeks worth of meal and grocery gift cards, and house cleaning and massage therapy monthly for 3 months. 

“There are no quick solutions for this type of grief. Most women are not given the tools to cope with this new reality. Many deal with depression. A lot have a huge struggle going back to work. Many women can barely function and keep their family unit together,” explains Moore, 34. “I believe in supporting the women to help them integrate back into being productive members of society while acknowledging the grieving process and helping them cope.”

The Finley Project, which officially launched in July 2014, is now Moore’s full-time job. She speaks to mothers’ groups and at hospitals around the state. She also started a community advisory board with Florida Hospital focused on connecting mothers to community resources after the loss of an infant. Last year her organization was in contact with 110 families across the country, all of whom had lost a child from 23 weeks pregnant to two years old. Her goal is to have 300 mothers in her program by 2017. “One in four women experiences a miscarriage, stillbirth or death of a child before age two,” Moore says. “I just felt called. Every day, babies were dying, mothers needed help, and I had to do something.” 


Alejandro Musa

Skateboarding as a path into the hearts and minds of kids.
By Kristen Manieri

At age 10, Alejandro Musa found himself living in DeLand, a new immigrant from Argentina who knew no English. “There was a skate park by my house and that’s how I got into it,” Musa recalls. “I went from not liking DeLand and always feeling down to being part of a skateboarding community. I built friendships at that park that changed my life.” Musa is now 26 and he pays that experience forward as outreach program manager at the Getaboard Foundation (, a nonprofit founded in 2003 to give at-risk youth an outlet via action sports—including skateboarding and surfing—along with art and education.

“I heard about them through a friend and I started out being a skate instructor because I wanted to give back to the community. And then over time I started doing more and more,” says Musa, who works for Verizon and attends Valencia College. “I now contribute toward curriculum development, recruiting instructors and fundraising.” The Getaboard Foundation’s outreach program partners with organizations like New Image Youth Center of Parramore and Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. Boys and girls receive skateboarding lessons along with other creative activities, like art workshops, for 6 weeks and then they get to keep their skateboard.

“Many of these kids are going through a rough time. They are vulnerable to getting into the wrong group or [going] down the wrong path,” Musa says. “We believe we can plant the seed to give them the opportunity to get into things that can help them create a better environment for themselves. If used in the right way, skateboarding can present a way for them to excel in life.” Musa works with about 20 kids at a time—each session is three hours long—while also coordinating schedules for the other 30 volunteers that help with Getaboard. Local skate shops donate the used skateboards for each 6-week program.

From time to time, Musa will see one of his old students riding around town on a skateboard, a sight that never fails to bolster his commitment to the cause. “If you give these kids a skateboard, they no longer focus on the negativity in their lives—skateboarding takes over,” he says. “You start meeting other skaters and become part of a community and a lifestyle, which leads to increased self-esteem and exposure to more opportunities in life.”

Pablo Rodriguez

A clear-cut way to give hope to those on the streets.
By Michael McLeod

Pablo Rodriguez is a barber whose favorite shop is the one he sets up once a month in downtown Orlando, under the S.R. 408 bridge at Parramore Avenue. That’s where he gives homeless people haircuts, and much, much more, as a way to combine his profession with his faith. A barbering and cosmetology teacher at Florida Technical College in Kissimmee, Rodriguez, 35, is also in charge of the homeless ministry he co-founded at Casa de Jubilo, the church he attends in Orlando. “We have a ministry called Hope in the Streets. One of the things we do is that once a month, we set up a station under the Parramore bridge and feed the homeless and provide haircuts for them. We have a team of about 50 people and a U-Haul truck. We start cooking at 4 a.m. We also prepare and bring hygiene kits, with deodorant, toothpaste, bottled water. We set up the tables and feed them. And the last stop is barbering.”

“When they get their haircuts, you can see an immediate change in their self-esteem. They are happy. They are feeling like people have not forgotten them. And my barbering students who come to help and cut their hair, it’s very important that they see another aspect of the profession they chose. They see the value of giving back to the community, and how much they can personally do to help.”

Rodriguez grew up in a poor neighborhood in Hempstead, Long Island, and watched how his mother and father did everything they could to help those who were less fortunate. It engendered a desire in him to do the same. Hope in the Streets is a family enterprise for him: His wife and four children also participate in the monthly trips to Orlando, and he is especially happy to see that his 7-year-old son, Matthew, shows signs of following in his father’s footsteps. “Sometimes he helps with the hair cutting.” 

“There was a husband and his wife and a baby. He was living in a car. She was staying in a shelter. I gave him a haircut. He was very intelligent. He talked about mistakes he had made, and we prayed for him, and then we heard that he had a job interview. And the next month he came back, he was wearing a uniform, he had a job. He was so happy and proud. It really filled me with joy. “

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