Each year countless Charlotte-area residents sow their time, talent and money into philanthropic and civic causes that help make this region a better place to live. Today, we offer a public year-end salute to just a few of those community-minded souls toiling among us. May their example inspire us all in 2015.
At the height of this year’s panic over the Ebola virus, missionary Nancy Writebol found herself in the glare of the international media spotlight when she contracted the deadly disease in Liberia.
But while the disease sparked fear and xenophobia in many, she and her husband David offered a powerful example of what it means to live out the Biblical principle of being your brother’s keeper – even if it might mean putting yourself in harm’s way.
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“I feel very honored,” Writebol said when told the Observer wanted to acknowledge her. “But it is an honor that goes to all of those who are on the front lines of working with Ebola, all the doctors and nurses and scientists, and those who are behind the scenes, helping care for them while they offer care.”
When she lost her son Joe to bone cancer in 2010, Diane Restaino and her husband Mike wanted to honor Joe’s memory. Since he loved films, they gathered friends and family for an informal movie-watching party and asked for donations to pediatric cancer research.
Their annual get-together has exploded into the Joedance Film Festival, a $25-per-ticket bash that attracts sell-out crowds to screenings and has raised more than $50,000. With the event growing each year, Restaino hopes it can make a bigger impact on the fight against cancer.
“We’re kind of saving our money,” she says. “We’re waiting for the next research project to come down the pipe.”
Mary Margaret Flynn
Domestic violence has dominated headlines this year, but it’s hardly news to Mary Margaret Flynn. She helped launch Cabarrus Victims Assistance Network more than three decades ago, and has served as the nonprofit’s CEO for nearly as long.
The organization, which operates a shelter for battered women, has served more than 25,000 women and their children.
“Part of what’s amazing for me about this work is that people come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and ages and races, but we can all work together because it affects all of us.”
Today he’s the gentle giant leading a Charlotte-based international aid charity called Samaritan’s Feet. But as a boy growing up in Nigeria, Manny Ohonme was receiving, not giving, the charitable aid.
A missionary’s gift of a pair of shoes helped stoke ambitions that would lead to a basketball scholarship in America, and eventually a charity that since its launch in 2003 has served an estimated six million children in 75 countries and more than 300 communities across the United States.
“It’s been amazing to see where we’ve come from,” Ohonme says. “Only God could do such a thing.”
As the longtime CEO of the Dilworth Center for Chemical Dependency, Charles Odell is passionate about fighting drug and alcohol addiction. “We’ve got people overdosing all over Charlotte,” he says. “And people are still drinking too much.”
With demand for treatment growing, the center is rising to the challenge with a $1.8 million campaign to upgrade its building and services. Fighting addictions might not be the “sexiest” charitable cause, but Odell says it’s a battle our community can’t afford to lose.
Dr. Mary Blinn
Most people don’t go to veterinary school dreaming of working in an animal shelter. But that’s where Blinn found herself. After 28 years of service, she’s retiring this month as the shelter vet for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control. Her proudest accomplishment? “When I first came a lot of sick and injured animals were getting euthanized. Now we’re able to save a lot more than we could then.”
After 17 years directing the YWCA Central Carolinas’ Women in Transition program, Ligia Mason is embarking on a well-earned retirement. She has overseen an effort that has steered hundreds of women from homelessness and despair toward stable, independent lives.
“It feels like it wasn’t really a job, it was a spiritual assignment,” she says. “My mother was the director of social services for the church we went to where I grew up in Panama…She was always committed to service, and you were expected to give back.”
Jake Sussman/Luke Largess
Charlotte lawyers Luke Largess and Jake Sussman found themselves with a front-row seat to history this year. They filed suit on behalf of a coalition of churches, religious leaders and gay couples who opposed the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn of Asheville’s October ruling made their case the one that flung open the door to marriage equality for gay couples in North Carolina. “This has an impact on thousands of people’s lives,” Largess said at the time, “so it was really very moving to be part of it.”
Years ago, when people showed up at First Presbyterian Church in Statesville seeking food and help, there wasn’t much available. Rickabaugh, a former missionary, helped bring volunteers from area churches together to form Iredell Christian Ministries, a food pantry that helps more than 800 families each month and gives away about $1 million worth of food.
“The economy has improved,” she says, “but it only improved in some places.”
A retired secretary, Dorothy Waddy is familiar face in westside neighborhood meetings. She was president of the Clanton Park Community Association, and helped organize the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, which represents about 18 economically fragile neighborhoods and apartment communities along West Boulevard.
“No one that came to the corridor had our interest at heart,” she says. “We want this corridor to be the best it can be.”
With her daughter Hannah battling epilepsy and food allergies, Teri Saurer worried over the fact that Hannah’s school had a nurse only part of the week. Determined to put more nurses in elementary and middle schools, she launched a grassroots campaign that flooded county officials’ inboxes with emails. It helped prompt the county to approve $1.7 million to hire 33 nurses for 2014-15.
“This is proof that anyone can make things happen if you work hard and believe in your cause,” says Teri’s mother, Helene Rivlin.