5 Charlotteans who are unsung heroes among us

The Observer editorial board

Each year, the Observer editorial board searches for unsung heroes among us who make our city and region better. This year, we’ve found people who’ve brought other people together, helped kids discover the power of reading, and shone a light on an important topic. We’re even thanking two people who’ve admirably thanked others. To them, and to all who make our community better, we say thank you!

Thereasea Clark Elder and Maria Koutsoupias

In Derita, as in many Charlotte communities, the local fire station does more than put out fires. Firefighters also help install smoke detectors and replace batteries in detectors for the elderly who aren’t able.

“We have a wonderful relationship with our station,” says longtime Derita resident Thereasea Clark Elder. “They come to all of our programs.”

Everett Blackmon Winning Images!

In return, Derita residents bring snacks and candy to Fire Station 22 throughout the year, and each Thanksgiving, Elder hosts a dinner for the firefighters and their families.

For the past six years, that meal has been provided by Maria Koutsoupias, owner of Maria’s Grill in Derita. This year, she made a turkey dinner, with sweet potatoes, salad and other sides for the two dozen guests of honor. “It was,” says Elder, “a beautiful spread.”

Says Koutsoupias: “I know how hard they’re working. They offer a lot to the community. I wanted to give them something back.”

Jeff Willis

Each month, Jeff Willis hosts a community dinner at his church, The Grove Presbyterian Church in east Charlotte. He has no steady funding, no paid staff. Yet for five years, 100-150 people show up on the second Thursday each month, and they get fed every time.

Those guests are a reflection of the neighborhoods around the church – a mix of whites and blacks, Latinos and Muslims. “It’s just a bunch of people from all walks of life that come in to have a good time,” Willis says.

David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

It was his idea to start the monthly gathering, and it’s his job to keep it going. Members of the congregation usually bring dishes of food and loaves of bread. His brother does the music soundtrack.

It’s not easy to put together, and he’s thought recently that maybe the event has run its course. But each month, he sees strangers in line together. He sees kids running and playing with kids they might not otherwise meet.

“You cannot underestimate how important that is,” he says. “This is really a good thing.”

Beth Purdy

Beth Purdy doesn’t look the part of someone with mental illness. That’s because there is no “part.” It’s a stigma she confronts – and a message she delivers – in speeches across Charlotte.

Purdy was 21 years old and a senior at UNC Chapel Hill when she had her first experience with major depression. When she got married four years later, she was afraid to tell her husband about what would eventually be a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Courtesy of Beth Purdy

Purdy began speaking regularly about her experiences in 2016, first to churches and now to other groups. “People were shocked that 1) someone was talking about it, and 2) that I didn’t look the part,” she says.

Her speeches include 36 tips and insights gleaned from her journey. The overriding message: Mental illness is a real diagnosed disease, but the stigma remains enormous. People still don’t get help - or even talk about it.

Her willingness to do so is not only courageous, but affirming to people and families with the same challenges she faced. One response that stays with her: “Hearing you, I finally felt known.”

“It has been a gift,” she says. To her, and to so many others.

Mark Williams

A few years back, Mark Williams noticed some youth hanging out at the Pineville barbershop he uses. He wondered if there was something better they could do with their idle time. An unusual answer came to him: Shakespeare.

Williams is not a theatre major. He’s not an English teacher. But he has been a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and he cares about kids and their futures. He also believes this: “Shakespeare makes you smarter.”

Not long after, the barbershop - including the barbers - were reading the Bard’s works. They set up a reading area for kids. They went to see a performance of Othello.

David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Shakespeare in a Chair has now expanded out of the barbershop and into other communities, including a new program in Grier Heights. Reading, says Williams, improves self-confidence, reading comprehension and speaking skills. But he’s also learned that Shakespeare writes about the human condition, about families, about relationships.

“Our kids are making bad decisions,” he says. “What’s great about Shakespeare is that his writings are relative to today. I can hold a mirror up to them.”

And, he says: “They can have fun with it.”