They made Charlotte better in 2015

Leaders of CROWN, (Charlotte Reconnecting Ourselves with Nature) Ernie McLaney, left, Chapter President, Dawn Anderson, members Leigh Anne Carter, and Nancy DeVries, along with Chris North, Conservation Coordinator with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
Leaders of CROWN, (Charlotte Reconnecting Ourselves with Nature) Ernie McLaney, left, Chapter President, Dawn Anderson, members Leigh Anne Carter, and Nancy DeVries, along with Chris North, Conservation Coordinator with the N.C. Wildlife Federation. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

As each year draws to a close, the Observer’s editorial board looks back over the preceding 12 months and seeks out the heroes among us who have made this region a better place to live. They fed the hungry, helped the hurting and the broken, and protected our environment. For all you do, we say thank you!

CROWN (Charlotte Reconnecting Ourselves With Nature)


The volunteers of CROWN succeeded this year in certifying Charlotte as a National Wildlife Federation “Community Wildlife Habitat.” The group worked hard to help certify individual properties and led community awareness programs. Charlotte now has more than 900 certified wildlife habitats.

President Ernie McLaney (left) and volunteers Dawn Anderson, Leigh Anne Carter and Nancy DeVries worked on the effort, along with Chris North, conservation director for the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

“We can’t keep paving over our natural habitat,” McLaney said. “We’re trying to put back a little of what’s been taken by development.”

Richard “Stick” Williams


After 36 years at Duke Energy, one of Charlotte’s most recognizable civic and philanthropic leaders is retiring. Richard “Stick” Williams, outgoing head of the Duke Energy Foundation, was a key figure behind the $55 million Project LIFT effort aimed at improving westside schools. Fortune magazine named him one this year’s “Heroes of the Fortune 500.”

He says he’ll continue helping in the community. “I absolutely have to stay involved. I’ve got to see Project LIFT through. It’s the most important initiative I’ve been involved with in my career and life.”

Juanita Chisholm Miller


She spent a 32-year career with the FBI, rushing to crime scenes to help victims of everything from bank robberies to human trafficking to terrorist attacks.

Juanita Chisholm Miller found it so rewarding that, in retirement, she has kept right on speaking out on behalf of crime victims. She is founding president of the Crime Victims Coalition, a group that advocates for victims’ rights and helps them understand how to protect themselves. She is also a former governor for the Southeast District of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.

Grace Daniels


Grace, 11, is a competitive swimmer. Traveling with her family to a June swim meet in Shelby, she felt sad as the car passed through a poverty-stricken area. She wanted to help the poor.

And help she did. She organized a couple of fundraising swim meets she called “Laps for Love.” Swimmers could solicit pledges for the number of laps they could swim in 30 minutes. The two events raised about $10,600 for the Charlotte Rescue Mission.

“It shows the character of her heart, that she wants to reach out in the community and help others,” said her mother, Jennifer Daniels.

Grace isn’t done yet. She says she hopes to organize more meets next year.

Rachel Humphries, Refugee Support Services


While controversy swirled this year around the question of Syrian refugees gaining entry to the United States, the charity Rachel Humphries leads has quietly continued helping refugees who arrive in Charlotte from countries around the world.

“Refugees are hardworking loyal, faithful,” she said, “and they just want to create a home for their families and become part of our community.”

Madison Hardee, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont


She’s just three years removed from law school, but Madison Hardee already leads a team that counts as one of Charlotte’s most important resources when it comes to helping people access medical benefits under the Affordable Care Act. The staff attorney for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont leads seven health insurance navigators as well as volunteers who help clients get covered. She and her team have helped thousands of people get benefits. “This is my dream job,” she said. “This is exactly the kind of work I wanted to do when I went to law school.”

Devin Lynch


When Devin Lynch was a young boy, he would visit his Uncle Wayne at a Florida assisted living center. There, the youngster would get rides on his uncle’s wheelchair. “He was really fun to hang around,” Devin remembers.

Wayne Lynch suffered from multiple sclerosis, and when he died at age 49, his nephew was just 6 years old. By then, Devin had vowed to raise a lot of money for MS in honor of his uncle. “A million dollars,” says Devin, now 16. “I didn’t really understand how much that was.”

But Devin did understand commitment. He wrote letters to his uncle’s friends, then formed “walk teams” with friends from school. As of 2015, he’s raised $175,000 total in honor of his uncle. This year, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society inducted him into its Volunteer Hall of Fame.

“It’s not like I think ‘I’ve done so much I can stop now,’” he says. “It’s ‘Let’s see what I really can do.’”

Robin Emmons, Sow Much Good


Robin Emmons wasn’t sure where she’d wind up when she quit her job at Bank of America years ago. She just knew the corporate life wasn’t for her. She’s as surprised as anyone to find herself at the helm of Sow Much Good, the nonprofit she founded nearly eight years ago.

The charity fights for better access to fresh, healthy, affordable and organic foods in low-income urban communities. It farms its own 10 acres, encourages seasonal farmers’ markets in under-served communities and teaches landowners how to grow their own fresh foods.

“Food has the power to transform communities,” she told Southern Living magazine, which recently honored her work. “Factors like hunger and food insecurity have adverse effects reaching far beyond the people directly affected.”

Lynn Carlson, Together We Feed Charlotte


When she launched Together We Feed in 2014, Lynn Carlson aimed to build a grassroots model for easing hunger for children at high-poverty schools. The charity discovered that the needs ran deeper than just food. Now the charity helps with everything from gas cards and bus passes to new school uniforms and family-night dinners where parents get tips on managing budgets and getting out of debt.

The group partners with other charities and with businesses, which can sponsor schools and send employees to talk to kids about their core company values and the types of careers they offer. The effort now includes 10 schools and about 7,000 children. “We don’t want to be a handout,” she says. “We want to link arms with our families and our children in poverty.”