2005 Good Neighbor Nominees

Good Neighbor Finalist Helps Shelter the Homeless

Jeanne Williams-Livesay, William E. Wood & Associates, Chesapeake, Va.

Without Williams-Livesay, many homeless people in Southeastern Virginia wouldn't have a safe place to sleep or a hot meal, even on the coldest nights of winter.

“My feeling is that there are many things I can overlook in life—whether I like it or not—but nobody should be cold and hungry,” says Williams-Livesay.

Williams-Livesay coordinates 57 churches to provide shelter and meals to the homeless from November to April for Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless Inc. She recruits host churches to house anywhere from 25 to 105 homeless men and women and also provides overnight chaperones and supplies.

“It's an enormous undertaking to coordinate 57 churches, with all their different schedules, personalities, and demands for the 170 nights of the cold season,” says Erin Gossage, executive director, Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless, Inc. “Her first priority is always the clients and how they can best be served.”

Williams-Livesay—who has been a volunteer for 12 years, the last three as chief coordinator—also finds support churches or local companies to plan, prepare, and serve each night’s hot meal.

Williams-Livesay has gotten her real estate company, William E. Wood & Associates, involved in the effort. “She asks in such a way that we want to volunteer,” says Jo Ann Wood, managing broker. “Our office has learned much from these folks at the shelter and our lives are richer for having served. We’re glad that Jeanne introduced us to this mission.”

Some guests stay in the shelter only for a short time until they get back on their feet; others are elderly or mentally disabled and will use the services for many years, says Williams-Livesay. “Some of our guests work—but their jobs don't pay enough to support rent, heat, electricity, and water,” explains Williams-Livesay. “I know many other people are only one paycheck from being in the position of some of our guests.”

Reflects Williams-Livesay: “I feel good knowing that for 170 nights last year, the homeless men and women in my community had a safe, warm place to stay and went to bed without hungry bellies.”

Good Neighbor Finalist Gives Toys to Kids in Need

Robert Thomson, Waterfront Properties and Club Communities, Jupiter, Fla.

Today we feature Robert Thomson of Waterfront Properties and Club Communities in Jupiter, Fla., who founded a nonprofit organization to make life happier for disadvantaged children.

After years of supporting children’s causes, Thomson decided to create his own nonprofit organization to help make children’s lives happier. In 2004 he founded Charities for Children, which provides holiday gifts and other support to poor children in Florida’s Palm Beach and Martin counties.

Last year alone, Thomson donated 28,000 toys, primarily through holiday drives at local churches, schools, and social service agencies.

The organization also serves as a safety net for local children’s causes in need of funding. This year, Charities for Children made more than $300,000 in donations to such causes as Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Head Start, the American Cancer Society, and many local schools.

“I have a weakness for children and schools,” says Thomson, who struggled as a child with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.

For about five years, Thomson has been on a holiday gift-giving mission, making the rounds in December to area schools and churches to deliver toys, hundreds of at a time, according to need. He also makes an annual delivery of 1,000 Easter baskets to places like The Children’s Place at Home Safe, a home for abused and neglected children in West Palm Beach.

Thomson says he enjoys giving to toy drives “because life’s been just great to me in recent years—though as a kid, we didn't have a lot so I’ve been there.”

A few years ago, Thomson donated 120 bicycles to a toy drive for the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riviera Beach, Fla. However, when 275 children showed up to claim their gifts, Thomson didn’t want any child to be turned away. He quickly purchased 155 more bikes—but since on such short notice he could only find them not yet assembled, he also recruited volunteers to assemble the bikes in two days and rented two trucks to deliver them to the children.

Thomson says he hopes his efforts improve the lives of others and inspire people to get in the spirit of giving. “When I die, I don’t want them to put on my tombstone, 'Here lies a guy who sold a lot of big houses and kept the money all to himself.'”

Good Neighbor Finalist Helps Match Adoptive Families With Waiting Children

Pam Kiker, CRS, The Kiker Team, Keller Williams Realty, Englewood, Colo.

Kiker is chair of The Adoption Exchange—an organization that recruits families to adopt older children who are difficult to place because they have a history of abuse or neglect.

"The majority of these children have been taken from their families because they were abused," says Kiker, who has volunteered with The Adoption Exchange for 15 years. "So they have emotional issues and are very, very hard to find permament homes for."

These children are also typically older—the average age is 8. To make their odds against being adopted even greater, they may also have disabilities or health problems or have siblings who are also waiting for adoption.

The Adoption Exchange has a comparatively high placement rate, due in large part to holding "matching" parties for waiting children and prospective families and also due to heavy publicity—including a Web site and TV segments titled "Wednesdays Child" that profile children waiting to be adopted.

The children are typically waiting in foster care after their biological parents lost custody. Some children in foster care are eventually reunited with their families; some are adopted by their foster parents. The Adoption Exchange's specialty is helping the rest—"the children who have no one," says Kiker, adding that there are 119,000 of these children in the U.S. who are patiently waiting for a "forever family."

Kiker was the driving force behind establishing the organization’s post-adoptive services program, which is designed to reduce the number of failed adoptions. "These kids are very challenging. The adoptive families' hearts are in the right place, but they need someone to turn to when there are problems."

The program trains caseworkers and supports new parents with education, support groups, childcare services, and small grants to cover unexpected expenses. The success of this program helped The Adoption Exchange win contracts to provide post-adoptive services to the adoption programs for the states of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah.

"The challenge is to provide guidance, support, and education to the families of these children so that their placement will be a 'forever home'," says Kiker, who has three grown biological children and also became the legal guardian of a 15-year-old girl after her mother died.

The Adoption Exchange, which has placed more than 430 children since 2004, spends approximately $2,500 to place each child, compared with $20,000 per year it estimates it costs taxpayers for each child in state foster care.

"Our support means long-term opportunities for children not to go from house to house, but to have what they dearly want, a permanent home of their own," says Kiker.

Contact The Adoption Exchange at 303-755-4756 or www.adoptex.com.

Good Neighbor Finalist Leads Group for Developmentally Disabled

Marla S. Johnson,GRI, Maryland Real Estate Group, Inc., Frederick, Md.

Johnson is president of Spectrum Support Inc., an organization that supports people with developmental disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, and cerebral palsy, 60 percent of whom also suffer from psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression.

Johnson says she is inspired to help because there are so many people who need support but have nowhere else to turn, often having been rejected by their families, psychiatric hospitals, and other community providers. "These are people that society doesn't want to deal with," she says. "But we don't turn anybody away. Everybody deserves a chance."

In the 15 years Johnson has served on the board, Spectrum Support has expanded from providing day habilitation and supported employment in Maryland to providing housing, job coaching and placement, transportation, and family support. It has also opened additional offices in Tennessee.

Johnson stepped up into the role of president at a key time and is credited for the organization's recent growth spurt. Under Johnson's direction, the agency has grown in one year from an annual budget of $4 million to nearly $6 million and has begun a residential program that currently houses 26 people. She is responsible for hiring the organization's first development director and persuading the board to launch its first serious fundraising campaign.

"Marla helped move this organization from a mom and pop effort and convince the board to operate more like a business," says Debra Langseth, Spectrum's executive director. "Marla lives her commitment to Spectrum Support on a daily basis...to enhance the lives of all people with disabilities."

Contact Spectrum Support at 410-695-6543 or www.spectrum-support.org.

Good Neighbor Finalist Gives Hope to Abandoned Children

Greg Garrett, greg garrett realty.com, Newport News, Va.

For his 20th wedding anniversary Greg Garrett could have taken his wife on a cruise or on a romantic getaway to Paris. Instead, he persuaded her to visit orphanages in El Salvador, where they met children in desperate need.

“We discovered an orphanage where six adults were trying to care for 250 children in facilities with a leaky roof and no working toilets,” remembers Garrett. “It was heart breaking,”

Though the trip was difficult, Garrett says he was acting on a calling he felt to help improve the lives of some of the world’s most needy children—those who have been abandoned by their parents or society. “It has been a desire of mine for years to help these forgotten children,” says Garrett.

That trip in 2000 inspired Garrett to found Orphan Helpers to support children in orphanages and detention centers around the world. Currently working at 12 orphanages in El Salvador and Honduras, the organization provides food, shelter, education, and hope to more than 1,000 children.

Orphan Helpers hires teachers, counselors and caregivers—who often outnumber existing staff in state-run facilities by three to one—as well as donates food, clothing, books, and toys. Many of the teenagers who have received support from Orphan Helpers are now beginning to work with the organization to help other youngsters, “That’s a major theme of ours,” says Greg. “We want today’s orphans to become tomorrow’s helpers.”

The group also partners with local churches and even the military to build, repair and upgrade facilities. With the help of hundreds of U.S. and local volunteers, the organization has installed toilets, showers, ceiling fans, and light fixtures. Garrett has led 14 trips of volunteers and donors to the orphanages and has helped raise more than $1 million since 2000. The organization will be expanding into Nicaragua and Guatemala in 2006.

“I have been able to see lives change, not only of the kids but also those of the volunteers,” says Garrett. “My hope is to be in 100 nations working with more than a million kids, and that one day the orphans we’re helping now will run the organization.”

Good Neighbor Finalist Funds Pediatric Cancer Research

Howard G. Freeman, Freeman Realty, Inc., Gainesville, Fla.

Since his daughter, Bonnie, was diagnosed with leukemia more than 24 years ago, Howard Freeman has raised money to support research on preventing, treating, and curing cancer in children.

He founded STOP! Children’s Cancer with his wife and daughters in 1981, and has since raised more than $2 million to fund research and purchase equipment for the divisions of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Pediatric Neuro-oncology, and the Brain Institute at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

“What just amazed me is how Bonnie and other kids [with cancer] could one day be close to death when they’re on chemo, and the next day bounce right back and say, ‘OK, let’s get going. What are we going to do?’ That really inspired me to do what we could to make other children’s lives better,” says Freeman.

And though Bonnie lost her fight with the disease, Freeman has indeed improved other children's lives. For, example, says Stephen Hunger, M.D., chief of pediatric hematology/oncology division, specialized treatments for children with neuroblastoma, a leading form of childhood cancer, were discovered with the help of grants from STOP! and are now widely used throughout the country.

STOP! has become one of the most successful charities in North Central Florida and a model for other organizations. Another grieving family in Palm Beach County, Fla., got permission to use the organization name to start a second chapter.

Last year alone, Freeman raised more than $350,000 for STOP!. In 2003, the organization committed $100,000 a year for 10 years to fund additional research grant applications and has built up $673,000 in a legacy fund to fund pediatric cancer research in perpetuity.

Today 80 percent of children diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the disease that killed Bonnie, are cured.

“As a result of Bonnie's illness, many children have been helped," says Freeman. "Although Bonnie is no longer with us, her spirit lives through STOP!”

Good Neighbor Finalist Helps Romanian Orphans

David Forward, Weichert, REALTORS®, Medford, N.J.

Fourteen years ago, Forward founded the International Children’s Aid Foundation, which currently supports about 200 orphans in Romania.

"People often ask me, with 200,000 orphans in Romania and millions around the world, what difference are you making with only 200 children?" says Forward. "Each of these children is a real child, every bit as needy and deserving of love as my own son--a real child with worries and problems, who should be given a chance at life. I can't solve the problems of every abandoned child, but I can change the lives of the children that come into contact with me today."

ICAF built and operates its own orphanage, Casa Emanuel, which the Romanian government has called “the finest childcare facility in the country” and also assists orphans in state-run facilities through early childhood education programs in which child development experts volunteer to train Romanian caregivers.

Forward's mission began in 1990 after he saw a TV documentary on the plight of children in Romanian orphanages. Inspired to help, he led churches and Rotary clubs to donate 2 1/2 tons of goods, then negotiated with airlines for free freight and personally escorted the shipment to Romania.

Once he saw the children warehoused in overcrowded and understaffed orphanages, he knew he had to do more. Since then, Forward has escorted more than 60 volunteer trips to Romania, often bringing doctors, dentists, physical therapists, and teachers to apply their skills to the crushing needs of Romania’s orphans.

He has set up a medical clinic and dental clinic open to the entire town and convinced local doctors and dentists to volunteer their time. He and other volunteers in the U.S. and Europe obtain donated medical equipment--often as it is being replaced by more modern models-- and ship it for free to Romania where the equipment is considered state of the art. In addition, volunteer medical professionals travel to Romania—at their own expense—to teach the latest surgical techniques and to provide hands-on medical care.

ICAF also provides job-training and life skills classes for teenage street kids and orphans who will be released from state care at age 18.

"Since the orphans coming out of the state orphanages have a bad reputation, have few if any marketab skills, and possible employers feel that they will be disorderly thieves, the orphans have a very hard time finding jobs. David decided that the children need to be trained in practical ways to enable them to find jobs when they leave," says Laurence Miller, ICAF board member.

To teach teenagers useful skills and provide jobs, Forward decided to open a T-shirt and sign screen printing business. He learned the skill himself in order to teach it, got equipment donated, bought a building, and negotiated free shipping to bring it to Romania. The business is not only self-sufficient, it is also bringing in a small income stream for the orphans.

Good Neighbor Finalist Helps Tsunami Victims

Charlotte Esarey, Buck & Buck, Inc., REALTORS®, Jacksonville, Fla.

Charlotte Esarey took a leave of absence from her real estate career to travel to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to help the victims of the December 26 tsunami. As a former nurse in the U.S. Navy for 16 years, Esarey had experience setting up M.A.S.H. units in Southeast Asia and knew she could help.

"When we heard about the disaster, I wasn't able to sleep or concentrate," she says. "All I could think about was the people in Indonesia. I knew in my heart that's where I needed to be."

By February 8, she was there. Her military experience enabled her to work with nurses and general contractors to set up make-shift medical clinics to treat victims of the disaster and its aftermath. She coordinated medical teams that set up mobile clinics in school buildings after the debris was removed. During her trip she contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-borne infection, which laid her up with a high temperature and body pain for days.

Each Sunday morning, Charlotte would venture out with her translator into the villages where people were beginning return to their tiny homes. She would find 10 families and bring them dishes, pots, cooking utensils, rice and other food, and toys for the children. "It is such a wonderful blessing to bring such joy to a family with nothing," she says.

Esarey prepared for a month before leaving for Indonesia, spending 10-hour days brushing up on her medical knowledge by visiting emergency rooms and reading about tropical diseases she might encounter. She even switched her sleep schedule to be ready for the time change, sleeping during the day and studying at night.

She had planned to stay for three months, but returned after two months when the Indonesian government wouldn't renew her visa.

Through her church, the Fort Caroline Christian Church, and the Jacksonville community, Esarey raised $28,000 to purchase medicine, medical equipment, and playground equipment for the children living in camps for displaced people.

She spent the month after she returned speaking about her experiences in order to raise funds for the ongoing needs of the people in Indonesia. She still does three or four presentations a month, and is continuing to raise money to help the people of one devastated village build a brick factory, restore their fisheries, and bring in topsoil so they can grow food.

She receives daily e-mail updates from relief workers who are still there, and says the recovery is slow, with 300,000 people still living in tents. Esarey says one challenge for local farmers and fishermen is navigating the red tape and paperwork necessary to apply for aid through the government and foreign aid agencies.

But she is proud that she's able to work with the villagers to help the recovery. "I've helped empower individuals to stand up for themselves and help bring their community back to life," she says.

Good Neighbor Finalist Helps Feed Struggling Families

Carole E. Sharp, Coldwell Banker Neuhaus Real Estate, Staunton, Ill.

Without Carole Sharp, many people would struggle just to put food on the table every day. Sharp runs the Staunton Food Pantry, which serves more than 60 families a month, up from 15 when she started volunteering there eight years ago.

Unlike larger communities, this town of 5,100 people 40 miles outside of St. Louis has few national charities for support. Nevertheless, the Staunton Food Pantry has become a model charity in an area where other food pantries have failed.

Volunteers help on Tuesdays for the weekly food distributions, but otherwise Sharp handles the entire operation by herself. She applies for grants and secures corporate sponsors, writes articles for local papers, sorts and inspects all food donations, stocks the shelves—often shopping for needed items herself—and plans food drives through schools, scout troops and churches year round instead of focusing on the traditional holiday season. Sharp acknowledges every donation with a handwritten personal thank-you note.

At the beginning, Sharp says, the stories of the people in need were difficult for her to hear. “I didn’t think I could do this when I started," she says. "People thanked me, and we both ended up in tears.”

But now Sharp says helping makes her feel good, and it gives her perspective. “I had no idea that the poverty existed. Most assume it’s something that happens only in third-world countries,” says Sharp, who became director in 2001 and has since helped feed more than 8,000.

The area’s economic problems are due to multiple factors, some dating to the 1960s when area mines closed. In the last 10 years, periodic droughts have hurt the farmers.

"You hear that jobs have been created but not here,” says, William A. Napper, who publishes Sharp’s articles about the pantry's needs in one of the local newspapers.

Sharon Hartman, who manages the adjoining thrift store, credits Sharp with keeping Staunton’s pantry alive. “She genuinely helps those in trouble and has made a difference in their lives,” Hartman says.

Contact the Staunton Food Pantry at 618-635-7037.

Good Neighbor Finalist Finds Homes for the Disabled

Ouida Spencer, GRI, RE/MAX Executives Inc., Atlanta, Ga.

For 26 years, Ouida Spencer has actively volunteered with the United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia, which serves people with developmental disabilities also including Down syndrome, spina bifida, mental retardation, epilepsy and autism.

Spencer, UCP of Georgia’s current chair, is a tireless advocate for housing rights of the disabled, traveling throughout Georgia and the Carolinas to identify single-family homes that can be adapted for three or four disabled adults. With the help of UCP care providers, the residents will be able to live full lives in their own homes and interact as part of a neighborhood.

For many UCP clients, who have lived in a nursing facility or under their parents' care, this is the first time they have been able to do simple things for themselves, from learning to feed themselves to choosing the music they want to listen to.

“To see someone get so excited about having their own bedroom or being able to do the laundry for the first time … that’s what keeps me going,” says Spencer. “It’s the excitement of seeing someone who’s able to say, ‘This is my home.’”

Spencer says her commitment stems from knowing that in the blink of an eye, anyone can become disabled. Developmental disabilities usually occur before or shortly after birth, but they also can be the result of a head injury.

“I’ve always been able to put myself in other peoples’ shoes and treat them as I would want to be treated in a situation,” says Spencer, who has has helped UCP of Georgia establish six day-habilitation locations, which provide life skills training, dexterity therapy, job training and employment mentoring.

During her tenure, UCP of Georgia has grown from serving 100 people in Atlanta to providing daily services to more than 1,000 individuals in Georgia and the Carolinas. In addition to her work finding housing, she recruits volunteers who put in thousands of hours every year and is one of the organization's most successful fundraisers--bringing in more than $100,000 last year.

Spencer is so effective because people who know her simply can’t refuse, says Jeanne Black, a bailiff for the Georgia court system who Spencer recruited as a UCP volunteer more than 20 years ago.

“You don’t say say ‘no’ to Ouida because you know that she’s working twice as hard as you are, and that she’s already done all the ground work,” says Black.

“I think all of us want to make a difference at the end of the day and at the end of our lives,” Spencer says. “I'm proud that I have been able to make a difference in the lives of the people served by UCP.”