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Giving Back

In an age of rampant consumerism, there is something uniquely satisfying about being on the giving end.

By Cynthia McFarland - Sunday, November 23, 2014

In an age of rampant consumerism, there is something uniquely satisfying about being on the giving end.

Living in a society that is increasingly “me-me-me” focused, it’s heartening to realize there are still plenty of people who make it a point to reach out and help others.

We recently spent time with the following individuals who make giving a way of life. We hope their stories inspire you to give back to the community, too.

 

Horses to the Rescue

Marie Riordan, Ocala

Sometimes, blessing comes mixed with sorrow. That’s where Marie Riordan found herself in 2010, wondering if she would ever trade heartache for happiness.

A Manhattan native who’d lived in New Jersey for many years, Marie and her husband, Brendan, moved to Spring Hill, Florida, in 2009, where Brendan entered an assisted living facility. He’d been battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia for several years, but his death in 2010 left Marie stunned and alone.

“For three months after my husband died, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Marie recalls. “I always liked horses, but I grew up in the city and worked as a secretary, so I was never around them. When I retired, doing something with horses was on my bucket list.”

Before moving to Florida, Marie became involved with Fans of Barbaro, a far-ranging group of people who are active in horse welfare issues and continue to be inspired by the remarkable story of Barbaro, winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Through her involvement with the group, Marie came across an equine rescue facility called Beauty’s Haven Equine Rescue (bhfer.org), located in horse country near Ocala.

Marie was touched by the story of Theresa Batchelor who founded Beauty’s Haven in 2006 as a way to give “throw-away” horses a second chance at life. Since opening, the rescue has saved over 200 horses. After moving to Hernando County, Marie began driving an hour each way so she could volunteer at Beauty’s Haven. After her husband died, she sold her house and moved to Ocala to be closer to the rescue.

Decades earlier, when Marie and Brendan were a young married couple, they liked to volunteer together. Now on her own, Marie found that volunteering had given her life new meaning.

“Volunteering at the rescue saved my life. I’m so grateful for that,” Marie recalls. “I was green as green could be. I told Theresa I had no experience with horses, but I loved them.”

“Marie runs circles around even the college kids here,” says Theresa Batchelor. “I can’t thank her enough for all she does. These horses are like her kids, and this place keeps her going.”

Marie, now in her late 60s, also volunteers in the nursery at her church, but it’s her time helping the horses that truly satisfies her soul. Princess, Ruby and Classy are her favorite equines at the rescue. She recently marked her fifth year as a volunteer at Beauty’s Haven. Although she puts in an average of 30 hours per week feeding, cleaning stalls, grooming the horses and helping with whatever else needs doing, it doesn’t feel like work to her.

“The horses are wonderful,” says Marie, “and you can tell they are grateful for what we do.”

 

Giving Where It Counts

Marion Montanari, Ocala

Marion Montanari has made it her mission to “scatter joy” as much as possible. Her efforts have positively impacted the lives of many people who will never meet her personally, but Marion doesn’t want recognition. She simply wants to make a difference.

Marion moved to South Florida in 1970 and spent many years working with emotionally disturbed children at a school founded by her husband, Monty. It was there she realized how entire families suffer when a child is troubled and hurting.

In 1980, Monty and Marion moved to Ocala’s horse country and became involved in the equine business. Marion still lives on the farm they started almost 35 years ago and remains active in Thoroughbred breeding and racing.

Although horses are a favorite pursuit, Marion’s passion is helping people in need, and she stays busy with a number of charitable causes. Her donation to The Centers helped fund a wing for adolescents, and another donation to Munroe Regional Medical Center helped the hospital send nurses to an out-of-state course to learn how to identify abuse in children who show up in the emergency room.

Marion and Monty were married 31 years. Before Monty passed away in 2001, he bravely battled Parkinson’s disease. That’s when Marion got a first-hand introduction to Hospice of Marion County.

“Monty was a patient of hospice for about 10 days before he passed, and they certainly were a great help to me. The nurses are wonderful; they’re really angels bringing relief. We’re so blessed to have hospice here; many cities don’t have it. Even if you’re not in the position where you have someone who needs the care of hospice, you certainly know someone who does.”

When the Marion Cultural Alliance first launched “Horse Fever” in 2001, the project featured 52 life-sized fiberglass horses painted and decorated by regional artists. Marion purchased “Horse Fly,” the statue painted by Maggie Weakley, which now stands in front of the Hospice of Marion County building, thanks to Marion’s donation. She’s a strong supporter of Camp Mariposa, Hospice’s children’s bereavement camp, which serves the special needs of grieving youth by offering professional support at no charge.

For the past 14 years, Marion has hosted a cookie party every December. It’s a way for her friends to celebrate the season together, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to give lavishly to area shelters, such as Ocala Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center, Brother’s Keeper and Marion County Senior Services. In recent years, the cookie party has delivered more than 170 dozen cookies each year to grateful recipients.

“I think giving something homemade brings comfort,” says Marion. “I read recently that we are all called to holiness and shouldn’t miss any opportunities along the way.” 

 

A Heart For Children

Tracy Echols, Spring Hill

Tracy Echols may not have given birth to a child, but she considers herself a mother to some 22,000 kids. That’s roughly the number of children in the Hernando County school system, and Tracy cares about every single one of them.

“Kids are our future. We have to invest time and resources to help them, and some need a little more help than others,” says this second-generation Floridian, who firmly believes the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Tracy was born in Palatka but has lived in Spring Hill since 2003.

Now in her 50s, Tracy was first struck by the plight of the young people in her county back in 2007 while attending a community summit meeting. There, she heard about kids dropping out of school, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, violence and how other societal and educational factors were impacting area youth. The facts hit home. Tracy stepped away from her own businesses to problem solve and seek community-wide solutions to better the potential outcome for her community’s kids.

That was the first year she and other concerned community members established the Hernando Summit for Youth and Family, which is now an annual event.

Friends and family describe Tracy as a “go-getter,” but that’s an understatement. This busy woman works at the Hernando County Clerk of Court office, in addition to running her own consulting and life coach business, Tracy Echols and Associates. She also has a background in financial services, but her passion in life is helping people, especially young people, find their way to success.

“Many high school graduates fall in ‘the abyss’ between high school and their link to employment or post-secondary opportunities,” explains Tracy, who works diligently to help bridge that chasm. She heads up the Hernando Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee and the Hernando Youth Initiative and is the past president and executive director of Communities In Schools of Hernando, a wrap-around, drop-out prevention program with a focus on mentoring and tutoring designed to help keep kids in school.

Her own background is the main reason Tracy feels driven to help.

“I had a fantastic childhood. I had a close family, close friends, close church. I couldn’t have had better parents or a better upbringing,” Tracy reflects. “I want to see the kids in our community have even more opportunity than I did. But before they can be successful, we need to help them get barriers out of their way, make sure they get their high school diplomas and go on to some sort of secondary education. Then, they can ultimately become contributing members of society. The smallest, but most important, denominator in our future economy and our community is our kids.”

 

Giving Started Early

Kylie Philipps, Inverness

For Kylie Philipps, 18, a senior at Citrus High School, giving has been a lifestyle since she was young. This Inverness native has been involved in her local 4-H club, Lecanto Levis, since she was just 8 years old.

“It’s always been a big thing in our club to give back to the community by providing food and gifts for families at the holidays,” says Kylie. “We also do the Be A Santa For A Senior program, which helps provide household and personal items for seniors in our area who don’t have family to help support them.” In 2011, her 4-H club’s first chili cook-off helped raise money for the start-up of Citrus County Blessings. The program provides backpacks of food over the weekend for students at Pleasant Grove Elementary (the same school Kylie attended) who otherwise wouldn’t have enough to eat.

Kylie was so impressed with the program, she was determined to do more to help. Not only is she part of the team that fills the backpacks each month, but last year she donated the money raised from selling her 4-H hog. This hard-working teenager raised just over $5,400, which she donated to Citrus County Blessings and to the school directly to purchase additional items the program can’t provide for the students.

Her latest charity effort is the Piggy Bank Project to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which provides families with no-cost treatment of childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Teens from 26 states are participating in the project, sending an enormous paper mache piggy bank cross-country to raise money and awareness for St. Jude’s. As tour director, Kylie is responsible for coordinating the piggy’s progress.

“I often think it’s better to give locally and take care of your community first, but I know kids from my county who have reaped the benefits of pediatric cancer research from St. Jude’s, which is the best national charity I can think of to give back to,” she notes.

Kylie does all of her extracurricular charity endeavors while maintaining excellent grades. Her current GPA of 4.519 ranks her among the top 10 students in her entire class. Her goal is to attend the University of Florida, major in animal biology, attend veterinary school and then return to Citrus County and have a large animal practice.

 

Because Mental Health Matters

Maureen Soliman, Weeki Wachee

Mental illness has lost some of the stigma it carried in the past, but it’s certainly not a topic everyone feels comfortable discussing. Increasing awareness of this issue is vital for Maureen Soliman, who has lived in Hernando County since 1984.

“Without mental health, you have nothing. This topic needs to be brought out of the shadows,” says Maureen. “We hear about shootings and such sad things in the news, but if only we could have gotten help for these people earlier. Mental illness puts a drain on individual people, as well as the community financially because people can’t contribute to their community when they are mentally ill.”

One of Maureen’s main goals is to get more mental health education in the schools and enable teachers and support staff to make early recognition of the risk factors children face. This would allow the child and family to be referred for help before there’s a crisis. One way to help young people, even in underserved areas, is to bring in health care services remotely. For example, a child psychiatrist from another state can treat a child in Florida by Skype “meetings,” a technique known as “telehealth.”

Married to Fawzi Soliman, a board-certified general and vascular surgeon, Maureen, a mother of three grown children and grandmother of two, is one of the busiest people you’ll meet. At the end of this year, she’ll retire as administrator of her husband’s practice, Gulfcoast Surgery Center in Brooksville, but she’s really just changing jobs, not actually retiring. She’ll be using this opportunity to focus on her own business, Coastal Healthcare, which offers services for patient advocacy.

Maureen is a tireless advocate for the less fortunate. She was highly instrumental in the relocation and expansion of the Crescent Community Clinic, a health care clinic for those who do not have health insurance. Since 2011, Maureen has served as director of development for the clinic, which is 100 percent staffed by volunteers.

“All the doctors, nurses and everyone else volunteers their time; no one gets paid,” says Maureen. “We’ve easily seen 3,000 patients since January, and it’s all free.”

Maureen has been a member of the Rotary Club of Spring Hill Central for 15 years, volunteered with the county’s rape crisis team for five years and served as a Guardian ad Litem for nine years. A member of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, she helped start Hernando Mental Health Alliance and Nature Coast Recovery Alliance, which focus on drug addition issues.

“In high school, I was a Red Cross volunteer. I got my nursing degree and was a head nurse in ICU by the time I was 22,” recalls Maureen, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and went on to get her master’s degree in health care management.

Raised in an Irish Catholic German family, she credits that background and her years in Catholic school with instilling the “do unto others” philosophy she still follows today.

“My grandfather was one of the first fire captains in Brooklyn, and my father was a New York City fireman. There’s a lot of human service in my family. That compassion and empathy is just part of who I am, and it was encouraged in my early years,” she says. “When I was running the ICU, I saw that people are really all the same. We’re here for such a short time; we just need to help each other. Everything is interconnected. It’s all part of the tapestry.”

 

A Habit of Helping

Glen Bortell, Inverness

For 100-year-old Glen Bortell, helping others comes naturally. After all, it’s been a habit for decades.

Recognized as the 2012 Volunteer of the Year at Citrus Memorial Hospital, Glen has put in over 6,000 hours since 2004. As a “transporter” for diagnostic imaging, he’s the smiling person wheeling patients back and forth for X-rays, ultrasounds and other diagnostic tests.

“I love people,” says theenergetic centenarian, who volunteers 10 hours a week. “I like talking to them and trying to make them happier than they were.”

But that generosity of spirit is nothing new for Glen. Long before he and his late wife, Mary, moved to Florida in 1985, they lived a “help others” lifestyle in their native Iowa where they raised their own three children.

“Back then, it wasn’t common for the wife to work outside the home, but Mary put in a lot of hours volunteering at the hospital,” recalls Glen, who was in the grocery business for years. After selling his grocery stores’ interest, he and Mary opened a summer camp for boys and girls, Bortell’s Bar Rockin’ B Ranch, which they operated from 1960 to 1980. By the time the Bortells retired, Mary was cooking for 130 kids and staff... three home-cooked meals a day.

“Our whole family worked the camp together. We had 100-plus campers a week from the first week of June through August,” says Glen. “Kids would come for at least a week. We had one boy from Florida who would come as soon as school was out and stay the whole summer. We’d put him on a plane to go home the first week of September. I still get letters from people who stayed at the ranch as kids.”

 

Contributing For The Good

Frank Deluca, Ocala

Frank Deluca has only had two jobs in his life: the first at an auto dealership in Orlando and then his own Toyota dealership here in Ocala, which he started in 1978. That business has thrived, expanding from three acres to almost 25 over the years, but it’s his philanthropic efforts that have made a lasting difference in the community he calls home.

A number of charities are “near and dear” to him, and Frank has backed those organizations with donations to effect real change. A father of two and grandfather of five, he’s drawn to causes benefiting children, education and health issues.

After his late wife, Carol, died suddenly from massive heart failure while the couple was on a ski trip, Frank has strongly supported the American Heart Association. Carol’s legacy also lives on in the Carol Deluca Media Center at Trinity Catholic High School and the Carol Deluca Memorial Scholarship at College of Central Florida.

Among other organizations he supports are the American Cancer Society, Habitat of Humanity and the Ocala Royal Dames for Cancer Research. He was the first Royal Knight to be inducted into this local group, which has raised over $2 million for cancer research in Florida.

Having been involved with the YMCA since he was a child, he became a major contributor to the Marion County Y. In addition to supporting scholarship programs to make sure no child is ever turned away because they can’t pay, Frank made a $1 million gift that is being applied to major renovations. The Y honored his donation by renaming their center the Frank Deluca YMCA Family Center.

“Our YMCA ranks as one of the top five Ys out of about 2,500 in the nation. These renovations will make it one of the country’s most state-of-the-art facilities. It had about 200 members in 1996 and now has close to 30,000,” says Frank Deluca.

“The local community has given a whole lot to me, and without it,” he says, “I wouldn’t be blessed and able to give back.”




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