A Gift for Giving

This inspiring couple built a purposeful life together full of adventure, service, sacrifice, generosity and love.

If you ask Shanta Matthews Pozzuto if the circumstance that enabled her to save her husband Andy’s life was just an unlikely coincidence, she answers without hesitation, “It was nobody but the good Lord above.”

That amazing chapter in the story of this Ocala couple’s relationship—which unfolds a bit later—is one of several unlikely circumstances that seem to be the norm, not the exception.

For Andy, that was true from his birth. “My mother’s Jewish, my father’s Italian and I’m in therapy,” he jokes about his heritage. The second son born to his family, Andy came into the world with only one kidney. As a very young child, he was in-and- out of the hospital until his condition stabilized.

None of that deterred young Andrew Pozzuto from growing up active and involved in life, much like other kids in his Miami neighborhood. After high school, he attended Miami Dade Community College and then transferred to the University of Florida, where he majored in political science. After completing his undergraduate studies, he earned a law degree in 1990. Following graduation, he moved to Ocala and took up practice as a public defender then continued his career as a criminal defense lawyer and managing partner of AP Law Group in Ocala and Gainesville.

When Andy Met Shanta

Shanta Matthews was born and raised in Ocala. She graduated from what she calls the “old” Forest High School, referring to the current location of Marion Technical Institute. She met Andy when she was a high school student in a work/study program at his law firm. But it was his partner, Tania Alavi, with whom Shanta would develop a close friendship and stay in contact following graduation from high school. Shanta pursued her undergraduate in psychology at Florida State University and on breaks from school would come to Ocala to work part-time for the law firm. As graduation from college approached, she recalls thinking, “I’m not ready to go out and get a real-person job.”

Several fellow graduates were heading to law school so, almost as an afterthought, she decided to take the LSAT—the Law School Aptitude Test. She scored well and was accepted to the University of Illinois-Chicago’s John Marshall Law School. “I really didn’t go to law school for any noble purpose, like wanting to change the world,” she acknowledges.

As it turns out, the decision certainly changed her. When Shanta came to Ocala from Chicago for Christmas break in 2006, she called up her friend, Tania, at the law firm to see if she would go to the movies. “I was dying to see Dreamgirls, which had just come out,” Shanta recalls.

Tania didn’t want to make the drive from Gainesville to Ocala but suggested, “You should call Andy. He’d probably like to go.” “Why would I call Andy?” Shanta thought. “I only ever speak to him when I’m in the office.” Nonetheless, she texted him, “Hey, I’m in town. Want to go see Dreamgirls?” He replied, “I don’t text. Call me.” “I guess texting was a young people’s thing,” she says with a grin. They got together for dinner and in Shanta’s words, “We had a nice time, but I didn’t think much about it. The next day, I flew back to Chicago.”

Over the next few months, that dinner date led to increasingly frequent phone calls. In March 2007, Andy flew to Chicago and they began to date steadily. He even travelled to Paris to see her when she was doing a study-abroad stint. That not only fueled their romance, it ignited a shared passion for travel. Shanta later returned to Florida and completed her juris doctor (JD) degree at the University of Florida Levin School of Law.

Andy and Shanta got married on September 2nd, 2012, and three years later, on September 2nd, 2015, got the news she was pregnant with twins. The next April, they welcomed daughter Cameron and son Anderson to their world.

A Hitch In Happily Ever After

Because of his kidney condition, Andy always had yearly tests to check his liver enzyme levels, which typically hovered above the normal average but within an acceptable range.

He missed his regular checkup in 2015, as he focused on the pregnancy and the lengthy recovery of his mother and stepfather from injuries suffered in a devastating automobile accident on September 3rd, just one day after getting the news about the twins.

When Andy went for his yearly liver tests in 2016, the news was not good. A person with only one kidney may have a “normal level” of about 1.8 or 1.9. His number had increased to 2.8 and continued to rise over the next few months.

After testing at the University of Florida’s UF Health Shands Hospital, he was put on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. He was told the window of opportunity was fairly short and without a donor kidney soon, he would have to go on dialysis, a move physicians always want to avoid as it significantly decreases the likelihood of a successful transplant in the future.

Andy and Shanta immediately sent out donor screening forms to family, friends and anyone else who might be a likely donor, urging all to return them as quickly as possible.

Shanta says she would call the donor screening team constantly to ask if a donor had been found. On one call, while she was driving down Silver Springs Boulevard, she heard the good news that a match had been found. Shanta recalls saying how thrilled she was and excitedly asking the woman on the other end of the line, “Will you call that person now and let them know?” The woman said, “Shanta, it’s you.”

“That was shocking,” Shanta says. “What were the odds? It sounded so fantastic. I’m the one who ended up telling Andy.” “Obviously, it’s hard to comprehend,” says Andy, “and very complicated, especially with our two young kids.” But he can’t resist adding with a smile, “It’s almost like I had her blood tested before I married her.”

Tough Choices

Shanta as donor and Andy as recipient meant two concurrent surgeries, two recoveries and twice the risk that something could go wrong. It also meant the couple would have to rely on others to take care of them and their twins during their simultaneous recovery. Loving parents on both sides and a caring community of friends filled that need, for which the couple is eternally grateful.

At first, the transplant seemed to go off without a hitch. Then, a few days into his recovery, Andy began to experience severe pain. Fearing his body had rejected the organ, surgeons performed a second procedure, discovered the problem and corrected it.

He was discharged from the hospital the day before Thanksgiving 2017 and this past November 24th the Pozzuto’s celebrated the four-year anniversary of that occasion with deep gratitude. “I still get pretty emotional around the anniversary,” Shanta says. “Finding that I was a match was great, but also terrifying.

“Being a donor was both the most selfless and most selfish thing I’ve done. Selfless because you’re literally putting your life on the line for somebody else. Selfish because it’s my husband and I like the life we lead, the things we do, and I didn’t want to see him go through dialysis and have our relationship completely change.”

Andy says it was difficult to know that someone else must go through that for him. That’s one of the reasons he’s so willing to tell his story publicly—to get across the message of the importance of being an organ donor. He notes that the demand is great and it’s easy to designate willingness to donate on your driver’s license.

Characteristically, Andy couldn’t resist revealing that he’d named his kidney Lennon in honor of John Lennon and had named Shanta’s remaining kidney Yoko. The eyeroll from Shanta—priceless.

Great For Them, Good For Ocala

Ocala is lucky to have a family like the Pozzutos among its citizens. As practicing lawyers, Shanta and Andy are making a mark in their own way and leaving their clients and our community better for it.

In October of 2021, the Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) presented its Pro Bono Hero Award to Andy for his role in challenging the constitutionality of an open lodging ordinance in Ocala, which prohibited homeless individuals from sleeping in public spaces. Describing his efforts, the SLC noted that he, working alongside the SLC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, “showed incomparable compassion for the clients, who represented one of the most underserved and disenfranchised groups of people in the community.”

When asked about his role, Andy says, “I’m a dreamer. I can hear an old speech from Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and still get inspired. I get goosebumps when I hear John Lennon’s Imagine. Those things mean something to me. And this challenge to the ordinance meant something to me as well. I felt like a wrong was being committed. I’m a downtown property owner, but I think that there’s a better way of dealing with human beings than to arrest them and put them in jail for being homeless.”

Andy’s commitment to the community extends beyond his law practice. He has served as president of the Ocala Lions Club, on the board of the Discovery Science Center and as a member of the Public Policy Institute of Marion County, Inc. (PPI).

Shanta serves as chair of the 5th Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission, vice president of the Marion County Bar Association and is a member of the Estate Planning Council of Marion County as well as the PPI.

Like Andy, she integrates her commitment to community with her law practice, providing pro bono legal services through Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. Currently, however, she says probate work makes up the bulk of her practice.

“What I genuinely enjoy about probate is that I can help people sort out their affairs and clear titles to land and property,” she notes, “It’s a huge problem, especially in communities of color where families are losing generational wealth, often because it’s difficult to know who actually owns the property. Even though it can be messy and time consuming, I do feel a pull towards trying to help people resolve those issues.”

Shanta also has participated as a mentor in Take Stock in Children, a Florida-based nonprofit that “provides a unique opportunity for deserving, low-income youth to escape the cycle of poverty through education” through one-on-one support and college scholarship opportunities.

She says the program has enabled her “to meet some really cool young people doing really extraordinary things.” She notes that the first young woman she mentored recently finished her master’s degree at the University of Florida and her current mentee, who will graduate high school in the spring, just texted that she’s been admitted to college for the fall of 2022.

“Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

Quoting Dr. Seuss, Andy and Shanta say traveling is their passion. Whether it’s a weekend getaway to Disney World or Busch Gardens, a family trip to Yellowstone National Park or the Pacific Northwest, or a European vacation, they want their children to experience the world in every way possible.

Even though the twins are still young, they say the key to helping them remember where they’ve been and what they’ve seen is to talk about their adventures and the fun they’ve had.

The experiences they share with their children don’t always happen far from home. It’s not unusual for one or both of the children to accompany their parents to work at the law office. Shanta says Anderson likes to go with her on weekends, provided pepperoni pizza is included.

“He’ll stay there with me for hours sometimes, drawing or just hanging out,” she shares. Even if there’s a Sunday visit to the office, the first stop is Sunday School for both children at the Ocala First United Methodist Church, which also plays a major role in their lives in all sorts of activities throughout the week.

Giving It Their Best

When asked what they’d like people to know about them, the Pozzuto’s were clear. While they take their professional and civic responsibilities very seriously, they don’t want to be defined just by titles and roles. Nor do they want to be recalled only as the husband and wife who share a kidney.

“Those are simply parts of our story,” says Andy. “I hope others see us as people who are trying to give it our best each day. We’re committed to that. We love our neighbors and love being here for all the opportunities it has given us.”

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