Enough bad news! It’s time again to celebrate the people who work tirelessly every day to improve the community we all call home.
Readers nominated more than 100 people for the ninth annual installment of “10 People Who Make Orlando a Better Place to Live.”
These are folks who don’t normally make headlines but definitely make a difference. This year’s honorees come from all over Central Florida — from the nonprofit, law enforcement, faith, health care, media and educational communities.
Carolyn Moor, President, Founder of Modern Widows Club
Losing a spouse is horrendous. For many who do, the idea of trying to carry on is simply unthinkable. That’s why Moor formed a support, activity and empowerment group for women trying to figure out how to move ahead without the life partner they always envisioned at their side. One of those who nominated her noted that Moor founded the club after suffering her own loss. She couldn’t find the help she sought. So she decided to create that opportunity for others.
Kevin Carroll, chief of Groveland Fire Department
Many firefighters try to save lives. Chief Kevin Carroll also spends a lot of time trying to honor them — particularly those of Black Floridians who were buried in graves that have since been overgrown or forgotten. The head of the Groveland Fire Department in Lake County, who also serves on the board of the nonprofit Neighborhood Center of South Lake, has received national recognition from the New York Times and others for his efforts to restore a long abandoned African-American cemetery in Lake County, even helping secure a $500,000 state grant to do so.
Rev. Michele Van Son Neill, Methodist minister and founder of Crave
Neill is a pastor with the United Methodist Church whose faith called her to help aspiring and often underprivileged leaders and entrepreneurs by pairing them with mentors. Not every bright mind capable of changing the world has an MBA or the ability to get one. Crave helps young leaders with potential, especially in the nonprofit sector, through coaching, networking and spiritual development. One nominator said Neill “is giving brilliant gifted entrepreneurs who have no privilege as young folks a fighting chance to make the Central Florida world a better place. And they are.”
Debbie Gunter, publisher of the College Park Community Paper
While some media chase controversies and scandal, Debbie Gunter likes to share colorful stories about her own neighborhood. As the publisher of College Park’s Community Paper, she does so every week with pieces that feature everything from neighborhood eateries and local barbers to new book clubs and feel-good personal stores (like a College Park woman who was adopted as a child 60 years ago and finally found a long-lost sister). In doing so, Gunter has established herself as both a community historian and champion with one nominator saying she leaves readers of this hyper-local paper both informed and inspired.
Deidre Keller, dean FAMU law school
Keller came to Orlando’s often-overlooked law school three years ago hoping to improve the school’s stature nationally, but also inspire students to serve their communities. Nominators said she has done so by stressing the value of pro bono work and offering her school and its students as a resource to local business. Keller, a native of Guyana, has said academia can be “a space of privilege.” But she seems determined to use that space to make FAMU an agent of change —- not only for the students, especially female and Black aspiring lawyers who’ve historically been outnumbered in the legal profession, but also for the communities where they’ll ultimately practice.
Pia Valvassori, nurse with Health Care Center for the Homeless
Many who work on the front lines of homelessness do work that’s life-transforming. Valvassori does work that’s life-saving. As a nurse practitioner with the Health Care Center for the Homeless, Valvassori responds at all hours of the day and night and even helped establish a mobile medical van to serve those living in the woods and on the street. This can be grueling work. Yet Valvassori, who’s also a professor at Rollins College and volunteers at other local clinics like Shepherd’s Hope, has been doing it for 25 years. One nominator said Valvassori not only treats her patients’ illnesses, but also treats these often-desperate souls “with dignity, compassion and respect.”
Eddy Moratin, president of Lift Orlando
The neighborhoods around Camping World Stadium in southwest Orlando have long been rich in history and culture but not cash investments. Lift Orlando is determined to change that, particularly when it comes to housing. The nonprofit has raised more than $100 million for everything from affordable and mixed-use housing to preschool programs and a wellness center. Backers say Moratin is a big part of the reason why the group has been so successful. He has a soft-spoken yet compelling way of making big names with deep pockets want to get involved in improving a community that was for, for too long, ignored.
Ron and Lin Wilensky, co-founders Dave’s House
There may be no group whose struggles are more well known yet incredibly underserved than those with mental illness and developmental disabilities. For many families, it’s tough to find basic needs, including housing. Through Dave’s House, named after Lin’s brother who lived with schizophrenia, the Wilenskys are addressing that in meaningful ways. They have developed nine multi-resident homes worth more than $5 million and are working on an entire residential community for more than two dozen people. One nominator said the Wilenkskys, who were also finalists for the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Floridian of the Year award a few years ago, saw a complex problem and decided to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.
Anthony “Biggie” Bencomo, food-scene promoter and founder of Deli Fresh Threads
There’s something to be said for people who simply love this community and want the rest of the world to know about it. Anthony “Biggie” Bencomo fits the bill with his passion for Central Florida’s food scene — particularly when it comes to sandwiches. The UCF alum promotes all things edible through his “Lunch with Biggie” podcast and his Deli Fresh Threads that offer “sandwich-themed clothing” … three words you don’t hear every day. Sentinel food writer Amy Drew Thompson said she sometimes gifts Bencomo’s food-promoting garb to visiting culinary dignitaries, and one nominator called Biggie just a “super positive dude.”
Kandis Natoli, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Florida
No one on this list serves a vulnerable population earlier in life than Kandis Natoli. We’re talking about premature babies in intensive care units and sick babies just out of the hospital. Many are infants whose own mothers’ bodies aren’t producing milk. The bank finds donors, sometimes even working with moms who tragically lost their own babies and yet still want to share the gift of life. Natoli spreads the word about this under-discussed problem as both a nurse and executive director of this bank — one of only 30 accredited nonprofit milk banks in America — that has a simple mission: “to provide safe human donor milk for babies in need.”
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here