Loving your neighbor can take myriad forms and may rise from surprising sources. How about a 9-year-old who creates fashionable handmade earrings to help fund cancer research? Or an 85-year-old who delivers meals to seniors and teaches English to internationals? Or a young woman whose law school training led her to enlist rescued dogs to teach at-risk kids there’s hope and a better way?
These salt-of-the-earth folks, three of this year’s Best of Philanthropy Award winners, are not alone in serving their neighbors; wonderfully, such large-hearted people abound in the Midlands. For the second year, therefore, Central Carolina Community Foundation and Columbia Metropolitan magazine are partnering to present the annual Best of Philanthropy Awards: Honoring Our Community Champions to shine a light on individuals, groups and families in our community who make significant contributions to those around them.
To salute this year’s seven winners, nominated in five categories by the community at large and selected by the awards committee, we will present them each with a $500 donation in their names to the nonprofit organizations of their choice. The checks will be presented at an awards gala in their honor, to be held Sept. 16 at Leaside. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at www.yourfoundation.org or by calling (803) 254-5601, ext. 330.
Family Community Champions
The Kasper Family
They have seven dogs, all rescues. Three wandered up to the family’s Lexington home as puppies; four came through adoption from Pawmetto Lifeline. They tend to take dogs that are hard to place.
On hearing the above description, anyone at Pawmetto Lifeline would immediately chuckle and say, “You’re talking about Lisa and Ken Kasper.” For many years, these two have worked diligently for Pawmetto Lifeline, donating their time, sweat equity and money toward rescuing animals from municipal shelters and educating the public regarding the need for spaying, neutering and the humane treatment of animals.
Lisa has long volunteered nights to help with necessary animal care, computer work and administrative duties. Additionally, she has devoted so much volunteer time to the organization’s Care-A-Van program, which provides pet vaccines and medical care to low-income families, that recently she was hired to work that program as a regular employee. But she still devotes many unpaid hours to Pawmetto Lifeline and is always the first to volunteer for any special project.
As Tracy Johnson of Pawmetto Lifeline testifies, “Lisa and Ken are constantly making improvementsto Pawmetto Lifeline’s programs through innovative ideas and the research and development of much-needed resources. As a volunteer, Ken regularly performs facility maintenance and provides us donated computers and equipment. And each hour of Ken’s volunteer time is matched with a donation from his employer, Verizon Wireless. Lisa and Ken also negotiated the purchase of animal caging for us, and Lisa purchased these cages out of pocket and donated them, providing us thousands of dollars’ worth of essential equipment.”
Lisa and Ken, Tracy says, give a tremendous amount of love to Pawmetto Lifeline’s charges, too. Just ask Benny, Bear, Buck, Sparky, Squiggy, Susie and Missy, those rescued pooches that are now beloved Kasper family members.
When a family unplugs the home television for good, something has to fill the vacuum once occupied by the little screen. After Todd and Donna Shevchik shut theirs off in October 2009, daughter Gigi took to making jewelry in place of watching shows in the evenings. She had already begun making a little jewelry for fun earlier that year.
“When my mother passed away in June 2009,” says Todd, “she did so wearing a bracelet and earrings that Gigi made for her. They brought her so much joy during the last moments of her battle with cancer. She continually told Gigi how much they meant to her, and it made a very big impression on Gigi, who was then only 7 years old.”
That fall, Gigi crafted earrings of sterling silver and beads and went door to door selling them. The business grew, along with Gigi’s desire to give from her profits to cancer charities, a passion stimulated by her grandmother’s death. Now age 9, she has racks of earrings under the name Gigi’s Jewelry in 15 Lexington retail locations, and she hosts holiday and special-occasion jewelry parties, where she makes custom earrings for attendees, often in custom colors to suit the occasion. In addition, she has set up a website that lists retail outlets for her jewelry (www.jewelry4cancer.com).
This disciplined young lady daily sets aside time to make her jewelry, assisted by her brothers, Joey and Noah, and she donates 75 percent of her profits to charity while saving 25 percent toward college. Thankful for her success, Gigi confides, “So far, I’ve given $250 to Children’s Chance, $750 to the Ta-tinis and $500 to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. It makes me feel happy when I make my earrings!”
In recognition of her work, Gigi received an honorary lifetime membership with the Lexington Chamber of Commerce and served as a speaker at Midlands Technical College’s Entrepreneur Workshop. She plans to be an attorney and also wants to attend Yale to learn about cancer and its causes.
Student Community Champion (tie)
About 60 children per week find life a sweeter deal because of Hammond School senior Morgan Polans and her bucket of art supplies. The founder of the non-profit My Art Project, online at www.myartproject.org, Morgan has conducted art projects with children in after-school community programs since 2009.
“I volunteer with Boys and Girls Clubs, Richland County Recreation Commission, Sistercare and Columbia College’s Clubhouse,” Morgan says. “I bring everything the kids need at no charge to them and teach them how to make the project. At the end of the session, they get to take it home.”
The daughter of Robert and Chrissy Polans, Morgan puts approximately seven hours weekly into her volunteer work and uses all donations for art supplies, taking nothing out for her own expenses. And she’s not averse to helping her kids in ways not related to art. For example, when she found that the children at Sistercare couldn’t check out books from the library, she held a community book drive for the organization. It netted 200 children’s books for Sistercare, which the kids can read while they’re staying there.
Headmaster Chris Angel of Hammond School, who nominated Morgan, explains that many children have built self-confidence through creativity while participating in her program. As proven by Morgan’s Martin Luther King Dream Keeper Scholarship Award, granted to her in January 2011 by the City of Columbia for her outstanding community service, Morgan’s circle of appreciative supporters is growing.
Serious about academics, Morgan is considering college majors in elementary education and special education, as well as law school. Whatever she does, she wants to help kids.
“If I have a hard day at school,” she says, “all I have to do is start working with the kids, and my day is turned around. I didn’t think they’d be able to give me anything, but they’ve given me more than I could ever imagine.”
Group Community Champion
Gilbert Elementary School Relay For Life Team
“Nobody can figure out how a three-grade rural school can be Lexington One’s top fundraiser for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life event, but somehow we’ve done it for five of the last 12 years,” says Donna Clarke, Gilbert Elementary School nurse and captain of the school’s Relay For Life team.
Kids, faculty and staff, parents, even community members — everybody gets involved, not only in the main relay event but also in the smaller fundraising events held during the year toward the cause.
With justifiable pride, Donna notes, “By the time our students leave us, they know cancer isn’t contagious, that some people will lose their hair, that some people will not survive it but that we are raising money to try to find a cure. We have an in-house television show that explains what cancer is, and the students learn a lot of life lessons through our staff and faculty. Just knowing the facts helps reduce the stress these children may feel from having a loved one stricken with cancer.”
Donna adds that they try to do all this with a sense of humor, as last year when principal Tim Oswald promised, “If y’all raise $15,000, I’ll let Nurse Clarke shave my head!” They raised $15,735, so the principal got his shave during a special assembly.
This past year, Relay For Life came home to Gilbert Elementary when a GES fourth-grader was diagnosed with brain cancer and by the end of the school year still had not returned to school. He really missed seeing his classmates, so his teacher asked his mom, “Can you just drive him by on the last day of school? I’ll get my class out there by the roadside, and we’ll just wave at him.”
According to Donna, “The kids found out, and all of a sudden the whole school was on board with this. In less than two days, our 700 kids plus staff were on the road singly lined up, holding signs and chanting “Wyatt! Wyatt!” in support of this little boy. A fire truck drove him down the main street in front of the school and back again. Then, the firemen opened the door to the truck, and the child had face-to-face time with his classmates from several feet away [due to his weakened immune system]. Our kids have learned over the years that this is the kind of thing you’re supposed to do to help somebody survive cancer. They’ve learned compassion.”
owner, Gervais & Vine and Rosso Trattoria Italia
According to Ellen Clark of Cullen’s Archangel RescuE, Inc., Kristian Niemi, owner of Gervais & Vine and Rosso Trattoria Italia, feeds all types of hunger, making life better for women, children and animals in the Midlands.
“Some of his philanthropy is well known,” says Ellen, “like Kristian’s Wine Goddess events, held several times a year. For each event, Kristian spotlights a different nonprofit that helps women or children. Supporters purchase an event ticket, Kristian donates the food and beverages, and ticket proceeds go to the featured charity.”
During the Christmas season, Kristian also puts up South Carolina Youth Advocate Program Angel Trees at his two restaurants. Guests can give featured foster children gifts so they don’t feel forgotten. Kristian himself “adopts” several children each year.
In addition to his concern for needy women and children, Kristian has a soft spot for animals in tough situations, and he has generated thousands of dollars toward their support.
Among other efforts, Kristian says, “We do special nights at the restaurant where we donate a large portion of the profits from certain items to a specific nonprofit, usually a pet charity. Last year, we did a big event at Rosso benefiting a camp for special-needs kids. In one evening, we raised over $13,000 for them. I volunteer at this camp, so I got to see those dollars at work.”
With his busy life, it would seem impossible for him to add charitable work to his schedule. But Kristian encourages others to realize it doesn’t take much to help. “You can do philanthropic activities in the course of a day without even breaking stride, whether it’s donating money or dropping off clothes or food at a local shelter.”
Individual Community Champion (tie)
Raised in the country, Julia Colson grew up wanting to help others just as her mom did, so she has volunteered all her 85 years. After she retired from teaching, she increased her volunteer hours so that now the only day she doesn’t volunteer is Saturday — unless somebody really needs her. And she does allow herself a little rest Sunday afternoons after church.
“I serve as a volunteer chaplain at Palmetto Baptist Hospital and White Oak Nursing Home,” Julia says, “and I deliver Meals On Wheels through Senior Resources and have done so for more than 15 years. At my church, First Baptist of Columbia, I teach an English class on Sunday mornings to internationals, using the Bible as a textbook. I also teach English as a second language on Thursday mornings at First Baptist, and on Fridays at my home I tutor individual internationals who need help with English. It keeps me busy!”
Annie Eveleigh of Senior Resources says of Julia, “If for some reason she doesn’t volunteer, her Meals On Wheels clients call us to check on her. She quite possibly may have saved several of their lives, too. On two occasions when she opened the door of a homebound senior, she smelled gas. The gas company was notified and the problems corrected. If she had not gone to those two homes, who knows what the outcomes may have been for the residents?”
“Julia,” Annie continues, “doesn’t let anything stop her from volunteering — not the weather, not how she feels, not even cancer.” Last year, this remarkable senior even scheduled her radiation treatments for brain cancer around her volunteer duties.
“I’ve been blessed greatly through working with other people,” says Julia. “As long as I am able, I want to serve. I’m trusting the Lord to leave me here as long as He wants me here.”
Individual Community Champion (tie)
Cheri Brown Thompson
While in law school, Cheri Brown Thompson learned that most violent “depraved heart” incarcerated offenders were abused as children and began repeating abuse at an early age against animals. Feeling compelled to reach children before their hearts became depraved, she graduated from USC law school and passed the bar exam, but she then changed course in a direction she felt would better enable her to reach kids in need. The result was Healing Species, an Orangeburg-based education ministry that helps children overcome violence, bullying and crime.
“With these kids,” Cheri recalls, “I discovered that the missing link in most of their lives was the notion of compassion. So I decided I would intercept crime in the early adolescent years by teaching compassion. And what better way to teach compassion than through the story of a rescued dog? Some dog that nobody else wanted and how this dog, though he had been abused and abandoned, responded only with love.”
Cheri’s dogs accompany Healing Species instructors into classes to teach children how to become aware of abuse, how to get help if needed, and that they deserve to be safe.
For 10 years, Cheri has worked without compensation in order to reach more youth with volunteers and a paid-staff team, and she and her husband have adopted two young boys she met while teaching a Healing Species lesson. These boys have become a real joy to the couple. She also has started the Healing Species Sanctuary, which houses abused or neglected dogs and finds them loving homes. This aspect of her work needs sponsors because the sanctuary remains full to capacity.
Good counsel and time in prayer, Cheri says, have allowed her and her staff to make the Healing Species successful. She’s grateful for every supporter and every prayer that enables the Healing Species (www.healingspecies.org) to continue being a voice for the voiceless.