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Philanthropic Hero Biographies

Louisville, Kentucky

Considered one of the world’s worst natural disasters, Hurricane Mitch left hundreds of thousands homeless, and killed an estimated 10,000 people across Central America in 1998. Longtime U.S. citizen and native Nicaraguan, Myrian Bodner, a Louisville, Kentucky homemaker, was devastated by the news. “It was absolutely horrible. All the crops were gone. It was going to take human resources to build the country up.”

To alleviate the suffering, Myrian first worked with longtime friend and registered nurse, Jennifer Salazar, to gather medical supplies to ship overseas. First they approached Supplies Over Seas, a medical foundation, to provide them with medical essentials, then they asked UPS to fly the cargo to Managua free of charge. Shortly after, hospital beds, IV holders and other supplies arrived in Nicaragua to be distributed by the Red Cross. Myrian was there to help.

Upon completion of this first success, Myrian then reached out to the Mustard Seed Communities and her local church and collected $250,000 worth of other daily essentials which were later distributed by Food for the Poor. Aside from acting as a conduit for these works, Myrian and her family have financially supported each endeavor Myrian orchestrated. Myrian felt she had to help, “Those were faces that I knew - that I've known all my life.”

Elmhurst, Illinois

After seeing news accounts of the refugee crisis in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo, 10-year-old Gil Castellanos was alarmed. Immediately he began talking with his mother Laura about the effects of war and asked her what he could do. Laura told Gil to keep the refugees in his prayers-- Gil said that that was not enough.

Working with his 11-year old sister Ashley, 4-year-old brother Michael, and three children from two other families – Janet, Ray and Diane Barry and Taylor Thorpe, Gil created Simply from the Heart, a door to door effort to raise $1 from each resident of his hometown. Accompanied by parents, and under local supervision of The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, Simply from the Heart’s six week effort raised $7,100 for Kosovar refugees.

Detroit, Michigan

Raised by parents who taught him to work hard, live simply and save money, Matel Dawson has spent his whole 59-year career at Ford Motor Company building wealth to share. By following his parents’ advice, this 78-year old forklift operator worked overtime and invested his money, allowing him to give away more than $1 million over the past eight years.

One of the many things Matel’s money is used for is to help students do what he could not - complete an education. At Wayne State University in Detroit his Mat Dawson Jr. Endowed Scholarship provides full four year tuition to deserving students, regardless of race, gender or religion. Handing out the scholarships personally is his way to "meet the kids, follow their progress and know who they are." Other recipients of Matel’s philanthropy are the United Negro College Fund ($230,000), Louisiana State University ($200,000) and the NAACP ($150,000).

Matel recently said, "I’ve owned big homes and big cars and that don’t excite me no more. I just want people to say that I tried to help somebody."

Los Angeles, California

Mary Grayson has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for thirty years where she has been a donor to the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) since 1974, giving from each paycheck for 25 years. CFC, a model of workplace giving, allows 4 million federal employees an opportunity to give to the charities of their choice through automatic paycheck deductions.

A former Girl Scout leader, mother of three and grandmother of eight, Mary has also served as a parent volunteer with her local PTA and is a trustee at the Hays Tabernacle CME Church. One of the key factors that motivated Ms. Grayson to give to the Combined Federal Campaign was a friend who had two children with Sickle Cell Anemia. Seeing first hand what this disease can do to a family, Mary chooses to give her contributions to various sickle cell disease organizations. A true believer in the power of education, she also contributes to the United Negro College Fund.

The Combined Federal Campaign is the nation’s largest fundraising campaign. In 1998, federal employees contributed $206 million to charity, breaking the 1991 record of $204 million.

Westover, West Virginia

Through careful savings and wise investments, Regina Jennings, a custodian at West Virginia University College of Law, was able to amass a life savings of over $93,000. Rather than spend it on herself, she decided to donate the majority of it to the law school where she works–one of the largest gifts the school has ever received. Regina made the gift because of her fondness for the school’s staff and professors and for her deep appreciation of higher education.

"The law school faculty and students were so incredibly nice and genuine," Jennings recalls. "I had the chance to really get to know some folks. They always talked to me and asked me how I was doing.” Over the years, Jennings developed a friendship with WVU law professor and former state Supreme Court Justice Franklin Cleckley. "I sometimes would work into the evenings, and Mr. Cleckley would always be there too….he was always very kind." Jennings said she was especially impressed with Cleckley because of his deep respect and love of law.

Ms. Jenning’s gift will be used to renovate a room at the law school. When completed next spring, the facility - to be formally named for Jennings - will house a sophisticated teleconferencing system to allow for distance education. A portion of the funds will also be used to establish an endowment.

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San Francisco, California

Rolland Lowe is the chair of the Lawrence Choy Lowe Memorial Fund and the first ever Asian American President of the California Medical Association. Dr. Lowe's goal as president has been to get physicians more involved in their communities. He has said that to be good patient advocates, doctors need to understand their community. Committed to re-establishing personal relationships between doctors and patients he has worked to provide low-income immigrants with high quality health care and advocated for better health care within the Chinese American community.

In keeping with his charitable spirit, Dr. Lowe founded the Lawrence Choy Lowe Memorial Fund in 1987, a charitable and civic foundation in Chinatown Fund which makes gifts to nonprofit organizations for a wide variety of causes in the Chinese community. Among these causes has been ensuring Asian civil rights and the establishment of a capital campaign for the Chinese Historical Society’s museum. Dr. Lowe has also served in many community organizations and foundations and worked to provide decent housing for the elderly in San Francisco through redevelopment of an old hotel for use as a senior housing and community center. Dr. Lowe and his family have committed more than $600,000 to the Lowe Memorial Fund, while giving to other local causes as well.

Hazleton, Pennsylvania

Matthew Nonnemacher is an 11 year old boy who in 1997, decided to work with his local United Way to launch “A Million Ways to Care,” a one million penny-drive in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Generated by a homework question of, “If you had any wish, what would you wish for?,” Matthew set his mind to collect one million pennies for the local poor. In conjunction with Make A Difference Day, local schools were contacted and canisters for pennies were placed in businesses and organizations throughout the Hazelton community, eventually collecting 1.8 million pennies ($18,000).

Matthew has expressed that he would someday like to be a priest. But rather than wait to help people, he wanted “to help them now.” Matthew is ensuring that the money he has raised is used so that the poor can have “food, clothing and a home.”

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North Canton, Connecticut

Reverend Pearson, Pastor of Community United Methodist Church of North Canton, Connecticut, recently inherited $1,000 from her Uncle John, the inspiration for her faith in God and charitable works. Wanting to inspire an ethic of caring and a lifetime of service in others as her Uncle John had inspired in her, Reverend Pearson decided to give $10 to each of her parishioners to then give to a cause of their choice. “Many folks had not realized how many avenues for giving there were until they really listened with intention,” she has said. With their “Uncle John” money, adults brought new opportunities for community service into the church. Reverend Pearson then published the stories of her parishioners’ philanthropy in the Church’s bulletin, which profoundly influenced each participant to engage in their own journey of giving.

In addition to her pastoral duties at two churches, Rev. Pearson serves as a member of the Bishop’s Task Force for Children and Poverty, on the executive board of Focus on Canton, an outreach program of the six churches in Canton; and a member of the Council on Ministries of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She is chair of the Central Connecticut District Council on Ministries and a member of the Central Connecticut District Committee for Ordination.

Seattle, Washington

Born in Mexico, Esperanza Rich came to the United States with her parents at a very young age, eventually moving to Iowa. Despite many hardships- the death of her father, feeling inferior because of the color of her skin and working long hours in the sugar beet fields- Esperaza and all her siblings graduated from their Iowa high school.

Throughout the course of her life in Iowa, Esperanza and her family experienced the generosity of many people including that of two women who brought the family food, clothing and toys every Saturday. These simple Saturday exchanges made these women Esperanza’s role models.

Many years later, one of the women – after moving with her husband to Seattle – invited Esperanza and her husband to visit. Upon visiting, Esperanza and her husband decided to move there and were able to find work. Now retired, Esperanza is as generous to people as she feels people always have been to her. Working with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Roman Catholic lay organization that fosters personal outreach to poor and needy people of all faiths, Mrs. Rich is able to help low-income families attain food, clothing, bus tickets, rent and utility assistance. She also gives them hope.

To ensure that her charitable works are continued past her own life, Esperanza is leaving a legacy to the St. Vincent de Paul Society in her will. “With the help of God, I’ve been able to serve the poor through the Conference, geared toward Hispanics. Therefore, in thanksgiving to our Lord, I’ve included St. Vincent de Paul in my will.”

Washington, D.C.

William Shelton is the Coordinator of Community Relations at Brookland Manor, an assisted housing complex for people of all ages in northeast Washington, D.C. A believer in getting things done, he not only helps those he works with in a professional capacity, he reaches out to help others in a personal capacity. Professionally, he has been a key player in opening a health resource center in the Brookland Manor Community that provides information, screening, and some testing to local residents. Personally, he has worked to help local children realize their dreams of college by helping them fill out financial aid forms and paying out of pocket for their transportation expenses. Mr. Shelton has been known to personally pay a young person’s train, bus or airfare to university.

To show his further determination to help young people, Bill Shelton not only gave $500 to KaBoom!, a local nonprofit that builds playgrounds, he convinced Black Entertainment Television to make a $5,000 gift and raised playground money from others as well. “I want to see every child in this neighborhood have a place they could just be a child. A playground, even though it’s a small step, is a step that will at least mobilize this community.’”

Mr. Shelton says he’s fortunate. He and his brother were raised by their mother, a single parent, who “struggled for us and always taught us to help others.” Bill says that his goal is to help people realize that everyone can use the resources they have to help others and is not at all concerned with spending all that he has to help others. “Just do a bit more than you normally would and you’ll see how much you become part of a community.”

Chicago, Illinois

Using financial resources garnered from talents in law, banking, education and finance, Harrison Steans, his wife, Lois, and their three daughters, co-founded the Steans Family Foundation in Chicago 14 years ago. Committed to the belief that long-term personal involvement with individuals can change lives and communities, the Steans Family Foundation’s mission is to improve community development in Chicago. Specifically they are working to positively develop the North Lawndale community, identified because of significant poverty and lack of community assets.

The Steans have made a ten year commitment to North Lawndale directing 95 percent of their Foundation’s $1.5 million annual grants budget directly into working with residents. This Lawndale Partnership focuses on six broad sectors: capacity building/leadership, economic development, education and youth development, housing, health and human services, and quality of life.

In addition to his work on the family foundation, Mr. Steans is involved with numerous Chicago based non-profits as both trustee and director.

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