Manatee Community Foundation honors people who make a difference

vmannix@bradenton.comFebruary 27, 2014 

PALMETTO -- A young lady and a professional woman with volunteerism in their blood.

A service club and an accounting firm that thrives on making a difference in the community.

A pair of couples for whom philanthropy is a way of life.

They were the honorees at Wednesday's ninth annual Spirit of Manatee Awards, presented by the Manatee Community Foundation. More than 340 attended the event, "A Spirit of Giving," at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.

The recipients:

• April Vita/Young Spirit.

• Rotary Club of Bradenton/Community Spirit (Service Club).

• CS&L CPAs/Community Spirit (Business).

• Sharon Barhorst/Volunteer Spirit.

• Lori and Jim Toomey/Leadership Spirit.

• Kathy and Mel Griffin/Lifetime Spirit Award.

Ed Chiles, a member of the MCF advisor council, acknowledged the importance of Wednesday's event.

"The legacy of giving is what this highlights and fosters," the luncheon emcee said. "It recognizes those people who have stepped up and are great examples to inspire folks here to do something and leave a mark in our community. When we come together like this the community always wins."

MCF grants totaling $1.7 million in 2013 are just one example of donor money being put back into the community.

Philip Brown, now in his second year as president of United Way of Manatee County, appreciates all that meant Wednesday.

"This is a magnificent representation of the spirit of building and nurturing in this community," he said. "It recognizes the community-mindedness of the citizens in Manatee County and the philanthropists committed to sustaining a community."

Wednesday's program also included a remembrance of Jane Evers, the 2013 Volunteer Spirit recipient, who passed during the holidays. Evers founded Feeding Empty Little Tummies, which collects and delivers food for homeless school children to have on weekends.

"It was touching they did that," said Pat Roberts, FELT director.

Among Wednesday's honorees:

• April Vita/Young Spirit.

Quote: "It really drives me to be a good person. I take a lot after my dad and grandfather and their leadership to do more and driving others to help the community." -- April Vita

The Saint Joseph Catholic School student has been involved in community service most of her young life, taking after her grandfather, Bob, and father, John, who instilled the value of volunteerism.

At 5, she helped her family at Better Manatee Day and planted oak trees at United Way headquarters. A few years later, she gathered a team to walk for Operation Smile, an event that raised $10,000.

At 11, she organized a spaghetti dinner, getting food donated, recruited volunteers, sold tickets and sponsorships, raising $1,000 for the Ronald McDonald House.

April is a founding member of Saint Joseph School Kiwanis Builders Club, has chaired numerous projects and helped raise $1,000 for the "Penny War" project. She has participated in service projects for Student Council, United Way, Goodwill Industries, Adopt-a-Family, Jesse Tree, Toys for Tots and the YMCA.

She also spearheaded a collection for Manasota Operation Troop Support, various food bank collections, and raised $500 for Kids-Against-Hunger.

Now president of her school's Builders Club, April plans on continuing her Kiwanis service through her high school years.

• The Rotary Club of Bradenton/Community Spirit (Service Club).

Quote: "The reason Rotary has done so well is it's always been an organization of community and business leaders whose primary focus was doing good in the community and the world and we've been extremely successful with that." -- Tim Milligan, Rotary district 6960 governor.

Founded in 1926, the Rotary Club of Bradenton may be small in numbers with less than 30 active members, but it is mighty in its service to the community and beyond.

It established a foundation to help fund community needs. Its annual Comedy Night generates $10,000-$12,000 for charitable causes. The Rotary Club annually awards approximately $50,000 to causes local, national and international.

It also spearheads the annual Rotarians against Hunger, where volunteers pack more than 52,000 meals for distribution in partnership with Our Daily Bread. Last year the club responded to "The Grand Challenge" and contributed $5,000 to help restock the shelves at the Food Bank of Manatee County.

Locally, the club supports scholarships and provides dictionaries to all Manatee County public school third-graders. It has underwritten Stride Academy for the Boys and Girls Clubs, supported summer reading and math tutoring for Manatee Charter School and provided teaching resources for the Salvation Army.

In addition, the Rotary sponsors the Saint Stephen's Episcopal School Interact Club, for students 12-18 years of age. The club also sponsors two high school juniors to attend Students for Tomorrow Leaders conference each year in Lakeland.

Rotary has long been know for its international projects and has sponsored a computer library for a school in Tanzania, helped raise funds for a kindergarten building in Thailand and supported Rotary's major project to eradicate polio worldwide.

• CS&L CPAs/Community Spirit.

• Quote: "The quality of the life we have here is based on all of the things that get done here. There are a lot of services that need to get done and it makes it better for all of us. It's our responsibility to give back." -- Jay Clarkson, principal CS&L CPAs.

CS&L CPAs has been serving our community for 60 years, building a vibrant company culture focused on volunteerism and civic responsibility.

The firm contributes $5,000 per year to the Manatee Glens Corporate Partners program and sponsored a large team in Manatee Glens' annual Walk for Life and raised $2,445 for the event.

Another firm tradition includes fundraising for Manatee Children's Services during the holidays, then volunteering to purchase and wrap gifts for the children in the Emergency Shelter.

CS&L CPAs are a major sponsor of Goodwill Industries Manasota and support other nonprofits such as We Care Manatee, Big Brothers Big Sisters, State College of Florida Foundation and United Way of Manatee County, Gulf Shore Animal League, Girls, Inc., Junior League of Manatee County, ArtCenter Manatee and more.

In 2013, the CS&L firm was a corporate sponsor for over 20 charitable events and held multiple promotions to support local nonprofits.

The firm also provides employees with the support and flexibility needed to donate time and expertise to nonprofits. They also hold leadership positions on numerous charitable boards and committees.

• Sharon Barhorst/Volunteer Spirit.

• Quote: "Volunteering has always been part of my life and I love making a difference in my community. Its such a special place to live." -- Sharon Barhorst.

A Manatee County Property Appraisers office department director, Sharon Barhorst has dedicated thousands of hours in service to Manatee County, particularly to its youth through mentoring and leadership programs.

She has served as both a "Big Sister" and member of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters, involving them in hot air balloons, bounce houses, art stations, bands and sports instruction.

As Bradenton Kiwanis member in 2005, Barhorst initiated Big K Mentoring, where members and community leaders mentored students at Manatee County elementary schools.

The former Kiwanian of the Year is in her fourth year of chairing Christmas in August, which focuses on preparing homeless school children for school with backpacks, school supplies, shoes, haircuts, dental checkups and immunizations.

Her latest inspiration was the Kiwanis Corn Hole Classic, a fund raiser to support the costs of Christmas in August. One hundred twenty-eight two-person teams and 30 business sponsorships participated in the first one. The second annual is scheduled for May with Barhorst as chair.

• Lori and Jim Toomey/Leadership Spirit.

• Quote: "It's the way we were brought up. It feels good to help people and be part of organizations actually making a difference." -- Jim Toomey.

Committed, generous and thoughtful are just a few of the words people use to describe Jim and Lori Toomey.

Their support and involvement spans diverse causes such as the Manatee County School Board, South Florida Museum, Meals on Wheels PLUS, Lemur Conservation Foundation and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The Toomeys' philanthropy at the South Florida Museum, for example, has surpassed $500,000.

Utilizing the Toomey Foundation for the Natural Sciences, the couple focuses their support on organizations with lower overhead expenses to see money make the most impact.

Over the course of several years, the Toomeys have invested more than $50,000 on science teacher training conducted by the South Florida Museum that includes paleontological digs in the Nebraska Badlands. Over 65 teachers have participated to date.

Lori Toomey began volunteering at Bashaw Elementary School and actively supports the Teacher's Wishing Well.

The couple also supports several scholarship programs.

Jim Toomey is enthusiastic about his scientific outings, is credited with discovering new fossil species and has co-authored scientific publications.

• Kathy and Mel Griffin/Lifetime Spirit Award.

• Quote: "It's important to give back. If you've been fortunate in life you should definitely do something to help other people." -- Kathy Griffin

Over the last 18 years Kathy and Mel Griffin have been quietly transforming Manatee County, supporting causes dear to them through the Colleen A. Griffin Charitable Foundation, named in memory of his first wife.

Griffin joined the Salvation Army advisory board in 1997 and is a fiscal watchdog, ensuring its programs and services are adequately funded.

He joined the United Way board of directors in 2000, serving two consecutive three-year terms, and joined United Way Foundation in 2006 as a trustee, providing guidance on investments and goals.

The Griffins have also provided strong financial support to Easter Seals of Southwest Florida programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Last March the couple issue an $85,000 matching challenge to the community to help United Way. The gesture encouraged others to step up and meet the match providing needed funding for United Way.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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