MANATEE -- The NAACP has been active in Manatee County for more than 50 years, and was a leader in the desegregation of Manatee County schools in the 1970s.
Today, the organization is needed as much as it was during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, community leaders say.
"You just have to look at what's going on today," Manatee County NAACP branch president Susie Copeland said. "I think we are more relevant today than in the 1960s.
"We really haven't progressed in terms of racerelations," she said. "I don't think it's adequately addressed. We have laws that say this is the way we should act, but the laws haven't changed the hearts of many people."
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Six community leaders and activists will be honored Friday for fighting for that change over the years.
Branches of the NAACP hold annual Freedom Fund and Awards Banquets across the country to raise money to continue the fight for civil rights.
"I'm very pleased with the choices," Copeland said. "Some I did not know personally, but based on the nomination applications, they deserve the honor.
"We have so many in our community who are deserving," she said.
Receiving the awards are retired teacher Versia Pollard, Lifetime Achievement Award; Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells, Community Service Award; community activist Henry Blyden, Unsung Hero Award; Latino community activist Adriana Cerrillo, Unsung Heroine Award; developer Pat Neal, Outstanding Business Person; and community leader Rodney Jones, the Presidential Award.
Versia Pollard will be presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for her leadership and giving back to the community.
Pollard is a Manatee County native who graduated from Lincoln Memorial High School in Palmetto.
She earned her bachelor of science degree from Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens and her master's degree in education from University of South Florida.
Pollard became a Manatee County teacher more than 40 years ago and was at the forefront of the fight to desegregate schools.
Education has always been important to her, and remains one of her top priorities.
"There's still a need to help students, teachers and the community," Pollard said.
While at Miller Elementary School, she was known for her work at helping students achieve their goals.
"Mrs. Pollard was a born teacher and mentor for children and families," said Manatee County School Board member Barbara Harvey, who also was principal at Miller Elementary. "She was one of the most requested teachers at the school.
"Mrs. Pollard not only worked with the child academically, but as a teacher of morals," Harvey said.
When Pollard went to Miller Elementary, she went with the attitude that she was there to do a job, regardless of a child's "creed or color."
"I went to do my best to help my students succeed in life," she said.
Pollard was married to the late Pastor S. D. Pollard Jr. of Mount Raymond Missionary Baptist Church in Palmetto and is an active member of Saint Mary's Missionary Baptist Church of Parrish.
Since her retirement, she also has volunteered with several programs to help students prepare for the future.
"I don't think anyone is more deserving for this honor than Mrs. Pollard," Harvey said. "She not only worked with children in the classroom, but also with the children in the community."
Chief Rick Wells
Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells will receive the Community Service Award for his work with community organizations and service projects.
"I've seen him interacting with the community and he is very professional, very precise, and very community-oriented," said Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski.
Wells has been chief of the Palmetto Police Department since July 2010.
He began his law enforcement career in 1984 with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and then moved to the Florida Highway Patrol for more than 21 years.
A 1982 graduate of Manatee High School, Wells attended what was then Manatee Junior College, now State College of Florida, before enrolling in the Saint Leo University Command Officer Management Program.
"This is a high honor for me," Wells said. "I was very proud to be nominated."
He said his service is a "combination of a blessing to work with some of the best people and to help the community."
Chief Wells participates in weekly North River Project meetings with area pastors and local leaders.
"I try to get out and be active in the community," he said. "We have to be proactive."
Radzilowski said he meets regularly with Wells to talk about their communities and said he found Wells to be responsive to neighborhood concerns.
"He's very upbeat and positive," Radzilowski said.
The Palmetto police chief serves as a board member for Keep Manatee Beautiful, Manatee County Crime Stoppers, Boy Scouts of America, The Gold Star Club and Manatee River Fair Association.
Because he has been a catalyst for community causes during his many years of service with several local organizations, Henry Blyden will receive the Unsung Hero Award.
"Henry has been a positive influence in the manner he conducted himself," said Michael Neugly, Manatee County Children Services Section human services manager.
"He is a person who never said no to a challenge or good cause," said Neugly, who served with Blyden on the Substance Abuse Coalition from 1998-2006
Blyden was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and served 20 years the U.S. Army until 1983. He later receives a degree in business from Columbia College.
He has worked locally with substance abuse, mental health and community-service based programs for the past 15 years, and has been actively involved with the Florida Alcohol Drug Abuse Association, serving as state vice president from 1999 to 2001.
"I don't do what I do for special recognition," Blyden said, "but it's nice when they do recognize you."
He said the best satisfaction he gets from his work in the community is seeing the results.
"As time goes on, I watch the young people I've worked with and some are doing well," Blyden said. "You can't help but feel the joy of them being successful."
Besides his work with mental health issues, he also is proud of his volunteer work with several other organizations, especially Kappa Alpha Psi.
"We've mentored 30 to 35 boys to get them through high school," Blyden said.
Adriana Cerrillo has been active in the area's Latino community since soon after she moved here from Brownsville, Texas, when she was 19.
Because of her community activism, she will be presented with the Unsung Heroine Award.
Cerrillo teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at Bayshore High School. Her passion to help young people succeed was evident from the start.
"Andrea has been a colleague for a few years and I'm impressed with her ability to inspire others, especially the youth," said JeanetteOcasio, Social JusticeProgram director for UnidosNow.
"She has the passion to motivate young people."
Cerrillo has been the community outreach coordinator and Future Leaders Academy teacher at UnidosNow for two years.
UnidosNow is a non-profit organization formed in 2010 to advocate for and help new immigrants as they integrate into the educational, economic, social, cultural and civic aspects of the community.
Local attorney C.J. Czaia, who has been an activist for the Latino community for years, said Cerrillo's passion is to build a political force to effect change.
"She cut her activism teeth at UnidosNow and is now very connected politically and knows how to get things done," Czaia said.
"Her passion is to get everybody active in the political fight."
Cerrillo has knocked on doors in various neighborhoods to get citizens registered to vote and then mobilized them to get to the polls.
"Immigration reform is not just a brown issue," Czaia said, "Adriana's concern is also with the black community.
"She learned from the African-American struggles and how the Latino community needs to get very active in to see immigration reform get passed," he said.
Cerrillo has worked with the Palmetto Youth Center as administrator of the American Basic for Kids program, participated in the Stopthe Violence Campaign,and stood with ManateeCounty teachers in theStand with Teachers Rally.
All her efforts are driven by her advocacy for equality and justice for all Manatee County residents.
Pat Neal will receive the Outstanding Business Person Award not only for running a successful business since 1970 as a developer, but also for his untiring contribution to community organizations and service in the Florida Legislature.
"My father wins lots of awards, but I think there is none more meaningful than from this organization," said John Neal, Pat Neal's son and a successful businessman in his own right. "He has worked a lifetime in trying to improve the lives of others and give them the respect they deserve."
Pat Neal said he was honored to be chosen for the award from the NAACP and knows how important the NAACP is in the community.
"I became aware of civil rights inequality in the United States during the 1960s," he said, "when the African-American community was marching for their rights."
He moved to Manatee County during the struggle to desegregate the schools, which inspired him to run for the Florida Legislature.
While in Tallahassee, Neal said he fought for equality in civil rights.
He served in the state House of Representatives and as senator, shepherded several initiatives through the Legislature that were beneficial to Manatee County.
Through the years, Neal has received numerous business, environmental and civic awards.
"I'm biased, but I don't know anyone else who is so selfless," said the younger Neal of his father.
Rodney Jones will be presented the Presidential Award for his years of dedication and service to the community.
"They couldn't have given this award to a more deserving young man," said City of Bradenton Councilman Harold Byrd. "A lot time we do things for the community because we have a title and have to, but Rodney is committed and just does it to make the community better."
Jones is chairman of the Central Economic Development Center, has served as vice president of the NAACP Manatee Branch, and is the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Manatee/Sarasota Chapter.
He serves on several civic and community organization boards, including the Florida Leadership Academy and Suncoast Workforce Youth Council,
As a single father of four children, Jones has put much of his community efforts toward youth programs, founding the My Brother's Keeper Mentoring Program, which works with boys from the central Bradenton neighborhoods.
He also has coordinated the Youth Empowerment and Leadership Academy, which is a summer training and employment program.
"Working with him in the community, I see his outstanding dedication," Byrd said. "We need someone who will roll up their sleeves and do the job, and Rodney is willing to do that."
Jones said it is always an honor to be recognized by your peers for the work you do.
"You have to recognize that inequities still exists," he said. "We have made some real programs, but have a long way to go in achieving equality."
IF YOU GO
What: NAACP Freedom Fund and Awards Banquet
When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 23; evening starts with a reception, followed by the awards program and dinner at 7 p.m. The Rusty Trumpet Band will provide dance music following the dinner. Banquet Chairperson is Sylvia Archer.
Where: Bradenton Municipal Auditorium, 1005 Barcarrota Blvd.
Contact: For information or reservations, call Susie Copeland at 941-447-2189.