Bettering the community

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND --  Gayle Smith
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Gayle Smith

They spend their free hours in front of a stove, planting trees, raising money or encouraging children to read, mostly staying out of the public eye.

But, their actions are cherished by many.

The Capital Area United Way’s Volunteer! United Power of 9 honorees were celebrated Thursday at a luncheon sponsored by Capital One Bank and WAFB-TV. Over the past year these six individuals, five groups and one family were featured on WAFB for their work in the community.

“Our community is a better place to live, work and raise our families because of the power that volunteering makes in solving our social issues,” wrote Kendall Hebert, director of marketing and communications for the Capital Area United Way, in a program for the luncheon. “We appreciate the commitment of all volunteers who give the most valuable gift they have — the gift of self.”

Gayle Smith

For 14 years Smith has encouraged families of young children to get caught reading. Understanding that children who see their parents reading at an early age will become better readers, Smith has volunteered at area pediatric clinics to promote literacy.

“I believe the most important people I reach are mothers with newborn babies,” Smith said. “I encourage them to talk to and read to their children. It is absolutely critical that a child hear as many words as possible before the age of 3.”

Beginning in 1999, Smith volunteered as a “model reader” with the Reach Out and Read Program at Earl K. Long Medical Center Pediatric Clinic. When that clinic closed in March, Smith started performing the same services at the East Baton Rouge Parish WIC (Women Infants and Children) Clinic on Wooddale Boulevard.

The Whitlow family

Every month for two years the Whitlows have provided a homemade five-course meal for children at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baton Rouge. Dick and Tricia Whitlow and their son and his wife, Rich and Susie Whitlow, give the house parents at the group homes for boys and girls a night off from cooking and spend quality time with the children who live there.

The Whitlows prepare a large meal with dessert, take it to the facility in Central, then split up. The men spend time at the boys’ house, while the women go to the girls’ house to talk with the “scholars,” as the residents of the homes are known.

“It’s not often you meet people who are willing to give so much of themselves and ask for nothing in return,” said Shedonna Martin-Mason, the volunteer coordinator for Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baton Rouge.

Mae C. McGuffery

“Ms. Mae” is known all over the Baton Rouge area for her volunteer work. As the project director for the Capital Area United Way-sponsored Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), McGuffery has worked closely with a variety of agencies. However, McGuffery may also be seen providing food for senior citizens at community centers, spending time at Youth Oasis, reading to children at Glen Oaks Park Elementary or wrapping Christmas presents for children of low-income families.

She will do whatever is needed, said Karen Powell, director of education initiatives for the Capital Area United Way.

“I have even gone to her for hugs,” Powell said, “and she is always eager to help.”

ExC!TE

Over the past two decades, more than 15,000 ExxonMobil employees, retirees and their families have volunteered extensively around Baton Rouge through ExC!TE, ExxonMobil Community Involvement Through Employees. They build homes for low-income families, provide hands to sort through donated toys and food, and staff festivals and events.

The nonprofit group has supplied more than 65,000 volunteer hours at more than 1,300 community projects. Last year, the group also raised $715,000 in grants through its Volunteer Improvement Program.

Clyde Johnson

After a career as a college professor at Southern University, Johnson spends his retirement back in school. Johnson dedicates at least three hours each week helping at-risk students through the Volunteers In Public Schools program.

Since 2008, Johnson has worked in VIPS’ EveryBody Reads program, working with an elementary school student on key literacy skills. He also volunteers in VIPS’ Voyage program, which provides mentors for teenagers, and gives time to the St. Paul Learning Center, where he helps adults prepare for their GED tests.

“Clyde is one of our most dedicated volunteers and we are so lucky to have him,” said Judy Bethly, VIPS executive director. “But his students are the truly lucky ones.”

Girls on the Run coaches

More than 1,000 Baton Rouge girls have heard the message that Girls on the Run of Greater Baton Rouge teaches. Combining 5-kilometer run training with lessons that encourage girls to feel confident and make strong life decisions, Girls on the Run coaches spend 15 hours a month influencing the women of tomorrow.

Coaches Kietha Gage, Randa Patrick, Cheryl Brumfield and Sherry Roper together have been mentors to 435 girls, spending 15 hours a month with young runners.

“(The coaches) have served more than 800 hours, returning season after season to ensure that the young girls in our community are inspired to be strong, contented and self-confident young women who intentionally choose an authentic and healthy lifestyle,” said Hydie Wahlborg, executive director of Girls on the Run of Greater Baton Rouge.

Emerald Roney

While most teenagers worked on their tans or added to their bank accounts over the summer, Roney volunteered. She played bingo with seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, assisted adults with disabilities at Arc Swim Camp, taught children about safety at Adventures in Safetyland Camp and served as a team leader for Youth Volunteer Corps.

“At first (volunteering) was a thing forced on me, but then I quickly discovered how much I truly love it,” Roney said.

Since her mother first “forced” her to give time, Roney has now been a volunteer for four years.

Laura Oubre

In the past 11 years, Oubre has given more than 800 hours of her time to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. She has participated in various roles, including entering data into computers, volunteering at golf tournaments and creating a newsletter.

She has received both the Presidential Service Award from the Points of Light Foundation and the Legion of Merit Award, given to those who serve the local food bank “above and beyond the call of duty,” according to Bonnie Bordelon, volunteer director at the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.

Gloria Wall-McClelland

Wall-McClelland was “born with a passion” for volunteering, she said. She started volunteering in college as a mentor to young girls and taught dance at the YMCA. She has worked with the American Cancer Society, the Arthritis Foundation and the RocketKidz Foundation, which encourages children to exercise through cycling, running and swimming.

She said she enjoys giving her time “because for me, I feel good when I help others, especially when I believe in the cause.”

Now she donates her skill as a physical therapist to the Volunteer Health Corps, which provides health services to the indigent in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Christian Sexton, Spencer Thomas and Nathan Gilly

These three sixth-grade students at LSU Laboratory School chose to forgo birthday presents so they could give Christmas gifts to families in need. Sexton began the practice four years ago after a conversation with his older sister. Thomas and Gilly joined him two years ago and then began hosting an annual charity dance at their school, asking students to bring gift cards, which they used to buy gifts for a family. Last year they received $2,500 in cards.

The boys shop by themselves, selecting gifts from the needy family’s wish list. Last Christmas they helped a single mother who is raising three children.

“Christmas isn’t just about the gifts and the Christmas tree,” Thomas said. “It’s more about giving to those who are less fortunate.”

BlueCross and BlueShield of Louisiana

Every year the Capital Area United Way supports dozens of agencies that help Baton Rouge area residents, groups they call Community Partners. Through its “investment process,” the United Way decides which Community Partners to support and how much funding they need to reach their goals.

Volunteers from BlueCross and BlueShield of Louisiana donated time to meeting with Community Partners and building portfolios that documented the agencies’ vision and goals. Then, the volunteers recommended how much money the Capital Area United Way should invest in those agencies.

“The only way Baton Rouge and Louisiana will continue to prosper is to come together and work on improving the overall economic, educational and social climate,” said Clinton H. Prescott, the organizer of the volunteer group from BlueCross and BlueShield of Louisiana.

Downtown Baton Rouge Lions Club, President Deborah Todd

Since 1927 members of the Downtown Baton Rouge Lions Club have given their time to the community. They plant trees on the campus of the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired and for 85 years have planned the school’s Christmas party. Members also volunteer at the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Louisiana Lions Camp, White Cane Safety Day and several other organizations.

“As a club it’s great to give back to the community and set an example for my family,” said Lions Club member Libby McKerley. “Plus I have an interest in helping the visually impaired.”