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Sunday, October 20, 2013
Back on Oct. 1, I asked readers for nominations for the 2014 Virginian of the Year, an annual award bestowed by the Virginia Press Association.
In 2010, it was retooled to honor not-so-well known do-gooders who make a difference in their communities. Today, allow me to introduce you to the eight people who were nominated by readers of The Roanoke Times.
One nominee, Bradley Free Clinic Executive Director Estelle Avner, received 17 nominations. Before we get to the many superlatives heaped upon her, let’s review the other worthy candidates and their accomplishments.
Burrell McGhee nominated Joy Sylvester-Johnson, who runs The Rescue Mission of Roanoke. It’s a faith-based nonprofit that houses the homeless and addicted and helps them change their lives for the better.
“If this young lady were Catholic I would find out how to nominate her for sainthood,” McGhee wrote. “She has done so much for so many with so little.
“I remember when ‘The Mission’ was little more than a chapel and small lodge. There were many nights of foul weather when the lodge was full, but upon my request or one of my buddies, she would somehow find room for one more. An amazing woman.”
Sam Lackey, who works at the Roanoke-based education software company Interactive Achievement, nominated the company’s CEO, Jonathan Hagmaier.
“Jon encourages all employees to give back to the community. In addition to the donations he makes to various charities, he allows employees to volunteer during work hours and encourages employees to get involved with volunteering in the school system,” Lackey said in an email.
“Jon is the most selfless person that I have met and he brings out the best in all of us.”
Jim Underwood nominated John D. Bassett III of Galax, CEO of Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Co. At a banquet tonight, Bassett will find out if he’s to be inducted into the American Furniture Hall of Fame. He was nominated in July.
“He has kept jobs in Southwest Virginia; is the largest domestic bedroom [furniture] manufacturer in the U.S.; he filed suit against China for illegally dumping goods in the U.S. and won,” Underwood wrote. “His company Vaughan Bassett is all 100% made in America. … He truly is an American patriot that is doing all he can to keep jobs in the U.S.”
Reader Jacqueline Hull nominated Bedford Master Gardener Phyllis Turner. Master gardeners are volunteers who work in communities to support sound and sustainable horticultural practices.
“For five years the Bedford Master Gardeners Therapeutic Gardening project has been providing gardening programs at area senior living facilities. These year-round programs are now provided to four senior facilities in the Bedford-Forest area. … If not for her, neither the seniors nor the master gardeners would have had these awesome experiences together.”
Amy Roller nominated her father-in-law, William Roller of Roanoke. The East Stone Gap native and Korean War veteran worked for decades on the forefront of environmental protection in Virginia.
Roller worked for both state and federal agencies. Among many other things, in the 1960s he launched the state’s first strip-mine reclamation program, she said.
“During the 1960s and 1970s, requiring coal mine owners to reforest and restore land which had been stripped was not exactly a popular idea,” she wrote. But Roller “upheld the law and his own integrity, refusing to take bribes or look the other way when coal operators did not follow through properly with environmental measures.”
M.R. Jones nominated a man familiar to many Roanokers — Sherman Lea Sr.
The Danville native is in his third term on the Roanoke City Council and spent five years on the Roanoke School Board. He also chaired the TAP board of directors and the Western Virginia Education Football Classic — a college football game played locally to raise scholarship funds for underprivileged students.
Lea serves as associate minister at Garden of Prayer No. 7 church in Roanoke and is a retired regional director for the Division of Parole and Probation.
In the nomination, Jones emphasized Lea’s work to stem domestic violence in the city.
Paige Neely nominated her dad, contractor Allen Neely of Narrows.
He’s a 1966 graduate of Narrows High School, where he was class president and a champion discus thrower in track and field. Neely has generously shared with his community much of the money he’s made erecting bridges and large buildings; he’s also shared his time coaching high school and college track athletes.
Among other things, Neely has provided coats to underprivileged students at Narrows Elementary/Middle School; field trip money for students who might otherwise not be able to afford to go on them; and fund to underwrite community projects for handicapped accessibility and storm damage repairs in the community.
Last but not in any way least, we have the nominations for Estelle Avner, who soon will be retiring from her post at the Bradley Free Clinic. Those poured in from at least four doctors, many others connected with the clinic, at least one scholar and some regular folks in the community.
Space doesn’t permit me to quote from all of those, but you’ll get drift from what follows.
Some 39 years ago, Avner began working with the Free Health Clinic of the Roanoke Valley, the Bradley Free Clinic’s forerunner. Since then it’s provided medical care to tens of thousands of working uninsured people.
“I worked with her closely for 23 of those years,” wrote Dr. Lucky Garvin. “As a medical model, the free clinic paradigm now exists in all 50 states and, at last accounting, seven foreign countries, due to Estelle’s prodigious efforts.”
Carla Santos, CEO of the clinic, estimated the value of that health care at $65 million.
Nancy Ferris wrote: “She has been monumental in fund raising to keep the clinic up and running without any federal assistance.”
“There will always be people who fall through the cracks and the free clinic will be there to catch them,” wrote Dr. Allison Divers, who started volunteering at the clinic as a Hollins University student.
Pharmacist Thomas Garland, who’s been involved with the clinic since 1976, wrote: “I have seen the Free Clinic go from working out of boxes in four rooms of a house in Old Southwest to being the top Free Clinic in our state and one of the most successful on the east coast. … This was all the result of the diligence of Estelle Avner.”
Owen Weaver wrote: “She has been the fundraiser, the personnel manager, the volunteer recruiter and coordinator, the hand at the helm, the patient counselor and advocate among countless other duties and endeavors.”
Among many who nominated Avner was Greg Weiss, professor emeritus of sociology at Roanoke College. He wrote the 2006 book “Grass Roots Medicine: The Story of America’s Free Health Clinics.” In researching it, he interviewed staff and volunteers at more than 40 free clinics all over the country.
“In clinic after clinic —– on the West Coast, the Midwest, the Deep South, our own Mid-Atlantic region — the person whom I was interviewing would ask how Estelle was doing,” Weiss wrote.
“When I inquired about how they knew Estelle, many of them spoke of having visited the Bradley Free Clinic or having sponsored a visit by Estelle in the process of creating their own free clinic. … I do not think there is any person in the country who has assisted more communities in establishing their own free health clinic.”
Now that’s what you call impact, eh?
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