Everyday Heroes: Helping those in recovery

Madeline Akers

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Madeline Akers has been volunteering for more than 35 years with the Wichita Fellowship Club, a nonprofit that helps people become and stay sober.

It’s a path she’s familiar with. Akers, who has served as the group’s president for a decade, said for years before she sobered up, she “was one of those functioning alcoholics, but then I started missing more Mondays at work.” A health scare and going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings helped her achieve and keep sobriety.

Founded in 1966, the Wichita Fellowship Club provides an alcohol- and drug-free residential facility for both men and women who want to become sober.

“What we do is very simple – we give them tough love,” said Akers. “We are there to help them change their lives and to get better. We become their sobriety family.”

Initially, WFC accepted only men at its facility. Ten years ago, when Akers became president, the facility opened a separate wing with room for up to seven women. Akers is a sponsor for the women clients.

WFC also provides space at another location for AA, Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous meetings and has a 80-acre recreation club facility, called the 101 Club, where it hosts bingo and other sober activities. The 101 Club is where they show clients how to have fun without alcohol or drugs, Akers said.

Akers said the more than 40 or so residents at the WFC house are encouraged to stay for at least a year. The residents get room, board, three meals a day and support 24/7 at a cost of $100 a week.

“When they do (stay for a year or more), they are statistically more able to reach five years sobriety. And if they reach five years sober, they can usually stay sober for life,” she said.

While her position running the WFC is technically a volunteer position, Akers said, “I work every day of the week.” Her second bout with lymphoma last year, shortly after retiring from a 54-year career in accounting, slowed her down for a while until she recovered, she said.

She also spearheads the organization’s fundraising efforts. WFC is supported by private donations. Recently it received a $300,000 challenge grant from a donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, so she’s helping raise the $100,000 required to get the grant.

To find out more, visit wichitafellowship.org.

Everyday Hero: Chambers helps abused women regain respect

Glen Chambers

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

When he first started volunteering for the Wichita Women’s Initiative Network 13 years ago, Glen Chambers was teaching women how to do math.

Now he teaches women what a respectful man looks like, says WIN executive director Karen Schmidt. It’s an important thing for many of the women who’ve endured some of the worst kinds of relationships.

WIN serves female survivors of intimate partner abuse situations, giving them access to needed skills to overcome financial barriers to living independently.

Chambers, a retired Boeing computer programmer, started volunteering as a math tutor in one of WIN’s education programs, teaching algebra and geometry. Along the way, he learned more about domestic abuse and how it affects survivors.

In what Schmidt calls “his patient, kind, respectful manner,” he started earning their trust, a connection he doesn’t take lightly. For some women, Chambers knows, he’s likely the first male figure who’s given them the respect they deserve.

In a gesture of support and to model what a healthy relationship looks like, he and his wife, Carolyn, take WIN clients out to lunch. The women take heart that a good relationship can last, like the Chambers’ 45-year marriage. He holds open doors, helps them get out of a coat, helps them get seated – the kind of chivalrous behavior they’re likely not used to, but those are a few things he thinks a gentleman should do for a woman.

Schmidt estimates he’s impacted more than 100 women through the years. He’s developed deeper, fatherly-like relationships with about a handful of women, the ones he calls his “bonus daughters.” He was on the front row at a commencement ceremony when one earned a college degree with honors. He walked another down the aisle at her wedding. Both events moved him to tears, he said.

While he still helps tutor anyone who needs math skills, Chambers also picks up weekly food donations for WIN clients from a local church, helps as a handyman around the office and tells clients he’s ready to provide a listening ear if they need it.

“I’m of the feeling that those of us who are blessed have an obligation to help those who need our help,” said Chambers.

To find out more about WIN programs and how to volunteer, visit wichitawin.org.

Everyday Heroes: Helping babies survive

Cari Schmidt

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

More babies in Sedgwick County are surviving their first year of life, and Cari Schmidt with the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita wants to keep that trend going.

Schmidt is the leader of Baby Talk, a local initiative in which nurses teach moms, dads and other caregivers about safe sleeping for infants to reduce the occurrence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or other sleep-related deaths, like suffocation when bed-sharing with adults. In 2015, the infant mortality rate in Sedgwick County was 8.1 per 1,000 live births, far worse than the state’s average of 6.1. In 2017, the latest year data is available, the county’s rate fell to 6.9, compared to the state’s rate that remained 6.1.

In public health circles, infant mortality rates are an indicator of a population’s health.

Baby Talk has been successful because the free community-wide program includes health care professionals working together to make a difference, said Schmidt. who is director of research and associate professor in the medical school’s pediatrics department. Her five-member staff and the health care professionals who coordinate and teach the classes “have really put their heart into helping these moms,” she said.

Any pregnant woman in Sedgwick County who is 32 weeks pregnant or less – plus others who will help care for the newborn – can take the six-week, 12-hour program, which covers topics such as labor and delivery, the benefits of breastfeeding and the safest ways for babies to sleep, which is alone, on their back in an uncluttered crib. The program, funded by a Kansas Department of Health and Education grant, is expanding to 10 locations in Wichita and Derby this spring.

Besides leading the Baby Talk program, Schmidt helped create a research center at KUSM-Wichita in 2017 with the purpose of connecting Kansas researchers of maternal and infant health issues with health care and other professionals.

“The idea was to connect with others who have similar interests and build projects that will have a greater impact on the infant mortality rate in Kansas,” Schmidt said when the Center for Research on Infant Birth and Survival (CRIBS) was started.

She’s also gotten her husband and two sons involved with helping her volunteer with community-wide events sponsored by the Kansas Infant Death and SIDS (KIDS) Network, which offers support to those affected by infant death and provides education, as well.

Everyday Heroes: From wrong choices to motivating youth

David and Lynn Gilkey

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

David and Lynn Gilkey say they would rather build strong youth than restore broken adults. That’s why the husband-wife team founded the nonprofit Rise Up For Youth in 2014 after many years of working with young girls and boys.

Through in-school mentoring at five Wichita high schools, workshops, team-building and other activities, Rise Up For Youth has worked with about 250 kids annually to help them avoid gangs,do better academically and make better life choices. Rise Up For Youth includes five other staff members.

Funded by grants from organizations such as the Downing and Koch foundations, United Way, USD 259 and private donors, the organization’s goal is to be in all nine Wichita public high schools by 2020.

“We have a waiting list and have been asked to extend the program to middle schools,” said David.

The Gilkeys know from firsthand experience the effort it takes to restore broken adult lives. Less than 20 years ago, they were cocaine addicts facing prison sentences, Substance-free for 18 years, they’d rather help youth get the tools to make better choices now. Rise Up for Youth’s mission is “to inspire and motivate the next generation to unlock their full potential through education, mentoring and empowerment.”

They want kids to be productive citizens, not homicide victims or inmates, they said.

All of the kids in the program who have made it to their senior year in high school have graduated and enrolled in post-secondary education. More than three-fourths have maintained a 2.0 GPA or higher. The kids come from different racial groups, and many have these things in common: a single parent with no college degree and a low-income household.

The Gilkeys say they don’t sugarcoat what their own wrong choices led to. In addition to taking students on tours to colleges in places like Chicago, Kentucky and Dallas, they also take them on prison tours – a move that one of the organization’s board members calls “from college halls to prison walls.”

They realize that despite their best efforts some may not see their full potential, but they still remain firm in their mission. In the time they’ve been mentoring youth – David since 2005 and Lynn since 2008 – they’ve lost 13 boys and one girl to violence.

“All it takes is one wrong decision to cost you your life or your freedom,” David said.

To find out more, visit riseupforyouth.org.

Everyday Hero: Chip Neumann provides ‘buddies’ for vets

Chip & Nova

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

With Midwest Battle Buddies, founder Chip Neumann combines his love of man’s best friend and his deep gratitude for those willing to serve our country.

Two years ago, Neumann started the nonprofit that provides service dogs and training to military veterans living with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and other service-related conditions. While it costs about $30,000 to train a service dog, the only cost the veteran pays is the $20 application fee.

“I just feel veterans have given so much and they deserve this service,” said Neumann. “It’s my way to serve them.” While Neumann never served in the military, his dad and uncle did.

With shelter and rescue dogs, dogs donated by breeders and occasionally a dog already owned by the veteran, Midwest Battle Buddies provides extensive training that meets the standards of Assistance Dogs International. One veteran suggested lead trainer Tammy Hazlett is as good as Cesar Milan, the well-known “dog whisperer.”

“We try to train for every situation so these dogs are practically bulletproof when they graduate,” said Neumann, explaining they go to malls and other places to conduct training among crowds, be in a dining situation and more.

For both veterans and Neumann, the results are making a significant impact.

Studies show that for veterans with PTSD, service dogs can have both behavioral and psychological benefits. For some veterans, the dogs mean freedom because they are no longer housebound by the fear and anxiety crowds can bring. The unconditional love and bond with the dog help keep depression and even suicidal thoughts at bay.

Because the Veterans Administration doesn’t recognize service dogs as a treatment option, veterans who can benefit either have to pay for a dog and training themselves or rely on organizations like Midwest Battle Buddies.

“This has really opened my eyes about what is going on among veterans,” said Neumann. “Many aren’t getting the help they need.”

So Neumann – who funds this endeavor with donations and his pension from a nearly 40-year career as a printer – has now become much more than a trainer. He’s become an advocate, visiting with policymakers, helping the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center develop a service dog behavior policy for its facility and making connections with similar training groups across the country.

To find out more about Midwest Battle Buddies or to donate, visit midwestbattlebuddies.org.

The 2019 Everyday Heroes Award is sponsored by Envision

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Everyday Hero: Student starts teen mental health initiative

Ngoc Vuong

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Ngoc Vuong knows the depths of despair caused by grief. But he also knows the impact of having a good support system.

Vuong, 18, developed severe depression after his mom died of a brain aneurysm in his sophomore year at Wichita South High School. Already very involved with extracurricular activities dealing with leadership and volunteerism, Vuong decided to help other teens who deal with mental health challenges. Not only did he start talking about his bout with grief and depression, but he worked with National Alliance on Mental Illness Wichita to start mental health awareness campaigns and wrote a grant to organize a community-wide initiative.

Started with a $1,000 grant from the Wichita Community Foundation, ICTeens in Mind is a student-led mental health support and advocacy group that is forming networks with schools, neighborhoods, nonprofit organizations and communities to create resources for teens with mental health conditions. In 2018, ICTeens in Mind was integrated into Partners for Wichita, a nonprofit whose purpose focuses on making Wichita a better, safer place for its citizens.

Growing up, Vuong listened to the stories his parents told him and his siblings about the hardships they endured as dissenters in Vietnam. His father fought against the North and ended up leaving his family and everything behind. His maternal grandfather was subjected to horrors in a “re-education camp,” while his wife and daughters tried to carry on until his release.

“They found solitude in Wichita,” said Vuong.

And he found strength, gratitude and drive in those stories – stories that showed hardships can be overcome. That’s why he started looking for opportunities to lead and make changes, he said, as early as middle school. It’s why he decided to do something about combating the stigma of depression.

Now a freshman at Wichita State University and considering a degree in psychology, Vuong also works at Partners in Wichita and continues to find ways to expand the reach of ICTeens in Mind.

“My goal is to encourage schools to be proactive in conversations with students and staff about mental health,” he said. He’s visiting area middle and high schools to talk to students and staff to get their input on creating programs focused on mental health, and he’s working on creating a countywide, student-led initiative.

To find out more about ICTeens in Mind, visit the group’s Twitter page,  https://twitter.com/ictymhc or Facebook page.

The 2019 Everyday Heroes Award is sponsored by Envision

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Everyday Hero: Larry Hanafin – Bringing light to a cause

Larry Hanafin

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

For the past 15 years, retiree Larry Hanafin has been helping the lights shine bright for one of the Wichita area’s most popular holiday displays.

Now the volunteers and staff of The Arc of Sedgwick County want to shine the light on Hanafin’s efforts as a volunteer for the nonprofit organization that offers various programming to make a difference in the lives of individuals and families living with intellectual and development disabilities.

The Arc’s Lights holiday display features 1.4 million lights and 20-plus miles of electrical and extension cords, enough to go from Wichita to Newton, according to The Arc officials. The most recent display – starting at the intersection of Douglas and St. Paul in west Wichita and continuing through the grounds of The Art and the adjacent Independent Living Resource Center – was open nightly from Nov. 23 through Dec. 28. The light display, held for the past 21 years, is the premier fundraising event for The Arc.

Volunteers such as Hanafin start work in September on the display by testing the lights to see if they work. Then the displays are assembled. In January, the display is disassembled, an effort Hanafin also participates in.

“I’m the high man,” said Hanafin. “I do all the displays that need a lift.” His signature creation is a tunnel of lights.

“He’s a huge part of our life here,” said Sarah Maddux, The Arc’s special projects assistant and volunteer coordinator.

“He loves to give of his time for people who need it,” added Mike Kelly, program director.

The Arc has become his saving grace, the 69-year-old Hanafin said, a place for the former Vietnam War veteran of the 25th Infantry Division to be part of something positive and rewarding.

“This has become my lifeblood,” said Hanafin, who also serves as one of two Santas during holiday parties for The Arc’s clients. He and his wife, Brenda, also serve as chaperones for several local and out-of-state trips for The Arc’s clients. They’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Nashville, Branson, Missouri, and various other locations, and even a cruise in Mexico.

“We’ve gone a lot of miles,” Hanafin said.

He started volunteering about 15 years ago, when one of his daughters, who was working for one of The Arc’s programs at the time, told him that organization needed help setting up its holiday display. She thought it would be an ideal place for him to share his skills – and his giving nature. After his 18-month stint in the Army, Hanafin had spent decades working in maintenance, including 25 years at the Boeing-Wichita plant. One of his major hobbies is collecting and restoring vintage cars.

“There’s not much on a car that I can’t fix,” he said.

The 1945 Dodge pickup he drove back and forth going to high school in Valley Center and the car in which he learned to drive are among his car collection.

Seeing an Arc client’s face light up when he plays Santa or helping someone make memories of a lifetime during an out-of-town trip are particularly special for Hanafin.

“I just love helping people and I always get back tenfold what I give.”

Everyday Hero: Jean Pouncil-Burton – Telling stories

Jean Pouncil-Burton

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Once upon a time, there was a fascinating woman who loved to tell stories. She’d read aloud from books, raising and lowering her voice as the story dictated, switching voices as the characters changed. Sometimes she’d recite stories from memory – folk tales, ghost stories, historical stories and more – exciting her audiences with gestures and sound effects to accompany a voice that demanded attention.

Jean Pouncil-Burton loves introducing children to the powerful medium of stories, as told in books and in the oral tradition.

“I love to tell the stories so profoundly that the audience can see the characters and not forget them,” said Pouncil-Burton.

But it’s her story that deserves to be told, according to her nomination for February’s Everyday Hero award.

Twenty years ago – after spending more than three decades as a Wichita public librarian – Pouncil-Burton founded the Wichita Griots: Keepers of the Stories. It’s a group of about a dozen storytellers who preserve the art of storytelling and the spoken word by presenting programs at schools and other organizations to tell stories, teach character education and promote literacy. Griots is a West African term used to identify storytellers and musicians. The Wichita Griots are one of 15 affiliates of the National Association of Black Storytellers.

The Griots also hold local storytelling workshops throughout the year and a summer cultural arts camp for Wichita youth where “kids use their imagination to grow,” said Pouncil-Burton. During the weeklong arts camp, students ages 6 to 16 are exposed to a variety of arts – from drumming to dancing to reading and drama. The camp culminates in a major production staged by the kids to showcase the talents they acquired.

Pouncil-Burton has had a a lifelong love of books and words, encouraged by her mother and a specific teacher from her youth, Ms. Mildred Robinson.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books held me hostage for hours on end,” recalled Pouncil-Burton. She later discovered the books and poems of African-American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. She still loves being transported to different places and learning about the characters she finds between the covers of a book.

As a librarian, Pouncil-Burton enjoyed encouraging youth to discover books, as well. As the manager at the Maya Angelou Northeast Branch Library, she would often recommend books to children to read while they waited their turn to use the library’s computers.

“The next thing you know it would be time for them to use the computers but they’d be in the stacks, reading,” she said. She would then encourage them to check out the books to continue their reading.

“I was so inspired when I saw that,” she said, of turning young children into readers and public library users. Her storytimes also gained in popularity, leading many parents and teachers to ask her to come to parties or classrooms to share her enthusiastic readings.

“When I retired early, I thought, ‘I can’t leave those kids. I love encouraging them and turning them into readers,’” she said.

So she founded the Griots in 1998. Pouncil-Burton said the Griots reach about 24,000 people each year through presentations, programs and community events.

The Griots’ summer camp, now in its 14th year, outgrew its original location at North Heights Christian Church and is now held at the Wichita Urban Preparatory Academy, based in the former Mueller Elementary School. Grant funding – from organizations such as Westar Energy and local arts groups – helps keep registration to an affordable $30 per child, with sibling discounts, for the 40-hour camp, Pouncil-Burton said. A grant from the Wichita Community Foundation and the Wichita Wagonmasters Fund will provide scholarships for six students this year.

Quiet Hero: Bob Lutz hits home run with League 42

Bob-Lutz

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Baseball has always been special to Bob Lutz, who covered a variety of sports during his 42-year career as a sports writer and columnist for The Wichita Eagle.

“It’s always been my biggest love,” Lutz said. For him, it helped form a bond between him and his dad.

And for the past three years, it’s a sport he along with hundreds of volunteers have helped introduce to hundreds of urban kids in Wichita.

Lutz calls League 42, a baseball league for boys and girls ages 5 through 14, a labor of love. The league is named after the number worn by Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

In 2013 on a local radio sports show, Lutz pitched an idea he had been thinking about for more than a decade: creating an affordable opportunity for youth, especially minority youth, to play baseball.

By the next year, after heavy recruiting by Lutz and others who helped create the league, 220 players signed up to form 16 teams. This year’s season, the league’s fourth, involved about 600 players on 42 teams. There was a waiting list for some age groups this year. Around 175 volunteers were involved in coaching and other team roles, Lutz estimated.

The league’s registration fee is $30 per child or for an entire family, and all equipment is provided at no cost.

Making baseball affordable for urban kids isn’t the only goal of League 42, a nonprofit organization.

“The very foundation of the league is sportsmanship,” Lutz said. “We want the experience to be fun and enjoyable. We don’t want the kids to feel any pressure or for coaches and parents to apply pressure.”

He also likes the fact that the league brings families of different backgrounds and ethnicities together to “enjoy night after night at the baseball field. We have reached out and done a good job of attracting African Americans, Hispanics, whites and Asians. … I get tremendous satisfaction from the diversity.”

On a recent warm summer evening, Lutz sat behind home plate at one of the three fields at McAdams Park in northeast Wichita that League 42 uses for its games. The teams were representing three of the four categories, determined by age, in the league. The categories carry the mascot names of the high school, collegiate, Negro Baseball League and MLB teams on which Robinson played: Lancers, Bruins, Monarchs and Dodgers.

At the field, Lutz visited with volunteers, sent out messages to coaches about an upcoming skills clinic and watched one of six games being played that night.

For years, the McAdams fields hadn’t been used for organized baseball. During the league’s season, which runs early April to early July, at least two games are played every weekday night on each of the fields. Games postponed due to weather are made up on Saturdays.

One of the fields, the one where a T-ball game was underway this evening, is brand new, the result of the city’s allotment of $1.5 million in community improvement funds to support the park and the league. Besides the turf T-ball and coach pitch fields, the funds also were used for a new restroom/ concession facility. The league is raising money for other improvements, Lutz said, that will include a fourth field, more parking and lighting.

Eventually, Lutz would like for League 42 to expand its outreach and become involved in academic tutoring for its players, helping improve their success in the classroom, as well.

Lutz recently retired from his career at The Wichita Eagle, in large part because running and growing League 42 needed more of his time. He estimates he puts in about 50 hours a week during the league’s season and about 25 hours a week in the off-season. The Derby native also coaches a team of 7- and 8-year-olds in League 42; the team is named the Panthers, in homage to his high school team.

Lutz credits the hundreds of volunteers and generous donors with being the major reasons of the league’s success. Run primarily on donations, the league costs about $100,000 to $125,00 to operate each year. To find out more about League 42 or to donate, visit league42.org.

‘Quiet Hero’ brought Coffee with a Cop to Wichita

Michael Pasco

April 26, 2017 | Amy Geiszler-Jones

Less than two years ago, about 30 police officers showed up to seek out Michael Pasco at Wichita’s Southeast High School.

They were there to thank the teenager for his efforts to bring a nationwide movement to Wichita that is designed to help improve trust and build relationships between citizens and law enforcement. Continue reading “‘Quiet Hero’ brought Coffee with a Cop to Wichita”