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


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”

Bringing Broadway to Brookdale helps Janelle McGee give back

Janelle McGee stands next to Brookdale signage

June 6, 2017 | Ken Arnold

Just before the show, cast members warm up their voices and make final adjustments to their costumes, while audience members make their way to tables in the brightly lit hall. Slowly, the hall quiets down, as people take their seats in eager anticipation for this special treat — dinner and a live performance of a popular Broadway musical. Continue reading “Bringing Broadway to Brookdale helps Janelle McGee give back”

Wichita Difference Makers recognizes first Quiet Hero

Larry Kunkle

Oct. 27, 2016 | John Denny

The Difference Makers for Wichita Awards program was launched in October to recognize and celebrate community members for making a positive difference. Each month, individuals who do not seek recognition but rather are inspired through an unwavering commitment to the day-to-day service of others will be honored as a Quiet Hero. Continue reading “Wichita Difference Makers recognizes first Quiet Hero”

Difference Makers ‘Quiet Hero’ Marcillene Dover advocates for KanCare expansion

Marcillene Dover

For the past few years, Marcillene Dover has spoken out to Kansas legislators, county commissioners, professional groups and many others about the importance of providing healthcare to people in need. Specifically, Dover is an advocate for expanding the Kansas Medicaid program KanCare to those who fall into the “KanCare Gap” – working people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, and too little to qualify for federal subsidies to buy private coverage. Continue reading “Difference Makers ‘Quiet Hero’ Marcillene Dover advocates for KanCare expansion”