2018 – The newly named Spirit of Community Awards recognize meritorious individuals who have improved the lives of women of Florida and have served as positive role models for women and girls in their community. The Commission presents the awards in the area of the state in which the Commission is meeting throughout the year.
Nominations for the 2018 Spirit of Community Awards are now being accepted through August 17, 2018. Recipients of the Award will be honored during the Commission’s 4th Quarterly meeting to be held in November 2018 in Tampa, FL.
If you have any questions regarding the Spirit of Community Awards, please contact the Commission office at 850-414-35310. Thank you in advance for your nomination. It is your input that enables us to recognize the exemplary community service of Floridians and to educate the public on their significant accomplishments.
Commission Honors Outstanding Women for Volunteer Work in their Communities
Tallahassee, FL (September 29, 2016) The Florida Commission on the Status of Women honored the following outstanding women with a FCSW Florida Achievement Award for their work in improving the lives of women and families in their communities:
- Meg Baldwin of Tallahassee
- Julie Bartleson Bennett of Montverde
- Michelle Diffenderfer of West Palm Beach
- Sydney Hamilton of Key West
- Sherry Nungesser Houston of Gainesville
- N’Jhari Jackson of Tampa
- Ann Machado of Miami
- LaDessa Mitchell, MBA of Tampa
- Deborah A. Mizell of Lauderhill
- Ashley Rhodes-Courter, MSW of St. Petersburg
- Judith A. Selzer of Delray Beach
- Susan Webster of Gainesville
They received recognition at a special awards luncheon during the FCSW 3rd Quarterly Meeting on Thursday, September 22, 2016, 12:00 PM – 2:00 PM at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center in Gainesville, FL. In addition to the Achievement Award from the Commission, each received a congratulatory letter from Governor Rick Scott.
“The Florida Commission on the Status of Women is dedicated to recognizing and supporting citizens of all ages for the incredible contributions they make to their communities and to our state,” said Patti Hamilton, Commission Chair. “It is our honor to celebrate these outstanding individuals for their tremendous achievements and dedicated service.”
Meg Baldwin of Tallahassee is the Executive Director of Refuge House, the domestic and sexual violence center serving the eight-county Big Bend area. Refuge House serves the largest area of any domestic violence or sexual assault program in the state. Meg has served as the agency director since 2005, expanding transitional housing program services, sexual assault services, and outreach to especially vulnerable populations of survivors including poor rural victims, children, and survivors of prostitution. Prior to joining Refuge House, Meg was an Associate Professor of Law at the Florida State University College of Law. She specialized in women’s rights, violence against women, and the legal, social, and advocacy issues facing prostituted women and children. She was instrumental in creating one of the first advocacy and support agencies for women seeking to escape and heal from prostitution. Meg drafted the first state legislation to provide civil remedies for women coerced into prostitution against perpetrators, which has become the model for legislation adopted in other states. Meg served as a member of the Steering Committee for the Florida Battered Women’s Clemency Project, as President of United Partners for Human Services, and on the Board of Directors of the United Way of the Big Bend. Meg has also served on the Board of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, the National Advisory Board of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence Trafficking Project, and was an advisor to the Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Study Commission.
Julie Bartleson Bennett of Montverde helped turn a 5’ x 6’ broom closet into Montverde United Methodist Church’s Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in order to help struggling families in her community. Since opening in 2009, she has served as Executive Director of this growing operation that now serves nearly 15,000 individuals a year in their rural community. So far in 2016, they have distributed more than 200,000 pounds of food received through Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, and they have grown into their new, larger space. The pantry has also distributed school uniforms, school supplies, clothing, household items, toiletries, and holiday food baskets when needs arose. Julie has formed partnerships with other local agencies and businesses, receiving multiple grants from the Community Foundation of South Lake County, United Way of Lake/Sumter, and the Town of Montverde’s Add-A-Buck Program. She also coordinates monthly food drops for Second Harvest, including a recent drive-through drop where their team delivered 28,000 pounds of food in one hour. Julie is a trained volunteer with Florida Department of Children and Families’ Automated Community Connection to Economic Self Sufficiency (ACCESS) program, processing client applications for SNAP benefits, temporary cash assistance, and more. Julie is passionate about education; she currently volunteers on the Board of Directors for the Valencia College Alumni Association, where she promotes alumni connections through networking. Since 2007, Julie has been a member of the Executive Board of the Academy of Construction Technologies (ACT) Program, serving Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Volusia County high school students enrolled in trade pre-apprenticeship programs. She currently serves as the ACT Program’s Second Vice Chair. Most recently, in 2015 she started an annual event, “Julie’s Book Drive,” and has collected thousands of new and gently used books for a number of local preschools and daycares.
Michelle Diffenderfer of West Palm Beach has been with the law firm of Lewis, Longman & Walker for 21 years. She is the first female President of the firm. In her role as President and Shareholder, she excels at inspiring the younger female attorneys and other female professionals within the firm. Michelle emphasizes the importance of a work-life balance, creating an environment that allows female employees to strive for professional excellence, while allowing them the flexibility to raise families. Michelle embraces and exemplifies leadership, both within her firm and her community. Michelle has always sought out opportunities to give back to her community by sharing with other girls and women the lessons that she has learned in the business world. Mentoring is central to her business and community life. Michelle is very involved in nonprofit and professional organizations in her community. Most notably, she is co-founder and past President of Girls II Women, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring to girls aged 11-18, who attend schools in underserved communities within Palm Beach County. Girls II Women also provides free workshops on health and nutrition, culture, careers, self-esteem and interpersonal skills. As one of the founding members of the organization, Michelle worked to help establish the Board, obtain 501(c) 3 status for the organization, and presided over the Board as its initial President for many years. Michelle remains involved and supportive of Girls II Women. Michelle volunteers and provides leadership to other girls and children in the community through her involvement with the Rosarian Academy Family Association and Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, as a Sunday School Teacher. In this role she focuses on developing her servant leadership skills and playing an active role in the church’s youth program.
Sydney Hamilton of Key West is a dynamic 18-year-old Key West High School Graduate. She is the Founder of Sydney’s Hope Project, a foundation dedicated to enhancing the lives of pediatric oncology patients through socially and emotionally uplifting hands-on one-on-one experiences, games, activities, and events. Having childhood liver cancer at age 2, Sydney and her family know firsthand about this disease. She has shared her knowledge of the world of pediatric oncology to utilize community resources, to raise funds, to provide comfort and to increase awareness. She has worked closely with the pediatric oncology staff at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. Sydney’s Hope Project and the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys are foundational partners which assist cancer patients within the community. For four years, Sydney has been the captain of a team for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in her community. For the past two years, she has been the Opening Day Activity Coordinator at Camp United Order of True Sisters (UOTS), a week-long summer camp for current and past pediatric oncology patients that is offered at no cost to the child or their family. Sydney was on the Key West High School Honor Roll all four years of high school and has over 1,300 documented community service hours. She is an intelligent, gifted, self-directed young woman – mature beyond her years.
Sherry Nungesser Houston of Gainesville serves as Executive Director at Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida. In the past year and a half at Ronald McDonald House, she has raised community awareness, increased charitable giving and created a culture of gratitude and service with her team. Prior to her arrival at RMH, she served as Senior Vice President for Advancement at Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. As the face and voice of the organization, it was her responsibility to drive home Meridian’s mission to supporters, as well as to those who would soon become supporters. By listening to her target audience’s needs and creating messages that appealed to them, she significantly increased the nonprofit’s donor base, funding, and community support. Sherry’s lifelong dedication to supporting charitable organizations is evidenced in her active involvement in the Rotary Club of Gainesville, the Junior League of Gainesville, the Women’s Giving Circle, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a Board member of the Florida United Methodist Foundation and the Gainesville Women’s Forum. Sherry is a well-known and respected member of the Gainesville community, and has a robust network that includes key decision makers. She attributes her networking success to her lighthearted, humorous, and authentic style. What you see is what you get with her, so everyone she interacts with knows that her enthusiasm for the organization is genuine. That gets them excited, and that excitement leads to support.
N’Jhari Jackson of Tampa set out to correct what he saw as a deficiency in his school. As a two-time Junior Olympic swimmer, a tight-end for the Tampa Saints, and after reading the ever increasing stories of athletes succumbing to sudden cardiac death, N’Jhari began a journey he titled “NJ’s-Love-To-The-Rescue.” NJ’s Love-To-The-Rescue involved donating a new ZOLL AED with Storage cabinet and accessories. Additionally, he would purchase a school /community-rated First Aid Kit along with training & certifying faculty/staff members at the school in CPR/FirstAid/AED. N’Jhari planned the project all on his own and sought guidance from family, friends, Scoutmaster, youth pastor, and people in his community about ways to raise the necessary funds. He contacted several companies and got the best package price possible after explaining his goal. He set up a fundraising page to raise the bulk of the funds. N’Jhari visited dentists, physicians, athletic facilities, restaurants and fire stations to ask for donations. Soon, he had enough funds to purchase both the first aid kit and AED and accessories. N’Jhari arranged to have all teachers and staff trained and certified in First Aid/CPR/AED use along with providing lunch and refreshments during the 4-hour training. Additionally, N’Jhari used part of his summer serving 75 hours as a Jr. Camp Counselor and Jr. Life Guard at Camp Virginia Jaycee, a camp for those with special needs, along with eight other members of Men of Vision, Inc. service organization. He also volunteered at The Joshua House, a home for abused/abandoned kids. After volunteering at Joshua House, N’Jhari started what he calls ”KoolSox4KoolKids.” He collected over 1200 pairs of “cool” socks because he wanted the kids to feel good about themselves despite being in a bad situation. He continues collecting socks and distributes to four children’s group homes. As an Eagle Scout, he has risen to the occasion on every front as a concerned citizen for his community, church family, Boy Scouts of America and school.
Ann Machado of Miami founded Creative Staffing in 1985, and in less than a decade the company evolved into one of the fastest growing private companies in the US under her leadership. She has appeared countless times on the top 50 list of south Florida’s most influential business women. However, her business acumen is complimented by her dedication to community engagement and service. For over 30 years, Ann has gone above and beyond to provide pathways for low income families, young professionals and women re-entering the workforce. Through her work with Abilities of Florida, she helps provide training to women with disabilities and provide employment and education for adults with varying ability levels. Ann leads by example, promoting the employment of, and employing women with disabilities, even within her own business. As a YWCA board member, Ann has provided continual intellectual and financial capital to increase the capacity to serve those most in need in Miami Dade. Ann brought national recognition to the work of the YWCA Miami through her work to assist women reentering the workforce. Ann’s passion for women’s health also translated into many crucial initiatives in Overtown to reduce the number of women presenting with late stage cancer. The YWCA established an early screening and health education program that has provided vital services to the community for 20 years and continues to develop to meet the needs of women in the Overtown community and across Miami-Dade. Most recently, Ann was instrumental in introducing ReServe, an innovative nonprofit that leverage the skills and talents of experienced professionals age 55 and over to re-engage in the workplace for social good. Through her leadership, more than 300 have been placed, filling employment gaps and providing opportunities for experienced professionals to share their expertise and knowledge which is strengthening communities and effecting social change. Ann truly embodies the spirit of community connectedness and service.
LaDessa Mitchell of Tampa has her children at daycare by 8, reports to one of two jobs by 8:30, and studies for three classes before the children return home. This requires a discipline that is fueled by a penchant for educational excellence and bolstered by her passion for community uplift. Her afternoons are filled with answering emails and phones as the executive director of MERGE, Incorporated, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the academic resiliency of high school and college students through community workshops, financial education, and care packages. Her nights are complete with studying, checking homework, and planning civic engagement initiatives through various organizations that she serves. LaDessa instills the value of bettering oneself through learning and employing critical thinking skills in her children as well as her business communications students at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School. Understanding that education extends beyond the classroom, LaDessa can be found after school talking with students about their college applications, facilitating the College Prep Club meeting, and mentoring students in the USF INTO Pathway program. On the weekends, LaDessa spends time with her family and serves the Tampa Bay community through her church and the Tampa Professional Chapter of SISTUHS, Incorporated. Employing her knowledge of compassion for empowering African-American women, LaDessa joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated and SISTUHS, Incorporated. She was elected as SISTUHS’ National Director of Finance and Budget while remaining active in the Tampa Professional Chapter, serving as chair on various projects including Little SISTUHS Mentoring Summer and Home Leadership Program. LaDessa stepped up to become the Assistant Directress of Administration and securing 501(c)3 status for the Four Points of Perfection Foundation. She is a lifetime member of SISTUHS, Incorporated and currently serves as the secretary for the Tampa Professional Chapter. Her days never end because her passion never runs out.
Deborah Mizell of Lauderhill has spent the last 15 years with VITAS Healthcare, educating the Broward County community to dispel the myths and misinformation within the community about hospice and hospice services. She has met with leaders within the faith, business, health care, and community organizations to educate the community about health care issues as it applies to hospice and palliative care. She provides resources and presentations to the community on health related subjects. She developed an End of Life eight-week course for RN-BSN students at Broward College, as well as partners with the school to present ELNEC (End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium) training to nurses throughout Broward County. Deborah also designed a 12-week program for inner city girls, ages 12-17, to teach proper etiquette, make up application, hair care, and appropriate attire personally and professionally. She is also a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, where she serves as a resource for medical issues that arise from these aging American heroes and sheros. Deborah organized and chartered the Greater Fort Lauderdale Broward Chapter of the NBNA to empower nurses of all ethnicities and cultures. The chapter is a resource for all nurses in the county and an outlet for issues within their profession. One of Deborah’s favorite quotes that she lives by is, “God gave you two hands; One to help yourself, and one to help someone else.” Her love of family is the hallmark of her life. Her obligation to the community and faith is an important aspect of her life and identity.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter of St. Petersburg was in Florida’s foster care system by the age of 3, where she spent almost ten years being shuttled between 14 homes – some quite abusive – before being adopted from a group home at age 12. She later graduated from Eckerd College with honors earning a double major in Communications and Theater and a double minor in Political Science and Psychology. Ashley earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California. She serves on many national, local, and international boards for agencies and groups that work in the mental health, human rights, education, and social work fields. She has also been a volunteer Guardian ad Litem and, as a foster parent, has cared for over 20 children. Her memoir, Three Little Words was published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster and quickly became a New York Times, then International, bestseller. It is currently being made into a major motion picture. Ashley’s second book, Three More Words, was published in 2015. She was the Youth Advocate of the Year for the North American Council on Adoptable Children, and has received two Angels in Adoption Awards. Internationally recognized, Ashley has been featured on The Today Show, Good Morning America, Nightline, Nancy Grace, ABC Primetime, Montel Williams, and other national media outlets. She hosted a television program called “Explore Adoption” which was produced by the State of Florida to raise the public’s awareness of foster children in need of loving and permanent homes. Ashley turned her pain into power and her inspirational story of resilience, philanthropy, and overcoming hardships resonates with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Judith Selzer of Delray Beach is known for connecting talented people, great ideas and the resources needed to make a positive impact. At her company Selzer 360, a public affairs consulting firm, she partners with the leadership of non-profit agencies to build vibrant, healthy and engaged communities. Judith also serves as the President of the Women’s Foundation of Palm Beach County, a non-profit organization that empowers women and girls to be leaders so they can change the world. Over the last 15 years she has worked with several of the nation’s leading social justice and philanthropic organizations directing advocacy campaigns with her expansive toolbox of legislative, communications and electoral strategies. Judith directed a successful $4 million campaign to defeat detrimental changes to the Florida Constitution and oversaw the creation of a statewide coalition comprised of over 100 public health, faith-based, education, medical, and social justice organizations working together to advocate for medically accurate health education in Florida schools. Before launching Selzer 360, Judith worked with Planned Parenthood, Ms. Foundation for Women, Million Mom March, I Do Foundation, and Feminist Majority Foundation in Washington, DC, New York City and Florida. Judith received her Bachelor’s degree from Smith College in Sociology and Women’s Studies, and a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies with a Graduate Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Florida Atlantic University, where she has served as adjunct faculty and taught undergraduate courses on Women and Business, Sex and Gender in America and College Writing. She lives in Delray Beach, Florida with her fluffy dog Austen.
Susan Webster of Gainesville is an amazing young woman who has accomplished much in her short tenure at the University of Florida. As a freshman, it was evident that she would be an exceptional student leader. Through the four years she has been at UF, she has faced setbacks with determination and grew as a top leader through the many challenges she overcame. Susan has been a crucial part of many projects throughout her time at UF. Among her many accomplishments, one that is close to her heart, was helping create, open and stock the shelves of UF’s Field and Fork Food Pantry, which serves students and faculty who are faced with food insecurity. The Pantry is a collaborative effort of the Division of Student Affairs, the College of Agriculture and UF Student Government. Susan worked with university leadership to not only locate a facility for the pantry but also determine food collection sites and a budget. As Student Body President, Susan not only represents UF’s 52,000 students to university administration and faculty but is the voice of the student body. She also serves as a member of the UF Board of Trustees. Her voice is well respected by the appointed members. In her first three months as President, Susan has already completed over half of the initiatives on her platform on which she was elected. For the significant contributions to the University of Florida, Susan has been named a two-year J. Wayne Reitz Scholar, received the coveted John M. Kinzer Award from the Vice President for Student Affairs for outstanding service to UF, was elected to the UF Hall of Fame, was the Outstanding Student Leader for the Spring 2016 UF commencement and is a proud member of Florida Blue Key.