Each Honoree Embraces Unwavering Dedication

The Miami Herald
Section: Neighbors EA
Edition: Final
Page: 36E

Eight ordinary people will be honored Tuesday night by the United Way of Miami-Dade County for their extraordinary work in public service.

For the past seven years, the United Way has recognized such public service with the

American Values Award - an honor given to public service employees who perform their professional duties with excellence and go above and beyond those duties to help their communities through volunteer service. This year's winners are Leslie Adams, Mary Brown, Diana Carmona, Annette Gibson, Jean-Robert Lafortune, Stacey McManus, Mary Paulk and Max Rodriguez. They will receive the award at a special ceremony at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.

According to Blanca Silva, a spokeswoman for the United Way, winning is not the point of the award. Each recipient is selected for his or her effort to reach out to the community.

``They're performing their jobs beyond the call of duty by doing volunteer work and by always being available to help meet the needs of their community,'' Silva said. ``According to the selection committee, [the winners] are the ones that best exemplify that.''

And that they do, from working with the homeless to helping children to organizing community events to excelling on the job.

``There's another dimension to life when you're working for the community,'' said Gibson, who has been a nursing professor at Miami-Dade Community College's Medical Center Campus for over 20 years. ``You're going beyond just working and existing.''

For Gibson, nursing is caring and she has taken that philosophy into the community by volunteering with the Miami Rescue Mission, an organization dedicated to helping the homeless. For the past two years, Gibson and her MDCC nursing students have been providing health education and conducting health screenings for the homeless through health fairs.

``I don't have to make a lot of money,'' Gibson said. ``I want to be comfortable and I want to be able to send my child to school. But I [also] want to serve. I think community service is a wonderful way to express that, to be able to express all that you are. I think it's really important for people to do that in life.''

Brown and McManus agree.

For Brown, an analyst with the Miami Police Department since 1983, serving the community has been her life's calling since she started volunteering each summer at the city hospital in Baltimore, and becoming involved in youth summer programs.

An active member of the March of Dimes for the past 15 years, Brown, too, has been helping the homeless, particularly women and children, for the past five years.

``The reason I help so many people, especially women and children, is because women that are homeless have to look out for their children, while a man that is homeless only has one person to look out for and that's himself. That really gets to me because people are homeless by circumstance, not necessarily sickness or loss of a job, so I've always reached out to help whenever I possibly can,'' Brown said.

McManus, a paralegal in the state attorney's office, also shares her time with the homeless, working with veterans and their children at the Veterans Administration Medical Center for almost 10 years. A veteran herself, she was an in-country U.S. Army nurse during the Vietnam War.

McManus, too, was drawn to public service at an early age - because ``my mother always volunteered - and volunteered us.''

Despite their different vocations, Carmona and Paulk also help children, through their work or in their spare time. Carmona is a program coordinator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Paulk is a Pretrial Services officer with the Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

For Carmona, working to remove obstacles that could impede learning for children is part of everyday life.

Through the school service program, she and her coworkers help lift those barriers by assisting the child's family in its areas of need, including housing, medical and behavioral problems.

While Carmona helps improve the educational potential of children, Paulk has helped kids by giving them a home, becoming a foster parent to five children between the ages of 5 and 11.

These are the people whom the United Way honors every year. The organization sends out nomination forms to public service entities around the county, such as the public school system, Miami-Dade Community College, police departments and state agencies. Supervisors make the nominations. During the preselection process, the United Way picks 35 finalists from among whom eight winners are selected.

Why eight winners?

``They represent a variety of sectors within the public sector,'' Silva said. ``As public service workers, each winner exemplifies the very best of the Miami-Dade County public sector.''

That definition also includes those who help to better the lives of people through their jobs - all in a day's work for Adams, Lafortune and Rodriguez.

For 21 years, Adams has worked as a Miami-Dade police officer and his innovative devices have aided his coworkers on the bomb squad.

``I work with a lot of other people [who] also are in the same type of thing I am,'' Adams said. ``Without them it wouldn't have been possible. Although [this award] honors me, I think a lot of credit should go to the people who work with me.''

For Rodriguez, public service just happened. A banker in Mexico, it was a trip to Miami in the late 1970s that led him into a 180-degree change in profession that even he can't explain: ``Don't ask because I don't know.''

Enrolling in a few college courses introduced him to MDCC and he has stuck around ever since, becoming a special projects coordinator with the community education department at the MDCC Kendall Campus.

``Every person is a different problem, or a different face, or a different smile,'' Rodriguez said. ``When they say, `Thank you,' it feels nice that you're helping somebody.''

Lafortune agrees. A Miami-Dade Community Action Agency social worker, he began volunteering at the age of 13 in his native Haiti, and continues to work with the Haitian community in Miami-Dade County.

``Sometimes it's good to have a pat on the back because sometimes you get tired, you get frustrated, things you would like to have done cannot be done and things that you would like to see happen never happen,'' Lafortune said. ``But, despite every [setback], you have to keep going.''

Tuesday night, the United Way and the Green Family Foundation will present the eight honorees with $2,500 and a certificate each.

For them, recognition has never been the goal.

``I don't do things for the reward,'' Brown said. ``I do things because it's what you're supposed to do as a human being. That's the most important thing: to have a giving heart, to be able to openly help one another and let it come from the heart, not for the recognition. ....''

DEDICATION IN HELPING OTHERS PATRICK FARRELL/HERALD STAFF The United Way of Miami-Dade County will honor eight people on Tuesday night with the American Values Award, given to public service employees who excel in helping others. Recipients are: from left, Max Rodriguez, Jean-Robert Lafortune, Mary Brown, Leslie Adams, Diana Carmona, Annette Gibson and Stacey McManus. Not pictured: Mary Paulk. Each recipient will receive $2,500 and a certificate. Story, X .