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2019 Difference Makers of the Week

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Richard Cohen

Partners for Youth with Disabilities - Somerville, Mass.

Richard joined Partners for Youth with Disabilities in 2012 and went through a comprehensive training on the elements of effective practices in mentoring. Since that time, he has been matched with five different youth, working directly with various types of disabilities and backgrounds. His mentees have been from the foster-care system, juvenile justice system and those experiencing homelessness. He has also worked with youth from low-income and single parent households. Richard's goal as a mentor is to help youth feel self-confident in their social skills, youth identity and well-being. In each of his first years mentoring, each of the youths Richard has supported has seen growth in their self-esteem, developed a positive self-image, improved their communication and relationship-building skills, developed a stronger connection to their communities and they have become self-advocates in speaking up for themselves and expressing their needs. He is currently matched with a 24-year old that has autism, dyslexia and global apraxia of speech, which affects fine motor planning and speaking. Richard and his mentee meet nearly once a week for breakfast where they talk about their artwork, museums and current events. Richard is helping his mentee to search for a part-time job, apply to undergraduate courses and helping him to achieve his dream of becoming an English teacher. As a volunteer, Richard is always communicative of his and his mentees needs. He is patient, resourceful and a man of high integrity. For his tireless commitment, Partners for Youth with Disabilities selected Richard as their Mentor of the Year in 2016.

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Laurie Keegan

ABLED Advocacy - Lawrence, Mass.

Six years ago, Laurie founded the nonprofit ABLED Advocacy with the goal of helping low-income families successfully advocate for educational services for children with special needs that attend public schools. Laurie created ABLED based on her own personal experience trying to secure services for her kids who have special needs. She found that it was more affordable to train herself to be an advocate than to pay for one. Over the past few years, Laurie has worked directly with more than 120 families in the Merrimack Valley, helping them navigate the special education systems within public schools. More than half of the families she works with fall below the federal poverty level and most of them speak a primary language that is not English.  Laurie meets parents in their homes to understand their child's needs and develops a plan for obtaining appropriate services that will help the child academically and social-emotionally. She then accompanies the family to meetings with the school team, aiming to foster a working relationship between both parties. Where Laurie differs from other education advocates is that she is aware of how school resources are strained and works to find solutions that meet each child's needs while utilizing resources already available. She finds creative solutions that are practical and doable within the public school setting to ensure the child's academic, social and emotional needs are met. Laurie also writes letters on behalf of the families and ensures documentation is completed on time. She sets parents' expectations in a realistic way, training them on how to work within the system to effectively advocate for their child. Most importantly, through her work, Laurie seeks to restore hope for parents who are feeling a sense of desperation as they watch the negative impact of a disability on their child's academic and emotional well-being and the disruption it causes in the school environment. Laurie is a single mom with four children with special needs, yet she finds time to help other families. Since she began her work through ABLED Advocacy nearly 6 years ago, she has dedicated every day to helping each family receive the highest quality advocacy.

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Ciara Haines

FRIENDS WAY – Warwick, R.I.

FRIENDS WAY (Families Reaching Into Each New Day) is the only family bereavement center in Rhode Island and it serves families throughout southeastern New England. It offers open-ended groups for children ages three to 18 and their families following the death of a significant person in their lives. Staffed with highly qualified mental health care professionals and extensively trained community volunteers, the nonprofit provides peer support to children and their families in a safe and nurturing environment. Ciara was introduced to FRIENDS WAY 20 years ago after her father passed away. She was only five years old at the time and her family enrolled in the nonprofit's peer-based support group program. Upon completing the program, Ciara and her mom stayed involved with the nonprofit, always looking for ways to support other families. Four years ago, Ciara completed the FRIENDS WAY training program and began facilitating the peer-based grief support groups for high school students. Every other Wednesday she would spend four hours co-facilitating a session, getting to know the families and offering her support. Ciara now facilitates a support group for children ages seven to 10. She has demonstrated strong leadership skills, while balancing discipline and compassion. She has also taken the lead on the expressive art activities and has developed a great rapport with all of the children. Ciara has also supported the nonprofit's fundraising efforts, helping to secure financial and in-kind contributions. She attends FRIENDS WAY's three day summer camp, taking on a leadership role to ensure that the participants have a memorable and supportive experience. She is able to relate to what all of the children are going through and is helping to change the trajectory of their lives. Ciara creates a safe environment for the children to be able to express themselves and provides them with comfort and support. She is a role model for many of the participants and many of the teens now aspire to be a volunteer just like Ciara.

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Millie Lafontaine

Friends Program – Concord, N.H.

Founded in 1975, the Friends Youth Mentoring Program provides boys and girls, ages six to 17, from Merrimack County with a mentor who serves as a positive role model and a supportive advocate. Millie has been a volunteer mentor with the nonprofit for 10 years. Her passion for the program and her effectiveness in reaching these youth is unsurpassed. The program's minimum expectation is a one year of commitment from volunteers. Millie has exceeded this minimum with each child she has worked with. Mentors typically spend three to five hours per week with their mentees in the first year, and meet once per month in subsequent years. Millie has met with her mentee weekly during their entire time together, sometimes more frequently if there is a need. When Millie ends her time with a mentee due to age or relocation, she immediately requests to support another child on the waiting list. She meets each child where they are and helps them to thrive. Her approach is both simple and effective. Millie begins with basic care and hygiene, simple food preparation and help with homework. For the past five years, she has been a reliable role model to a now 16-year-old Nepali refugee who came to the United States with her parents. Together Millie and her mentee have worked in a community garden raising fruits and vegetables that are widely shared. Her mentee has learned about biology, nature and stewardship during her time in the garden. It has been an effective remedy in building confidence and skill, as well as learning creativity in the kitchen. Local art field trips have expanded her mentee's world view. Ballet, baseball games, hikes and shows are all experiences Millie has introduced to her mentee. In all these pursuits, Millie remains open-minded while demonstrating a strong and unwavering value on education for each mentee. She continually exceeds program expectations, always going the extra mile to support mentees in her care, enhancing their lives with access and experiences they would not otherwise have.

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DeAnne Dupont

Food Link – Arlington, Mass.

In 2012, DeAnne and Julie Kremer co-founded Food Link, when they were at a local café and witnessed employees throwing away bread at the end of the day. DeAnne and Julie offered to take the bread to a local low-income senior housing facility, and just like that, Food Link was born. As the co-founder, president of the board of directors and executive director of Food Link, DeAnne has been instrumental in building a food rescue organization that has seen tremendous growth in recent years. The nonprofit collects food from 26 different food donors, grocers, wholesalers, retailers and local farms. The food is then distributed to 46 different social service agencies in 15 local communities. The nonprofit is open seven days a week, 363 days a year and has become a go-to organization for food donors and recipients alike. DeAnne and her team of more than 200 volunteers are committed to providing low-income and at-risk children and families with access to fresh, healthy foods. This past year, the nonprofit rescued more than 550,000 pounds of food and helped more than 18,000 people. DeAnne volunteers more than 40 hours a week at Food Link. She recruits and manages volunteers, represents the organization at civic events, manages finances and actively fundraises throughout the year. DeAnne works directly with individual donors and foundations, sharing the importance of the nonprofit and encouraging them to support Food Link's efforts. She is currently working on a capital campaign to open a new home for the nonprofit. The new facility will more than triple the nonprofit's impact in the community. In addition to the 40 plus hours a week that DeAnne donates to Food Link, she continues to volunteer with other organizations in and outside of her community. She is actively involved with Sustainable Arlington, promoting climate stabilization and ways to support the environment. DeAnne also manages community collections, serves as a town meeting member and is the treasurer of an assisted living facility.

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Michael Sweeney

Military Friends Foundation – Lynn, Mass.

Established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Military Friends Foundation is a nonprofit organization that has provided millions of dollars in aid to military families. They offer grant programs and community empowerment events in support of families who have faced hardships related to military service. Having served five years in active duty in the Army, including a deployment in Afghanistan, Michael understands the challenges that many returning military members encounter. For the last ten years, he has been an active and invaluable volunteer for the Military Friends Foundation. He has spent the last six years on the board of directors, working with service members and Gold Star families in their time of need. Michael has been the leading force for the organization in advocating for the inclusion of Gold Star families of all eras for financial support benefits. In doing so, he has secured an average of $200,000 annually for Gold Star families through the Military Friends Foundation's "Heroes Salute" program. This program provides immediate support for families who have lost a service member and helps to cover funeral expenses, transportation, lodging, and much more. Most recently, Mike led the charge in creating the "Warrior MWR" program, bringing together veterans, military families, caregivers and families of the fallen for free activities before, during and following a deployment. Through this program, veterans from all conflicts have joined forces to lend support for their fellow veterans in a relaxed setting. It has allowed the nonprofit to grow their peer-to-peer support system and increased veterans' access to supportive resources. Michael is now a Staff Sergeant in the Massachusetts National Guard and serves as the veterans services direct for the city of Lynn. He has been an advocate, mentor and shoulder to lean on for hundreds of military members and their families.

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Jamie Dorr

Midcoast Community Alliance - Bath, Maine

In the summer of 2016, Jamie was serving as the president of the board of directors for the Bath Youth Meetinghouse and Skatepark when she learned that a teen in the community had died by suicide. This was not the first time that the community had experienced such a tragedy so Jamie brought local leaders together to discuss the high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide amongst teenagers. Through these discussions, Jamie launched MCA, a coalition committed to mental health awareness, advocating for those in need and expanding access to support. As the founder and president of the nonprofit, Jamie facilitates monthly meetings with community stakeholders to discuss and address challenges faced by youth. She leads representatives from more than 30 local organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the United Way, suicide survivors, faith organizations, local hospitals and police departments. She has volunteered countless hours to coordinate "YOU MATTER" events at local middle and high schools and a "Set for Success" event that provides new backpacks and school supplies to ensure that students have the proper materials to succeed academically. Jamie has met with students to listen to their challenges and concerns and seeks their feedback about ways the community can help them feel supported. In addition to her work with the MCA, Jamie started a youth leadership program at the Bath Youth Meetinghouse and Skatepark. The program provides fun, healthy activities for middle and high schoolers, including a scooter club, art club and homework help. She volunteers her time to build positive, supportive relationships with youth who are identified as high risk due to adversities they face in their lives. She has also been a mentor to twin siblings from Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Bath/Brunswick for the past 10 years. Jamie is committed to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. In the fall of 2018, she left her full-time job as a web designer so that she could focus all of her time and energy on the work of MCA. She is constantly advocating for youth and for her tireless commitment, she was named Bath, Maine's Citizen of the Year in 2017.

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Michael Wisecup

Camp Sunshine - Casco, Maine

Sixteen years into his military career and serving as a Navy SEAL Commander, Michael was preparing for the next phase of life. During a trip home in 2014, he pondered how he might give back to the community that taught him the qualities and leadership skills that led to his military success. Family members shared information with him about Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Within days he scheduled a tour of the nonprofit. Michael was blown away by the courage and strength of the ill children and their families who attend camp. It changed the way he looked at service and he began to devise a plan for how he could help. Later that summer, he established the SEALs for Sunshine initiative, whereby he recruits and organizes Navy SEALs and other military personnel to complete unparalleled endurance events with the goal of increasing awareness and raising funds to bring military families with ill children to Camp Sunshine. With challenges like deployment, frequent relocations and the additional job-related risks that military families already face, it is hard to imagine finding out that your child has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, leukemia or another life-threatening illness that Camp Sunshine faithfully serves. Fitness events have included a 95-mile reverse triathlon and a 14-mile swim across Sebago Lake in Maine. Michael creates new challenges every year, encouraging new participants and spreading the word about Camp Sunshine. He did this all while still on active duty and juggling time with deployments. Now retired from the service, Mike continues to organize annual events that have allowed hundreds of families to attend camp. Through his tireless efforts, Michael has raised more than $500,000 for Camp Sunshine and created ongoing relationships with military hospitals and bases across the nation.

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Kathleen Granfield

VA Charters, Inc. - West Haven, Conn.

Many returning servicemen and servicewomen have a difficult time transitioning back into civilian life, especially those with severe and life-changing injuries. Kathleen decided to use her passion for fishing as a way to help veterans. In 2009, she founded Veteran Angler Charters, an all-volunteer Connecticut-based nonprofit that provides free chartered fishing trips to injured veterans. A United States Coast Guard (USCG) licensed captain, she started the program using the family boat. The program has since expanded to five boats serving veterans all over New England. Last year, the program ran more than 60 trips and served more than 250 veterans. Every chartered trip is available free of charge to all veterans and is designed to be a personalized experience. All trips are run by USCG licensed captains, with health care providers or peer support counselors aboard when appropriate. The boats offer an atmosphere that is entirely different from a hospital or clinic setting. The veterans are at ease and have an opportunity to open up and share their experiences. The small group environments provide a safe and private place for veterans to reconnect with others. Kathleen supervises every aspect of the program while continuing to conduct the CT fishing trips. She coordinates the outreach to veteran service organizations and hospitals and manages the fundraising efforts, all while managing a full-time job as a middle school science teacher. This past year, Kathleen was recognized as the VFW Teacher of the Year for the state of Connecticut. Veterans often refer to this experience as a floating hospital. Recently, Kathleen received a letter from a veteran that had enjoyed a VA Charters trip. Within the letter, the veteran explained that he planned on taking his own life the following day, but the boat trip resulted in a change of heart and ultimately saved his life.

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Amy Busch

Dennis Messing Memorial Foundation – Hyde Park, Mass.

After losing several friends and family members to the opioid epidemic, Amy wanted to do something to help keep their legacies alive, while also helping to combat drug addiction. In 2015, she founded the Dennis Messing Memorial Foundation, in memory of a friend, to provide families and individuals struggling with alcohol and substance abuse disorders with support, resources and financial aid to attend 12-step treatment facilities. In 2016, the nonprofit expanded its operation to add a program known as DMMF Kids, which provides scholarships to children who have lost a parent to an overdose. It also supports children whose parents are not present because of their drug use. The program has helped to provide children with clothing and school supplies, in addition to funding dance lessons, summer camps and other recreational activities. The nonprofit also started a secret Santa program during the holidays to support the children. Amy serves as the organizations president and spends countless hours working with families, providing guidance and resources, to ensure they are able to get back on their feet. She hosts eight different fundraising events throughout the year to help provide essential scholarships to families. Amy is always on call and is always willing to go the extra mile to help someone in need. Since the nonprofit began, Amy has helped more than 200 individuals enter treatment facilities and provided never-ending support to their children.

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Brent Mullen and Keith Nguyen

New England Center and Home for Veterans

Brent and Keith are senior dental students at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. They both served in the United States Army and are veterans of the War in Iraq. They are co-presidents of the Tufts Dental Health Professional Scholarship club military club and both plan on returning to the army as dentists following their 2020 graduation.Brent is originally from Evansville, Indiana and Keith is from Denton, Texas. Upon arriving in Boston in the fall of 2016, Brent and Keith started volunteering at the New England Center and Home for Veterans where they serve meals to veterans. Together, they decided to combine their education with their interest in serving veterans and created the Service with a Smile project. The goal of the project is to connect all homeless veterans to a dental home for comprehensive oral health care. Twice a month, they provide oral health services to homeless veterans. Services include oral cancer screenings, oral health education and referral services. Brent and Keith also provide veterans with oral hygiene supplies and have gotten their classmates and faculty involved in the project. They advocate for the health of homeless veterans while providing access to exams, cleanings, new dentures and cavity fillings.Brent and Keith have also participated in the Boston Marathon Ruck March over the past two years. The event takes place the day before the Boston Marathon and participants travel 26.2 miles while carrying at least 15 pounds worth of weight to honor fallen soldiers. Brent and Keith organized a team and decided to carry bags of rice, beans and other items that could be donated to the New England Center and Home for Veterans. Over the past two years, their team has donated 1,750 pounds of food to the nonprofit, while raising nearly $40,000 to help veterans and their families in times of need.

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Jocelyn Cook

SPUR – Marblehead, Mass

Five years ago, Jocelyn created SPUR, whose mission is to cultivate a "Community of Doers" by providing an array of multi-generational volunteer opportunities and youth enrichment programs which "spur" participants to strengthen communities and improve lives of individuals and families in Lynn, Marblehead, Salem and Swampscott. Under her leadership, SPUR organizes a variety of engagement activities from large-scale day of service events to regular monthly and weekly opportunities. Examples of such are multi-town beach cleanups, serving meals at local shelters, preparing personal hygiene kits, installing and managing a garden which grows fresh produce for local food pantries, and rescuing food from local marketplaces and redirecting to individuals facing food insecurity. The nonprofit also supports hundreds of local children annually by providing new backpacks with school supplies and gifts at the holidays, as well as runs youth specific programming aimed at engaging the youngest members of our community in age appropriate conversations around community, stewardship, social action and philanthropy. Jocelyn exemplifies the qualities of integrity, compassion and commitment to the community. Last year, she led more than 2,500 volunteers and totaled more than 5,000 volunteer hours. Jocelyn exudes unstoppable energy and passion about engaging community members in spurring good deeds. She is creative, selfless and pours all of her into building a community of doers.

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Bryan McDavitt

Camp Rising Sun - Branford, Conn.

Camp Rising Sun is a nonprofit organization based in Branford, Conn. that provides an overnight camping experience for children ages five to 17 who have faced a diagnosis of cancer. Children that are diagnosed with cancer have a tough road. In addition to the physical challenges they encounter, they often fall behind at school, experience low self-esteem and lack confidence. Camp tries to give some of that back. It gives them an opportunity to succeed at new activities while also getting to know other campers who can relate to what they're going through. Bryan has been volunteering at Camp Rising Sun since 2011. He started as a cabin staff member in their senior cabin. In this role, he built meaningful relationships with the campers while managing late nights, camp pranks, homesickness and seeing that the medical needs of all campers are met. Now serving as a head counselor, Bryan handles these same responsibilities, in addition to planning the daily activities for the cabin, leading and evaluating cabin staff and is the key person overseeing the safety and discipline of his campers. Parents remark how much their child has changed after attending camp. Much of that positive change can be attributed to counselors, like Bryan. He is creative, energetic and always knows how to make the campers smile. He is well-liked by all campers and staff and plays an instrumental role in positively impacting children that are diagnosed with cancer.

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José Valenzuela

Boston Youth Wrestling – Boston, Mass.

As a young boy of color growing up in Boston, José experienced low self-esteem, was underachieving in school and found himself heading down the wrong path. Then he discovered wrestling, which provided him with confidence, guidance and mentorship. Now, as a Boston Public Schools teacher, José shares his passion for wrestling with Boston-area youth. In 2012, he founded Boston Youth Wrestling to help teach youth to successfully overcome socio-economic challenges that lead to educational gaps, poor health and negative community relationships. These challenges also impart skills such as self-reliance, discipline and commitment to others that apply both on and off the mat, in school and beyond. José dedicates every spare moment to Boston Youth Wrestling and thanks to his leadership, this program has grown tremendously. Since its inception, he has positively engaged 3,500 youth as a coach, mentor and president for the organization. More than 500 youth from Boston, Chelsea and Lynn are currently enrolled in 17 different program sites throughout the school year. The programs serve a wide range of students, teaching them confidence, self-control and sportsmanship, while also providing them with a positive outlook on health and fitness. José has implemented a variety of youth development programs that have shown a significant impact both on and off the mat. The Evolve program at Boston Youth Wrestling offers a 12-17 week curriculum that combines wrestling with academic skill development and college and career exploration. Amongst Boston Youth Wrestling participants, there has been an 80 percent increase in graduation rates and a 75 percent decrease in dropout rates.

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Gwen Taylor and Jeff Lindy

Hospitality Homes

Every year more than 250,000 patients and their families travel to Boston to access the leading-edge medical care. Unfortunately, Boston also has some of the highest hotel and rental costs in the nation, with limited vacancy. Patients and families who have to be in Boston for life-saving treatment are often left on their own to find lodging when hospital housing or insurance reimbursement are not available. Hospitality Homes provides no-cost, short-term housing in volunteer host homes and in donated apartments to families and loved ones of patients seeking care at Boston-area healthcare centers. Since 2015, Gwen and Jeff have been volunteer hosts, providing a "home-away-from home" and a Boston-area family experience for many of these patients who are dealing with serious medical illnesses. Over the past four years, Gwen and Jeff have opened their home to more than 35 families for more than 1,000 nights of free housing. Most of their guests have traveled long distances, including internationally, and many guests have been young parents with babies who know that the only place in the world to treat their loved one is at Boston-area hospitals. In addition to hosting families, Gwen and Jeff serve on the Host Community Advisory Board, a leadership team of volunteers who help build the program, train volunteers, offer support to new volunteers and evaluate how the program is successful. Gwen and Jeff share their story whenever they can to help recruit new volunteers and to show others how they can make a difference.