The Magic of Making a Difference
Photos by Joe Reale
For all the festivities, feasting, and frivolity that come with the holidays, the most magical aspect of the season is how everyone’s heart glows a little warmer. And for many of us, the spirit of giving extends beyond family and friends to people we may never know and causes that accomplish good the world over.
In the vignettes that follow, you’ll meet some of the people and organizations in our community that are helping to make a difference. These are stories of rescue, rehabilitation, and reinvention—but most of all they are stories of hope and inspiration.
Here’s hoping you’ll find reason to join one of these groups, or rekindle your passion for other causes.
Giving Girls New Directions
North Hills Transitional Living
Tamicka Styles, Program Manager
Helping troubled teens progress from probation to positive futures.
By Carla Turchetti
Tamicka Styles says you can’t write off a teen just because she’s had a troubled start. As the program manager of the North Hills Transitional Living program, she runs a home where teenage girls—between the ages of 16 and 18 who are on probation—can live and work toward a better future.
“So many times, we look at our juveniles and think: This is a kid with no hope,” Styles says. “What I can honestly say is that when these girls come here, they see hope.” Her definition of hope is that the girls can believe: “I know what I’ve been through, but because of the support I am given and the resources that are being provided to me I know I have a future.”
The residential program in North Hills is a partnership between the Methodist Home for Children and the North Carolina Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. It is a voluntary program that opens its doors to court-involved teenage girls, who can stay at the home six to 12 months.
The goal is to help the girls build skills that will enable them to become self-sufficient adults. The journey begins with education—working toward high school diplomas or the equivalent, looking ahead to secondary education, and finding the right employment. There is also an emphasis on teaching life skills such as budgeting, meal planning, and opening bank accounts. Styles says some of the teens come to the program and don’t know how to complete basic tasks like cleaning up after themselves, or even boiling water.
“For so long, they may not have had a mom or dad or anyone in their life that can model appropriate behavior,” she explains. The staff models that behavior for them, while challenging the girls to grow emotionally, spiritually, socially, and financially. Taking such big steps isn’t always easy for a troubled teen, especially one who has spent time in juvenile jail.
“They go to school, they work, and all of our girls are in college now—and every single one of them has a job, which is amazing. There’s a lot of running back and forth, and even as adults we get tired of that. The burden they have is so great for someone that age,” Styles adds.
And she applauds the staff of residential counselors who spend days at a time living inside the home with the girls. “You can’t do this without a staff that’s invested into the mission and the vision of what this program is designed for. The resident counselors are the lifeline here.”
Styles originally headed down a path to become a lawyer, majoring in criminal justice as an undergraduate. But she found her calling in working with others, and received a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy. She has worked in residential situations involving young, homeless mothers as well as victims of sex trafficking. And, while she manages the program in North Hills, it’s the daily contact with the girls in the home that she enjoys most.
“For me it’s more than just running this program. It’s about those moments, those sweet moments and nuggets of time, when I am able to talk with them and pray with them and let them know: ‘It’s going to be okay, and if you fail we are still going to be there with you, to help pick you back up, and we’ll continue to support you through your journey.’”
Bryan Kozak, Retired Army Major
PA at Duke University Medical Center
An Ode to Veterans and Healthcare Providers
There are all types of battlefields, and many ways to serve the wounded.
By Dan Bain
Bryan Kozak places value on helping others, and—while he’s protected and improved lives for more than 20 years, both in the Army and as a civilian—he insists, “I’m no different from you or anyone else.”
Kozak enlisted as a combat medic in 1997 and was deployed to Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, Iraq, and twice to Afghanistan. He retired last year as a physician’s assistant (PA) at the rank of Major.
During the Yugoslav Wars, Kozak was in Hungary for what he describes as “a very low-key deployment” in a safe area, providing routine medical care to NATO forces. His tours in the Middle East, he admits, were “anything but cold.” In Iraq, he was a PA with a unit whose overall mission was protection and security at a convoy support center between Kuwait and Baghdad.
His first Afghanistan deployment had him working with an aviation unit at Jalalabad Airfield, where he assisted with MEDEVAC missions, picking up critically injured patients both before and after surgery. He spent his second deployment in Kabul, providing medical care for a base.
“My job was to save lives and make sure our soldiers had the opportunity to come home to their families. The real heroes are the ones who keep the defense and engage the enemy,” he says, adding that at times he treated enemy troops. “You know they don’t think fondly of you and the other members of the coalition, but you also realize they bleed red, too. No matter how skewed the thought process is, they have a family somewhere.”
After leaving the Army, Kozak accepted a job at Duke University Medical Center as a PA in vascular interventional radiology. In this role, he helps patients suffering from liver and kidney cancer, peripheral vascular disease, and abnormal uterine bleeding.
“We aim to cure; when we cannot, we seek to maintain their quality of life for as long as possible,” he says. “There are good days when we help somebody beat cancer, but there are other days when we see them dying in front of us. Then, the best medicine is to take care of the soul of the family.”
Kozak refuses to think of himself as a hero, preferring instead to share that title with others. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a P.A., a teacher, a landscaper, or a garbage collector,” he muses. “All of us are heroes by doing what we do to make the world a better place.”
First Responders Come in All Ages
Boy Scouts of America
Aaron Spiliopoulos, First Class Scout
Of course their motto is “Be Prepared,” but what that also teaches is presence of mind in the face of adversity.
By Dan Bain
When Aaron Spiliopoulos happened upon the scene of a bad accident three summers ago, he helped save a man’s life. That’s not surprising, because Spiliopoulos responded by the book. What might surprise you, however, is that the book happened to be the Boy Scout Handbook, and Spiliopoulos was just 14 years old.
When he and a friend heard a loud crash, he ran toward the sound and discovered a badly damaged, smoking car teetering on the edge of a hill, with only two tires making contact with solid ground.
Then a First Class Scout with Troop 104 in Raleigh, Spiliopoulos saw an elderly man in the driver’s seat, his head on the steering wheel. The front door was mangled shut and impossible to open, so Spiliopoulos settled for the fastest alternate route—the rear-passenger door. From the back seat, he tended to the driver, scooting across broken window glass while the car swayed in its unsteady position.
“I was a little nervous, but I tried to stay calm because I was the one treating the man—and if one person freaks out it would only cause others to panic,” Spiliopoulos remembers. “Deep inside though, I was scared, but I couldn’t show it. I had to collect myself and do the right thing.”
The man’s leg was pinned beneath the dashboard, he had injured a wrist, and his neck needed to be stabilized. Spiliopoulos stayed inside the car until an EMS unit arrived. An EMS tech handed him a neck stabilizer, which Spiliopoulos administered to the patient. He continued to wait in the car until the fire department arrived and had to cut off the top of the car. “I think they finally realized I was a kid and not a first responder,” he laughs.
Spiliopoulos was surprised when the Boy Scouts of America later presented him with the Medal of Merit, a prestigious annual award presented to about 100 of the more than 2 million scouts nationwide. The medal recognizes scouts who have performed meritorious service above and beyond what’s normally expected.
“I didn’t think I was going to get an award, because it was just the right thing to do,” Spiliopoulos says. Now a Life Scout closing in on Eagle, Spiliopoulos says he was merely following elements of the Scout Law, which includes being helpful, serving others, and being prepared. And somewhere out there is an accident survivor who’s glad this scout rose to the occasion.
Simple but Significant Commitments
There’s not one solution to the world’s needs, but helping one person
at a time can lead to support for thousands.
Help One Now
Chris Marlow, Founder and CEO
By Carla Turchetti
Chris Marlow believes that doing good is simple. And as the founder and CEO of the Raleigh-based Help One Now organization, he is committed to the idea that everyday people can make an impact, even if they only help one other person. Help One Now exists to break the cycle of poverty in some of the poorest communities around the globe.
“We’re there to empower families around the world, empower communities, create jobs, and [provide] education,” Marlow says. “Ultimately, what we are trying to do is see communities transformed.”
Help One Now isn’t in the business of landing in a country for a short-term stay like volunteers in a mission-style trip. Instead, Help One Now forms partnerships with leaders of communities where there is extreme poverty in an effort to help build solutions that are tailored to that particular place. The belief is that there is not one universal solution to fighting extreme poverty.
“We are completely invisible,” Marlow says. “You won’t find a logo; you won’t find an office. It’s all through strategic partnerships, so the dignity is really high. We’re not coming in and telling them what to do or how to do it. I’m not the boss; it is a truly collaborative partnership.”
Help One Now may be keeping a low profile, but—10 years after being founded—the numbers speak volumes: Marlow says the organization is assisting 37,000 people around the world each day and will give away 1.6 million meals this year. Some 4,000 children are in schools powered by Help One Now.
He stresses that, despite all the bad news in the world, there are plenty of bright spots of hope. “The media only shows the worst-case scenarios, day in and day out. And there is amazing beauty happening all over the world, because humans are caring for other humans in one way or another. But those are the stories we don’t hear about.”
Marlow was moved to begin Help One Now in 2007, after meeting an orphan in a gas station in Zimbabwe. He says Raleigh is a generous, thriving, and caring community that has really embraced the work of Help One Now around the world and is helping it grow.
As the author of the book Doing Good is Simple, Marlow offers this advice: Don’t be overwhelmed by the volume of people and places needing help and opt not to do anything at all. Instead, pick a few things that might be your passion and work on those.
“The beauty is you see the impact and you see the progress,” he says, “and then it becomes something that blesses both the giver and those on the other side of that gift. Doing good is simple, but it’s also significant. If we’re not doing good, then the world’s in trouble.”
The N.C. HarmReduction Coalition
Jesse Bennett, Volunteer organizer and consultant
Opioid addictions and overdose deaths have spiraled beyond measure, but volunteers are helping build paths to recovery.
By Steven Major
When a building is engulfed in flames and the people inside have no clear exit, hope often comes in the form of firefighters and good Samaritans, everyday heroes who simply see smoke and rush to aid someone in harm’s way. For many people who need help, there is no black smoke alerting others that someone is in danger. People suffering from drug addiction are often hidden from view, isolated from the services and support they need to end the cycle of drug use and lead productive, meaningful lives.
For those who feel trapped by addiction, Jesse Bennett recognizes the signs of someone in danger and works to help guide them to safety. He knows all too well how difficult that process can be: Bennett’s drug use in high school had progressed into heroine addiction and homelessness before he was able to find recovery for himself. Having found it, he now dedicates much of his time to helping others do the same through his work with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Counsel (NCHRC), an organization that works to reduce the harmful effects of drug use.
Bennett helps lead statewide volunteer coordination for NCHRC, as well as Naloxone distribution and syringe-exchange efforts for NCHRC in Raleigh.
At NCHRC, harm-reduction programs run the gamut from clean-needle exchanges, to supplying users with Naloxone to prevent overdoes, to connecting users who are ready to be clean with treatment. These services address the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, help prevent deaths from overdose, and connect addicts with a network of support that can help them find recovery.
The need for these services is greater than ever. Addiction is a growing problem across the nation, with fentanyl and the abundance of powerful prescription pain medications making the risks of addiction greater than ever. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, of the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, “the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids), with over 20,000 overdose deaths.”
The statistics are tragic, and from Governor Cooper to volunteers across the state, the challenge of opioid addiction is recognized as a problem that cannot be ignored. Being uniquely qualified to help take on this challenge, Bennett’s work is not just saving lives, but also helping individuals to turn their lives around. His hope is that others can have the opportunities in life that he now has: A husband and father of two, he will be soon be graduating from NCSU.
Nurturing the Future
Wee Care Children’s Enrichment Program
Laurie Harrell and Ellen Safrit, Co-Founders
A three-year program prepares at-risk kids for kindergarten and beyond.
By Ed Bristol
What happens when a five-year-old with little or none of the emotional, social, or academic readiness of their new classmates arrives in kindergarten?
“They give up,” says Laurie Harrell, executive director of Raleigh’s Wee Care Children’s Enrichment Program. “Then they often end up being the ‘troublemaker’ instead of the ‘dumb kid,’ because they think that’s a better reputation to have.”
To tackle the problem head-on, Harrell and program administrator Ellen Safrit enroll 10 children into their program—all beginning at age two, and all from disadvantaged backgrounds. When the children graduate at age five, another class enters. Harrell and Safrit believe it’s the only such program in the country that hosts a single class for three years.
The children are from low-income families, many are from single-parent homes, and most have experienced neighborhoods with a high incidence of violent and drug-related crimes. Even as preschoolers, some talk innocently of “weed” and “pot.” Later, their first memories might include traumatic events, like hiding with an aunt under the bed as a SWAT team storms the house.
The nonprofit’s mission is to provide these children with the developmental experiences they’ve missed, so that, as Harrell explains, “When they walk into that kindergarten classroom, they feel confident they can do what the other kids are doing.”
On Tuesday through Friday during the school year, the Wee Care van picks up the kids in the morning and returns them home after school. Volunteers prepare a healthy breakfast and lunch. Classroom time devoted to school and social readiness is enhanced by field trips to museums, the library, the farmers market, and even the beach and the N.C. Zoo—extracurricular activities that these children wouldn’t otherwise experience.
Many of the children never get to eat at a full-service restaurant, so each year Harrell and Safrit take them to NOFO in Raleigh to help them learn restaurant manners.
The 11-year-old program got its start when—as a first-grade teacher at Hunter Elementary School—Harrell kept seeing the same problems with children who lacked social, emotional, and academic readiness. She decided the only way to prepare them adequately for kindergarten was to start working with them early, at the age of two, and keep them long enough to make a difference—in this program, that’s for three years.
She presented the idea to her friend, Safrit, who said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
At the time, Safrit was serving as director of children’s ministries at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church (where the Wee Care program is housed), and her own kids were going into middle and high school. She remembers, “I missed that engagement with a little person who was discovering sand for the first time at the beach, or was seeing a real-life lion at the zoo.”
In Wee Care Children’s Enrichment, there is no cost to the family for the child’s time in the program, but parental involvement is critical. “What we do here has to be important to the parents,” says Harrell, who actively advises the parents on ways they can support their kids while in the program and afterward.
Too often, there’s tension and hostility in the children’s homes. “It’s a world where it’s hard to focus on learning and playing,” Harrell says. “You can’t learn if your basic needs aren’t met and you’re not comfortable.”
To provide the needed consistency, she says it’s critical that these children have “the same teachers, the same room, the same bus, the same friends, and a hot breakfast and a hot lunch every day.”
Safrit says she can see the difference the program makes when she compares photos of the children in their first year with pictures taken in their third year. The images typically reflect the growth of quiet, shy two-year-olds into bolder, more confident five-year-olds.
“These children are now looking you straight in the eye and shaking your hand,” she says. “I look at some of the kids who are now in the seventh grade. They didn’t need remediation in reading or math or writing, so they got to do dance or be on the track team.”
Harrell talks of one child, now entering the fourth grade, who was in the program’s second class. The child’s home life was challenging because her mother, then a single parent trying to raise four children, was embroiled in a prolonged custody battle with the child’s father—and her neighborhood was a crossroads for drug trafficking.
“Her mom tells me that she’s performing at or above grade-level in all areas. She’s a busy girl; she’s doing Girl Scouts. She’s active, confident, and loves school,” Harrell says proudly. “Because she was with us for three years, we were able to nurture her and grow her academically, despite what was going on in her world.”
Harrell is gratified that the child’s success is not unique among Wee Care graduates. “We can maybe change the course of some of their lives so they have an opportunity to do something they didn’t think they could do,” she says.
Volunteer with Wee Care at weecareinc.org/help/volunteer
The Romance of Raptor Rescues
Returning an injured bird to flight is a reward that’s hard to match.
American Wildlife Refuge
Steve Stone, Director of animal care
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
It’s not every day you meet someone who untangles fishing line from the legs of a great blue heron or trudges miles around Falls Lake to rescue a juvenile eagle that has fallen out of the nest. But this is all in a day’s work for Steve Stone, director of animal care at the American Wildlife Refuge (AWR), a raptor rescue and rehabilitation center in Raleigh.
Stone, a Raleigh native, has been rescuing raptors—or birds of prey—since 1996 and is the only active federally licensed raptor rescue/rehabilitator in Wake County. His enthusiasm shows as he describes the building plans for a new facility that extends AWR’s rescue efforts to other birds, reptiles, and small mammals. It will also feature one of the few 100-foot flight cages in the state.
Holidays and weekends are the busiest times for Stone. One Thanksgiving, as he was waiting on family dinner, his phone rang and the caller needed help retrieving an injured hawk from the bushes near his house. “It sounded like an easy call, so I said I’d be right there,” Stone recounts. Once he arrived, he was led down a long path behind the house to a lake. To his surprise, the “bushes” turned out to be crepe myrtle trees hanging over the water. Stone remembers thinking: “This is going to be interesting.” He climbed the trees, the scared hawk flew into the water, and he retrieved it—another successful rescue, and cause for more thanksgiving.
After the hawk was rehabilitated, Stone returned it to the lake. “It’s important to release healthy birds back to the area where they were rescued,” he explains. “They often have families waiting for them.”
Rescued birds whose injuries are beyond comprehensive rehabilitation remain at the center to serve as education birds. These birds help Stone teach the community about the importance of wildlife and allow people to see raptors up close. He says the look in a child’s eyes when he sees an owl for the first time is one of the best things about his work.
He speaks with affection when he remembers birds in his care over the years. He laments when a raptor is lost and says that’s the most difficult part of his job. “Every time something dies, it tears a little bit of your soul away.” To cope with this sadness, Stone started reading romance novels. Eventually, he started writing them. “Nowhere else will you always find a happy ending,” he quips.
With more than 2,000 lifetime rescues and 200 so far this year, AWR is a busy place. The loyal all-volunteer staff donates their time, labor, and money caring for the raptors. It is often a thankless job. But for Stone, it’s not about the money or the recognition—it’s about the birds. “The most rewarding part of my job is when I toss a rehabilitated bird up into the air and watch it fly off into the sky,” he says.