Triangle Residents Volunteer, Help Those in Need – Near and Far

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You see them in schools, churches, workplaces and community centers. They might be friends, family or complete strangers. But people who care are everywhere, and their good works infectiously spread to not only the object of their efforts, but to all others whose lives they touch. Here are six stories of Triangle residents making life better for people — and animals — near and far.

Medical Missionary Trips Change North Raleigh Mom’s Life

haiti-3.jpgScarlett Stowe had never traveled outside the U.S. and didn’t even have a passport, but she agreed to join a nine-day medical mission trip to Honduras in 2008. The 43-year-old wife, mother of three and full-time senior medical information scientist at GlaxoSmithKline just knew the time was right for her to give back.

“The trip absolutely changed my life,” Stowe says, adding that she has grown emotionally and spiritually from her volunteer work. She hopes her experiences will help her raise her children to be compassionate, caring and giving.

Stowe joined her second medical relief effort after the devastating 2010 earthquake hit Haiti. Her team worked 18-hour days and saw thousands of patients. Without computers, pill bottles or labels, Stowe filled prescriptions in plastic bags and met with each patient, assisted by a Creole translator, to explain the dosage. She has since returned to Haiti to offer medical care and distribute shoes to residents of the capital city. This trip was supported by Sandalsaint, a nonprofit organization that provides shoes to Haitian residents.

Stowe says she has found a way to make a difference for others and feels this work pays her back many times over.

“The people were so grateful, and the poverty and need was so overwhelming, that it was so rewarding to me to be there helping others,” Stowe says. “I just hope I can keep my humble spirit and pass it along to my kids.”

Durham Couple Make Christmas Magic for Local Families

gift-staging-3.jpgRichard Low won’t take credit for the success of the Aldersgate United Methodist Church’s Share Your Christmas program in Durham. But the man who has been at the helm of this project for 12 years will concede that he has helped streamline the process.

Aldersgate United Methodist Church supports the Volunteer Center of Durham’s Share Your Christmas program by buying food and gifts for 30 disadvantaged families. When the packages are wrapped and delivered, more than 100 children and adults will have been able to enjoy Christmas, thanks to the generosity of the Aldersgate congregation.

Founder and president of Topsail Technologies, a Durham-based company that builds web applications, Low took over the project and then found the amount of paperwork needed to track the names, addresses, donors and gifts was overwhelming. He saw the project as an outlet for him to use his business acumen to improve the process while giving back. Over the years, Low has slowly automated the process and hopes someday to present the center with an automated process as well.

“This project plays into my natural tendencies that I use every day in my business,” he says. “It is something that I can do effectively. I see it as a bit of a hobby.”

Low and his wife, Anne, began helping out in the early ’90s by delivering the gifts. Nearly 25 years later, the two say it is a team effort. Anne spends countless hours coordinating the volunteers, wrapping packages and preparing boxes for delivery.

“It is so gratifying to know we are helping people locally,” Low says.

Visit volunteercenter.org to learn more.

ladner-usvc.jpgCary Army Veteran Gives Back to Military Community

When Andrew Ladner came up with the creed for the United States Veterans Corps, he did not have to think hard. “What a Few Can Do” has always been the driving force behind him and all the volunteers who go above and beyond in their support of those who serve our country.

Ladner, executive director of the United States Veterans Corps, says there is no request he and his team of 300 volunteers cannot fill.

“It’s very simple,” Ladner says. “We do what we say we will do, and we do it quickly.”

The Cary-based organization’s accolades and awards — which include two U.S. Presidential Volunteer Service Awards and Best Community Service Event in the State for Operation: Coming Home 2009 and 2011, and eight Hero Homes they have presented to North Carolina’s wounded warriors — prove that.

Ninety percent of the work goes to support the United States Veterans Corps’ three primary operations: Toys for ‘Lil’ Troops, Rescue Me Across America and Operation: Coming Home. But the organization is about much more. Always on alert to deploy anywhere in the nation, the team has been called on for disaster relief ranging from hurricanes to snowstorms, and to provide emergency food or housing for a military family in need

While Ladner is proud of the awards the organization has earned, he’s too busy looking ahead to the next project to celebrate these victories.

“My parents raised me with the belief that community service is something I should do,” Ladner says. “It’s just the right thing.”

To find out how you can donate your time or money to the United States Veterans Corps, visit myusvc.com.

Raleigh Volunteer Presents Computers to Deserving Studentsstephenson-kramden-institute.jpg

It is hard for Jeanette Stephenson of Raleigh to remember a time when she wasn’t involved in volunteer work. Since she was a child, her parents instilled in her the importance of giving back to her community. She, in turn, has passed that same conviction on to her daughter who volunteers in her UNC-Wilmington campus community. Now retired, Stephenson puts her administrative and organizational skills to good use by volunteering to manage much of the office tasks at the Kramden Institute in Durham.

The Kramden Institute awards refurbished computers to North Carolina students who cannot afford them. Since January 2007, Jeanette has worked behind the scenes maintaining records, handling inquiries and creating award letters to free up others who concentrate on technical issues. Over the years, the Kramden Institute has awarded more than 15,000 computers to students.

“Jeanette’s dedication allows Kramden to make a huge impact in the community while keeping a small staff,” says Cari DelMariani, director of events and education at the Kramden Institute.

Stephenson’s work helps free up the “Geek Team” to accept donated computers, refurbish them and load software on to them. Computer distribution is made during monthly Award Days, during which up to 70 computers are given to students.

“I have been blessed from a very young age, and giving back to help these deserving students makes me very happy,” Stephenson says.

Her favorite part her volunteer work is when she calls families to tell them they have been awarded a computer. “The student and the parents are always so grateful to be selected, and a computer in the house means that parents can also use it to help in their job search,” she says. “Kramden is a great organization, and I plan to volunteer here as long as I live in the area.”

To find out how you can help the Kramden Institute award computers to North Carolina students, visit kramden.org.

Cary Teen Makes Community Service a Priority

varsha-gopal-1.jpgLike most teenagers, Varsha Gopal stays busy with her school work and sports, but that is where the comparison ends. This sophomore at Green Hope High School in Cary spends nearly all her free time volunteering. Since she began volunteering in seventh grade, she has amassed more than 600 hours of volunteer time.

“I don’t volunteer for the hours or for the credit; I volunteer because it makes me happy,” Gopal says. She has worked with all ages — from senior citizens at bingo events, to rising kindergarteners attending summer day camp.

Gopal primarily volunteers through the Cary Teen Council, an organization established to empower teens with the core values of leadership, accountability and service. She serves as the council’s program director on the executive board and volunteers through the Chinmaya Mission-RDU.

Gopal’s parents, Sowmya and Venkat Gopal, fully support their daughter and encourage her to use her time wisely. The teen says it can be a struggle to manage homework, tennis, symphony and volunteering, but she can think of nothing else she would rather do than “give back to the community that has done so much” for her.

Recently Gopal was selected as one of 18 students from the U.S. to travel to India for two weeks in December for a service visit as part of CORD USA, an organization committed to improving the economy and quality of life for those less fortunate in America, India and Sri Lanka. Gopal will help build basic sanitation and housing facilities in a depressed, rural area of the country. She says she is honored to have this opportunity, but knows the work will be hard and more vigorous than anything else she has done.

“I love it all so much,” Gopal says. “Volunteering just makes me feel so good about myself, and I hope to be able to continue to volunteer forever.”

For more information about the Cary Teen Council, visit caryteencouncil.com.

Chapel Hill Mom Gives Back to Developing Countries

Chesca Colleredo-Mansfield grew up as the daughter of a diplomat in Africa, where she often encountered homeless citizens whose turned-in feet had callused into awkward lumps. Years later, the mom of three learned that chescamiraclefeet.jpgclubfoot, a common birth defect that makes walking difficult and painful, could be treated cheaply and easily using a revolutionary method developed by Dr. Ignacio Ponseti at the University of Iowa in the 1950s.

“Something clicked in my head and I decided that I needed to do something about this,” Colleredo-Mansfield says. “I was fortunate to connect with some dedicated parents who had children born with clubfoot in the U.S. who shared my desire to help children in developing countries. Together we created miraclefeet.”

Five years later, miraclefeet has enrolled 6,700 children for Clubfoot treatment in Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, India, Liberia, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Philippines.

“These children will now be able to run, walk and play instead of living with the shame and poverty normally associated with being disabled in a country like Tanzania or Nicaragua,” Colleredo-Mansfield says.

Using the Ponseti method, infants who have clubfoot wear a series of full-leg casts to gradually turn out their feet. Casts are changed weekly for three to eight weeks. Before putting on the final cast, which is worn for three weeks, doctors make a small incision to the child’s Achilles tendon. Then, the child wears a special set of boots connected by a bar for a few years while sleeping to keep feet in the right position.

“While the sacrifices that my husband and our children have made to allow me to do this are significant, I believe that I am a better parent and a happier person,” says Colleredo-Mansfield, who has worked in fields ranging from investment banking to academia. “I want my kids to understand that happiness comes from doing work that matters deep inside, and not from money or prestige.”

Learn how you can help at miraclefeet.org.

img_5823.jpgHillsborough Teen Rescues Chilean Street Dog

It’s a story of love that conquers myriad obstacles, traveling across continents, past language and cultural barriers, and even species. When 16-year-old Andie McKinnon of Hillsborough laid eyes on a black lab mix in South America, something melted inside her, and the feeling was mutual.

While visiting Chile in July as an exchange student, McKinnon was walking her host family’s dog in a park close to the family’s apartment in Antofagasta when she came across two sleeping dogs. They seemed to belong to no one, so she went home and returned with some rolls, only to discover there were actually four street dogs. One, in particular, connected with her. After she fed the dogs, all of the canines returned to sleep together, except one she began to call Blue.

McKinnon’s mother, Cory Johnston, asked her if she was willing to put in the effort to adopt and bring the dog home to North Carolina. The teen said yes and started “Operation Blue,” a gofundme.com account to bring Blue here, and to raise money for Francisco Rivas’ rescue effort, which helps feed, spay and neuter street dogs in Chile. Three months later, with the help of countless strangers in Chile and America, Blue is sleeping in McKinnon’s bed and following her around her home. She plans to keep raising funds for Rivas’ dog rescue shelter and to keep promoting the plight of street dogs.

The impossible has come true for two friends who are now together forever. Love was the inspiration from the moment they first met.

“We grew such a strong bond,” McKinnon recalls. “He would follow me home every day and he would wait outside the gate … and he would look at me with the world in his eyes and I knew he would follow me anywhere. So knowing that, I don’t see how you couldn’t do everything in your power to try to make sure he has the best life with you.”

Nancy Meredith is a blogger and freelance writer with 20-plus years of professional experience in the information technology industry. She lives in Wake Forest with her husband and their mini-dachshund, Scooter.

— This article includes contributions from Carolina Parent Web Editor Odile Fredericks. Read the entire story about the Hillsborough teen who rescued the Chilean street dog in her blog, Love Prevails: Hillsborough Teen Reunited With Chilean Street Dog

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