The Times Media Co. and United Way of Porter County partnered again this year to honor volunteers from across Northwest Indiana with the annual Spirit Awards. Read about this year’s seven recipients.
Name: Antonio Gutierrez
Occupation: Property maintenance contractor
Where they volunteer: American Cancer Society
Volunteer position: Advocacy lead
What they do: There is little that Antonio has not done with the local American Cancer Society. He has held multiple positions on the board of directors, maxed out his term as advocacy lead for the ACS Cancer Advocacy Network, and works on the annual Relay for Life in Portage. Antonio has even walked from Indiana to Washington, D.C., twice to raise awareness and advocate for cancer research legislation.
Why they volunteer there: Antonio’s family is one of those rare ones that has not been touched by cancer. This has inspired Antonio to help ensure that other families can live cancer-free lives.
How long they have volunteered there: Antonio has worked on Relay for Life for 11 years and spent 8 years with the ACS Cancer Action Network.
Insights gained from volunteering: Working toward a cancer-free world has shown Antonio the struggles and triumphs of cancer care and research. “It’s really opened up my eyes to the different struggles that different people experience. We have it made — you know, people are always complaining about how their coffee was made wrong or something, but they don’t realize that there are bigger problems.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: Volunteering will connect you to many new people you probably would not have met otherwise. “Just do it. You’ll meet new family members.”
Name: Sarah Miller
Occupation: Retired arts and crafts teacher
Volunteer position: Vice president emeritus
Where they volunteer: Kankakee Valley Historical Society
What they do: Among Sarah’s early accomplishments at the Kankakee Valley Historical Society is publishing the diary of George Wilcox, who served as a hunting and fishing guide for Civil War General Lew Wallace. The diary was eventually made into a play that was integrated into the curriculum for Kankakee Valley Middle and High Schools. Since then, Sarah has assisted with events, fundraising and education. Mary Hodson, society cofounder, said, “Sarah is very hands-on. There’s not a thing she won’t help with.”
Why they volunteer there: Growing up in the Kankakee Valley left Sarah with a soft spot in her heart for its rich history. When she attended the first Society meeting back in 2001, she realized that the Society shared the same goals of studying the land and its artifacts and preserving it all for education.
How long they have volunteered there: Sarah was the Kankakee Valley Historical Society’s very first member when it was incorporated in 2001. She has been an active member ever since.
Insights gained from volunteering: Volunteering should be rewarding for all involved. “I get more than they do,” Sarah noted. “It’s actually selfish.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: Volunteers should enjoy the work, but their motivation should come from the heart. Sarah said, “It starts with caring about everyone else more than yourself.”
Overall, volunteering is about giving back. There is no greater way to pass on your good fortune than giving freely of your time and effort. “I like the phrase the young people have now: pay it forward.”
Name: Abigail Naumann
City: Lake Station
Volunteer position: Activist
Where they volunteer: Lake Station Community Schools, Raise it for Health, Voice Indiana, The Eagle Foundation and Abby’s Step-by-Step NWI
What they do: Abby is passionate about educating people on the dangers of gun violence and tobacco use. Through her nonprofit, Abby’s Step-by-Step NWI, Abby is able to speak to wide audiences about preventing gun violence. She also created The Eagle Foundation, which puts on fundraisers to help Lake Station Community Schools raise funds for necessities. Abby recently participated in a rally with The American Cancer Society, where she spoke up against big tobacco companies.
Why they volunteer there: When Abby’s grandmother passed away after years of tobacco use, Abby realized what a negative influence big tobacco companies have on our everyday lives. In 2014, a young family friend was a victim of gun violence. Faced with these tragedies, Abby decided to use what she could to make a difference: her voice. “I wanted to get David’s story out there. There are too many people in the community — in the world — who share the same story.”
How long they have volunteered there: Abby began volunteering three years ago, when she was in seventh grade.
Insights gained from volunteering: Passion should drive volunteerism. “It’s not about the recognition. It’s about passion and engaging people. When you step up, you’re giving others — and yourself — the confidence to step up, too.”
Abby has also realized that her work is part of something much bigger than Northwest Indiana. Tobacco use and gun violence are issues around the world. “No matter what you do, there’s always a bigger picture.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: Activism and volunteering is all about stepping up to the plate. “Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Your voice is your power,” Abby said. “If you know you want to step up, that’s all you have to do. You’ll never be alone; there will always be people there to help you.”
Name: Brenda Bocek
Volunteer position: Tax preparer and reviewer, clerical support
Where they volunteer: United Way of Porter County Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program and Retired & Senior Volunteer Program
What they do: Brenda serves as a tax preparer and reviewer with VITA. Her main priority is helping ensure that clients’ tax returns are properly filed. With RSVP, Brenda provides clerical support at the United Way of Porter County office.
Why they volunteer there: When she saw an ad for VITA in the newspaper, Brenda thought it sounded like a perfect opportunity to get involved. “I like to stay active in my community,” Brenda says. “I enjoy the work. I have an accounting degree, so VITA is really up my alley.”
Brenda was asked to join RSVP and use her accounting skills to support United Way Chief Financial Officer Dawn Thostesen. This position is a perfect complement to Brenda’s VITA work and provides even more opportunities to stay engaged.
How long they have volunteered there: Brenda has volunteered with VITA for seven years and RSVP for one and half years.
Insights gained from volunteering: Volunteering has taught Brenda to be grateful for everything she has in her life. “I am a very fortunate person — I have a very supportive family, and I’m healthy. You see a lot of people who are ill or struggling financially, and I’m very grateful that I don’t have those same concerns.”
Brenda also believes that volunteers should gain as much from their service as the organizations they work for. “It’s a win-win situation,” Brenda says. “People are very appreciative when they get help on their taxes. And it’s OK to get enjoyment out of your volunteer experience.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: Brenda was able to find two volunteer positions that suit her needs and skills, and she encourages others to do the same. “Find something that you’re passionate about, and find somewhere that can use that.”
Name: Kaye Frataccia
Occupation: Retired Spanish teacher
Volunteer position: Board of Directors & general volunteer
Where they volunteer: Hilltop Neighborhood House, Valpo Parks Foundation, Memorial Opera House Foundation and Don Quixote Foundation
What they do: Serving on four different boards of directors allows Kaye to make a difference throughout her community. She often helps with fundraising and ensuring the completion of large projects like Valpo Parks’ complete renovation of ValPLAYso, a beloved local park. When volunteering at Hilltop, Kaye’s favorite task is reading to the kids. She also helps in the soup kitchen and helped fundraise for Hilltop’s new food pantry and mobile food van.
Why they volunteer there: Kaye has always valued education and saw that Hilltop Neighborhood House shares the same priorities. Her board positions allow her to share her talents and time around the whole community.
How long they have volunteered there: Between seven and 10 years.
Insights gained from volunteering: Everyone in our community has to do their part and give back. “Our community is strong, but it’s only strong because of the people who live here. In life you can’t just be a taker, you have to be a giver. You have to do your share.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: Volunteers can make a huge impact when they are passionate about their work. “Find your passion inside and look for an agency that matches what you care about. Start small with temporary positions and work up to full-time or permanent if you can. And you’ll feel good inside.”
Name: Jack Schlesinger
Occupation: Retired teacher
Volunteer position: Volunteer teacher
Where they volunteer: Lake County Juvenile Detention Complex
What they do: Jack wears many hats at the Detention Complex. Drawing on his experience as a track coach, Jack leads workouts to teach kids the importance of physical fitness and sportsmanship. In his writing class, kids read, keep journals and play logic games to keep their minds occupied. Jack also provides encouragement and advice to the kids when they need it most.
Why they volunteer there: Jack’s mother was an avid volunteer in the Chicagoland area and Jack always felt compelled to follow in her footsteps. He also knew from a young age that he wanted to work with kids in the juvenile justice system. After retiring from teaching in Hammond, Jack found the time to get involved at the Detention Complex.
How long they have volunteered there: March 1 marked Jack’s three-year anniversary of volunteering at the Detention Center.
Insights gained from volunteering: Volunteering at the Detention Complex has taught Jack that the kids he sees there are not any different from the kids outside the complex. “They’re a bunch of nice kids. They’re so close to being OK — all they need is a little encouragement.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: Volunteering can be very rewarding. However, Jack noted it can be difficult not to get attached to the people you meet. “You meet the greatest people volunteering. It’s such a pull at your heartstrings. I couldn’t quit now if I tried.”
Name: Rolando Chilian
Occupation: Retired musician and teacher
Where they volunteer: Salvation Army of Porter County
Volunteer position: Advisory Board & general volunteer
What they do: Rolando is a past chairman of The Salvation Army Advisory Board. He can be found helping out in the food pantry and with events like the Easter Bunny Breakfast and Stuff the Bus.
Why they volunteer there: The Salvation Army is Rolando’s favorite place to volunteer because of how much good the organization does in the community. “There’s so much to do,” he said. “The Salvation Army helps so many people.”
Rolando also feels a responsibility to give back to his community. “My life has always been blessed. This is a way to pay back a bit of our comfort and happiness.”
How long they have volunteered there: Rolando has volunteered at The Salvation Army of Porter County for about four years.
Insights gained from volunteering: Community members who live comfortably should not let those in need slip through the cracks. “It just floors me how much need there is in this community,” Rolando said. “Valpo is pretty high on the socio-economic scale, but people are neglected.”
Advice to others who might want to volunteer: “It’s worth it,” Rolando said simply. “It can be time-consuming and harrowing, but you help so many people. It makes the community stronger.” Every minute spent volunteering is an investment in the volunteer and the community.