Think dedication. Devotion to community in the face of overwhelming need. The kind of above-and-beyond attitude that lifts spirits in every corner of the community.
All of those superlatives, and so many more, describe the volunteers FLORIDA TODAY has honored since 1992 through the Volunteer Recognition Awards,
The three finalists named for 2022 Organization of the Year honors reach out daily to the aging, the hungry, the homeless and the wildlife that surrounds us here on the Space Coast.
The finalists are:
Aging Matters in Brevard is the lead agency for senior services in Brevard County, from Meals on Wheels delivery and operating Seniors at Lunch sites to in-home duties such as
Florida Wildlife Hospital tends to thousands of injured animals every year, nursing many back to health and always, giving them the respect and love they need.
Metropolitan Baptist Church Outreach Ministry, based in Cocoa, reaches out to thousands of people monthly with food and other help, with a special heart for the needs of local veterans.
For almost 60 years, Aging Matters in Brevard has been a rock for the Space Coast's 60-and-older population.
And for this organization, aging really does matter: Staff and volunteers of the county's lead agency for senior services see to the health and welfare of some of Brevard's most vulnerable citizens.
The services are many and diverse in an effort to keep seniors as independent as possible: Meals on Wheels deliveries; congregate dining sites countywide. Transportation. A home care program, with services such as light housekeeping and caregiver support, and home modifications including shower grab bars and wheelchair ramps.
The agency, which cares for around 3,196 clients yearly and has 97 employees along with volunteers, marked its golden anniversary in 2015. It was founded as The Community Services Council of Brevard County in 1965.
Tom Kammerdener started his career with Aging Matters in 2012 as director at the Brevard Community Kitchen where meals are prepared, rising to nutrition program director and later, director of operations.
This fall, he was named president and CEO. He's driven by the need, Kammerdener said, and overwhelmed by the appreciation of the community his agency serves.
"Between the loyalty of our volunteers and our clients ... you get hooked so quickly," he said.
"You meet people from all walks of life. I always refer to one of our clients who is blind. She calls the kitchen at varied times during the day, but she's the sweetest woman you'd ever want to meet. And so we pass the phone around ... if you're having a bad day, all you have to do is talk to her. She's just lovely ... an inspiration."
Even in the face of COVID-19, and diminished donations, and rising costs of everything needed to do the job, the wheels didn't stop rolling for the agency's work.
For example, Aging Matters provided more than 237,000 meals to Meals on Wheels and Seniors at Lunch clients, the latter of whom ate at congregate dining sites, in 2019.
That number rose to more than 355,000 in 2020, as dining sites were closed and meals were provided in advance. In 2021, there was a decline to just more than 300,000 meals, but the need still well exceeded pre-pandemic demand. Though help from American Rescue Act funding has been a boon, that won't last much longer.
In the midst of all that, Aging Matters has persevered — and community support has, too, Kammerdener said.
"One of our mottos throughout this pandemic has been 'We won't fail.' And we didn't, the whole time," he said.
"We didn't shut down for one day — we just changed the way we did things. Everybody was fed ... we wanted to make sure they were OK."
The challenges are still many, from the need for volunteer drivers to that decreased funding, and getting more than 400 people off the Meals on Wheels waiting list.
But staff and volunteers alike, Kammerdener said, don't do it for the money.
"They do it for the heart," he said.
"When you go to sleep at night, you want to be able to know that what you're doing for the community is top-notch and that you're there for people who need you. And this mission ... it's just so solid."
That's how many phone calls had come in to Florida Wildlife Hospital this year as of around 1 p.m. Nov. 15.
More than 6,000.
That's how many patients — sick, injured and orphaned animals of all kinds — were seen at the hospital in 2021.
That's the love and respect for wildlife at this haven for creatures of all kinds, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023.
Their mission: keeping wildlife wild by providing quality, compassionate care.
The staff here is permitted to rehab and release all Florida native wildlife except alligators. They don't take in sea turtles or venomous snakes.
But they do seek to rehab and set free any native species and migratory birds they can help, said Tracy Frampton, CEO and a former zookeeper.
There's a staff of 17 — some part-time — and around 80 volunteers at the hospital, which has been in its current location in Palm Shores since 1998.
The public is vital to the hospital's work, and not just because Florida Wildlife depends primarily on private donations to provide the care offered, Frampton said.
The public are the ones calling about, or showing up with, a diverse array of animals: Last year, for example, 675 gray squirrels.
"I think it is very heartwarming to know so many people care enough to call and so many people care enough to bring the animals in," said Frampton.
"Last year we saw over 6,000 patients. Most of those were brought in by the general public, visitors and local residents who find an animal in need."
The volunteers? Godsends.
""We absolutely could not function with the number of patients that come through our door, without these people," Frampton said.
"They're helping at the front desk, doing landscaping, cleaning laundry and dishes, helping to feed some of our babies in the nursery, working in our critical care unit. Caring for the grounds ... they're involved in all aspects of what we do."
Not every animal can be saved. Think about catching a wild animal: If they're able to be caught and brought to the hospital, "they're in pretty bad shape," Frampton said.
But not counting those who die right away or are put down immediately because they are suffering, the success rate is typically more than 50%.
That's where the compassion of the organization kicks in.
"There are animals where the only kind thing to do is to end their suffering," Frampton said. "You go into this field because you want to help animals, not because you want to help them die, but there are times when it's a blessing that we can do that."
For those who are saved? It's a joy to behold.
"For me, every time I get to release an animal it's wonderful," said Frampton.
"To watch the animal whether it's reluctant to come out of the crate or ready to go ... sometimes, they're like, 'Nope, I'm good in here, I don't know what's out there.' And other times you blink and you miss it. So no matter what the release is like, it's always wonderful to be able to watch an animal go back in the wild."
Before she retired from the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, Lanette Hamilton started walking a lot.
She saw a lot of homeless people around Cocoa, she said — realizing, after seeing them day and night, that they had nowhere to call home.
What she saw, and the actions she took including asking her pastor what they could do to help, became part of the Metropolitan Baptist Church Outreach Ministry established in 2010.
The ministry team continues to serve hundreds of civilians and veterans in need of food, clothes and more every week at the historic church in Cocoa.
As a woman whose faith is strong and all-encompassing, Hamilton couldn't pass by anyone in need with a clear conscience, she said.
"I prayed," Hamilton said. "I said ,'God, whatever I have, whatever you blessed me with, let me be able to share it.'"
What she saw years ago spurred her to take her daughter out with her — and the emotions she experienced are the same way she feels today.
"I was trying to teach her that there are unfortunate people out there," she said. "They maybe haven't done anything bad at all ... it's just the circumstances that they're caught up in."
The two passed out blankets Hamilton collected. Bought socks. When it was cold, they passed out cups of hot chocolate.
And the effort grew. And grew, with partnerships across the community and a cadre of volunteers, many in their 70s and 80s.
Every Wednesday and Friday, based out of the church on King Street near U.S. 1, volunteers give out clothes. Shoes. They've provided bus tickets. Always: Food, teaming with Second Harvest and with the help of alliances with local grocery stores and restaurants. Every Thanksgiving, they distribute turkeys and all the trimmings.
They also have a strong connection with Welcome Home Veterans, run by retired Lt. Col. Nathan Thomas.
"(The ministry) has allowed the Cocoa and Rockledge area to breathe and know that there is a place that hears their needs and will provide whatever services are available," Thomas said.
"We are tutoring children. We constantly provide veterans with pamphlets and timeframes for getting help and knowing what their benefits are. This brings communities together and allows us to see trust and self-worth develop."
The winner of this year's Organization of the Year will be announced at an invitation-only event in December. The 2019 winner was Space Coast Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization that provides aging area veterans with "one more Tour with Honor," taking them to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: 3 finalists for Organization of the Year feed hungry, aid hurting