Last Tuesday I did something I’ve not done since at least 1997.
When I first attended the Reinhold Community Service Awards – now called Celebrate Clay – it was an intimate event held at the Hilltop Restaurant in Orange Park. The tatted frills on the white linen curtains, the warm atmosphere allowed by the hardwood walls and floors and the view of the greenspace landscaping all came together to make a cherished memory.
And the stories.
Sitting there listening to the stories of how those nonprofits helped people during the previous year was not only moving, but reassuring. It gave me a tangible understanding of all the good abounding in Clay County.
I sat there that day with my supervisor as an employee of a nonprofit wondering if our name would be called at any point to receive a monetary ‘atta boy’ for the work we did helping those living with epilepsy and seizure disorder. It was a period of my life I call my detour from journalism yet, looking back, I wouldn’t trade the work I did there for a pot of gold.
Fast forward 20 years and the event has grown, moved to a larger venue and now I was on the other side of the equation – an outsider looking in. I was there to record this piece of local history and hear about the front-line work of the charities in Clay County.
And work they did.
More than 12,000 volunteers rolled up their collective sleeves in 2016 to do everything from building handicap ramps for seniors, refurbishing bikes for kids who would not otherwise have a bike and saving mothers and children from the barrel of a gun.
The nonprofits in Clay County were described by many last week as being self-reliant, working to rise up and take care of their own. And the numbers show it.
Nonprofits that serve Clay County collected $4 million worth of in-kind donations last year, secured $30 million in grants and contributions and earned $2.4 million through fundraising efforts. But the biggest number is the most telling one. Clay charities provided more than $333 million in direct programs in 2016 – a testament to how when a community grows, it’s need for human services, such as these, grows as well.
When I asked Peggy Bryan, co-founder of the awards program, how she has seen the nonprofit sector change and grow in Clay County during this time, she beamed.
“The goodness of these programs is the strength of Clay County,” she said. “I think in Clay County more so than others, there is more self-reliance on meeting needs. So, I see the grassroots programs as still being strong, whereas in Duval, some of them can’t make it financially. Here, this is so based on volunteer effort.”
There was a spark in the air April 25 when presenters read about the programs and reasons why the honored charities were nominated for the various awards ranging in $750 awards to the big kahuna $10,000 award, the Paul E. Reinhold Outstanding Community Service Award.
In total, the Reinhold Foundation awarded $75,000 and 48 community service awards to nonprofit organizations that provide services to Clay County residents. The Foundation has awarded more than $615,000 to Celebrate Clay award recipients in the past nine years.
One other aspect of how these awards programs have changed is the stepped-up involvement of the Clay County business community that was not as present in 1997 by my observations.
And yet, with this stepped-up involvement and the more than 12,000 volunteers doing work, there are still those out there who may feel they cannot make a difference.
But leave it to the winner of the 2017 Peggy Bryan Volunteer of the Year Award, André Van Heerden of the Clay SafetyNet Alliance, to sum it up best.
“The celebration here today just shows how ordinary, everyday individuals can have a huge impact and if that message got out to our community at large, and more people realized that they could make a difference, I think we’d have a lot more people doing these things,” he said.
In other words, the work done by Clay County nonprofits is extraordinary work done by ordinary people like you and me. The extraordinary happens when passion emerges and people finally learn they can make a difference in another person’s life.
Another overlooked aspect of what is necessary and happening among Clay County’s nonprofits is sharing resources and ideas. Peggy Bryan said the Celebrate Clay awards has led to just that.
“…the best part, is from this award program, initiating and going on, they’ve started networking more so and so it’s a win-win,” she said.
So, how does a person get involved? It could start with a visit to the Reinhold Foundation’s website where a directory of the nonprofit organizations that serve Clay County can be downloaded for free. And then, merge your passion with action and realize an ordinary person can help do extraordinary things.