By Robyn A. Friedman
City & Shore Magazine
Every community has its heroes — people who work behind the scenes to improve the lives of others. Often unrecognized and little thanked for their contributions and achievements, these people make time in their demanding days to raise money, organize events, oversee boards and bring awareness to issues that many of us don’t — or won’t — face directly. They guide us, drive us and, sometimes, chide us to do the same. But mostly, they inspire us.
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Heather Geronemus has been involved with nonprofits since before she was born.
While her mom was pregnant, she traveled to Europe to speak on behalf of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Later, when Geronemus was just five, she recalls accompanying her mom to solicit restaurants for a local MS event.
“I grew up knowing that giving back was the right thing to do,” says Geronemus, who handles public relations for Ultimate Software in Weston. “I live such a wonderful and fortunate life, so it’s really my duty to help whoever I can in whatever way I can.”
After a drunk driver killed her father in 2009, a volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reached out to Geronemus. That woman comforted her, supported her and advised her about resources available to her. She also attended court proceedings with Geronemus and served as an advisor and confidant.
“Once the trial was over, I felt compelled to give to MADD,” Geronemus says. “And not only did I want to do something for MADD for what they did for me, but I really wanted to live in a world free of new victims of drunk driving.”
Geronemus thought the best way to achieve that would be to start a community event to bring victims together with community supporters. The result: the annual Walk Like MADD & MADD Dash Fort Lauderdale, coming next April 30, 2017, an event that’s raised nearly $1 million for MADD since its start in 2011.
“MADD is not just important to me, it’s important to everyone, because anybody, any time, could be impacted by a drunk driver,” Geronemus says. “There is nothing that stops you from being the victim of a drunk driver — it’s not age, it’s not race, it’s not ethnicity, it’s not sex. There’s no bias.”
In addition to MADD, Geronemus also volunteers for the National MS Society and serves on the Board of Trustees of her alma mater, Pine Crest School. She is a member of the Advisory Board of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and serves on the American Heart Association’s Executive Cabinet and the Board of Directors of the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade.
“Everyone has the power to make a difference — whether it’s giving your time or your money or giving your employees volunteer time to go serve the community,” she says. “If everyone spent one hour volunteering a month, think about the impact we could make.”
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Allan R. Young
Allan R. Young has had a long career in the car business, but his start in the business was a matter of fate.
Young was attending Youngstown State University in Ohio on an athletic scholarship when he started dating a girl whose dad owned a Chevrolet dealership. The dad liked him, offered him a job and Young dropped out of school after his first year. A car salesman was born.
When that dealership was sold two years later, Young relocated to South Florida. He got a job at Steve Moore Chevrolet, then the second-largest Chevy dealer in the country. By the time he was 24, Young was the general sales manager and then, at 26, the general manager.
Young is now the dealer and operating partner of Wayne Akers Ford in Lake Worth and the chairman of South Florida Ford Dealers, a board that oversees 28 Ford dealerships in South Florida and manages a $25 million marketing budget. With the Ford brand behind him, Young knows he’s in a position to make a big difference in the lives of a lot of people.
“People may not know this, but most car dealers are very charitable by nature,” he says. “I’ve always been the kind of guy who likes to make a difference, and I found I eventually had the resources to do so.”
Young is involved with many organizations, but there are three causes that are most important to him: autism, cystic fibrosis and breast cancer. His reasons are personal: autism, because his son is autistic; cystic fibrosis as a result of his friendship with Jeb Bush, a long-time supporter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; and breast cancer because of Ford’s sponsorship of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Young speaks on behalf of all the organizations, to raise funds and motivate volunteers, and to many, he’s the public face of Ford Motor Co.
It’s the power of the Ford brand that Young uses to really make a difference — to give organizations legitimacy and resources and to help their own fundraising efforts. “Ford is a 100-year-old icon company, and I’m very careful whom I bring that blue oval to,” he says. “I think that for everything we’ve touched, we’ve been a positive note. I made sure I branded myself, but I branded Ford at the same time. And I think it paid off.”
Luke Freeman and Mickey Wirtz
When Luke Freeman was a young boy growing up outside of Chicago, his best friend, Danny, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. The pain and surgeries his friend endured had a profound effect on Freeman.
“I didn’t really understand what was going on, but it always stuck with me,” says Freeman, founder and president of Wizard Creations, a Fort Lauderdale firm that specializes in printing and sourcing branded merchandise. “I always wanted to give back and help people with the disease and help find a cure someday.”
Freeman’s first employee and right-hand man at Wizard, Mickey Wirtz, shares the vision. Wirtz has been with him since 2010, when Freeman converted the firm from a part-time gig to a full-time business endeavor. Freeman and Wirtz had been fraternity brothers at Eastern Illinois University, and Wirtz, now vice president of sales at Wizard, left a family business after 13 years to join Freeman in South Florida.
On Oct. 20, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America will honor the two at the organization’s 7th Annual Comedy Night at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, an event for which Freeman and Wirtz are serving as honorary chairmen. But CCFA is just one of the numerous nonprofits to which the men devote time.
“Our three main causes with the business are kids, pets and cancer — and Crohn’s, of course,” Wirtz says. “These are causes that we love and are passionate about.”
Some of the organizations Freeman and Wirtz support are Kids In Distress, 2-1-1 Broward, ChildNet, the Jason Taylor Foundation and the Humane Society of Broward County. Wirtz also has served on the board for United Way of Broward County and is chairman of its Young Leaders Society.
“We support over 40 nonprofits,” Freeman says. “Our motto has always been from day one that we are here to do three things, and it’s pretty simple. We’re here to make money, have fun and give back.”
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Janelle Lang has had a long career in the retail industry; but while her current company is minuscule compared to her former one, she hopes its effect will be just as significant.
Lang spent over 25 years at Gap Inc., beginning her career after college in the company’s retail stores and advancing until she was overseeing all the store’s deliveries in North America. After she left Gap at the beginning of 2013, Lang wanted to do something different, and, realizing she had a passion for purchasing locally made goods on her travels, she decided to launch a shop that sells goods made by local artisans. Shoppe 561 opened in West Palm Beach in November 2013.
But just supporting local artists wasn’t enough, Lang says. She had learned of the plight of victims of human trafficking while on a trip to Rwanda in 2011 and wanted to not only benefit victims but also raise awareness of the issue. “I wanted to shine a light on modern-day slavery,” she says. “But I thought that people would struggle to resonate with Africa, so I decided to make them aware of what’s happening here.”
Shoppe 561 now donates a portion of sales to HOPE House Florida, a faith-based safe house established in 2012. To date, Lang has donated over $12,000.
“Part of being a business in the community is giving back,” she says. “That’s been ingrained from all my years at Gap, which was very philanthropic. We give back to the community that supports us — it’s a circle.”
Today, Shoppe 561 sells handcrafted goods created by over 70 artisans. Products include jewelry, dog collars, bibs, photo frames and much more. Lang plans to introduce clothing and shoes in the future, as well as bring in speakers to help get the message out about human trafficking.
“We want to make a difference not only in the life of the artisan but also in the lives of girls who have been rescued from human trafficking,” she says. “We want people to learn that their shopping choices can help make a difference.”
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John Benz has served the community for many years — both in his personal and professional life. As president and CEO of Community Care Plan (CCP), the decisions he makes affect the lives of Medicaid recipients, members of CCP self-insured employee health plans and employees of the Memorial Healthcare System. But for him, it’s all about kids.
“I’ve become known as a child advocate,” Benz says. “I see health care as a vehicle to fulfill my goals.”
His main goal: to improve the health of Broward County residents. But he knows he can’t do that unless he also improves the quality of life of the individuals and families living here.
Benz has rolled up his sleeves many times to help. He’s built roofs for Habitat for Humanity, cooked breakfast for the homeless and served chicken wings to the hungry at St. Maurice Catholic Church in Dania Beach. But Benz found his true calling after speaking with a former church pastor, Father Sean Mulcahy.
“He taught me that I was gifted to facilitate others,” Benz recalls. “If I use my own hands, I’m limited to two, but if I could recruit 20 people, I therefore had 40 hands. So, since then, most of my efforts have been as a servant leader versus being hands-on.”
Benz has served in leadership roles for private, nonprofit and government organizations such as America’s Essential Hospitals, Florida Healthy Kids Corp. and OneBlood Inc. Locally, he is a governor appointee to the Board of Trustees of Broward College and sits on the boards of the Broward Regional Health Planning Council, United Way of Broward County and 2-1-1 Broward. He is also Chairman of the Board of Broward College.
Other organizations Benz has supported include Jubilee Soup Kitchen, Children’s Cancer Caring Center, Broward Outreach Center, the Homeless Assistance Center and Broward Partnership for the Homeless.
“If you want to be part of the community, you’re going to have to be part of the spider web of agencies that support all 1.8 million people in Broward County,” he says. “This is not an island. You could be next. A lot of these agencies are there for you — why can’t you be there for them?”