The people who shape a community are not always the most famous or best known. Meet six who make a difference every day – some quietly, some not so quietly. All persistently.
By Robyn A. Friedman
J. David Armstrong Jr.
David Armstrong has more than 30 years of experience as a state and national leader in higher education. Previously the Chancellor of the Florida Community College System, he now serves as President of Broward College, one of the largest and most diverse colleges in the nation.
So it’s ironic that Armstrong was the first member of his family to go to college.
“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have people supporting me when I was growing up,” says Armstrong, a Birmingham, Ala. native who now lives and works in Fort Lauderdale. “I don’t think anything helps our community grow and prosper more than to help others lift themselves up and improve themselves through education.”
It should come as no surprise that a man whose career is so involved in education would also be devoted to supporting education and leadership causes outside of work hours.
Armstrong has volunteered for organizations that “reach out and help families and students who need support to be able to be successful in education,” such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Take Stock in Children and HANDY (Helping Abused Neglected Disadvantaged Youth).
He supports organizations that promote leadership — he is a past chair of Leadership Florida — and he tries to develop emerging leaders at Broward College as well. Armstrong is also a member of the Council on Competitiveness, a national organization of CEOs from leading U.S. corporations and university presidents focused on business, education and workforce global competitiveness issues, and is on the board of directors of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.
Armstrong also encourages his employees to give back to the community. The college started a “speed dating” program for employees that introduces them to charitable organizations — especially those related to youth and education — in an effort to encourage them to volunteer or serve as a member of the board.
“Education is the most powerful gift that you can give to those in need,” Armstrong says. “The more we give back by volunteering and supporting good organizations, the more prosperous our community is going to be.”
Many business executives work at their corporate jobs from 9 to 5 — or longer — and then volunteer for charitable organizations in their spare time. But as president and CEO of United Way of Broward County, Kathleen Cannon works all day on behalf of numerous charitable organizations — and then gives back some more in her free time.
She donates to United Way “in a very large way,” as well as to other organizations, and enjoys participating in planned events such as breast cancer walk-a-thons or bike rides supporting Multiple Sclerosis.
“I think my whole life personally and professionally is about giving back,” Cannon says. “I feel like I have such a responsibility to make sure that United Way is as responsive and effective as it can be, but I also want United Way to be exemplary in everything that we do so we can make big social changes and significant life changes for individuals in Broward County.”
Cannon may run a nonprofit organization, but it’s really the same as running any other business, she says. “You have to be a really smart businessperson to run a successful, impactful nonprofit,” she says. “Everything is measured and business-oriented.” She’s responsible for managing the organization’s $18 million budget.
United Way has thrived with Cannon at the helm. The organization’s Mission United initiative, which assists local veterans and their families as they re-acclimate to civilian life, was recognized internationally as one of the three United Way Worldwide Common Good Award winners from among over 1,800 United Ways across the world. Cannon has been recognized for her leadership by numerous organizations.
“It’s so important for people to see that their donation or volunteering ultimately helps the entire community,” she says. “It’s been proven over and over that the more we do for our community, the more the community gives back.”
John D’Eri spent countless hours worrying about what his son Andrew — who has autism — would do when he was no longer there to support him. While Andrew was growing up to become a capable young man, D’Eri knew that there were few opportunities available to him after he aged out of the system at 22.
So D’Eri created an opportunity for his son — and for others with autism, who have difficulty with social interaction and communication.
D’Eri purchased a car wash in Parkland and created a groundbreaking social enterprise called Rising Tide Car Wash, which he founded in November 2012 with his other son, Thomas. Rising Tide opened for business in April 2013.
D’Eri says that those with autism regress if they are not kept occupied. “You have nothing to do, nothing to give you a sense of purpose or achievement,” says D’Eri, an entrepreneur who lives in Fort Lauderdale. “So I thought I would buy a business and build something for Andrew.”
Now, Rising Tide employs 38 people, 30 of whom have Autism Spectrum Disorder. “The vast majority of the people who work for me wouldn’t be able to find employment at all,” D’Eri says. “They truly would not have a sustainable job, a job they could build a life with.”
He’s seen how working can transform the lives of his employees. One was inspired to get his driver’s license — after he was told it was impossible. Others want to be independent — to move out of their houses and get their own apartments. “They get a sense of empowerment that expands into other aspects of their lives,” D’Eri says. “I have story after story of people being motivated by someone else to try to achieve something.”
Now, D’Eri is trying to expand on his concept. He plans to open a second Rising Tide Car Wash in Margate in 2016 — which will employ over 50 people with autism — and hopes to instruct other people in how to create similar enterprises.
“It’s important to me to impact as many people as possible,” he says. “I feel like it’s my responsibility.”
Ellen and Peter Livingston
Ellen and Peter Livingston each grew up in families devoted to community involvement and Jewish causes. Ellen’s parents helped start a synagogue in Baldwin, N.Y., and Peter’s mom ran a thrift shop that benefited a nonprofit organization.
So it was only natural that when Ellen, a retired social worker, and Peter, a radiologist, moved to Florida in 1975, that they would continue in that tradition of service.
It didn’t take long for them to get involved. Within a year, each was volunteering for the Jewish Federation of South Broward County, which merged with the Jewish Federation of Broward County in 1997. Ellen has been active in the Women’s Division and served on the boards of other Jewish organizations. Peter was chairman of the board for both the Jewish Federation of South Broward and the Jewish Federation of Broward County.
But a trip to Israel in 1984 was life changing for both Ellen and Peter — an “aha” moment, as Peter puts it.
“We fell in love with Israel, but more importantly we realized that we are part of a continuum of the Jewish people, and that in order for the Jewish people to continue and flourish, you have to build strong institutions,” Peter says. “So we came back committed to being more active in Jewish institutions.”
Although the Livingstons have been involved in other philanthropic endeavors through the years — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Temple Sinai of Hollywood and the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Foundation, to name just a few — they have two main interests: the Jewish Federation and the Memorial Healthcare System. In February, they will receive the Jewish Federation of Broward County Lifetime Achievement Award at the Community Campaign Celebration.
“We feel like we make a difference, and it gives us great satisfaction,” Peter says.
Adds Ellen: “It makes us feel good knowing we’re helping other people.”
Sonny Maken was exposed to philanthropy and community involvement from a young age. As a boy growing up in Punjab, India, he accompanied his parents when they distributed food, blankets and medicine to needy people. And it taught him at a young age to appreciate all that he had.
“I was always taught that you are fortunate, you are blessed, and that you need to share with others, not just with money or things but with ideas and things you’ve learned,” says Maken, the founder and president of The Maken Group Inc., a commercial real estate brokerage in West Palm Beach. “So I’ve always been involved with helping others in any small way that I can. It’s always been a passion of mine.”
Today, Maken serves on the board of directors of HomeSafe, an organization that seeks to protect victims of child abuse and domestic violence throughout Palm Beach County and South Florida; and he’s the executive director of Tennis Pals, a nonprofit that works together with the law enforcement community to support and inspire children from high-crime areas to realize their full potential. And that’s ironic, because Maken doesn’t play tennis.
“I was interested in the organization because I felt that the work they were doing was compelling,” he says. “Tennis is just a hook for these kids. I really think of us as a mentoring and education foundation.”
The organization, which provides services throughout Palm Beach County, including Delray Beach and, perhaps soon, Boca Raton, offers tennis lessons to at-risk youth and provides role models as well. Maken recently created a new program to teach critical thinking skills to high school students.
Tennis Pals is also about to launch a leadership academy and a robotics program and already offers math tutoring. “We’ve grown our focus and started to do a lot of different things,” Maken says. “Tennis is just one part of it, to make it fun.”
He’s already seeing the results of the programs. One nine-year-old girl involved in Tennis Pals recently won a national essay contest.
“This community has given me a lot,” Maken says. “I love living here and want to make it better. We are such a stark example here between the haves and have-nots, and I feel like we need to do our part to make sure that the people who live in this community are given the opportunities to change their outcomes. The investment in these children is so important.”