The Unity Awards

Photography by Barbara Banks By David Ball, Susan Burns and Abby Weingarten December 31, 2011

Biz941 & La Guia Present the 2012 Unity AwardsBiz(941) and La Guia magazines are proud once again to honor the individuals, businesses and nonprofits that are building bridges to the diverse racial and ethnic groups in our region. This year’s Unity Award winners have seen value—and opportunity—in reaching out to people of all colors and ethnic and national heritages. Their ability and willingness to be at the forefront of forging a multicultural society—sometimes through long hours with the disenfranchised and newly arrived and at other times by building thriving businesses or establishing policies to promote diversity—strengthen us all.

Luz Corcuera - “I went out to learn the needs of the community.”EDUCATION AWARD

Luz Corcuera

As program director for Healthy Start of Manatee County since 2004, Luz Corcuera, 56, has educated thousands of mothers on prenatal and infant health, nutrition and quality-of-life issues. A trained psychologist from Peru, she has focused her efforts on the underserved and quickly growing Hispanic population, and that’s paying huge dividends.

Her programs give baby baskets and supplies to expectant mothers, ensure pediatric care, promote breastfeeding awareness and offer bereavement therapy to parents who lose a child. Her pioneering program of training mothers to teach their own neighbors has been recognized nationally by the March of Dimes.

“Rather than having our agency plan everything behind a desk, I went out to learn the needs of the community,” Corcuera says. “Families felt a tremendous level of isolation and were afraid to use many services available to them.”

This outreach has led Corcuera to advocate for immigration issues and urge Hispanics to vote through UnidosNow. But it’s the personal connections she makes in the community, such as supporting children of parents who are deported, that have some calling her the “Mother Teresa” of Manatee.

“Every person deserves a life of dignity, but in order to achieve that you have to give them the right tools,” she says. “What could be better than to place a baby in the arms of a loving and educated woman?”—David Ball

Dr. Lisa Merritt: “We’ve touched more than 30,000 people through the Multicultural Health Institute.”MEDICAL AWARD

Dr. Lisa Merritt

Dr. Lisa Merritt founded the Multicultural Health Institute 20 years ago in California to help disadvantaged African-Americans and Latinos lead healthier lives. When she moved to Sarasota in 2006, she brought the institute—and her indefatigable energy—with her.

A board-certified physiatrist who runs her private practice, the Kinesia Rehabilitation Group in Sarasota, Merritt has found that community-based activities improve the health of a community. Through local churches, she has trained more than 20 laypeople to provide AIDS testing and counseling, and to advise their neighbors about a host of other health issues. She also works with Genesis Health Services, the Newtown Wellness program of Truevine Missionary Church, All Faiths Food Bank and the North Sarasota public library.

Merritt has even developed a hefty Sarasota community resource guide on social services and healthcare in both English and Spanish that’s been distributed to hundreds of people.

In her spare time, Merritt also encourages low-income, minority middle school students to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, exposing them to leaders in the healthcare field and working with counselors and families to guide them through the college application process. She also speaks at career days and does on-site science fair demonstrations. (“They love the cow dissection,” she says.)

“We’ve touched more than 30,000 people through the Multicultural Health Institute in the last five years,” says Merritt, who spends as much time with the institute as she does her own private practice. “Even if only 10 percent of those people got the message, that’s a whole lot more people than I can see in my practice.”

—Ilene Denton

Hugo Nunez: “If you put all of your heart into something you love, you become successful.”Entrepreneur Award

Hugo Nunez

Growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, Hugo Nunez dreamed of becoming a restaurateur. Now, at 39, he is the owner of Mi Pueblo, which opened in 1999 on Bee Ridge Road and has expanded to two other locations. “My dad always wanted to open a restaurant,” Nunez says. “It was his dream, but he passed away when I was 15.”

Nunez left for the U.S. as a teenager, beginning as a dishwasher in Dallas, Texas, while studying accounting. He became a cook, a server and eventually moved to Sarasota to manage Two Senoritas in downtown Sarasota and The Columbia Restaurant on St. Armands.

Today, he oversees 100 employees at his Mexican restaurants/cantinas, about half of whom hail from other countries.

Nunez says marketing savvy, customer service and passion have helped Mi Pueblo succeed in a down economy, as have longtime team members Bonifacio Caro, his cousin and entrepreneurial partner, and Michelle Buice, who handles the books.

Nunez is involved in every aspect of the business—from remodeling to greeting guests—often staying up until 6 a.m. and working 100 hours a week. To “keep up with the times,” he has added organic and vegan options to the menu, and he regularly donates food to nonprofit fund raisers such as the Hispanic Festival.

“If you put all of your heart into something you love, you become successful,” Nunez says. “It hasn’t been easy. But I was able to do what my father always wanted to do, and I hope that I can inspire other people to live out their dreams.”

—Abby Weingarten

you for your unique differences and care, it’s huge.”LARGE COMPANY AWARD

Adams and Reese LLP

Large companies have the resources—and many would say the responsibility—to become a model for best practices, and the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP has created a diversity program that is an example for companies of any size.

The program began more than 10 years ago, but the firm—headquartered in New Orleans with 13 offices in six states and D.C., including one in Sarasota—decided in 2006 that its dedication to inclusion should be a part of the company’s strategic plan. Only then, with words on paper, would the firm have the ability to motivate and make people feel accountable.

From its active diversity committee to its annual minority retreat to its signature event, “Women to Women: Conversations Between Women of Color in the Profession,” Adams and Reese commits its

people, energy, time and financial resources to recruit, retain and mentor to increase diversity. This year, its Diversity Awareness Campaign won the Diversity Award of Excellence from the national organization, Corporate Counsel Women of Color.

Adams and Reese says these initiatives and accolades are also good business since they attract corporate clients who have their own diversity needs. But for Kimberly Madison, a commercial litigation attorney in Adams and Reese’s Tampa office who serves on the diversity committee and is African-American, the program is about more than the bottom line.

“When your employer values what you value, it boosts the morale of the entire company. When people acknowledge you for your unique differences and care, it’s huge,” she says.

Susan Burns

Manuel Chepote - “When I saw some of my clients getting into problems, I felt compelled to help them.”Small Business Award

Manuel Chepote

They come to Manuel Chepote by the hundreds. They need help with money, a medical problem or fighting an unjust criminal charge or deportation, and somehow, they find him. Since 1978, Chepote has sold insurance in Sarasota, nearly all of that time with Allstate at Chepote Insurance on Main Street. A Peruvian native, Chepote focused on serving the Hispanic community. But he soon realized he could help with more than insurance.

“When I saw some of my clients getting into problems that maybe were not their fault, I felt compelled to help them,” Chepote, 60, says.

One day, a man came into Chepote’s office looking to switch insurance carriers. With the man’s nine-year-old son acting as translator, Chepote asked where he worked. The man said he hadn’t worked in a year because he had a colostomy bag—an easily correctable problem if he had the money to pay the doctor.

“I called his doctor and said, ‘Don’t you think helping this man and getting him back to work so he can pay you $100 or $200 a month is better than nothing?’” Chepote says. “In less than two weeks he was in surgery and put back together.”

Chepote works with the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce and UnidosNow, and he recently met with local legislators about immigration laws. But his main involvement with the community is still his small, three-person office downtown. “They could go see a priest or someone else, but for some reason they come to me and I help them,” he says.—David Ball

Father Celestino Gutiérrez - “We are a people of many nations and many backgrounds.”Nonprofit Award

Father Celestino Gutiérrez

When you talk aboutthe Hispanic community in Sarasota, you must start with the Rev. Celestino Gutiérrez of St. Jude Catholic Church. To some he’s Father Celestino, to other’s he’s simply Padre. To many more, particularly those less fortunate, he is nothing short of a miracle.

Spanish-born Gutiérrez, 71, was tapped by the Diocese of Venice to head St. Martha’s Catholic Church in 1985. He grew the church’s Hispanic following through unprecedented outreach programs and social services. In 2006, Gutiérrez founded his own parish at St. Jude Catholic Church on 17th Street in Sarasota. Today, St. Jude and its Blessed Carlos Manuel Hispanic-American Center have helped thousands of families immigrate to the United States, pay their utility bills and rent, feed, clothe and educate their children.

“At this moment we have many difficulties, especially with the problems of immigration,” Gutiérrez says. “There is hope when they first come here, and then they can lose that hope. My job is to accompany them on their way.”

More than 1,000 families a year benefit from the church’s social programs, which help the needy pay for medical bills and expenses, help job-seekers find work, keep troubled youth off the streets and give primary school scholarships. But the most important service St. Jude provides, Gutiérrez says, is to bring the Anglo and Hispanic communities in Sarasota together.

“We are a people of many nations and many backgrounds,” he says. “But my mission is to be for people who need assistance not only in a spiritual way, but in a human way.”

David Ball

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