The Unity Awards

Celebrating diversity in Sarasota and Manatee.

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For the third consecutive year, Biz(941) and La Guia magazines are saluting the people and businesses that embrace racial and ethnic diversity and build bridges to all parts of our community. Each one of our winners has widened the circle, bringing the disenfranchised and those in the minority into the larger community. Their efforts benefit us all and make our business community stronger and larger. Here are our exceptional winners.

 

Champs Sports

Business Award

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Champs Sports employees netted $703,000 for the center. Diversity Champs Chris Riso, Team Edition; Patrick Carnegie, Dream Center; Rebecca Kreitsek, Scott Works and Paula Brennan, Champs Sports.

It started small 10 years ago: Champs Sports employees who shot hoops at the dilapidated 13th Avenue Community Center near their company headquarters in east Bradenton saw that the kids who played basketball there were in desperate need of new uniforms.

Today, thanks to Champs Sports, a gleaming new, 16,800-square-foot facility, renamed the 13th Avenue Dream Center—with a big, bright gymnasium, computer lab, fitness center and game room—has been built to serve hundreds of youngsters from low-income families who participate in its after-school programs.

Champs Sports, a division of the national athletic wear company, Foot Locker, Inc., didn’t simply make a donation and call it a day. Instead its 150 employees, joined by its sister company, Team Edition Apparel, also based in Bradenton and owned by Foot Locker, created a Celebrity Sports Night that, to date, has netted $703,000 for the community center.

Employees spend months every year acquiring auction items, designing invitations, and selecting food and décor. Through vendors like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, they entice many celebrity athletes to attend, among them last year former NFL player Jimmy Giles, NBA player Artis Gilmore and legendary FSU football coach Bobby Bowden. (They even persuaded the NBA Cares program to outfit the new computer lab with 24 computers.)

Opening day of the Dream Center in 2010, says Champs Sports human resources VP Rebecca Kreitsek, who occasionally mentors youngsters there, was “one of the happiest days of my life. Honestly, we’ve been more motivated since then to take the center even further, and—who knows—maybe to even duplicate it in other areas of Manatee County.” —Ilene Denton

 

Dr. Washington Hill

Medical Award

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Dr. Washington Hill - “Change comes hard, whether it’s in Sarasota or Rwanda.”

Dr. Washington Hill’s dedication to at-risk mothers and infants knows no boundaries.

After 20 years as an obstetrician specializing in high-risk pregnancies at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Dr. Hill begins a “working retirement” in January teaching doctors in Rwanda.

“Here is an opportunity to give back, to help, to educate,” says Hill, 73, who developed Sarasota Memorial’s maternal fetal medicine department.

Sarasota may be losing one of its most esteemed and dedicated doctors, but his legacy lives on in the work he has done over the years to improve healthcare among poor and minority families. He has worked with Healthy Start, the March of Dimes and many local and national leaders to reduce preterm labor, infant mortality and improve maternal health.

When state legislators were threatening to cut funding for Healthy Start, Hill was one of the organization’s most outspoken advocates.

Hill says it is time to bring what he knows to Africa, a country he fell in love with during several medical mission trips through Sarasota-based Hearts Afire. The cultural barriers and lack of equipment do not daunt him. “You just keep focused on what you do well and you gain the respect of others,” he says.

During his tenure in Sarasota, he was chief of staff and chair of the OB-GYN department, where he developed protocols for treating drug-addicted mothers and newborns. He has mentored young doctors as clerkship director for Florida State University’s OB-GYN department. He has been an examiner for the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and served on the board of the National Perinatal Association and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

Hill joins his wife, Pauline, a neonatal intensive care nurse, who has been in Rwanda since the summer through the William J. Clinton Foundation and Duke University to revolutionize public health by training medical professionals.

While he will miss the community, Hill says he feels like his work here is done. “I think I have left a foundation for others to build on,” he says. “Change comes hard, whether it’s in Sarasota or Rwanda.”—Kim Hackett

 

Sonia Botero

Education Award

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Sonia Botero - “Every day I wake up with new ideas,” Botero says. “Every day is like a new beginning.”

Sonia Botero’s classroom at Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences stretches across continents and heeds no school bell. The Colombian-born educator teaches Anglo students how to speak Spanish, and Hispanic students how to speak English as a second language. Her extraordinary bridge-building between cultures and a passion for learning have won Botero, 57, honors.

Starting a traditional dance club; taking students on educational trips to Mexico, where they visit Mayan towns and volunteer in orphanages; and creating Hispanic and international festivals caught the attention of Gov. Rick Scott. He honored Botero in October with the Excellence in Education award—one of three given to Hispanic teachers statewide. The Florida Foreign Language Association in 2010 named her Spanish Teacher of the Year.

The traditional dance club, one of many extracurricular activities Botero organizes, began several years ago after Botero showed students a video about Colombian festivals. Students wanted to practice the dance moves, and soon an after-school dance club blossomed. “They started learning about geography, culture and how to speak the language,” Botero says. Parents started helping with choreography and costumes, and invitations to perform started coming in from nursing homes and community groups.

The dancing made Botero a little less homesick, too. After a successful teaching career in Colombia, Botero moved to Bradenton with three teenage daughters 13 years ago to pursue the American dream. She said it was a struggle to find a job, learn the language and help her children settle into a new life. Three years ago, she became a U.S. citizen.

She believes the struggles she faced as a newcomer have made her a better teacher, especially for students who are also new to the U.S. “They come to a new country to find a better life,” says Botero. “The best thing I can do is to encourage them to study and contribute to the country.

“Every day I wake up with new ideas,” Botero says. “Every day is like a new beginning.” —Kim Hackett

 

Joe Mercado

Nonprofit Award

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Joe Mercado - “The most important thing to focus on is how to bring families back to their feet.”

Joe Mercado, past chairman of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce and current chairman of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber Foundation, sees the chamber as a bridge between Hispanic businesses and the community at large. He developed a “Shop Local, Buy Local” initiative to increase the visibility of area businesses, and he inaugurated a “Taste of Latin America” Cinco de Mayo festival in downtown Sarasota, which thousands attended last May.

But Mercado, 46, who moved to Sarasota from New York City in 2004, is most proud of his nonprofit work. He has served for three years as operations manager at the Community Coalition on Homelessness, which offers daily resources, financial assistance and medical attention for the homeless and uninsured. Mercado estimates that the Coalition sees more than 7,000 visitors a month. He loves the work, and he’s adopted the “Where Compassion Takes Action” slogan as a personal motto, but Mercado admits that the seemingly never-ending flow of people in crisis—kids living on the street, families sleeping in cars, hard-working middle class couples who lost their jobs and have no more savings—can be overwhelming. “We’re living in an epidemic,” he says. “I stopped bringing the stories home, because it was affecting my kids. It is devastating to see.”

As a representative of both the Latin Chamber and the Community Coalition, Mercado hopes to see more crossover between the corporate and nonprofit worlds. Under his watch, the Latin Chamber has established scholarships and leadership programs for young people in the community, and he constantly encourages businesses to look for ways to give back. “The most important thing to focus on,” he says, “is how to bring families back to their feet.”—Beau Denton

 

Sarasota County Bar Association Diversity Committee

Legal Award

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We Are Sarasota partners: Rachel Shelley, Booker High School principal; Christine Jennings, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe CEO; 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Charles Williams and Charlie Ann Syprett, Sarasota Bar Diversity Committee. “We’re hoping this can be part of Sarasota celebrating inclusiveness on an annual basis.”

Ten years ago, Sarasota County Bar Association Diversity Committee members were frustrated that local law firms were not representative of the community as whole, which has a large number of African-Americans and Hispanics. They established an internship and scholarship program for Florida law students of under-represented minority groups to do paid internships at Sarasota law firms in the hope that they would eventually make this their home. Raising money and awareness has been the most difficult part of bringing these students here, and after years of firm-to-firm fund raising, the committee hit on the idea of using entertainment to educate the community about diversity and to raise dollars in the process.

In 2011 the locally produced and award-winning film, Through the Tunnel, which chronicled the 1969 desegregation of Manatee County schools through the eyes of an all-black football team, was screened at the Sarasota Film Festival and raised substantial funds for the scholarship. In October 2012, the diversity committee spawned We Are Sarasota, an ambitious theatrical production that showed the history of the law’s important role in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Presented in partnership with Booker High School’s VPA program and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, We Are Sarasota used dance, song, film and dozens of local lawyers and judges to tell the story of civil rights. The performance brought the packed Sarasota Opera House audience—including high school students from all around the county—to its feet.

“Everybody has benefited from this,” says 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Charles Williams, who is on the diversity committee. “It exceeded our wildest expectations and has taken on a life of its own. We’re hoping that this can be part of Sarasota celebrating inclusiveness on an annual basis.” —Susan Burns

 

David Grain

Entrepreneur award

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David Grain - “I wanted to bring Princeton Review to Booker High School.”

David Grain has been quietly changing the lives of minority Booker High School students for eight years. Originally a Wall Street investment banker and then a top executive in the national telecommunications industry (including AT&T, Pinnacle and Global Signal), Grain, 50, launched his own private investment firm, Sarasota-based Grain Management, in 2006.

Even before moving here from Boston 10 years ago, Grain and his family adopted needy families for Christmas. “It felt great at the moment, but it was temporary; it didn’t have a lasting impact,” he says. So, instead of games and toys, his family began to provide computers and software as gifts until one Christmas a 16-year-old girl at Booker High School asked for SAT prep software. “The light bulb went off,” Grain says. “I wanted to bring Princeton Review to Booker High School.”

Since then, Grain has helped about 200 African-American and Hispanic students, funding SAT prep classes and college trips, paying college application fees and sending kids to summer enrichment programs in Ireland. He has conducted seminars at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, on etiquette, personal finance, professional dress and dining. He buys warm clothing for students who go to college up North, holds reunions at his home for students who are home for the holidays and introduces them to successful minority professionals.

Grain says it’s humbling to realize the issues and limitations these students face. “Who knew a junior was raising an eighth grader? Who knew they didn’t have enough money to feed themselves, so they had to go to work?” he says. At least half of the Grain Scholars have attended top colleges outside of Florida—including Dartmouth, Brown and Oxford.

“You plant a seed,” he says. “Each one of the kids is going to do something. And they’re going to take this and go back and do the same thing. It kind of creates a little virus in our community. These kids will take it to the next level.”—Susan Burns

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