You Changed My Life

By Staff Photography by Barbara Banks September 1, 2010

When it comes to the good work that charities do in Sarasota, the numbers—hundreds of nonprofits helping thousands of people with issues ranging from homelessness to addiction to serious illness—tell one story, and it’s an impressive one.

But the individual people who are touched by those charitable organizations tell another, more personal story. Looking at facts and figures alone cannot convey what it really means to have a life reclaimed or redirected. It’s much easier—and more rewarding—for us as humans to connect with one face, one fellow human being, to see what a difference the right program at the right moment can make.

Here are five stories of people, from widely different backgrounds with very different problems, who overcame the obstacles in their way to a happier life, thanks to the aid some of the organizations listed in the Charity Register were able to give—thanks in turn to the support of people just like you.


Healing Help

After ovarian cancer, the Cancer Support Community helped rebuild Judy Speciale’s body and soul.

Judy Speciale didn’t have time to get sick. A 60-something marketing director and self-described “career person,” she says, “I was always working.” So when she noticed some abdominal swelling, it was months before a girlfriend convinced her to have it looked at. Many rounds of testing later, the prognosis came: ovarian cancer. “That’s when I figured, I’m a dead duck,” she says.

In 2007, three days before Christmas, she underwent surgery. “My surgeon came in and said he had good news for me,” she remembers. “He told me I was going to live.” Her cancer has been in remission ever since.

Yet Speciale knew the story was far from over. “When you have cancer, there’s always that chance that it will surface somewhere else,” she says. Like many other survivors, she wanted more information and support. That led her to the Cancer Support Community-Southwest Florida (formerly The Wellness Community), which provides free psychological and educational services for survivors and their loved ones.

More than three years later, Speciale is still active in the Cancer Support Community, taking part in activities from group therapy and meditation to photography classes. “It’s been a lifeline,” she says. “It touched my soul. We come from all places of knowledge and try to share our experiences.”

—Graham Clark


Dare to Dream

Mary Ann Casady didn’t let learning disabilities stop her from winning a top award in this summer’s Loveland Follies.

When she first came to Venice’s Loveland Center, which assists those with developmental disabilities, Mary Ann Casady, 23, was a shy young woman from North Port. A graduate of Oak Park School, Casady felt she still needed help to adapt to life with her learning disabilities.

Over the past two years, the Loveland Center has helped her develop confidence and a range of life skills. She especially likes her contracts class, in which businesses pay students for jobs, ranging from assembling party bags to stamping envelopes for mass mailings.

But the biggest difference in Casady’s life came through participation in this year’s Loveland Follies show at Venice Theatre. This was her first year in the Follies, and she was determined to perform her solo without help from the Loveland staff.

“I was nervous,” Casady admits. “I had a staff coach with me, but I did my part by myself. I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It was really cool.”

Her showstopping performance of the famous song about “dreams that you dare to dream” garnered an award for Best Performance in a Cameo Role from the AACT International 2010 Community Theater Festival. And Casady says that gave her the courage to pursue her own dreams: living independently in an apartment and landing a job.  

“She really is a go-getter,” says Loveland’s Gina Cahill. “She knows what she wants and she will stick to it. In the Follies, gradually, it was, ‘I don’t need help anymore. I can do it by myself.’ That is exactly what we want.” —Kathleen Majorsky  


Breaking the Cycle

Abandoned by her family and living on the streets, India White found the path to success at Sarasota’s YMCA.

India White was only 16 when she was forced to leave home. The ninth of 10 kids, India says her mother was “emotionally and physically abusive,” and her father was largely absent. White’s mother mocked her for trying to excel in school and turned off the lights at night so she couldn’t do schoolwork. So White learned to study by starlight.

One day, during White’s junior year of high school, her mother changed the locks and told White not to return. When the closing school bell rang every day, White says, “A chill went through me because I never knew where I would lay my head that night.” She slept at friends’ homes, even on the streets.

Then she heard about Sarasota YMCA’s homeless shelter, where counselors helped her find a place to live and worked with her to develop skills for independent living. White relied on the YMCA for food, shelter and guidance. “They took me out of hell and gave me peace. That was the first time I ever felt safe,” she says.

During White’s senior year, she participated in 12 school clubs, worked at Publix, and slept just a few hours each night. She says she was “determined to break the cycle of poverty in my family.” With the help of her YMCA mentors, White received straight A’s and earned a scholarship to attend the University of Florida. Now 25 and teaching high school math in Gainesville, White has been married for two years and is raising a nine-month-old daughter. She says she looks at her students, many of whom come from similar at-risk situations, and tells them every day, “Look at my life. You have no excuse for not achieving your goals.”—Beau Denton

Back on His Feet

When Michael Cordevant lost his job and a place for his family to live, Goodwill Industries offered help and friendship.

When Michael Cordevant was an air-conditioning technician with a middle-class lifestyle, he didn’t think much about Goodwill. “I thought it was just a donations store,” he says. That changed when his life fell apart.

Last year Cordevant, 36, became jobless and homeless in a matter of days. Thinking his situation would improve quickly, Cordevant moved his children, a 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, into a hotel on 14th Street in Bradenton. Then the money ran out. “I was at my wits’ end, not knowing where we’d live or even where our next meal would come from,” Cordevant says.

For 17 weeks, he struggled to find food and shelter for his family. Not many centers accept men with children, so Cordevant and his kids slept in churches, classrooms and tents until they found Goodwill Industries. “They jumped right in,” he says. “They saw that I wasn’t just looking for a handout, and they gave me everything they could to get me on my feet.” That included a new job as an HVAC technician, food, school supplies and affordable transitional housing.

It’s still a challenge finding a permanent place to live and making sure his kids feel secure, but Cordevant says he’s found his balance again. He has a steady job and food waiting when the kids get home from school. The support and friendship from the Goodwill staff made all the difference. “It’s amazing what they do and how fast they do it,” Cordevant says, adding that he can call on them any time he needs help or just a listening ear. “I don’t know where I’d be today without them.”—Beau Denton

Full Speed Ahead

The Challenge program at Women’s Resource Center helped Renee Hamad move beyond a bitter loss.

After 43 years of happy marriage to Sarasota developer Sam Hamad, her college sweetheart, Renee Hamad didn’t know where to turn after Sam died in December 2008.

“I was protected,” says Hamad, 66. “I never had to worry about a thing. Now, I have to face bills. I have to write checks. I have to run my husband’s business. It’s a different ballgame.”

To cope with her loss and the new life she had to face, Hamad sought help at the Women’s Resource Center of Sarasota, with which she was already familiar, having done an internship there as part of getting her degree in human development from Eckerd College’s Program for Experienced Learners (a degree she finished at age 59). She entered the WRC’s Challenge program, which helps each woman who participates to create a plan to move forward emotionally and financially.

“They help you through your pain and how to deal with it, how to redo your life, how to direct yourself,” she says. Now Hamad is a regular volunteer at the center and an avid supporter, even serving on its board.

“I have seen the progress they [the WRC] are responsible for in a woman’s life,” she says. “You see them come in with tears and they come out smiling. It is really heart-warming to see what they do.”—Kathleen Majorsky

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