Volunteer Heroes

These Volunteers Help Make Sarasota a Better Place

Four men and women who inspire.

By Staff August 29, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Kathy Walker Van Citters reads to 7-year-old William.

Image: Jenny Acheson

Kathy Van Citters Teaches Young Boys to Read

Kathy Walker Van Citters has always had a full life. A marketing and communications pro who’s held director-level positions at Manatee Community College (now State College of Florida) and The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, she also served on multiple community boards through the decades.

But when her husband Joel died of cancer in 2014, Van Citters’ life came crashing down. “I didn’t have a reason to get up every day anymore,” she says. But slowly, carefully, Van Citters began reaching out. “I knew that if I was going to be taking up air on this planet, I needed to make it count and do something,” she says.

Always interested in reading, education and children, she heard about Visible Men Academy, a Bradenton charter school focused on boys in grades K-5.  “As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” she says.

For two years, she’s been working with first-grade teacher Jackie Hinds, reading to boys who need one-on-one help. “The happiest time is when three or four months go by and one of my little boys can read to me something I originally had to read to them,” she says. “That is victory. Their trust in me and acceptance of me is everything.”

Hinds says Van Citters’ commitment and rapport with the children shows in their reading abilities and confidence levels and how they clamor to work with her. 

“Through working with Kathy, I’ve seen them soar,” Hinds says.

For Van Citters, it’s all about the boys. “The work makes me smile, fills my heart and, honestly, I come away with so much more than I am able to give,” she says. —Megan McDonald

Image: Jenny Acheson

Gena Luoma Helps Disabled Adults Find Their Inner Artist

Recently retired art teacher Gena Luoma began volunteering at the Loveland Center—an organization whose mission is to help adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities—just over a year ago when she relocated to Venice from Columbia, Maryland. In the 12 months since, she’s clocked more than 370 hours of service, become vice president of the Lovelanders (which hosts social events, raises funds and volunteers on the center’s behalf), served as vice chair for the annual Christmas BBQ fund raiser and earned the title of Loveland’s Volunteer of the Year.

Luoma volunteers weekly at the center’s art studio, using her 35 years of experience as an art teacher to encourage Loveland residents and students to find their inner artist. “I love to share the world of art and encourage people to experience the process of making art,” she says.

Luoma’s classes inspire and challenge. Her “Paint Like the Impressionists” taught students how to paint in the style of Claude Monet. “Over the course of three hours, everyone walked out with their own interpretation of an impressionistic landscape and knowledge of the impressionistic style,” Luoma says. “I was overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment the experience provided.”

More recently, Luoma’s students completed a 4-foot-by-8-foot paper collage depicting Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “No one wanted to stop working. They needed to be told to stop for lunch,” she says. “This is the Zen moment that every artist wants to achieve, and I have the privilege of being a part of it at Loveland.”—Audrey Warne

Jan Meissner cuddles Widget.

Image: Jenny Acheson

Jan Meissner Keeps Homeless Animals Out of Shelters

Since childhood, Jan Meissner has had a passion for animals, especially for abandoned domestic pets. So when she moved to Sarasota after a 30-year career in advertising, marketing and art direction, she put her skills to use as a volunteer at Animal Rescue Coalition (ARC), an organization that saves homeless dogs and cats through a low-cost spay/neuter program.

In her first year in 2017, Meissner created a new logo and branding image for ARC, redesigned the website, helped design the annual fund raiser’s color scheme, invitations, advertising and programs, and wrote and directed ARC’s 2018 mission video.

Preventing the killing of thousands of animals in Sarasota County shelters every year is her goal. “Our shelters have no choice but to euthanize to make room for more. Beautiful animals that would be great companions are put down. No amount of adoption drives or shelter-building can stop such a barbaric practice,” she says. “ARC attacks the root of the problem. They promote an unsexy, methodical, non-emotionally-charged solution. Spay and neuter.”

Walking through animal shelters is heartbreaking, Meissner says, but there are plenty of success stories. She remembers a huge, mixed-breed dog named Rex who had had surgery to repair his knee. His gait was awkward after the surgery, and animals who have problems often are not adopted. But a firefighter saw Rex’s loving disposition and gave him a new home. “The firefighter brings Rex to the station occasionally. His kids adore him. He’s got dog siblings and a big yard to play in. That’s a lot of happiness to spread around. You can’t beat happy endings,” she says.—Ashley Cooper

Bill Keenan at work with F.E.L.T.

Image: Jenny Acheson

Bill Keenan Feeds Homeless Students in Manatee County

Two and a half years ago, Parrish retiree Bill Keenan followed his wife into volunteering at Feeding Empty Little Tummies (F.E.L.T.), a nonprofit that provides nutritious meals to homeless students in Manatee County schools. The level of homelessness and hunger shocked him. “I found out how desperate these kids are for food,” he says. “It’s just heartbreaking to me. I can’t imagine a child growing up and not having a home to go to.”

Fortunately, Keenan’s 45-year career in retail and merchandise management came in handy. Today he volunteers 35 hours a week, running F.E.L.T.’s warehouse, negotiating and organizing food purchases from Sysco, the organization’s food supplier. It’s a huge job.

F.E.L.T. spends about $4,500 a week, serving between 600 to 650 students at 44 Manatee County public schools during the school year. Within the first few weeks of starting school, the children receive a new backpack filled with canned vegetables, fruit, soups and more that have the right calorie content. During the week, students receive breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack at school, and F.E.L.T. helps provide three meals for Saturday and three meals for Sunday for the students to take home over the weekend. 

Keenan will always do more, stay later, take one more call to help. 

“F.E.L.T. has a cutoff date of Wednesday morning for the schools to tell us how many students need supplies, because the number changes from week to week,” he says. “A guidance counselor called us on Friday begging us to put nine bags together for the kids she got in that day. It was after the cutoff, but you just can’t turn someone down.”—Vanessa Blankenship

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