Good Neighbors

March 06, 2022

Their lives are models of compassion: The young woman whose group helps the homeless with laundry services and hygiene products. The high school classmates who lost touch, then found each other and have teamed up to become foster parents. The wig shop owner whose caring helps makes cancer patients’ journey a bit easier to bear. Their stories and those of others told are what community is all about.

An incredible journey for foster parents who are equally incredible.

By Cheri Henderson

OPRAH STARTED IT: Both from Queens, N.Y., Joan Benicken and Roger Phillips married and later divorced their junior prom dates, but both secretly lamented letting the other slip away. Phillips’ career eventually took him to Bradenton. Then in 2006, Benicken was moving to Orlando to join her grown daughters and care for her dying sister. “Oprah had a show on and said everybody should reconnect with one person from her life,” relates Benicken, who sent identical letters to three Roger Phillips via Phillips— the correct one—“showed up at my door with a Care Bear. What’s not to love?” He never left.

A HOUSE TO FILL: Shortly after Benicken moved to Orlando, her sister died of cancer, and then her daughters and grandchildren moved out of state. Benicken told Phillips, “There are supposed to be kids here. Why don’t we foster kids?” So, six years ago, their journey began.

LATE-NIGHT KNOCK: Late on the night of the day the couple were licensed, an emergency caseworker showed up at their door with two brothers rescued from human trafficking. The boys had been kept locked up, spoke gibberish to one another, had not attended school and had not seen daylight. They stayed in the care of Phillips and Benicken for 3 1/2 years until they were adopted. The boys are now flourishing. “All you can do is your best, so we did our best,” Phillips says humbly.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT: In August, Phillips and Benicken received the first-ever Hannah Eimer’s “Best Foster Parent in the U.S.” award from the national nonprofit group Transfiguring Adoption. The couple credit their network of support. But as Danielle Abbey of Community Based Care of Central Florida says, “They could have easily just said, ‘We’re not prepared for this. We can’t handle this. They have to go somewhere else.’ Instead, they said, ‘We’re going to step in and succeed where their parents failed, and we’re going to do the absolute best we can for them until they’re able and ready to go to their forever family.’ ”

THE BOOK OF THEIR LIVES: Phillips and Benicken keep a scrapbook with pictures of the 41 children who have been in their care, including the two boys they now have. Says Benicken, “This is the book of my life. This is the book of his life. We need eight more children until this book is filled.” As Phillips puts it, “We got to raise the children we never had together.”

Briana Daniel

Her Street Team Movement gives a clean start to the homeless.

By Jennie Hess

HEAVENLY ALARM: It was a wake-up call “from God” that roused Briana Daniel, 26, from a sound sleep that fateful August 2013 morning. “It shook me to the core,” says Daniel, a University of Central Florida history graduate and part-time bartender. She realized she was “missing something in life. So, I went for a run around Lake Eola . . . and that’s when it hit me.” She saw a number of homeless people in the park and decided to find a way to help. “I felt the best way for me to help is to truly experience what they are experiencing,” Daniel says.

TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Daniel left her comfortable apartment and sampled life on the streets of Orlando for weeks at a time. “When the sun went down, I didn’t sleep for three days,” she says. “You are so exposed. I kept to myself but asked a lot of questions about how to get food and shelter.” Daniel realized that keeping clean was impossible when living on the streets and decided upon her mission: to provide laundry and hygiene services for the homeless. She founded the faith-based Street Team Movement, which was featured on the Steve Harvey talk show in March 2017.

CLEAN START, NEW JOBS: In addition to handing out sunscreen, deodorant, toothpaste, soap, feminine products and other life necessities, Street Team Movement now assists with about 80 loads of laundry a week. Recently, two homeless brothers with an interview opportunity for welder positions learned about Street Team and made an appointment to get their clothing laundered. “They were saying how difficult it is to get a job when you look homeless,” says Daniel, who heard back from the men days later. “The person interviewing them commented on their clothes and how professional they looked. Each of them walked out with jobs.”

LOOKING AHEAD: About 150 or more active volunteers work to distribute remedial aid items and do laundry, and Street Team Movement is working on a plan to add laundry locations and mobilize shower trailers across the city. “It’s hard to see a mother bathe her children with a water bottle and wet rag,” says Daniel.  With the help of sponsors, Street Team Movement has purchased a food truck, gutted it and built shelves to transport items that include shoes and backpacks, shampoo and feminine necessities.  Says Daniel: “Hygiene is treated like a luxury but, health-wise, it’s something very important, and it restores hope.”

Ana L. Cruz

Those devastated by Maria find a comforting helper who hails from the homeland.

By Megan Stokes

FEELING THEIR PAIN: Ana L. Cruz does not view her role in helping thousands of Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria as a job. Because she sees them as brothers and sisters who easily could have been her. “I am from Puerto Rico. I feel their pain. We cannot believe what has happened to our island,” says Cruz, coordinator for the City of Orlando’s Hispanic Office for Local Assistance.

A GUIDING LIGHT: Cruz and representatives from other offices, including the American Red Cross and Orange County Public Schools, manned a disaster relief center at Orlando International Airport that opened Oct. 3, serving nearly 30,000 people  from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have sought refuge in Central Florida since Maria pummeled their islands on Sept. 20. Cruz spent 10 hours a day, seven days a week for a month guiding people to the resources they needed to make this their home—whether it be short or long term. In November, she resumed her post at the HOLA office at 595 N. Primrose Drive to continue helping.  “Yes, it might be tiring at times but I love what I do,” Cruz said.

THEY CAME WITH NOTHING: Cruz helped Maritza Garcia DeVila find an apartment for her 11-member family after Maria flooded theirs in Puerto Rico. She helped DeVila’s grandchildren enroll in school, find clothes and find a doctor. “I have peace and security,” DeVila says. “I don’t have people here in Orlando and Ana was my guide. Now HOLA is my family.” Many of those Cruz has helped arrived in Orlando with nothing more than a small pack of belongings. In November, Cruz organized a donation of clothes for the refugees. Many items came from her and her daughter’s closets. “This way they can have something to wear to a job interview,” she says.

WILL THEY STAY OR GO?: Cruz says there are plenty of jobs in the local hospitality sector and she tells people they may have to settle for a job they don’t want, at least for the short term. Finding affordable housing  has been a bigger challenge. Cruz advises people to stay with family or friends, if possible.“You can see in their faces the stress,” she says. Cruz tells them that if they need anything, she’ll try to help. “I always say, ‘Remember, I’m Ana from Caguas!’ ” she says, invoking the name of her hometown.

Glenn Massari works to restore power after Irma. He and other OUC linemen also traveled to Puerto Rico to help.

The Linemen

Amid storms near and far, 3 veteran OUC workers were among those answering the call.

By Cheri Henderson

POWER STRUGGLE: More than 60 percent of Florida lost electricity during Hurricane Irma, prompting the biggest power restoration effort in U.S. history. Scores of linemen from Orlando Utilities Commission, Florida Power & Light, and Duke Energy scrambled to restore power to about 850,000 customers in Central Florida, working 16-hour days until the job was done just more than a week later. “You get in that mode and do what needs to be done,” says Glenn Massari, a 22-year veteran with OUC.

KINDNESS AMID ADVERSITY: During Irma, Massari says, “we ran into a lot of understanding people asking if we wanted a drink or food. I mean, these people were out of power, and they’re offering us their food and water.” Says Dewey Harvey, a lineman for 16 years: “People were so supportive, helping get out of the way everything we needed out of the way.”

DANGERS THEY FACE: “A lot of accidents where people get killed in this line of work is backfeed from generators,” which happens when residents connect generators to outlets, sending power back through the lines, says Luis Burgos, with 27 years on the job. “You can have anything from lines down to dogs chasing you,” shares Harvey. A few weeks after Irma, Massari, Burgos and Harvey were part of a 14-member OUC team that volunteered to head into rougher terrain and unknown dangers in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria. They would be gone for 30 days.

BEYOND THE CALL: At the team’s sendoff, Orlando District 2 Commissioner Tony Ortiz lauded the volunteers for doing “the kind of work you don’t find anywhere else. You give so much pride to us that you’re taking your precious time going away from your families and doing something that’s greater than yourselves.”

FOR SOME, IT’S PERSONAL: Burgos lost two homes in Puerto Rico, where his elderly parents, two sisters and four brothers still live. “We’re going to rebuild. We’re going to make it better,” he says. Neither Massari nor Harvey had family there, but as Harvey put it, “I’m going just to help people. That’s what we do.”

FAMILY STRONG: Whether he’s at home or abroad, “I couldn’t do it without their support,” says Massari of his family. As for Burgos, his wife “knows the sacrifice we’re making. It’s part of the job. She’s with me.” Harvey, a father of five, says, “You become close to the people you work with, and they’re all family to you. You have to rely on them as much as they rely on you.”

Krystal Cortez

A special shoebox changed her life. Now she’s paying it forward.

By Cheri Henderson

THE BOX THAT STARTED IT ALL: Christmas season changed everything for then 11-year-old Krystal Cortez, who grew up in Managua, Nicaragua, as the youngest of three siblings. “One afternoon my dad told me we were going to get something special at church.” That something special was a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child, an arm of Samaritan’s Purse, which benefits children in poverty. “When you pack a shoebox, they tell you to pack a ‘wow’ item, and that ‘wow’ item for me was a Slinky,” something she had never seen. “I also got a lot of school supplies. Today I’m an administrative assistant. Since I was little, I’ve had a passion for pens and notepads and stickers.”

CONNECTING THE DOTS: Cortez, now 30, moved to Orlando at age 17. Though she never forgot the prized shoebox, she didn’t recall the name of the organization that provided it. Four years ago, she visited OCC’s processing center in Atlanta through her church. In the prayer room, as she saw photos of kids around the world holding shoeboxes, she made the connection. “Right there and then the box signified to me God’s faithfulness,” she recollects with tears. “Seeing His faithfulness through a shoebox empowers me to show that to others.”

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX: “From the moment I learned about Operation Christmas Child, I started volunteering with my church and packing shoeboxes.” Cortez even carries a Slinky inside a shoebox around her office. “People ask me, ‘What’s the program about?’” Her most recent goal was 120 boxes filled with donated items. “I think if I just walk enough with the box around my building, I’ll get it,” she says with a smile.

RECIPIENT TO SPOKESPERSON: “As of April [2017], I became an actual spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child,” Cortez says. Her first speaking engagement was in September before volunteers with the YMCA of Central Florida, an OCC partner. “We have a walking, breathing testimony of what a simple shoebox, a small gift, can mean to a child—how a simple shoebox has changed her life,” shares Chad Garmon, executive director of Christian Initiatives and Community Partnerships at YMCA of Central Florida.

LEGACY OF LOVE: As Cortez continues to advocate on behalf of OCC, “I want people to experience the grace that I have experienced. I want them to see the love of Christ through me.”

Leigh Shannon

With a supply of wigs, he helps fashion replacements for what cancer takes away.

By Megan Stokes 

HAIR CAN DEFINE A PERSON: That’s what Leigh Shannon says. And it’s not because he owns a wig shop or because he’s a famed female impersonator. It’s because he witnessed his mother’s sorrow when she couldn’t find a wig that remotely mirrored her style or beauty when chemotherapy made her hair fall out. She died at age 43. “I always was really sad that my mother couldn’t look the way she wanted to look during treatment,” he says. “That’s always stuck in the back of my mind.”

HELPING WITH HAIR: Shannon has owned Ritzy Rags Wigs & More on Mills Avenue for more than 30 years, and more than half of the store’s business comes from women experiencing hair loss due to cancer treatment. During October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—Ritzy Rags donated eight wigs to local cancer patients. There’s a standing 15 percent discount on wigs to anyone suffering hair loss due to a medical condition. In the back of the store is Flei Shannon’s Market, featuring antiques sourced by Shannon, where 35 percent of proceeds go to cancer-driven charities.

BUT FIRST, THE CUT: When Shannon’s clients are ready to shave their heads, he sends them to Copperhead Salon, where owner Chris Martin will do it for free, as he has since he started styling hair 30 years ago. (He’ll also cut and style their wigs, pro bono, to help them look more natural.) Martin says some people are in tears the entire time of that first cut but for others it’s an adrenaline rush that leaves them exhilarated. He stays strong during the appointment but almost always sheds tears after they leave. “It’s a big moment to share with someone,” he says.

SAD STORIES, HAPPY ENDINGS: Shannon hears stories from women who have had to choose between buying a meal or paying for their chemotherapy. He’s had cancer patients as young as 12 come in for a wig. When clients start to get some hair growth after treatment, Shannon tells them to shave it off again because he says it’s spiked with cancer drugs and “will grow in like a Brillo pad”—a hard thing to do when they’re excited about the growth. “Sometimes you get so emotionally drained. You have to shake it off and remind yourself of the good you’re doing,” he says. Seeing the satisfaction on his clients’ faces is the biggest reward. “Their whole body will change, like ‘Oh I look hot.’ They smile, their body relaxes, all the tension melts away. It’s an incredible thing to watch.”

Michael Dippy

His I Dignity offers hope to the homeless and disadvantaged.

By Jennie Hess

RESTORING DIGNITY:  About two decades ago, architect and surfing enthusiast Michael Dippy witnessed a friend’s rudeness to a homeless man in downtown Orlando. Dippy returned for a chat with the panhandler. “He just wanted to tell his story; I don’t recall him ever asking me for anything.” At church the next morning, a pastor challenged congregants to address a social injustice that made them angry. “Instantly, it hit me in that pew,” Dippy says, that homeless individuals just want to be treated with dignity. Dippy was inspired to volunteer his help.

19,000 IDs AND COUNTING:  In 2008, Dippy and 20 volunteers from five churches founded IDignity to help disadvantaged individuals navigate the complexities of obtaining personal identification. “You cannot be employed, get shelter or apply for benefits without a state-issued ID,” says Dippy, IDignity executive director. “Our goal is to solve problems for people who need the power to help themselves.” In 10 years, IDignity has hosted more than 120 monthly events and provided 19,000 IDs to its clients.

VOLUNTEERS AND EXPERTS STEP UP:  The Orlando Union Rescue Mission hosts the monthly events where clients in need can obtain Florida ID cards and licenses, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and other key documents. “In the beginning, 500 people showed up! We wanted to focus on the people who had the hardest cases, like those who were adopted and had no idea who their original parents were.”  Dippy now oversees 120 volunteers and several staffers trained to help clients navigate legal hurdles and other obstacles. Up to 250 clients attend each event, and IDignity holds a weekly Client Care Day for complicated cases.

EVERYONE HAS A STORY: “We had a client who came to our event nine years ago for a Social Security card,” Dippy says. “He came back for it today.” Mental illness, prison sentences and other difficulties pause progress, he says. “I often see survivors of domestic violence,” Dippy says. “Some come in with nothing and in fear for their lives—it’s pretty humbling.” The numbers of IDignity clients have ballooned in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria and a mass influx of Puerto Rican residents.

GIVING HOPE, MAKING CHANGE:  IDignity, with branches in Seminole, Osceola and Volusia counties, credits volunteers, donors, the faith community and the cooperation of agencies like the Orange County Health Department, Social Security Administration and others for contributing to positive change. “We are all about dignity and respect for our clients,” Dippy says.  “Who gets to see humanity in such an amazing way and make our society more efficient, inclusive and productive?”

Stacey Papp

Through Bridges of Light, a jewelry designer finds diamonds in the rough.

By Michael McLeod

THE “LIGHT” BRIGADE: Two goals close to her heart were on Stacey Papp’s mind when she moved to Orlando, both connected to her childhood in a small Connecticut town. She had worked in jewelry stores as a teen and longed to have a store of her own. And an experience revolving around a pair of Jordache jeans made her just as passionate about helping children in need. Papp is now the owner of Bay Hill Jewelers, and she is also the force behind the Bridges of Light Foundation. Established in 2004, it provides clothing, tutoring, mentorship and college education for middle school children at risk.  Working mainly through Great Oaks Village­—a foster group home­—and Carver Middle School, and with the help of funds raised through its annual Players Ball gala, Bridges of Light has provided a college education for more than 40 at-risk children.  Meanwhile roughly 50 volunteers are mentoring approximately 200 middle school students each year.  The charity also committed to providing scholarships to children who lost a parent in the Pulse nightclub attack.

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE:  Papp grew up in town with a new middle school that, when it opened, suddenly mixed together children from two sides of town: one well-to-do, the other, not so much.  “And you didn’t want to be in the group of kids who wore hand-me downs,” she says. But when she asked for a pair of designer jeans, her mother, a single parent, told her they couldn’t afford it. “A few days later she took me to work with her. She worked at children and family services. I saw kids who were a lot worse off than we were.” She had been changed. For good. One of the programs of Bridges of Light:  A “Closets of Care” program supplying quality clothing to children in need.

A SOLDIER’S SALUTE:  There have been many success stories through Bridges of Light. Some are closer to home than others. A foster child Papp and her husband essentially raised as their own eventually enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. Not long ago he flew back to Orlando and surprised them, turning up at their door in uniform. Papp has designed a lot of beautiful jewelry in her life but none of it, she’ll tell you, was as beautiful as the gift the soldier had with him. “He had designed this award,” she says, between sniffles. “It was a huge, beautiful trophy in the shape of a diamond.” Inscribed on it were these words: “Thank you for your care, kindness, mentorship, guidance, wisdom, knowledge, support, friendship and love. God bless you and your family. — Second Lieutenant Artist Jones”

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