No doubt the word “hero” has gotten as watered down as a glass of lemonade left in the Florida sun. This idea that there are those who walk among us lifting others up at their own expense, who do good deeds just for the sake of good deeds—do they actually still exist?
Yes, it turns out, there still are legit heroes.
We’re talking about the people who toil every day and give up their nights and weekends to see a cause they care about thrive. In fact, we’ve found a few, our neighbors from north Palm Beach County.
When Paco Vélez was a kid growing up in Eagle Pass, Texas, he had a grandfather who owned a modest hotel. Locals knew they could go there when they were desperate, and Vélez recalls seeing his grandfather mowing someone’s lawn or painting their house—odd jobs or small gifts that helped them get by.
His grandfather didn’t talk about it much, but Vélez says he picked up on something. “I saw how peaceful and happy he was serving others,” he says.
When Vélez stumbled into a job at the food bank in San Antonio in 2000, he thought back on his grandfather’s sense of peace while helping other people. Vélez found it himself in those early days at the pantry.
In 2012, Vélez took over as President and CEO of Feeding South Florida, a non-profit that provides food to 300-plus agencies that help the hungry, 47 of them in northern Palm Beach County. Here, we have an odd dichotomy, a county that has both vast wealth and poverty; we also have a distinct connection to food, being the largest agriculture county east of the Mississippi. Many of those who need food provided by non-profits also pick produce in Palm Beach County fields, serve it at our restaurants and stock the shelves in our supermarkets.
It’s easy, Vélez says, to live where we do and assume nobody goes hungry. “People look at a place like Jupiter and think it’s OK because it’s generally wealthy. But there are many people here who live below the poverty level.”
Aside from the massive undertaking of delivering 50 million pounds and counting of food, Vélez says it’s his mission to change that misconception, to show that hunger looks the same no matter where you live.
Just recently, a 13-year-old girl handed Karen Hilo an illustrated booklet she had made. It’s part of the counseling process at the non-profit Hilo runs, an exercise where kids tell their stories through pictures to process tragedy.
The father who’s now in prison had sexually abused the girl and her brother. Hilo looked through the booklet, detailing the awfulness of the girl’s young life, and then saw something she wasn’t expecting.
“I get to the end, and this little 13-year-old girl is saying she’s not a victim; that she’s going to be a victor,” Hilo says. “That was her words: I am a victor.”
Hilo was so taken by the mission that she agreed to come on as CEO. Having grown up in a family wrecked by divorce, she knew the need of mental health services. But the organization was facing a financial collapse without something drastic. At the time, it was running a homeless shelter that was draining nearly all of the donations, and so Hilo worked with the County and a leading homelessness prevention agency to get back on track, allowing Center for Family Services to concentrate on one core mission of providing mental health services. “It was nothing short of a miracle that we were able to find someone to take over the shelter,” Hilo says.
Now, the organization is looking at what’s next, considering adding the ability to do counseling via video conferencing, which would allow it to greatly increase its reach.
She says it’s a lot like that 13-year-old girl who became a victor: They get to rewrite the future chapters of their story.
If there’s one thing you’ll hear regularly about working for non-profits, it’s that it is a high-burnout-rate job, where it’s too easy to get downtrodden by failures from watching people who just can’t seem to climb out of poverty or homelessness.
But not Kathy Spencer, who spent 22 years as a social worker for Goodwill Industries with a bubbly, always-happy approach, forever a sentence or two away from a laugh.
“I guess I’ve always been an optimist and able to see the good side,” she says, with, of course, a laugh.
Her last day on the job was Sept. 30. Retiring at 68 years old, she’s taking on a new job of helping raise her grandkids. “The pay stinks, but the benefits are wonderful,” she says.
Spencer isn’t really sure how she ended up doing her job for so long. She grew up in a Vermont town “with more cows than people” and never suffered from the poverty that she’s seen in so many clients over the past two decades. “I had it pretty easy in my life, and that’s not true for everyone I work with,” she says.
In the end, she retired as a vice president, but her favorite part has always been working with the people Goodwill serves, trying to solve the puzzle of how to help the homeless get back on their feet. She has seen many of them fail—lots of them she thought would make it come back—but yet, she says she has always thrived on the ones who find a way out. She says her job was fairly simple: to find out what her clients’ hopes and dreams were, and often, to help them for the first time figure out that they can achieve them.
“To see the success of people who have not had much support in their past, it’s a wonderful thing,” she says. “It’s a blessing.”
Brenda and Fred Teets
There was a moment not long ago when Brenda and Fred Teets came to a sudden stop outside Publix. In front of them were two kids, and the couple weren’t sure what would happen next.
Nine years before, the Teets were at church one Sunday when a fellow parishioner stood up and begged for help. A new non-profit called Family Promise desperately needed volunteers. Retired for 21 years and living in West Palm Beach, the Teets—Fred (80) and Brenda (79)—started doing what they could at the charity, which helps homeless families with jobs, housing and generally just getting back to normal life.
“Now that we’re retired, we’re spending a large portion of our time volunteering for several organizations,” says Fred, an engineer who climbed through the ranks of DuPont back in Delaware. “But Family Promise is the thing we give the most energy because we can work directly with families.”
About seven years ago now, a father of twins walked into Family Promise with a stroller, two suitcases and nothing else. The non-profit helped him get a job, but he had nowhere for the kids to go in the afternoon. So, the Teets picked the kids up and brought them to their home.
“They were on the street, the children,” Brenda recalls. “It just breaks your heart. I mean this shouldn’t happen in the United States.”
As the Teets walked out of Publix recently, they saw the twins. It had been years, although they had been getting updates that they were doing well and excelling in school. The Teets stopped a minute, unsure they would recognize them.
“Mr. Fred! Mrs. Brenda!” the kids yelled out, before jumping into their arms.
“I’ll tell you, the tears flowed,” Brenda recalls.
It is, they both say, the only reason they give so much time to helping others. “We certainly didn’t do it for recognition,” Brenda says. “We did it because it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Marti LaTour grew up in suburban Chicago, the fourth of five siblings, with woods and horses and a loving family. She’s never been broke or hungry.
LaTour says she volunteers based on a simple principle: “Everybody has to feel like they’re giving back in some way. It has to have a very personal connection and make you feel like you can bring something to the table, like you’re making a difference.”
It started for LaTour in 2012 when she was at an event and someone from the upstart Palm Beach County Food Bank stopped her. The non-profit began with the CEO delivering food from his van, and it needed people who could help it scale up.
LaTour realized she had two big qualifications. She had spent years in the food industry as an executive for PepsiCo, but she left that job to work for an organization that helps female-run startups get funding. She knew about food, and she knew about startups, and so she joined the food bank’s board.
Seven years later, the food bank has grown to an organization that provides 5 million pounds of food annually to those in need. But LaTour, now the board chair, says they still have a long way to go: the county remains 78 million pounds of food short of what’s needed, and 200,000 people here regularly don’t know where they’re getting their next meal.
Nowadays, LaTour is on a mission to find the food bank a new location, as it long-ago outgrew the current space. “We need $3 million, and I keep joking that in our wealthy county, what’s $3 million?”
Beyond just growth, LaTour says the organization also needs to change a perception of the types of people it serves. Recently, an elderly woman called the food bank to thank them for helping her.
“She had survived the Holocaust, survived getting to America, and she said she would survive this, too,” LaTour says. “It makes you realize that if it can happen to this woman at her age with all she’s gone through, it can happen to anyone, at any point in your life.”