Rotary, Recorder salute ‘Local Heroes’


When Todd Blake was 18, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Over the next six years, Blake would battle the disease while continuing his studies at the University of Florida, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. Along the way, he gained an appreciation for the particular challenges faced by his peers who were also battling the disease.

“I recognized the incredible need for support for young adults with cancer,” Blake said. “You’re so isolated, surrounded by older people.”

To address that need, Blake founded the Live for Today Foundation – a non-profit organization that brings together cancer survivors ages 18 to 35 for events, activities and one-of-a-kind experiences that uplift and encourage members. And for his efforts, Blake was recognized last week, when the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach and the Ponte Vedra Recorder honored him as one of nine local residents to receive the 2016 Local Heroes Award.

“One of the greatest things we get to do as a Rotary Club is recognize individuals who give back so much to the community,” said Rotarian Jim Clark, who organized this year’s Local Heroes Awards, which were presented at recent two Rotary Club meetings. “We identify individuals who do outstanding things.”

Now in its 24th year, the Local Heroes Awards honor individuals who give back to the community and reflect the Rotary motto of “Service Above Self.” In addition to honoring Blake – who received this year’s Volunteer Hero Award – honors were presented to local volunteers in the categories of arts, education, vocational service, corporate and youth volunteer.

Arts Hero: Walter Dickinson

Recipient of the 2016 Local Arts Hero Award was Walter Dickinson, who was recognized for his longstanding support of the local arts community.

“Walter’s passion and commitment to growing the arts is demonstrated through his generous personal service and financial support for nonprofit arts organizations, including the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach, Beaches Museum & History Park, the Jacksonville Symphony and others,” said Rotarian Sam Hall, who served as the event’s master of ceremonies.

Hall noted that he had an opportunity to witness Dickinson’s commitment to the arts firsthand while serving together on a committee that secured and relocated that 142-year-old Oesterreicher McCormick cabin from its original location on Palm Valley’s Twenty Mile Road to the Beaches Museum & History Park.

“I can tell you, it’s a labor of love to take a building that’s 142 years old and retrofit it for today’s use!” Hall said.

While unable to attend the ceremonies, Dickinson’s award was accepted on his behalf by his son, Eddie, who expressed his father’s appreciation for the honor.

Education Heroes: Vance Edeker and Connie Smith

“Education is key,” Clark said, “and our Education Hero Award recipients have together created an atmosphere where children want to learn.”

In their roles as media specialists at the PVPV/Rawlings Elementary School, Clark said, Education Heroes Vance Edeker and Connie Smith have created a world-class learning facility. In addition to a library well-stocked with fiction, non-fiction and reference titles, the media center features a computer room outfitted with 25 Apple computers as well as an instructional room. Through their efforts, Rawlings students have competed and won the countywide Battle of the Books competition a number of times.

“We just love the children,” Smith said. “It’s just a perk that we get paid for what we do!”

Edeker, meanwhile, credited their success to the overall school environment. “We have a wonderful support system,” he said. “The PTO, the parents and teachers are all so supportive.”

Vocational Service: Pat Philo, Willie Lee Toby and Roy Lee Barrett

The Sawgrass Country Club golf course opened in 1974, and ever since then Pat Philo, Willie Lee Toby and Roy Lee Barrett have been serving the club’s members. Their dedication and commitment to customer service earned them recognition as the 2016 Vocational Service Hero Award recipients.

“Our honorees are professional and can be counted on to be on the job rain or shine,” Hall said. “They exemplify the Rotary ideal of service in the workplace and conducting business with high ethical standards.”

Philo said her time at Sawgrass has been a pleasure.

“Forty years sounds like a long time,” she said. “But we don’t consider it a job. The Sawgrass Country Club members are absolutely wonderful. It’s a pleasure to go to work every day, and when going to work is a pleasure you tend to show up.”

Corporate Hero: Patti Hughes

The 2016 Corporate Hero Award was presented to Natural Life Founder Patti Hughes for her efforts to give back to the community.

“Patti used her God-given talents to create a wonderful company that delivers unique items for the home, to wear or to give,” Hall said, “and she has never forgotten how to give back.”

Among Hughes’ community service efforts was the creation of a local music festival that raises money for the Children’s Home Society.

“I’m so inspired by everybody’s story,” Hughes said in accepting her award. “I’m very lucky – I get to do what I love every day, and when you’re fortunate enough to do that, you find success.”

Youth Volunteer Hero: Tess Reiman

Ponte Vedra High School junior Tess Reiman already has a long history of giving back to the community. In addition to founding Project Storybook – an award-winning national organization that provides books to children moving into Habitat for Humanity homes – she also co-founded Project Play, which donates outdoor play equipment, board games and craft supplies to Habitat families. Other volunteer efforts include founding the PVHS Sharks and Minnows Club, which mentors at-risk elementary school children at the Rhoda Martin Cultural Heritage Center.

“Thank you so much,” Reiman told Rotary Club members in accepting her award. “I can’t wait to continue doing this in the community as long as I can.” Master of ceremonies Hall said that seeing young people such as Reiman gave him hope for the future.

“The closer I get to being a senior citizen, the more I find myself saying, ‘What is this world coming to?’” Hall said. “Seeing young people accomplish so much really attests to the fact that we’re in good hands and Tess exemplifies that.”

Clark agreed. “When you read all the contributions that our award recipients have made,” he said, “it feels good to be able to recognize them for all they do for our community.”

Rotary Club President Will Montoya thanked all of the award recipients for their community service efforts, and noted how important an honor such as the Local Heroes Awards can be to the “unsung heroes” among us who give so much without the appreciation or fanfare awarded to celebrities.

He recalled attending the funeral of an acquaintance, and seeing a display of the person’s family photos and treasured items. There among the display was the Rotary Club’s Local Hero Award.

“I’ve seen firsthand how an award like this can have a significant impact on people’s lives,” Montoya said. “It really becomes a special event and special item in a person’s life.”