7th Annual Giving Back Awards: Coastal Virginia's Top Nonprofits
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Ever heard the phrase, “See a need, fill a need”? That’s how many nonprofit organizations got started. Someone, or a group of individuals, saw a need—people going hungry, children falling behind in their education, animals with no homes—and made a commitment to make a difference by filling the need.
For the seventh year, Coastal Virginia Magazine is honored to share with you some of the top nonprofits in our area as we shine a spotlight on the often-underrecognized organizations that are making huge impacts as they fill one need at a time.
1. Toby's Dream Foundation
One Columbus Center, 283 Constitution Drive, Suite 600, Virginia Beach | 757-490-7874 | TobysDream.org
Established: Toby’s Dream Foundation was founded in November of 2009 and made the first dream come true for a child on New Year’s Day 2010. Founder and Executive Director Joan Steele recognized the need to create a charitable foundation to serve local children by collaborating with a network of hospitals, volunteers and businesses. Toby’s Dream Foundation is named after Toby Vaught, a volunteer that Steele had worked alongside in her previous nonprofit experience who unexpectedly passed away at the age of 29. “He was the epitome of a great volunteer,” remarks Steele. Three years after Vaught’s passing, Steele decided on the name Toby’s Dream Foundation to continue his legacy with their organization’s work with children. “We don’t have a big staff, so we depend on volunteers, and he was such a great volunteer that it felt fitting to name the organization in his memory.”
Mission: To ensure that children with life-threatening illnesses living in the Coastal Virginia region have the opportunity and resources to imagine and experience their most fantastic dream.
Key People: Joan Steele, executive director and founder; Sarah Haggerty, program director; Sarah Rostock, program assistant; Joanna Willette, Dream Mom and volunteer.
Programs: TDF has made dreams come true for over 400 local children, ages 3–18, with life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, brain tumors, rare syndromes, genetic disorders and some waiting for life-giving transplants. TDF has helped children go to Disney World, meet celebrities and professional athletes and go on shopping sprees and cruises. For some children, their days are consumed with treatment, therapy and visits to doctors' offices and hospitals. TDF’s goal is to make the child’s dream much more than imagined. Regardless of the family’s income and what they may be able to afford, TDF covers all of the dream’s expenses and planning.
In addition to the dream, TDF will partner with other organizations in the area to take children within the program to fun outings, including Virginia Musical Theatre performances, airshows and sporting events. They’ll also host fundraisers, including 5K races, a Pro-Am golf tournament with PGA players and The Bonefires, a “Game of Thrones”-themed music festival in Pungo. On Dec. 1, TDF is partnering with Tradition Brewing Company in Newport News for a family-friendly event with food trucks and kids’ activities while accepting general public donations. They’re hoping to expand on this event to breweries on the Southside.
Volunteer Opportunities: TDF relies heavily on volunteers and community members that contribute time, talent, goods and services and donations. The nonprofit’s volunteer Dream Makers visit with families at their homes and interview children to discover their dream. TDF offers training for these volunteers (21 and up) to learn the parameters of the process, including the dos and don’ts for interviews with families during a sensitive time. When it’s time for the dream, the volunteers organize a small sendoff party for the child and their family. At the sendoff party the Dream Makers provide a customized box made for each child with their name and gifts, including a Toby’s Dream T-Shirt and Dream Bear. If the family will be traveling for the dream, the volunteers provide them with an itinerary and explain all arrangements that have been made along with a check to cover expenses.
There are also volunteer opportunities for TDF’s special events throughout the year, suitable for ages 18 and up. All volunteers are required to have a big heart.
What are the biggest struggles your organization faces? “Fundraising is always a struggle,” says Steele. “We have not spent money on marketing, we’ve spent the money on the kids,” she adds. “As people hear about us they want to get involved in some way and they also want to give. Our biggest challenge is awareness in the community, and from awareness in the community comes fundraising.”
What is the most rewarding part about what your nonprofit does? “The kids. To see the look on their face, and particularly if you know that child’s not going to make it, because we’re told sometimes the prognosis in the case of a rush,” explains Steele. “And you know you can’t cure that child, but you can put some joy into their life. Even for a short period of time.”
2. Kennedy's Angel Gowns
757-263-8479 | KennedysAngelGowns.org
Established: Kennedy Wilson was born silently into the world on Aug. 17, 2009. After years of mourning their late daughter, Heather and Demitri Wilson channeled their sorrow into the creation of a nonprofit organization to benefit the loss community. Kennedy’s Angel Gowns was founded in 2016 and has since provided hundreds of free burial gowns and vests made from donated wedding dresses to local families who have suffered the loss of a child before, during or shortly after childbirth.
Mission: Kennedy’s Angel Gowns is dedicated to providing support and guidance to families in the loss community and to raise awareness about infertility, miscarriage, early neo-natal loss, stillborn and infant loss. The organization also strives to break the silence surrounding racial disparities in prenatal and postnatal care.
Key People: Heather Wilson, founder; Demitri Wilson, co-founder; Board of Directors; Seamstress Team
Programs: In addition to collecting wedding gowns and converting them into intricate burial garments, Kennedy’s Angel Gowns also offers financial assistance to families seeking support for burial costs. The organization donates money to local hospitals as well to help them maintain and sanitize the five Cuddle Cots (cooling units that allow families to spend extra time with their baby by regulating its temperature) Kennedy’s Angel Gowns has donated over the past two years.
Therapy resources and support group placements are also offered through Kennedy’s Angel Gowns. If requested by the hospital patient, Heather and Demitri offer bedside support to help walk families through the grievous steps following the loss of a child.
Volunteer Opportunities: The springtime Angel Ball and fall Angel Run 5K are Kennedy’s Angel Gowns’ largest fundraisers. The organization seeks volunteers for everything from setup and breakdown to day-of-event assistance.
Kennedy’s Angel Gowns also hosts sew-ins which invite seasoned seamstresses and sewing novices to assist with the unstitching of wedding dresses and creation of burial gowns. Help with storage organization and burial gown delivery are also needed.
Almost more important than time is money. As a 100 percent, volunteer-driven and donation-based nonprofit, Kennedy’s Angel Gowns relies heavily on financial support.
What are the biggest struggles your organization faces? Securing donors is essential to the operations of Kennedy’s Angel Gowns but is also the most difficult obstacle to overcome. “We started this organization from our hearts, so it was never about money,” explains Heather. “But when you have an organization that is wholly dependent on donations, it can be hard to find donors, especially when [Demitri] and I work full time.”
The couple longs to help every bereaved family that seeks their aid, but they are careful to work within the restraints of their monthly budget.
Heather also touches on the emotional toll the organization has taken on the couple. Meeting with mourning families frequently reopens the wounds Heather and Demitri have tended to since losing Kennedy. “It triggers our trauma often,” she says.
What is the most reward part about what your nonprofit does? “The lives we touch,” Demitri answers without hesitation. “And I think that’s reciprocal. While we’re helping them, they’re helping us.”
Running Kennedy’s Angel Gowns has played a large part in the Wilsons’ healing process. “We have met some of the most amazing people on this journey,” says Heather. “I like to think while we’re doing the tough [work] down here, Kennedy is in heaven greeting the children and showing them the way.”
At the end of the day, honoring Kennedy’s legacy is at the crux of the Wilsons’ nonprofit. Through their tragic, yet triumphant story, Heather and Demitri can now honor the love, care and empathy Kennedy’s loss has provided to hundreds of grieving families throughout Coastal Virginia.
3. Fear 2 Freedom
P.O. Box 6104, Newport News | 888-453-3059 | Fear2Freedom.org
Established: First Lady of CNU Rosemary Trible founded Fear 2 Freedom in 2011. Her passion to help others comes from her own life-changing experience. At age 25, she was raped at gunpoint after hosting a television talk show on sexual assault. In her book, Fear to Freedom, she recounts her journey from this trauma to freedom through forgiveness and sharing her story with others. After writing the book, she started asking the question, “What can I do to help?” The answer she heard from hospitals is that they need supplies for victims of sexual assault who are leaving the hospital.
Mission: Helping to restore hope and dignity to survivors of sexual assault while empowering students and communities to combat sexual violence.
Key People: Rosemary Trible, founder; Muriel Millar, chief operating officer; Tricia Russell, chief development officer; Jocelyn Harrison, senior director of programs; Brent Holliday, marketing and communications director; Abby Grimes, director of program logistics and community engagement
Fear 2 Freedom Aftercare Kits are a gift of hope given to victims of abuse when they arrive at the hospital. When a victim of sexual assault goes to the hospital for treatment or the PERK (Physical Evidence Recovery Kit) exam, all of their clothes are kept for evidence, meaning that women, men and children are leaving hospitals in paper scrubs after a moment of greatest trauma. The Aftercare Kits include brand new items such as T-shirt, sweatpants and underwear; toiletry kit (includes soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, loofah and hairbrush); a pen and journal for adults and a toy for children; “You Matter 2” Card (includes list of sponsors); Resource Card (list of help lines and tips); Freedom Bear, a soft, cuddly bear who comes with a storybook and serves as a counseling tool; and a personal, handwritten note (written by a student or volunteer).
Hour 2 Empower events are held on college and university campuses throughout the year. The first half of the event includes an educational slideshow/video presentation and a speaker whose life has been impacted by sexual violence. The presentation can include a selection of topics relevant to students such as dating and domestic violence, sexual assault, consent, stalking and human trafficking. In the final segment, participants assemble and pack Fear 2 Freedom Aftercare Kits. As the students deliver the kits to an awaiting ambulance, they are reminded that a sexual assault victim may receive the items that very night.
The Shadow Event is an immersive, emotional, 90-minute presentation centered around survivor stories. Anonymous survivors are silhouetted behind a curtain or screen as they share their stories with audience members. The event allows attendees to interact with these survivors by writing notes of encouragement and support that will be given to the shadow presenters. Students leave with a greater understanding of the personal impact of sexual violence, increased empathy for survivors and an increased awareness of what they can do to improve safety in their communities.
Be the Change Orientation Program is customizable to each university’s specific needs and addresses sexual violence as part of freshman orientation. The program includes a 20-minute Be the Change film, university discussion panel, statistics and fact sheet, “What Do You Know?” quiz and pocket-sized resources.
Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteers can assemble supplies to go in the Aftercare Kits (rolling sweatpants, T-shirts and underwear, assembling toiletry kits, etc.).
Donations allow the organization to redeem and restore those wounded by sexual assault and empower college students to “Be the Change!”
What are the biggest struggles your organization faces? “Funding is one. And being able to grow the programs. We would love to be able to go nationally with this. We are running the program with the resources that are available.”
What is the most rewarding part about what your nonprofit does? “Hearing the stories from the victims and survivors that it’s making a difference in society. It makes it worthwhile.”
4. Hearts for Hounds
1421 Chickadee Lane, Virginia Beach | 757-235-5586 | HeartsForHoundsRescue.org
Established: Jan. 1, 2015. Founder Kindra Powell began in rescue seven years prior when she found her first dog, Brumby, on the side of the road. After nursing him back to health, she dove head first into rescuing dogs from rural shelters one at a time with her personal funds. In 2015, she made it official in order to grow and have funds to expand her reach.
Mission: Hearts for Hounds is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization aimed at saving the lives of dogs in danger of euthanization in rural shelters. They are a foster-based program, meaning each dog is placed in a temporary home where they receive the love and care that they may have never known before.
Key people: Kindra Powell, director and founder; Elin Clark, vice president; Amanda Himmelwright, foster coordinator
Programs: Their adoption program is foster home-based, meaning that all dogs live in a home with a family before adoption. They primarily focus on rescuing dogs from overcrowded and rural shelters, treat their medical needs, provide a temporary foster home and then ultimately an adoptive home.
Hearts for Hounds does community outreach and offer spay/neuter assistance and medical assistance as needed.
They provide dog food to a local pet pantry.
Volunteer Opportunities: Their greatest need is foster homes, and without them they cannot rescue any dogs. They are always looking for fundraising opportunities and individuals who would like to lead fundraising projects. "We need volunteers for transportation for dogs to and from vet visits, shelters and foster homes."
What are the biggest struggles your organization faces? “Our biggest struggle is the never ending need to rescue dogs. For every one dog we save, there are hundreds more needing rescue, and it never seems to decrease. We all struggle with always feeling like we can't do enough.”
What is the most rewarding part about what your nonprofit does? “The most rewarding part about our job is seeing a dirty, sick, scared dog taken into rescue and blossom into a confident, healthy and beloved family pet. There is no feeling in the world better than seeing a shelter dog rescued and transformed once it has been adopted.”
5. Tidewater Search and Rescue
P.O. Box 865, Yorktown | 757-508-8727 | TSAR.org
Established: August 1985. The organization started because of a lost child incident that happened in York County in 1984. There were no ground search and rescue groups on this side of the state.
Mission: Tidewater Search and Rescue (TSAR) is an all-volunteer Search, Rescue and Recovery organization. TSAR provides specially trained and certified professional volunteers to find lost or missing people in wilderness, rural, urban or disaster environments free of charge.
Key people: Kevin Brewer, commander; Jim Russell, operations section chief; Bart Drummond, plans section chief; Steve Fesko, logistics section chief; Vicky Banta, finance section chief; Chris Spaulding, medical officer; Elsbeth Thurston, website team.
Lost But Found, Safe and Sound: A free program intended to give youth ages 5–12 years old the basic skills and knowledge of what to do if they become lost in a wilderness environment during activities such as family outings, camp events or becoming lost while playing in the woods.
Training: TSAR trains their team of members a minimum of twice a month.
-The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies to work together seamlessly and manage incidents involving all threats and hazards—regardless of cause, size, location or complexity—to reduce loss of life, property and harm to the environment.
-All search team members must complete the National Park Service Basic SAR Training modules and successfully pass the NPS Basic SAR Training quiz.
Volunteer Opportunities: As a 100 percent volunteer organization, Tidewater Search and Rescue relies on volunteers dedicated to saving lives. Volunteers should maintain high standards of professionalism and service, work at the request of other emergency service and law enforcement agencies and maintain an excellent reputation in the public eye. Volunteers with Tidewater Search and Rescue operate as a team at all times and do not work for fame or recognition. In 2017 members of Tidewater Search and Rescue selflessly provided 2,290 volunteer hours and traveled a total of 25,896 miles for missions and training, saving the Commonwealth of Virginia approximately $70,000.
What are the biggest struggles your organization faces? “The biggest one would be the availability of personnel for us to provide for any one missing search and rescue incident,” says Kevin Brewer, commander. “Also, because we don’t seek out the recognition or the limelight, getting donations directed toward our group is something that is very difficult. We do use the donations to maintain our equipment, to maintain our response vehicles.”
What is the most rewarding part about what your nonprofit does? “Being able to help find the lost or missing and bring them back to a place of safety,” Brewer says. “That’s why we do this.”