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A passion for giving back and making the community a better place is what unites FLORIDA TODAY’s three finalists for Volunteer of the Year award.
Knowing they could leave the world a better place because of their impacts pushes Dorothy “Dot” Linson, Riley Renfro and Sharon Rivera to do just that.
Whether it’s 17-year-old Renfro nursing injured animals back to health, 84-year-old Linson feeding hungry children, or 65-year-old Rivera, working with special needs students, each of these volunteers has made immeasurable contributions in some way to their community.
Meet this year’s finalists:
Dot Linson knows need
Linson grew up in Alabama the daughter of a sharecropper. She wasn’t able to finish school herself as she was expected to help pick cotton and contribute to the family’s income. So she spent her life working to ensure that her children would have an education and be provided for and even now works nonstop to provide for others in her community as well.
Her faith in God compels her to help those around her both as a way to give back to God but as a way to express his love for others through her own actions.
“I always prepare dinner on Sunday and always have enough food leftover on extra plates. During the summer I just always cook foods for the read and feed program for children. I prepare a good meal with vegetables and meat for the kids during the summer,” she said.
She also spends time preparing meals for kids after school at the Melbourne Community Center. Growing up on a farm, she knew what it was like to be hungry, to miss school because she didn’t have shoes. Ensuring that the children in her own community don’t face similar disadvantages is part of her mission.
“This kid came in and he says ‘oh my goodness it smells good in here,’ ” she recalled. Feeding that child and his delight from her cooking is what motivates her to do what she does.
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“They get out of school they can come here and they can get a plate. I feel happy about them getting a full course meal for the day,” she said.
“From my childhood and my parents raised us up sharecropping and we had very little all my life. I raised my five children by myself and I prayed that my children would be able to go school which I couldn’t do,” she said.
“That’s what drives me to reach out because I know what it’s like not to have. When you give like the Lord says to give, you don’t have to worry about it. It will come back to you.”
Nature’s health is Renfro’s future
During her short time as a volunteer at the Florida Wildlife Hospital, Riley Renfro has already accumulated more hours than anybody else giving their time to the sick and injured animals who come through. Since starting at the wildlife hospital this year, Renfro has been instrumental in everything from the menial tasks of cleaning to helping restore animals to full health and reintroduce them to their ecosystems.
On top of working with animals, Renfro, who takes classes at Eastern Florida State College, also gives her time to Suntree United Methodist Church, where she is a middle school youth group leader as well as volunteering with elementary and preschool-aged children and working special events throughout the year.
Renfro’s philosophy of volunteering is that there’s no task too small. “I do whatever needs to be done. My goal is to be as helpful to the hospital and the wildlife as possible,” she said.
Cleaning up cages, cleaning treatment areas and doing the numerous, unseen tasks that go into making a wildlife hospital run are never too tedious for Renfro. It’s all worth it when she gets to see the work pay off.
“I have this really special memory of getting to release a rat snake that had been injured,” Renfro said. She had been part of every step of the snake’s recovery from its admission to its release.
“Getting bandage changes and getting to see him improve over the course of his time at the hospital. I was the one who was able to release him and being able to see him go back to the wild and help improve his ecosystem. I got to make a difference in that one snake’s life but also in our local environment was why I wanted to do this,” Renfro said.
“If I don’t try to do something to help then it might not get done. You can’t sit by and do nothing when there’s so much to do,” she said.
“I want my community to be a place where my friends and family and future generations will have a good environment and also make sure the animals here have the same,” she added.
Human connection drives Rivera
Sharon Rivera is another member of the community who does what needs to be done. When osteoporosis-preventing Bone Builders classes were short on volunteers, putting women at risk of going without, Rivera trained and took over leading those classes to ensure those women’s health would be protected.
She is known for meeting people one-on-one and helping them feel acknowledged and seen, making people’s lives better through her actions, whether its feeding people with Meals on Wheels or working with special-needs teenagers at the Brevard Zoo.
Her work with Meals on Wheels is as much about making individual connections with people as it is about feeding them, especially since the coronavirus pandemic left so many feeling more isolated than ever.
“I find it very enriching because I do enjoy being with people from the community, especially older people. A lot of people live alone and they don’t have anyone who maybe comes around and talks to them all that often,” Rivera said.
“Volunteering at the Brevard Zoo and while there I work with students … who come and we mentor them. Teaching them and encouraging them to be more social with others, I can really make a difference in their lives,” Rivera said.
For “myself, it gives me a good feeling to connect with others and be able to bring a smile to someone’s face. I try to use different things to initiate a conversation. It seems like people do appreciate that. Connecting with other people is what life is all about,” Rivera said.
Building those connections and reaching people where they are is much of what gives life purpose and meaning for the retired elementary school teacher, who can’t imagine a life without service to others.
The winner will be announced at an invitation-only event in December. The 2019 Volunteer of the Year winner was Erin Baird. She teaches at Eastern Florida State College, leading young people in service to the community through the college’s Rotaract group. She also donates hundreds of hours of her time yearly in efforts ranging from being a Big Sister and Cocoa High’s Project Graduation to packing food, lagoon cleanup and encouraging a sustainable diet.
Tyler Vazquez is the North Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Vazquez at 321-917-7491 or email@example.com. Twitter: @tyler_vazquez
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