President’s Community Volunteer Award Winners; Chet Cooper, Ernst Katz, Amye L. Leon and more

As the world faces uncertainty in turbulent times, volunteerism has emerged as a tool to fight the fragmentation growing within communities, unite citizens and to make that world a better place. Together, the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service are working to make volunteerism a priority for every American.

The Points of Light Foundation is the United States’ premier proponent of volunteerism. Founded in 1990 by former President George H.W. Bush, the Washington, D.C.-based foundation works with citizens from all over the country to find creative solutions to community problems. To promote volunteerism, the foundation sponsors various events and recognizes outstanding volunteers who have dedicated themselves to service. Such programs include National Volunteer Week, the Daily Points of Light Awards, the Awards for Excellence in Corporate Community Service and the President’s Community Volunteer Awards.

Points of Light also sponsors the Unity in the Spirit of America initiative, which was designed to honor, through volunteerism, victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Inspired by the droves of people who donated blood, cooked meals for firemen and con tributed money to victims’ families after the attacks, the initiative calls on Americans to organize service projects designed to honor those lost in the attacks. To complete this mission, the Foundation is working closely with Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Walt Disney Company.

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The Corporation for National and Community Service, working with a myriad of educational institutions, religious and nonprofit groups, provides volunteer opportunities for more than two million Americans through several programs. Strengthening ties among citizens, fostering civic responsibility and providing education opportunities are only a few of the Corporation’s missions. To achieve these goals and provide volunteer opportunities. the Corporation has several national and community service programs: Learn and Serve America, Senior Corps and AmeriCorps.

Learn and Serve America acts as a community service resource for community members and educators. The program allocates grants to educational entities that pro mote service learning, which cultivates academic and community skills, develops civic responsibility and emphasizes the importance of community service Learn And Serve America also provides scholarships and recognition to young Americans who perform exemplary community service.

Emphasizing the need for Americans of all ages to serve their communities, Senior Corps involves citizens age 55 to older Senior Corps members donate time, skills and experience to their communities through three pro grams RSVP. Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions. RSVP volunteers work with police departments, participate in environmental projects, teach children and adults, participate in safety patrols and respond to natural disasters. In an effort to serve all age groups, Foster Grandparents act as tutors and mentors to children in need of special attention and Senior Companions work to help senior citizens with disabilities maintain independence.

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Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and Boys and Girls Clubs of America are only a few of the organizations AmeriCorps members serve. Following one year of 20 to 40 hours a week of service, AmeriCorps members receive an education award that can be used to pay student loans or tuition AmeriCorps also works to increase the efficacy of nonprofits, and does so through two programs: AmeriCorps VISTA, which provides for people living in poverty, and AmeriCorps*NCCC which helps nonprofit groups with tasks such as disaster relief. environmental preservation and building homes for low-income families.

Cosponsored by the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the President’s Community Volunteer Award is the most prestigious recognition given for volunteer service.

Recipients are significantly improving the lives of people across the nation as a result of their selfless service to their community-and to humanity, Originally created as the President’s Volunteer Action Awards in 1982. the award honors outstanding individuals and organizations engaged in volunteer service directed toward solving critical social problems. These awards have further called public attention to the contributions made by the nation’s 93 million volunteers,

The following winners of the President’s Community Volunteer Award share a common commitment to solving critical problems that face all communities. It is our hope that the stories of these truly amazing award winners will not only impress you, but inspire you to find your own vision and set out to make a difference in your backyard, community and the world.

Chet Cooper

Orange County, California

In 1995, Mr. Cooper founded ABILITY Awareness, a nonprofit organization established to enhance the lives of people with disabilities through education, housing, employment and volunteer opportunities. The cornerstone of ABILITY Awareness is the ABILITY House, which partners with Habitat for Humanity International to build accessible housing for low-income individuals with disabilities. Mr. Cooper specifically targets the volunteer outreach to people with disabilities during all phases of planning and construction. The Lion’s Club of America has pledged a multi-million dollar grant to Habitat for Humanity International to build accessible homes. The Lion’s Club credits ABILITY House as the inspiration and prototype for the club’s involvement.

“One of the most rewarding experiences during the holiday season is not in the receiving of gifts, but in the giving,” says Mr. Cooper. “That same feeling can be achieved year-round when you give the gift of yourself through volunteerism.”

“One of our most important responsibilities as citizens is our duty to give something to our communities and to make them better places for everyone to live. This award recognizes people and organizations that answer the call to serve by dedicating their time and talents to helping those in need,” said President George W. Bush.

Through ABILITY Awareness, Mr. Cooper has implemented other programs that directly impact the lives of people with disabilities. One such program is abilityJOBS, which is a partnership between ABILITY Magazine designed to expedite the process of linking employers and job seekers with disabilities. Additionally, Mr. Cooper founded the ABILITY Magazine ThinkQuest Award, which encourages high school student teams to include their peers with disabilities in an effort to win scholarship money. Now students who may have hesitated to include those with disabilities seek out such peers. The award is distributed in conjunction with ABILITY Awareness via the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge.

All positions within ABILITY Awareness are voluntary, including Mr. Cooper’s position as president and founder. He receives no stipend or salary from the organization.

Dr. Ernst Katz

Beverly Hills, California

Throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st, Dr. Ernst Katz has worked to instill young people with discipline, confidence and the ability to express themselves, using classical music as his vehicle. Dr. Katz founded his Southern California-based youth symphony in 1937 during the Great Depression. “People had no hope back then,” says Dr. Katz. “I was the only one that believed this orchestra would last more than a month. but I said it would and I made a commitment a commitment to give youth a chance to be heard.”

Through earthquakes and floods, riots and wars, Dr. Katz has never missed a rehearsal or performance. More than six and one-half decades later, his orchestra’s motto remains, “Give Youth a Chance To Be Heard,” and Dr. Katz continues to keep his promise, touching the lives of thousands of young people from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds in the process. He takes a personal interest in each member of the symphony, some of whom travel 100 or more miles to attend weekly practice sessions. The youth symphony provides an opportunity for them to focus their energies on the positive-away from drugs, gangs and violence. He teaches young people the importance of giving. Proceeds from performances of his Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) go to charitable causes.

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Dr. Katz has provided musical training to three generations without any charge to them and at no cost to tax payers. He never solicits contributions, nor has he received any financial payment for his more than 65 years of dedication to youth and music. He supports his young musicians in every way, providing music, instruments and even concert apparel for those in need.

Dr. Ernst Katz demonstrates the tremendous impact one individual can have. He has helped shape the lives of the more than 60.000 young musicians who have participated in annual auditions, the more than 10.000 members of the JPO and the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have comprised their audiences.

Amye L. Leong

Bakersfield, California

Amye Leong was 18 years old when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. After living two years in a wheelchair, enduring 16 joint replacement and reconstructive surgeries in all major joints in her body and years of physical rehabilitation, she began using her experience to help others with similar diseases. Despite her ongoing arthritis challenges, she has helped thousands of young people and their families affected by rheumatic diseases. She is founder and president of Young At Heart, the first and largest young adult arthritis support group network in the United States.

Leong united 10 other rheumatic disease organizations into a coalition to advocate for the more than four million Californians with rheumatic diseases. She chaired the national Patient Rheumatoid Advisory Council, a project of the Arthritis Foundation and created “Arthritis in Prime Time,” an annual education symposium for young people, their families and health professionals. As Chairwoman of the American Juvenile Arthritis Organization, she spearheaded a national advocacy campaign that resulted in a U.S. Congressional proclamation of Juvenile Arthritis Awareness Week and paved the way for inclusion of juvenile arthritis legislation in the Children’s Health Act of 2000.

She was appointed advisor to the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and served as Chairwoman of the U.S. Surgeon General’s National Council on Self-Help and Public Health. As a volunteer for the Arthritis Foundation and the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals, she is a leader in governmental affairs activities on behalf of people with rheumatic diseases and their families.

Since 2000, as spokesperson for the United Nations endorsed “Bone and Joint Decade,” Leong has traveled the world inspiring 750 healthcare professional and patient advocacy organizations in 51 countries to improve the quality of life for people with severe must culoskeletal disorders around the world.

Les Reflections da Bayou

Cut Off, Louisiana

In 1987, a small group of women decided the longest of Louisiana’s bayous-Bayou Lafourche-had become too polluted and they were going to change it. They began washing, painting, naming, cleaning and landscaping the picturesque pontoon bridges that cross the bayou. A stretch of Louisiana Highway 308 was adopted and a maintenance program began.

For the past 14 years, the nonprofit Les Reflections du Bayou (LRDB) has become the leading litter fighter in southern Lafourche Parish. LRDB has constructed welcome areas with plants and signs, established the first roadside parks in the parish, placed bright blue litter barrels and anti-litter billboards along the bayou, plant ed trees and grasses to prevent erosion, torn down burnt and abandoned buildings, coordinated thousands of bours of community service workers to clean the road sides, fostered tourism and economic development by beautifying the community and worked to mitigate alcohol and drug abuse by involving youth in bettering their community.

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In the fall of 1999, LRDP started “AmeriCorps on the Bayou,” which trains and oversees 11 full-time AmeriCorps members who fight litter and erosion. The Board of LRDB felt that unless the anti-litter message got into schools and reached young children about recycling and the value of the wetlands, little progress could be made in cleaning roadsides and preventing erosion in the marshes that provide the area’s livelihood.

In 2000, AmeriCorps on the Bayou constructed 1,000 feet of sand fencing on the barrier island of Grand Isle: made over 200 school presentations about litter, recycling and the wetlands, transplanted more than 20.000 marsh grasses along barrier islands and the coast, per formed the National Marine Debris survey on Fourchon beach, landscaped and maintained more than 20 picnic and welcome areas, designed and built and Enviro-Park in the town of Golden Meadow, and built six anti-litter billboards along the scenic Grand Bios Road.

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William Chandler Vatavuk

Durham, North Carolina

William Chandler Vatavuk is a 20-year-old volunteer who in 10 years has contributed thousands of hours to 21 agencies, boards and committees to help hundreds of disadvantaged youth.

Vatavuk saw students at his school having trouble reading and decided to help. For nine years he has mentored and tutored hundreds of youth including 30 at-risk children, many of whom live in poverty and have one or both parents in jail, and children with autism. He organized, taught and sponsored environment, wildlife and science camps and a writing class. He volunteered at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and the Bennett Place State Historic Site, working with 940 disadvantaged youths.

When Vatavuk’s friend from 4-H. who has cancer, was badly abused at school, he wrote his school superintendent, Gov. Hunt and President Clinton, which lead to the establishment of alternative schools to separate violent students. Many dropouts returned to school and school violence decreased. For four years he has volunteered as a Durham Teen Court attorney, mentor and advisor.

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Vatavuk also noticed classmates dropping out of school, he helped finalize the school’s strategic dropout plan. He has spoken to 7.500 people at regional, state and nation al conferences on drug prevention, school violence and dropouts. His baked-goods sales at a local farmers’ market have provided nine scholarships for needy 4-Hers through a fund he established in memory of his grandparents. He has donated $3.500 of his award money to programs for needy youths.

While organizing a relief effort to collect vitamins. clothing, school supplies and toys for children in Kosovo, he persuaded the Bayer Corporation to airlift $350,000 worth of vitamins and medications to Kosovo.

Vatavuk’s motto is, “Give to the world your very best and the best will come back to you.”

by Andrea Sudano

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