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Volunteerism winners show us how to help

Steve Franks stepped toward the stage at A La Carte Pavilion with the aid of a cane and help from Dara Alexander, president of the ALS Association in Florida.

The emotion grew with each step, made slower by a debilitating neural disease. Franks' eyes began to well, and WRBQ-AM 104.7 radio host Mason Dixon was fighting back tears.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, impairs Franks' walking ability, but it couldn't stop him from winning a WEDU Be More Award Thursday. Dixon, known for his own philanthropic work, presented the Mason Dixon Be More Involved Volunteer of the Year Award to Franks.

Franks, a former golf course attendant from Pinellas Park, drew recognition for his work with the Piece By Piece awareness campaign.

Using limbless mannequins, the campaign illustrates how ALS steals loved ones piece by piece. Although he struggles to walk, Franks can drive and transported the mannequins to 20 different locations.

"I don't feel like I've done much more than anyone else could do," said Franks, who was diagnosed in 2003 and has surpassed the average life expectancy of five years. "I know a lot of people with ALS who can't walk, can't drive or who died, but they would do it if they could."

Franks' moving acceptance speech proved to be the biggest highlight in a series of heart-stirring moments at the fifth annual awards presentation. WEDU, the region's public broadcasting station, showcases some of the top nonprofit groups in its 16-county coverage area by saluting top performers in nine categories.

I serve as one of the judges, and the event brings to life the sterling efforts I've read about on paper. Each winner's work reminds us how charitable organizations make up the foundation of our community.

We stand on the efforts of groups such as the Spring of Tampa Bay, which received the Judges' Choice Award for a collaborative project with WFTS-Ch. 28 that included an Emmy-nominated special encouraging domestic violence victims to seek help.

Community Tampa Bay, a nonpartisan human relations organization, received the Be More Entertaining Award for outstanding achievement in special events. In a difficult economy, its 2009 luncheon netted 38 multiyear pledge members.

Other winners were the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties (People's Choice), Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County (education outreach, marketing) and Girls Inc. of Sarasota County (innovation, nonprofit of the year).

WEDU vice president of communications Laura Fage hopes to add more categories for next year while continuing to help Be More extend to other PBS markets.

Keynote speaker Ryan Nece, the former Buccaneer who launched a successful Power of Giving campaign in 2009, set the tone by challenging the audience to Be More Willing, Be More Hopeful and Be More Connected.

"Hope is what we need to fuel us," Nece said. "We need the hope in this room to permeate the whole community."

Calling upon the dictionary definition of be and more, Nece challenged each person to live or exist at a higher degree.

I'm certain if everyone owned that mantra, we could find the hope needed to bolster these wonderful nonprofit groups and the community.

That's all I'm saying.

Volunteerism winners show us how to help 01/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 10:01pm]
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