Hooper: Girl Scouts Woman of Distinction finds destiny in helping others

Author and activist Katherine Schwarzenegger, center, spends time with honorees at Tuesday's Girl Scouts Women Of Distinction Luncheon. From left are Karen Mertes, Renee Vaughn, Schwarzenegger, Evelyn Follit and Lenore Costello. Girl Scouts of West Central Florida
Author and activist Katherine Schwarzenegger, center, spends time with honorees at Tuesday's Girl Scouts Women Of Distinction Luncheon. From left are Karen Mertes, Renee Vaughn, Schwarzenegger, Evelyn Follit and Lenore Costello.Girl Scouts of West Central Florida

When you run a nonprofit called Fulfilling Your Destiny, you need to fulfill your own.

Karen Mertes emphatically says she's living up to the promise of the moniker — and not just because of achievements like being named a Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida on Tuesday.

Mertes points to her website — fulfillyourdestiny.org — which details the triumphant and courageous stories of people she has helped.

For example, she worked with two young girls who organized a fundraising golf tournament after they were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. With that sort of aid, Mertes says, she's fulfilling a promise as a result of a horrible auto accident seven years ago.

Then a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Mertes was driving on Interstate 75 near Brandon when a drunken driver — police would measure his blood alcohol at 0.221 — going approximately 100 mph hit her from behind.

"He broke my axle, shoved it in my transmission, so I didn't have any steering or brakes," Mertes calmly said. "I slid the equivalent of three football field lengths before ever coming to a stop. It was during that time that I made a promise if I was fortunate enough to live, I would spend the rest of my life helping other people."

A lot of people make promises in the face of life-threatening situations, but Mertes said she never hesitated in living up to her end of the bargain, even as she endured emotional and physical challenges after the accident. She suffered a concussion that doctors eventually diagnosed as a traumatic brain injury.

Mertes, who holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and two master's degrees in business administration and cost estimating and analysis, realized the severity of her injuries when she returned to work for the Air Force but could no longer perform the high-level mathematics required. She knew then she had to rebuild her future around her new limits while striving to recover from the injury.

The former two-time squadron commander and chief financial officer retired from the service without anger.

"My personal motto is, I choose to be better, not bitter," Mertes said. "When you do that, you can triumph through tragedy and command your destiny when you inspire yourself and others to live the life you've always envisioned."

Mertes, 48, doesn't take a salary, covers administrative costs of the nonprofit and matches 10 percent of every donation she receives up to $10,000. Fulfilling Your Destiny seeks to help people altered by injury or other unforeseen circumstances, and special consideration is given to survivors with traumatic brain injuries. Not wanting to replicate other efforts, Mertes looks to leverage the work of other nonprofits, often lending financial help to people in need.

The work often leaves her in awe. A hairdresser recovering from a stroke needed additional speech therapy. Mertes wrote a check and says if you met that woman today, you wouldn't know she had a stroke.

There is a remarkable clarity and regimented approach to Mertes' work. Her philosophies are neatly captured in acronyms such as HERO, Hands Eagerly Reach Out.

"You can take me out of the Air Force by having me retire, but you can never take the Air Force out of me," Mertes says.

Businesswoman Renee Vaughn, corporate technology leader Evelyn Follit and Lenore "Gundy" Costello joined Mertes as honorees at the packed luncheon in the A La Carte Event Pavilion.

For Vaughn, president of Williams Consulting Group, it's the second big honor after receiving the prestigious Parke Wright Award from Leadership Tampa Alumni in January. She was recognized for her business success as well as her volunteer work, including for the American Red Cross.

Vaughn proudly spoke of growing up as a Girl Scout.

Follit is a sought-out speaker on succeeding as a businesswoman, having worked for RadioShack Corp., ACNielsen, Dun & Bradstreet, ITT Corp. and IBM. She has served on multiple boards, including Beall's, Linens-n-Things, Winn-Dixie, Catalina Marketing Corp. and TECO Energy.

Costello, 98 and spry, received the biggest applause as a special honoree for her longtime volunteer work with the Girl Scouts. She was instrumental in helping the council create Camp Wildwood in the 1960s.

This annual event is deigned to bring inspiration to women in particular, but everyone can draw from these sterling examples.

That's all I'm saying.