LARGO — Every December, Vernon Bryant helps fellow Friends of Ridgecrest board members with preparations for its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, including the Greater Ridgecrest Community Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast and the handing out of the coveted Community Servant Recognition Award.
However, this year, Wanda McCawthan, the president of the group, told him not to worry about it.
He was grateful. Bryant was knee-deep in other duties, including a new job he started last April as executive director for the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation. The foundation's major fundraiser, Holiday Lights in the Garden, was in full swing.
"I remember there was a point when Wanda said, 'Don't worry, I got this,' and I said, 'Okay, good.' I went on with my work and other projects. I took it off my radar," recalled Bryant, 61.
But it was a ploy by McCawthan.
On Jan. 15, inside Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church's Fellowship Hall, more than 150 community members of Ridgecrest, the historically African-American community in an unincorporated area west of Largo, were about to begin eating breakfast. Bryant's wife, Tish, who also serves as pastor of His House Worship Center in Seminole, stepped to the microphone. Her name was in the program to lead a prayer.
"But she announced it was me who was selected for the award. Yes, my wife and Wanda tricked me,'' Bryant said. "But, I'm honored.''
Bryant was a clear choice for the honor, according to McCawthan.
"He is everywhere,'' she said. "Everyone gravitates to him for help. I think especially of his attitude and commitment to helping youth, but whether it's with youth or older people in the community or families, he shows he is a man with integrity,'' she said. "And he does the work as a servant, like Martin Luther King talked about.''
Along with chairing countless community festivals and clean-up days and holiday galas, Bryant's resume also includes stints as director of the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA, horticulture manager for Pinellas County and leadership positions on the Dansville Neighborhood Development Corp., the Greater Ridgecrest Area Youth Development Initiative, the Pinellas Urban Young Life and Ridgecrest 360, an education action organization.
The first Community Servant Award was given out in 2007 to Tasker Beal, a renowned community activist who died in 2016. Beal's son, Steven, currently serves as vice president for the Friends of Ridgecrest, and he believes his father would approve of Bryant as the 2018 recipient.
"Vernon is a friend and he also worked with my father, and yes, I think my dad would like this,'' he said. "He works hard, and, like my father, he works well with both people and groups to make the community better.''
So how did that fundraiser do? The one Bryant was focused on while others plotted behind his back?
Four days after receiving the Friends of Ridgecrest honor, Bryant attended a Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation board meeting where members celebrated news that the 2017 Holiday Lights in the Gardens garnered $200,000 in profit, with upwards of 97,000 people visiting between Nov. 24 and Dec. 31.
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"The two places are different but the work I do in both is similar," Bryant said. "It is all about volunteers and about people who are passionate about something and getting people out and involved."
Contact Piper Castillo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Florida_PBJC.