Levi Fallavollita didn’t know why his mother was making him wait, but the teen knew it had to be something special.
The Fallavollita family sat anxiously in their barren Arizona home in the fall of 2013. They were getting ready to move to England, where Levi’s father had gotten a new job. All of their things were packed. Their plane to a new life on a new continent would take off in just a few days — but first, mom wanted the family to wait for a last-minute package to arrive.
When he opened it, Levi found a letter addressed to him from George H. W. Bush honoring him as the 5,055th recipient of the former president’s Daily Point of Light — an award given to Americans for outstanding commitment to community service.
The 41st President of the United States had recognized Levi for his work to raise awareness about bullying by publishing his book, "The Good the Bad and the Bullies."
“He was really shocked,” recalled his mother Chantel Fallavollita. “He didn’t know how they got a hold of him or how he received it.”
The Points of Light honor was born from a famous line from Bush’s 1988 Republican National Convention speech. In 1990 the president started handing out the award, and resumed doing so again five years after he left office through his Points of Light foundation. The group has honored more than 6,000 people as Daily Points of Light. Though its founder passed away Friday, it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.
Levi Fallavollita, whose family now lives in Trinity, is just one of several locals to be recognized by Bush. Like his fellow recipients, he holds the former leader of the free world in the highest esteem.
“He admires that he was such a true statesman,” the mother said. “He wants to emulate him.” (Levi, now 18, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He plans to join the Air Force.)
Bob and Val McDarby and their then-teenage son Chris received the award on Dec. 5, 2003 — 15 years to the day before Bush’s funeral service — for their work with the Special Olympics.
Bob McDarby, of Valrico, said the recognition encouraged him to continue his volunteer work. In the years since receiving the award, he’s worked regularly at a local food pantry and helped tutor migrant kids in mathematics.
When he heard of the president’s passing, McDarby said he didn’t reflect on his family's award so much as Bush’s remarkable life.
“I just thought, ‘what a life he led.’ It was just a super life, all the things he did, all the experiences he had and the accomplishments he made,” he said.
The Points of Light initiative was not without its detractors. While Bush was in office, his administration was criticized for cutting back on government social programs while the president extolled the virtues of community service. And in 1995, a Los Angeles Times investigation found that the Points of Light foundation spent most of its money — including millions in federal dollars — on travel expenses, salaries and marketing.
But even two of the most liberal Democrats in the Tampa Bay area warmed to Bush because of the Points of Light program.
Susan and Terry Brimmer of Clearwater were awarded the 656th Daily Point of Light award on Jan. 1 1992 for their volunteer work with Straight Inc., a drug treatment organization for adolescents. Susan Brimmer said the group helped turn two family members' lives around.
But in another example of the complicated legacy of Points of Light, the treatment centers, founded by Republican donors and St. Petersburg couple Mel and Betty Sembler, were shut down in the mid-90s amid allegations of abuse and excessive force.
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After receiving the award, the Brimmers got to meet the president and First Lady Barbara Bush and toured Air Force One during a presidential visit to Tampa. Even though they are Democrats, Susan Brimmer said, the Bushes won them over nearly three decades ago.
“Our feelings for the Bushes cross party lines,” she said. “What a tremendous family.”
Contact Kirby Wilson at [email protected] or 727-893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweet.