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Sunday Magazine

Ohioans of the Year

12/29/02


Liz Schulte, President, Northern Ohio Breast Cancer Coalition

John Gallo, Regional coordinator, Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs

Belle Likover, Political activist, voice of Ohio seniors

The Women of ACES, The Association for Children for Enforcement of Support

Mike Cheung, Ohio Team Leader, AirLifeLine

Paul Dumouchelle, President, Progress With Economic & Environmental Responsibility

Dannie Devol, Founder, Smith Chapel Food Pantry

Dave Vasarhelyi, Founder, West Creek Preservation Committee

Marilyn Wall, Adviser, United Neighbors Against Dirty Air

Enron and Worldcom managed to do what al-Qaida couldn't - blunt the spirit of charity in America. The glow of good will that made 2001 a record-setting year for philanthropic giving faded in 2002, dimmed by the stumbling U.S. economy. Those big-business scandals rocked the stock market, adding insult to the post-9/11 economic slump. Threat of war with Iraq spooked investors, too. Corporate profits dipped along with the Dow, triggering hiring freezes and layoffs. Meticulously planned personal stock portfolios suddenly looked as capricious and irresponsible as a drunken weekend at the blackjack tables in Vegas.

Time-clock punchers, CEOs and well-heeled philanthropists all felt the pinch and were less likely to open checkbooks and scrawl the name of a favorite cause on the "Pay to the Order of" line.

State legislators pulled their collective belts so tight it was hard for some of Ohio's most fragile citizens to breathe. Lawmakers slashed $45 million from Ohio's human services departments, the agencies charged with helping the state's poor, elderly, disabled and mentally ill.

Charitable organizations weren't able to plug the holes left by government cuts because their bottom lines were hurting, too. Grants from foundations and corporate contributions shrunk.

Although the big fund drives for 2002 aren't over yet, those in the helping business - from the heads of giant charities to lone advocates running store-front nonprofits - say they'll be lucky to pull in as much as they did last year.

Cleveland Foundation President Steve Minter believes that when the donations, grants and gifts from all sources are tallied, Cleveland will have lost $20 million in philanthropic dollars this year.

The Cleveland Orchestra, as popular and venerable an arts institution as there is in the city, is operating with a deficit for the first time in almost a decade. In the hole for $1.3 million because of the flagging U.S. economy and anemic corporate contributions, the orchestra has suspended national radio broadcasts, canceled a televised performance and is delaying repairs and maintenance to Severance Hall.

The Gund Foundation, the largest private foundation in Ohio, decreased its grantmaking by 10 percent, or about $1 million. Budding groups and new initiatives are the hardest hit, says Executive Director David Bergholz. Grantmakers, left with fewer dollars to spread around, continue to fund causes they are already supporting, often bypassing promising projects struggling to get off the ground.

Money from the private sector is important and influential, says Bergholz, but it can't make up for the huge loss of public dollars. Those thousand points of light President George Bush spoke about in 1989 - as part of his initiative to reduce government spending on social programs and plug the service gaps with good works by ordinary citizens - can hardly be the only source of illumination.

Donors, rich or poor or middle class, gave when it hurt the most this year. Those of modest means slipped their $25 and $50 checks into envelopes bound for Amnesty International and the American Lung Association and Habitat for Humanity.

Some wealthy benefactors, such as Pat Robinson and her husband, Thom, closed their eyes to the roller-coaster market this year and gave The Ohio State University Library $5 million. They also persuaded the Paul G. Duke Foundation to chip in another $2 million to help pay for a "much overdue" renovation project. Duke is Pat's late father, who along with her brother founded a little yard-care company named ChemLawn.

The Robinsons aren't OSU alumni and they don't even live in Columbus, choosing instead to reside in Troy, Ohio, where the fertilizer empire was born. Why bestow such an offering on an out-of-town collection of books? They couldn't pass up an opportunity to honor her dad, an avid reader with business ties to the capital city. Because of the donation, his name will appear on the library's atrium.

Another couple, Lois and Richard Rosenthal, Cincinnati natives and longtime patrons of the arts, wanted admission to that city's art museum to be free to everyone, forever. So they gave the institution a $2.15 million gift this fall, one of the largest contributions in its 121-year history.

Zahra Hakki doesn't have a foundation in her name - she doesn't even have a driver's license. But that didn't stop the 6-year-old from Parma from starting her own "Quarters for the Hungry" campaign after visiting the Cleveland Foodbank with her dad and learning that 25 cents could buy someone a meal.

She collected coins from family friends and relatives and canvassed her neighborhood, her school and her father's architecture firm. Her orginal goal was to raise $100, but she surpassed that in the first week. This month, Zahra presented the Foodbank - the organization that stocks hunger centers throughout Northeast Ohio - with 1,095 quarters in a giant pretzel stick jar.

Her donation will help feed one person three meals a day for an entire year.

The seemingly endless recession couldn't extinguish the small acts of kindness that went on all year, unheralded, largely unseen.

Some donors were shy, such as the anonymous Samaritan who offered a motorized hospital bed to the United Way of Greater Cleveland. After news of its availability was posted on the group's Web site (www.uws.org), the bed found its way to Camp Cheerful, a place for kids with autism, epilepsy, other seizure disorders and kidney disease.

Others were bolder. Thanksgiving Day, around 9 or 10 in the morning, Tom Mullen, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, visited the women's shelter the group ran in a converted garage on East 18th Street.

He was surprised to see four vans there, idling. In the front seats were seven or eight people Mullen knew, regular donors to Catholic Charities who had decided to volunteer their wheels and lay out their own cash to buy the nearly 100 women and a handful of children a meal outside the dreary shelter.

The contribution Mullen saw that day - quiet, unsolicited, selfless - can't be contained in any balance book. It won't appear in end-of-the-year financial reports. But it's the sort of gift "that keeps me going," Mullen says.

Most of us recognize the virtue of passing along not just part of our paychecks but our energy, our essence.

When asked in August if they believe it's important to volunteer, 97 percent of Americans surveyed by the United Way of America answered a loud, chest-thumping "Yes." But when asked the obvious follow-up question - "Did you volunteer in the last year?"- only 34 percent could claim they rose from the couch and donated what so many say they have so little of: Time.

Hectic work schedules, the demands of parenting, the need to just go home and crash, conspire to keep even the most stalwart do-gooders from giving more than an average of 3.5 hours a week at the local soup kitchen or after-school tutoring program.

Yet across the state, there are volunteers whose efforts defy the average, people who've long stopped counting the hours and the days and the weeks they spend laboring for a cause.

They are time philanthropists, men and women who give tirelessly of themselves for nothing in return: They draw no salary, accrue no vacation, earn no stock shares.

They stuff envelopes late into the night and stay awake by drinking bad coffee. They stand on street corners in December, pens extended in mittened hands. "Are you a registered voter?" they ask in voices muffled by scarves.

We salute all those who made the world a better place this year. And, here, we honor a handful who stood out from the rest.

The work of these individuals made a difference in the lives of Ohioans statewide or rippled through an entire region. Their contributions extend beyond the boundaries of a single neighborhood or a city's corporation limit.

If you happen to be an ally, or a beneficiary of their prodigious industry, they are heroes, saviors, saints. Count yourself among their opposition, and they are single-minded, obsessed, a little nuts.

We call them our Plain Dealer Ohioans of the Year, unsung volunteers who have made significant contributions to the state and its citizens in 2002.

- Andrea Simakis

Liz Schulte

A survivor herself, she won millions to treat uninsured women with breast and cervical cancer.

Zonked out on pain medication and laid up on her couch in Brecksville, Liz Schulte picked up her ringing phone. The 48-year-old stay-at-home mom, who had battled breast cancer a few years earlier, was recuperating from reconstructive surgery.

"Liz, you have to come to Columbus and testify," said the voice on the other end of the line. It was a legislative aide to Senator Eric Fingerhut. Ohio was about to pass up millions in federal Medicaid dollars for the treatment of uninsured women with breast and cervical cancer.

Before her operation, Schulte had enlisted Fingerhut and fellow Cleveland-area Congressman Sherrod Brown in her fight to persuade legislators that they had to spend money to make money.

If Ohio agreed to invest $1.6 million, the federal government would chip in another $4.3 million to treat women who learned they had cancer through a state-run screening program.

The state had diagnosed hundreds of cases of breast and cervical cancer since the Ohio Department of Health began offering free testing - funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control - in 1994. Uninsured women suffered a double whammy: They learned they had cancer but had no means to do anything about it.

That's exactly what happened to Gail Berman, a single mother living outside of Akron and working full time as a wedding cake maker. Her $21,000-a-year job paid the rent but offered no benefits. She learned she had breast cancer after getting a free mammogram in 1997, but racked up nearly $40,000 in debt paying for her medical care. Berman, who often gave doctors and nurses cookies and other home-baked goodies to thank them for treating her, was forced into bankruptcy.

The 70/30 split would save lives and money, Schulte argued. But Governor Bob Taft said the state couldn't afford it.

The professional volunteer, as Schulte's husband calls her, picked herself up off the sofa. Her convalescence was over.

Not only did she offer testimony of her own struggle with the disease that strikes more than 8,500 Ohio women each year, but she helped marshal the considerable ire of just plain folks throughout the state, rousing them to write stinging letters and e-mails urging lawmakers to tighten their budgetary belts and pony up Ohio's share of the treatment dollars.

She prodded media across the state too, prompting the press to produce a series of scolding editorials and columns highlighting the fact that Ohio seemed able to pay for lots of things - such as a $3.2 million bicentennial birthday bash - but couldn't scrape together the cash to help pay for women's cancer therapies.

Schulte and other members of the coalition launched a barnstorming raid on the Statehouse, tracking down reluctant lawmakers in their offices, chatting up Finance Committee members as they walked the marble halls.

Convincing everyone wasn't easy.

"Breast cancer is a disease of the week," scoffed one woman, an Ohio Department of Job & Family Services official. "And legislators don't want to fund a disease of the week."

But politicians buckled under the pressure, and in July 2002, Ohio became the 41st state in the country to take advantage of the federal money. Since then, 115 women who would have gone into debt or received no medical attention have enrolled in the program and are receiving the doctoring and follow-up care they need.

"She, more than any single individual in Ohio, is responsible for saving the lives of women who are now getting treatment for cancer," says Brown.

РAndrea Simakis

John Gallo

His bipartisan campaign for affordable prescription drugs is a necessary first step.

John Gallo, jazz musician and retired hospital worker, sits behind a cluttered desk wedged in the corner of a tiny office decorated with cardboard boxes. He hands fellow retiree Lou Owens a couple of photocopied pages from the Cleveland telephone directory.

"These are the bingo halls and the Catholic churches," Gallo says. "I want you to call them and ask when they have bingo. Then we're going to have volunteers go to the bingo games with petitions and get some signatures."

It's a perfect plan, the kind of strategic strike that has made Gallo, 65, the point man for a bipartisan, statewide coalition fighting to pass a state law that requires pharmaceutical companies to lower prescription drug prices 40 percent to 60 percent for all Ohioans.

Since January 2000, Gallo has volunteered 35 hours a week to help build and mobilize the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs into a populist movement endorsed by cities across the state, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, as well as by the Ohio United Way, the Ohio AARP and the Ohio Council of Churches.

"There are no increased taxes and it covers everybody who needs it," Gallo says. "People are all for it."

It's the pharmaceutical companies and their well-heeled lobbyists that are the problem. "They don't want it," Gallo says.

So far the pharmaceuticals have been successful. They stymied State Representative Dale Miller of Cleveland, who introduced a bill in June 2001 to lower prescription drug prices.

"It's been languishing in the legislature for a year and a half," Miller complains.

The coalition decided to end-run the opposition, go directly to the voters and obtain enough signatures to force the legislature into passing The Ohio Prescription Drug Fair Pricing Act, which is very similar to the comatose Miller bill.

"How important are the signatures?" Miller asks rhetorically. "Real important. The Republican-dominated legislature doesn't want to hear this issue. If we get the signatures, then the legislature is mandated by the Constitution to hear the bill. It's the only way we're going to get the legislature to seriously consider this issue.

"How important are the signatures? They're absolutely essential."

The coalition presented more than 130,000 signatures in support of its legislative initiative to the state attorney general on December 26th.

Once the legislature has been confronted with all those voter signatures, it has four months to "pass, modify, or ignore our bill," Gallo says.

He is pragmatic. "The odds are against the legislature passing it," Gallo says. "We are prepared for the worst."

If the legislature lives up to his low expectations, Gallo says the coalition will collect another 100,000 signatures, put the prescription drug discount on the November 2003 ballot as an initiative, and let the voters decide.

"We'll win by a large percentage," Gallo predicts.

That might not end the fight. Maine passed similar legislation in May 2000, but the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the lobbying group that represents drug companies, has aggressively appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Maine case is scheduled to be heard by the high court on January 22.

Hawaii also passed a discount prescription drug bill last spring.

"It is scheduled to take effect next summer," says Bernie Horn, policy director at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. "Hawaii delayed implementation in case they had to make changes in the legislation as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Whatever way the Supreme Court rules, though, we believe Ohio will be able to proceed." РChristopher Evans

Belle Likover

The 83-year-old dynamo helped save home health care for low-income seniors.

On a rare day when Belle Likover isn't testifying at a government hearing about senior issues, attending a meeting of one of the four boards of directors she serves on, or revving up seniors for one of her many causes, she's doing water aerobics at a local pool.

In October, Likover was at the Cleveland Foundation's "Successful Aging" conference the day she turned 83. A chorus of almost 200 seniors' advocates, geriatric experts and county bureaucrats sang her Happy Birthday.

Likover, who is often one of the oldest people at her many meetings, thanked them and launched into a committee report.

She doesn't have much time for sentimentality, she says. She doesn't have much time, period. "I'm impatient but I'm also a realist about what's possible and what isn't."

This year, Governor Bob Taft appointed her to his advisory committee on aging, so she makes regular trips to Columbus, usually riding the bus to get there.

"She brings to us not only her personal experience as an advocate for aging issues, but she also brings the voice of the thousands of Ohio seniors whose lives she has touched," says Roland Hornbostel, Ohio's deputy director at the Department of Aging.

Likover heads the Council of Older Persons, guiding representatives of 43 Cuyahoga organizations to improve senior programs. She also serves on government and nonprofit committees and boards that are, for example, working on ways to address the shortage of caretakers for the elderly and reduce the costs of caring for low-income seniors receiving Medicaid and Medicare.

She also is a past president appointed by the Cuyahoga County commissioners and a lifetime trustee of the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, which oversees senior services in five Northeast Ohio counties. This past year, she starred in a video made by the agency that encourages seniors to become their own health advocates and not to be intimidated by their doctors.

"Because doctors have so little time to spend with patients, patients need to take more responsibility," says Likover.

The video was distributed this year to 600 federally funded agencies on aging across the nation. Likover has received letters from people all over the country who appreciated the extra push to speak up.

Likover also has appeared on TV news programs talking about everything from health insurance coverage to national politics several times this year and regularly updates elected officials "so they can understand the complexity of senior issues," she says.

That left just three free days in October for water aerobics.

"There's no one else who comes close to Belle's contributions," says Ron Hill, executive director of the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging.

Her meeting with State Representative Jim Trakas, the Cuyahoga County Republican Party chairman, in August left a lasting impression.

"Her passion shows through," he says of her persuasive talents arguing against cutting Passport, the state's home health care program for low-income seniors.

Her efforts, along with pressure from other seniors advocates, persuaded the General Assembly to restore $7.8 million to Passport, says Hornbostel, who has known Likover for about 20 years.

It was one of only a handful of items that lawmakers did not cut this year, he says.

"This was huge," he says. "Her voice is an important one."

Trakas concurs.

"She doesn't give examples - she is the example," he says. "It's not a theoretical textbook kind of thing. She is the real deal." - Susan Jaffe

The Women of Aces

These moms won the refund of millions of child-support dollars.

At first, there was just the one case. A mother from a Northeast Ohio town noticed her child-support checks were less than they should have been. Soon, another woman from a different part of the state complained of the same thing - her child-support payments were too small. A third emerged from yet another jurisdiction. Then a fourth.

Although the women were from all over Ohio, they had one thing in common - each mother had collected welfare at one time or another.

Were the underpayments a one-time glitch in the state's perpetually troubled $300 million computer system, or evidence of a more widespread problem?

Scrappy volunteers with the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES), a national advocacy group founded by Toledo mom and activist Geraldine Jensen, pledged to find out.

ACES has chapters in about 20 Ohio counties, each headed up by a volunteer. They are soccer moms, stay-at-home moms, working moms. Some are single, others married. Most were drawn to ACES because of their own lengthy battles to collect support. As of this year, Ohio children were owed more than $4 billion in unpaid child support.

Keeping in touch by phone, e-mail and an ancient listserve, chapter leaders from Cuyahoga to Hamilton County launched an investigation.

They spent countless hours helping parents pry records from government databases, and pored over years of reports in the cramped kitchens and living rooms of mothers desperate for some good news. The documents were filled with lengthy codes, arcane abbreviations and column upon column of numbers.

The job was like deciphering an especially difficult foreign language, with the women of ACES acting as translators for stressed-out families confused by the convoluted, bureaucratic lexicon of the child-support and welfare systems.

Their research uncovered a startling pattern: The government was systematically taking money that rightfully belonged to thousands of mothers who had been on welfare.

Child-support officials were, in effect, charging women for having been on public assistance, snagging portions of child-support payments and state income tax refunds to reimburse the state for benefits it paid out to poor mothers.

The rationale behind the policy was simple: The state had been supporting moms and kids because dads weren't contributing their fair share. Once fathers started making court-ordered child-support payments, the state was owed a portion of those payments.

The practice had been legal for years. But in 1996, the federal government passed welfare reform legislation ordering states to stop gobbling up so much support money and instead, pass more of it along to families. The law set up deadlines for when those reductions were supposed to happen. But Ohio child- support officials ignored them and the state continued taking as much as it always had.

Some of the cases were hard to take. "I found myself crying over their documents on too many occasions," says Carrie Davis, leader of the Hamilton County ACES chapter in Southwest Ohio. Davis especially remembers the woman trying to raise her disabled son, and about to be evicted from her home. By Davis' calculations, Ohio had taken $5,000 from the woman's support payments over the years.

ACES volunteers took the evidence they'd painstakingly gathered and filed a lawsuit against the state in February 2001, demanding it issue refunds to as many as 160,000 families. They never had a chance to go to court. Six months later, Governor Bob Taft issued an executive order to refund an estimated $44.6 million to Ohio mothers and their kids.

But it wasn't until 2002 that the work of the ACES volunteers really started to pay off for thousands of women across the state. In April of this year, 15 months after admitting they had improperly withheld millions of dollars in child support from parents on welfare, state officials began mailing out refund checks. Since then, about $12.4 million has been returned to 55,000 Ohio families. Although the average check is for about $220, some households have received thousands. - Andrea Simakis

Mike Cheung

Cheung and the pilots of AirLifeLine provide speedy access to specialized medical care.

Mike Cheung has made the greatest sacrifice a pilot can make for a good cause.

"I'm flying a desk," Cheung says.

Last March, the 45-year-old University of Akron chemical engineering professor was "conned," as he jokingly puts it, into becoming AirLifeLine Team Leader for Ohio.

AirLifeLine is the oldest and largest national volunteer pilot organization in the United States, flying sick patients and family members free of charge to hospitals across Ohio and the country.

"We improve the quality of our passengers' lives by providing access to specialized medical care they might otherwise not be able to reach," says Ginger Buxa, director of outreach at AirLifeLine's national headquarters in Minneapolis. "We remove the obstacle of distance."

AirLifeLine relies on the services of 1,500 volunteer pilots nationwide. In 2002, those pilots transported nearly 9,500 patients and passengers free of charge to 450 destinations across the country.

"Based on the cost of an average commercial flight, we estimated our pilots saved passengers $4 million collectively this year," Buxa says.

AirLifeLine coordinated more than 650 flights in and out of Ohio this past year, making Ohio the third-busiest state in the country, after California and Washington, for AirLifeLine missions.

"They're a great bunch of guys and girls," says Gary Gozdowski, whose wife, Nellie, and nine-year-old daughter, Lindsey, have flown with AirLifeLine nearly 30 times over the last four years. Lindsey suffers from a genetic disorder and receives medical treatment at the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction in New York City. "We couldn't have done the surgeries without AirLifeLine. The airfare would have been astronomical. There's just no way we could have afforded it."

The Gozdowskis, who live in Sylvania, a suburb of Toledo, have flown with Cheung several times. "Mike has gone out of his way to help Nellie and Lindsey," Gozdowski says. "He gave them his home phone number and told them if they ever got in a jam to give him a call."

Cheung, one of 61 volunteer pilots in Ohio, flew 15 missions in 2002 out of Akron Municipal Airport, traveling 10,362 miles in his high-speed single-engine Mooney 231 - "It's my midlife crisis plane," Cheung says. He picked up patients as far away as Tennessee and flew them home, or to a hospital in Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois, New York or Massachusetts.

"My average cost per mission is about $150 for gas and landing fees," says Cheung, who writes that cost off as a donation to AirLifeLine on his taxes. "I have a fairly thrifty aircraft. Other pilots are spending two or three times that depending on their plane."

It's not only a cost-effective good deed, it also gives purpose to an otherwise self-indulgent pleasure. "I wanted to do something more useful with my flying than just boring holes in the sky," explains Cheung, who is AirLifeLine's most active, veteran pilot in Ohio.

That is one of the reasons, he was chosen Ohio Team Leader this year.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Buxa, AirLifeLine's outreach director at national headquarters in Minneapolis. "It's an honor. Mike was chosen because of the level of his activity and his dedication to our mission. But it's also extra work."

It's less glamorous and more tedious work when compared with the fun of flying, but it's no less important.

"We don't have the money to do any paid advertising," says Buxa. "We rely on our volunteers to get the word out. The team leader does pilot recruitment and raises awareness among health professionals who refer patients to us."

In the past year, Cheung has visited or arranged for other volunteers to visit area Ronald McDonald Houses, pilot gatherings and medical conferences.

"It's my new mission," Cheung says. "But it's not my primary focus. I'm a pilot."

Cheung flew his first mission for the nonprofit organization in 1991. His long-term commitment is notable since three-quarters of AirLifeLine pilots have volunteered for less than three years.

Pilot turnover is something Cheung plans to explore in his role as team leader. "I hate to see them drifting away," Cheung says. "I'd like to find out what's going on and try to do something about it. I'm an engineer. I look to improve everything." - Christopher Evans

Paul Dumouchelle

To save an ecosystem, this Central Ohioan halted suburban sprawl.

Big Darby Creek is a cool drink of water in the middle of a hot real estate market. Its serene, tree-canopied waters undulate 82 miles through the rich, rolling farm lands of Logan, Union, Franklin, Madison, Champaign and Pickaway counties in central Ohio.

Besides being easy on the eyes, Big Darby Creek, and its tributary, Little Darby Creek, are home to 86 species of fish, five of which are endangered in Ohio, and 41 species of freshwater mollusks, eight of which are on the state endangered list.

While its beauty and biodiversity warrant Big Darby's designation as a state and national scenic river, those two attributes also whet the appetite of real estate developers, especially around that boom town of Columbus.

Big money took a back seat to Big Darby Creek on November 18, 2002, when Paul Dumouchelle, president of Progress with Economic & Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit political-action group, led a grass-roots initiative that forced Columbus City Council to adopt a two-year moratorium on expanding water and sewer services into the Darby Creek watershed.

"The two-year moratorium halts damaging development plans that are in the works," says Dumouchelle, a 44-year-old self-employed marketing strategy consultant and founder of the Central Ohio Green Party. "It gives politicians time to develop a comprehensive multijurisdictional plan without pressure from developers to immediately approve their next project. The ultimate goal is to have a plan that allows development to occur without destroying the creek."

Dumouchelle and other like-minded volunteers collected 6,000 signatures to put an initiative on the May 2003 city ballot that would protect the west Franklin County stretch of Big Darby Creek from rapacious developers. Confronted with that kind of voter support, City Council members decided to bypass the ballot initiative and embrace PEER and its Stop The Sprawl campaign.

Pat Marida, chair of the Central Ohio Sierra Club, cheers the PEER initiative. "It's forcing elected officials to pay attention to the electorate," she says. "Central Ohio is the most biodiverse temperate region on the planet Earth. We really need to start treasuring our rivers and streams, and stop building houses on the flood plains." - Christopher Evans

Dannie Devol

Filling a need and the stomachs of the hungry in Southeast Ohio.

As one of 12 kids in the biggest family in a tiny town, Dannie Devol remembers being hungry. His father banked coal all day with his job provided through the Works Progress Administration, but the yield from his labor couldn't feed all those mouths. And so he remembers as a 12-year-old rolling a wheelbarrow to a squat building in the tiny Southeast Ohio town of Carbon Hill and filling it with food.

"We brought a wheelbarrow because we were the biggest family in town and we got food for the month - sacks of potatoes, beans, cheese," says Devol.

After a successful career in which he's made big money with timely investments in trailer homes, fast- food restaurants and vacation rental cabins, the 76-year-old Devol is back at the hunger center.

The hungry arrive with open arms and empty stomachs. Devol, now the man providing the food, knows the look.

"They might have a decent car and live in a house, but maybe they just lost a job. Some work in fast-food restaurants and get $6.50 an hour and they can't make it on that. This is not just for the poor, poor, poor people, this is for the in-between, for the needy," Devol says of the Smith Chapel Food Pantry in Logan.

The pantry was born two years ago when members of Smith Chapel United Methodist Church started selling used clothing for pennies to needy people. Before long they were bringing in canned goods and giving food to those who needed the clothes. Devol had an idea.

"We had a food bank locally and I wanted to see if we qualified to get the food which, at that time, was 16 cents a pound." As a nonprofit organization, they qualified for discounted food from the regional food bank, which also provided free staples such as bread and produce. "So we took a little money out of the treasury and we got started," says Devol. He also took money out of his own pocket and a food-for-the-needy program was born with Devol, his wife, Jane, and a half-dozen volunteers as staffers.

On the first day, 17 families showed up for food. Before long it was 100, food was being distributed in the church parking lot from the beds of seven pickup trucks, and the country road in front of the church was jammed.

"Sheriff couldn't even get through," says Devol.

So he and Jane moved the operation down the road to a building they owned. It was larger and had a bigger parking lot. And the program grew - handing out staples the second and fourth Monday of every month to anyone who said he or she needed it.

"If they'll stand in line in the cold freezing rain and wait for these groceries, they pretty much need it," he says simply.

In 2002, the need grew dramatically due to job losses and cutbacks. Devol and crew rose to the challenge. This month, more than 700 families lined up one day for the 40- to 60-pound box of groceries. Front Street is jammed again with what some refer to as "Dannie's Line." The sheriff and officers direct traffic.

The need continues to grow in this Appalachian community. Through last month, says Devol, 34,557 hungry people from 12,186 needy households received food.

The church mission has grown to a community mission. People from other churches, as well as the community, donate cash or food or time. Proceeds from the clothing sales pay the $500-a-month utility bills, which is the only overhead. The volunteer crew has swelled to about 60 - their average age, 70. But they can move quickly.

"We'll get a call saying they got 10 skids of bananas - and that's free, all the produce is free - but you have to pick them up now or someone else will," says Devol. "I can have the guys rounded up and we'll get them within two hours."

Marilyn Sloan, coordinator of the Second Harvest of Southeast Ohio Food Bank that supplies Devol's program, says she has never seen a hunger program grow so quickly or so successfully.

"He wants to help people. You can see it when he talks,'' says Sloan. "And because of who he is, people want to help."

The pantry has benefited from Devol's golden touch. His is a story of smart business moves.

When pantry workers realized they were missing out on free perishable food because they didn't have a means to store it, Devol got a call from a woman who had read about the program in the local newspaper.

"She said, Would $3,000 help you?' and I said, Oh, honey, you better believe it would.' I have a friend in the restaurant supply business up in Columbus and he had a walk-in freezer he was selling for $4,500. He said, Is this for the church?' and I told him about it and he said, I was hungry one time' and he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the tattoo from a Nazi concentration camp and he let us have it for $2,500. The $500 left over was just enough for the hookups we needed. One of the volunteers is an electrician and he did the work," says Devol. A donation of a standup freezer followed and Devol now is confident that someone will come through with a donation of a forklift - which could cost $10,000 used.

Devol puts in about three full workdays a week running the food program. He does all the ordering, organizes the volunteers, shows up on every distribution day at 6 a.m. His home number is listed with the American Red Cross and United Way in Hocking County.

"He is on-call 24/7," says Lisa Hammler-Podolski, executive director of the group that governs Ohio's food banks.

This month, when an emergency call came in for hungry seniors, Jane and Dannie put together a box and delivered it personally. - Michael K. McIntyre

Dave Vasarhelyi

This park ranger is leading the fight to preserve Northeast Ohio parkland .

Dave Vasarhelyi read in disbelief that developers planned to turn the woods around West Creek into a luxury golf course community.

This forested refuge in Parma had fostered his love of nature and the outdoors. As a youth, Vasarhelyi caught minnows, crayfish and turtles in the stream's riffles, scaled the ridges that lined its wooded shores and waged crabapple fights among the trees with the other neighbor kids.

The West Creek woods, one of the largest expanses of unprotected green space remaining in Cuyahoga County, also pointed Vasarhelyi toward his career as a National Park Service ranger.

"It was a great place to grow up," recalls the 35-year-old Sagamore Hills resident.

To fight the golf course development, Vasarhelyi issued a public challenge in April 1997: Anyone wanting to save West Creek and the adjacent lands should meet at the Parma Snow Public Library.

Over the next six months, a core group emerged. Among them were Dave Lincheck, Sue Zurovchak, Jeff Lennartz, Laura McShane, Bob Greytak and Dorothy and Irv Hazel. They formed the West Creek Preservation Committee.

The group launched a public awareness campaign. It met with church, civic and neighborhood groups. Committee members set up at local festivals. More importantly, they collected nearly 7,000 signatures and forced an issue to be put on the ballot. It asked that 180 acres of city land earmarked for part of the development be turned into a nature preserve.

Voters overwhelmingly approved that request in November 1998. It was the first step toward creating the West Creek Preserve. Two years later, voters approved a $3 million bond issue, to buy about 100 acres of adjacent land that belongs to Gannett Communications Inc., the owner of WKYC, Channel 3, although up to now, Gannett has not committed to the sale of the land.

Despite that obstacle, Vasarhelyi and friends gained even more ground in 2002: They raised $1.68 million in grants to build trails, acquire additional land and hire their first paid staff member. They also bought 70 acres in Parma and Brooklyn Heights to add to the preserve's holdings.

West Creek volunteers transformed Parma's old city dump into a wetland, and waged a successful campaign that raised $400,000 to save Parma's Henninger House, a historic house located along a proposed trail route.

Their hard work will link miles of trails and park land to the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor; protect a Cuyahoga River tributary from further degradation; and leave a legacy for future generations.

"They are heroes in my book," says Chris Knopf, the Ohio director of the Trust for Public Land.

They are also persistent, passionate and politically savvy.

"Maybe better than any group I have worked with, they understand you have to wage a multifront strategy," says Elaine Marsh, head of Friends of the Crooked River. - John C. Kuehner

Marilyn Wall

She turned up the heat on corporate polluters by raising awareness of dirty air and water

in Middletown.

At the ripe old age of 49, Marilyn Wall has been retired almost 10 years from her 9-to-5 job as a systems programmer.

She hasn't taken up mah-jongg or mall walking. Instead, Wall is working harder than ever as a full-time volunteer eco-warrior.

Besides heading up the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club, Wall co-founded and chairs ECO, a six-year-old environmental community action group. This year, Wall, under the auspices of the Sierra Club, sued the Hamilton County commissioners, the city of Cincinnati and the city of Columbus for illegal sewer overflows.

The suits are a significant and effective tactic in the war against the forces laying waste to the environment, she says.

But what really distinguishes Wall's activism in 2002 are the grass-roots, guerrilla tactics she and her fellow activists employ to highlight the environmental havoc they say is caused by AK Steel's mill at its corporate headquarters in Middletown, a working-class community of some 58,000 people situated between Dayton and Cincinnati.

AK Steel was sued in June 2000 by both the federal and state EPAs for offenses dating back to 1993. "We're alleging air pollution, water pollution and hazardous waste violations," says Jeff Hines, assistant chief of the Southwest District office of the Ohio EPA.

The federal lawsuit seeks substantial civil penalties ranging from $25,000 to $27,500 per day for each violation of the U.S. Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Ohio EPA is also demanding big bucks: Up to $25,000 per day for each violation of the state clean air statutes, and up to $10,000 per day for each violation of the clean water and hazardous waste laws. The state suit also seeks a court order to ensure AK Steel's compliance with Ohio environmental regulations.

"Middletown Works' environmental record is excellent," says Alan McCoy, AK Steel's vice president for public affairs. "We deny the allegations."

While the lawsuits plod through the legal system, Wall has taken the fight public, organizing and mobilizing Middletowners into a loose-knit group, United Neighbors Against Dirty Air, and orchestrating creative acts of corporate embarrassment to raise awareness of the AK Steel stalemate.

Last spring, 94 volunteers from ECO, the Sierra Club, Ohio Citizen Action, Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati cleaned residential gutters in Middletown of gunk that included metal flakes, coal dust and particulates. They boxed up 150 pounds of stinky, black waste and drove it to Wilmington, Delaware, for the annual AK Steel shareholders meeting. Security guards refused to allow the boxes inside the boardroom when they set off metal detectors.

"We were allowed to take in our plastic bottles of water from Dick's Creek," Wall says.

Wall gave a bottle to Richard M. Wardrop Jr., chairman and CEO of AK Steel. "He acted somewhat amused," Wall remembers. But he didn't drink it.

Dick's Creek is part of the Greater Miami River Watershed, which supplies drinking water not only to Middletown but also to cities such as Dayton, Springfield and Hamilton. It also runs through AK Steel property.

The Ohio EPA lawsuit charges that AK Steel illegally discharges PCBs, heavy metals, nitrogen ammonia and cyanide into Dick's Creek. One of the company's chemical spills killed 12,713 fish, and at least twice, AK Steel has exceeded its permit limits for cyanide by 1,500 percent, according to the lawsuit.

Wall spearheaded a letter-writing campaign that flooded the mailboxes of AK Steel executives with 16,694 letters demanding they take action to stop the pollution."

AK Steel remains steadfast. "We are not going to be bullied because of their acts of eco-terrorism," says McCoy. "We deny we are causing a nuisance as defined by Ohio law in Middletown."

McCoy dismisses Wall and the angry neighbors. "They do themselves a disservice by attempting to embarrass their targets," he says. "What community service are they providing?"

"Public education is a community service," Wall responds. "Working to protect public health is a community service." - Christopher Evans

Reporters for this section may be reached through 216-999-4546 or magmail@plaind.com.

INFORMATION BOX, page 16:

To learn more about the organizations in this story, contact:

" Northern Ohio Breast Cancer Coalition, (toll free)

1-877-364-4136 or www.nobcc.org.

" John Gallo, Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs, www.rxcoalition.info.

" ACES, (toll free) 1-800-738-ACES.

" Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, (toll free) 800-581-6884. Information about senior services or a copy of the video "Mrs. Johnson and Her Advocate Angel," in which Belle Likover plays a role, is available for $7 from the agency.

" Dannie Devol, Smith Chapel Food Pantry,

740-385-5474 (home), 740-603-0120, (cellular).

" Marilyn Wall, ECO, 513-761-6140

or (available soon) www.envcomm.org.

" Dave Vasarhelyi, West Creek Preservation Committee, www.westcreek.org.

" Paul Dumouchelle, Progress with Economic & Environmental Responsibility, www.peerohio.org.

" Ginger Buxa, director of outreach, AirLifeLine, (toll free) 1-877-727-7728 or www.airlifeline.org.


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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