Grown-Up Superheroes

Some are arachnids-in-disguise who swoop to and fro between towering skyscrapers to rescue redheaded damsels in distress. Some boast bodies of steel and soar among the clouds, battling to save the planet from bald-headed, radioactive rock-collecting villains. Still other “uncaped” crusaders are gifted with the amazing — and often hidden — powers of mentoring, educating and strengthening the youth of our own bayside Metropolis. Here, MB unmasks nine men and women who make Mobile a better place for all kids.

Monica L. Henry

Dance Instructor and Choreographer,
Snook Youth Club of Foley

“I wish the Snook Youth Club had been around when I was a kid, ” says Monica Henry. “I first became involved with the center about two and a half years ago. It’s an awesome place for local children to come after school every day.” In addition to providing enriching extracurricular activities and academic tutoring, the organization offers its members, youth ages 6 to 16, invaluable opportunities to travel around the country and explore future career interests, including those in the arts.

Her superpower My strength. I’m able to handle things even in difficult circumstances.

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Her greatest feat Being able to grab a child’s attention through dance and make a difference in his or her life

On an ordinary day … My schedule varies every day. I coach cheerleading and tumbling in Mobile at Planet Cheer and Tumble (where she is co-owner). I’m the dance instructor at the University of Mobile. Then, I teach ballet, jazz and modern dance through the Snook Youth Club’s Saturday Dance Project. In all, I teach about 300 students each week. I also do some modeling and acting.

ABOVE Novak with 8-year-old tennis student Oliver Largue. “The greatest thing I’ve learned from Coach Scott has been sportsmanship. If you win, you win, and if you lose, you lose, ” says Largue.

Scott Novak

Director, Mobile Tennis Center

Scott Novak loves tennis, and he has made it his mission to pass the racket on to Port City kids. Through a grant from the U.S. Tennis Association, Novak, as well as collegiate players visiting Mobile for tournaments hosted at the Tennis Center, were able to volunteer countless hours as visiting instructors in local physical education classes at public and private schools. “We also lend them rackets, nets and balls while tennis is part of the curriculum.” This outreach impacted more than 16, 000 students last year.

Additionally, “a big portion of our grant was used to paint 10 and Under Tennis regulation lines on 75 local courts at the Mobile Tennis Center, Cottage Hill Park and Lyons Park, ” says Novak. “Big courts generally discourage kids.”

His superpower Time management

Superhuman ability he’d choose To run at the speed of light

On an ordinary day … I teach four to six hours of private lessons and then spend four to five hours organizing tournament details. Afterward, I coach my 10-year-old daughter Whitney’s sports teams. She plays basketball, tennis, volleyball, soccer, flag football and swimming.

ABOVE Lowell with campers Alex Walley, 7; Erika Harding, 6; and Jordan Kennedy, 6.

Cecy Lowell

Director, Camp Smile, United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile

Summer camp isn’t just about swimming in the lake and toasting marshmallows, it’s a rite of passage – one that Cecy Lowell and United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile (UCP) want all kids to experience. Over three week-long sessions, nonprofit Camp Smile provides adventures to about 320  children, ages 5 to 20, with all sorts of disabilities, as well as typical siblings.

On an ordinary day … At camp, I’m up at 6 a.m. organizing. After breakfast, I lead activities until lunch. We offer horseback riding, boating, fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, science, zipline, journaling and talent show. After lunch, kids have rest time (although I don’t). Then I run activities until dinner. At night, I entertain the staff with games.

Her superpower Campers call me Megamouth since I can command a room without a mic.

Superhuman ability she’d choose To be able to love unconditionally like these kids do

Her kryptonite Summer heat, but I can’t let it stop me

Her superheroes Our camp leaders. Many grew up coming to help, have gone on to get special ed degrees and returned. They take vacation from their regular jobs to volunteer. Couselors are local high school students.

Mirna Deakle

Parent Manager, English as a Second Language and Migrant Education Program

Not so long ago, Mirna Deakle was an attorney in the Yucatan Peninsula of her native Mexico. Her desire to study abroad and learn English brought Deakle to Spring Hill College 16 years ago. While in the Port City, love bloomed, and she found herself a newlywed and living permanently in a new land. (She is now a proud U.S. citizen.) Today, through Mobile County Public School System, she assists other migrant  and non-English-speaking families who are acclimating to American culture and educational expectations.

Her superpower My bilingual skills

On an ordinary day … I’m a liaison between parents, students, teachers and administrators. More than 50 languages are spoken in Mobile County. So we contract with interpreters and work with the Refugee Resettlement Program to offer resources to guide them.

Her kryptonite Barriers, language or otherwise. Some days it can be frustrating, but in the end, it’s all about helping the children.

Her greatest feat Seeing our ESL students graduate, especially ones who have struggled and overcome great challenges

Her superheroes My parents. My dad, with only a third-grade education, became the manager of the first Sears in Mexico. My mother raised 6 kids, and we all turned out well.

ABOVE Gaston with Buddy Ball baseball player, Weston DeMarco, 9, and former student and peer tutor Lauren DeMarco, 12. “In class, Mr. Gaston makes up songs to help us remember stuff, and for Halloween, he always dresses up like a nerd, ” Lauren laughs.

Joe Gaston

5th Grade Teacher, Dawes Intermediate Baseball Coach, Westside Buddy Ball League

Math and science teacher Joe Gaston has infinite powers. Students and parents alike applaud his enthusiasm for educating young minds and his ability to instill confidence in them. Outside the classroom, he can be found on the baseball diamond, alongside wife Lori, coaching children with special needs in the Buddy Ball league. (In 2010, he was awarded Volunteer of the Year for Mobile Association for Retarded Citizens.) And, last summer, as an international faculty member with Mickelson ExxonMobile Teachers Academy, Gaston traveled around the world to train upper elementary math and science educators and improve curriculum in Doha, Qatar.

On an ordinary day … I teach math and science classes to about 60 kids. After school, there’s astronomy club, math team or tutoring. Then I teach as an adjunct professor at Spring Hill College. Later, I’m hurrying over to Pensacola where I’m working on my doctorate at University of West Florida. Eventually, I get home to my family.

His kryptonite I don’t like hypocrisy, cheesy music or tomatoes.

His greatest feat Four happy, healthy children – Brittany, 15; Alex, 13; Brady, 6; and Hadley, 2

ABOVE Greene with transitional living residents Jenna Flowers and her 18-month-old daughter, Jada. Jenna says, “Even before I came to Wilmer Hall, I’d drive by and think, ‘I need to volunteer there someday.’ Lo and behold, a year later we were placed here. God gave me a peace about it. Now I’m working full time, going to school. I’ve been able to buy a car. I’m getting on my feet to make a better life for Jada.”

Sally Greene

Executive Director, Wilmer Hall

Since 1864, Wilmer Hall has been a sanctuary for children who have no home or cannot live with their natural parents. But recently, as affordable housing and daycare have become more difficult to come by for many young adults, the faces of homelessness are changing. Wilmer Hall has imple-mented a new transitional living program for those who work, attend college full time or do a combination of the two. “There are young adults, like Jenna (far left), who need a hand up, not a handout, without added pressure of ‘where am I going to live?, ” says executive director Sally Greene. “We’re now renovating two cottages to expand that program.”

Her superpower Mothering. That’s why I love my job. We have 30 children on campus, and I have three biological children.

Her superheroes We’re blessed to have wonderful staff and an excellent group of children. I’m so proud of them. They have faced a lot of challenges. I’m not Pollyanna-ish. These children are here because of some very difficult circumstances. I think we’re all called to respond to one another’s needs. Hopefully, we’re doing that in a small way at Wilmer Hall.

ABOVE Big brother O’Rear with little brother Lorenzo, 7. “Mr. Caine and I play puzzles, checkers, basketball and football, ” Lorenzo says. “He’s strong, and he can run really fast like Superman.”

Caine O’Rear

Attorney, Hand Arendall LLC • Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama

In a recent study conducted by Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama (BBBS), 100 percent of “littles” showed increase in self-confidence and improved academic performance. “When my three boys left the nest, I decided that I wanted to get matched up in Big Brothers Big Sisters, ” says volunteer Caine O’Rear. “I started 12 years ago in the community-based program with a second grader. He was my little brother until he graduated high school. He’s in college now, ” adds O’Rear, who was the 2010 Big Brother of the Year award recipient for the state of Alabama. “Then I continued on in school-based mentoring, and Lorenzo is my third ‘little’ in it. I go spend time with Lorenzo at school every Thursday. Our law firm partnered with Brazier Elementary in Trinity Gardens, and we now have 35 employees who are ‘bigs’ there.” The program is currently recruiting mentors, especially males.

His superpower My willingness to give back

His kryptonite People who don’t follow through

His greatest feat Being friends with Lorenzo. The most proud I’ve ever been of him was when he made all A’s and B’s on his report card.

Darcy Kelley

Nutrition Programs Manager, Bay Area Food Bank

Childhood hunger is not an issue limited to third-world countries. In fact, most locals don’t realize that this is a dire problem on our homefront. In the past four years, grocery distribution through the Bay Area Food Bank, which serves populations in Alabama, Missisippi and Florida, has increased 60 percent. One of the organization’s most unique distribution methods is the Backpack Program. Teachers, administrators and counselors pinpoint families in need. Meanwhile, volunteers and members of service organizations, such as Junior League of Mobile, bag nutritious nonperishables, such as fruit cups, macaroni and cheese and oatmeal — all items that children could prepare themselves, if necessary. Then, they deliver them to the schools. “We never even know the recipents’ names. The teachers just slip the sacks into the children’s backpacks so it doesn’t call attention to or embarass them, ” says Kelley, who was also chosen as one of MB’s 2012 Forty Under 40 recipients. The Food Bank serves 750 youth in Mobile and Baldwin Counties alone. The cost to support one child for a school year: about $125.

Her greatest feat Helping our programs grow by leaps and bounds over the past eight years. We’ve increased the number of children we are able to serve by 500 percent.

Her kryptonite Eggs, especially boiled eggs

Cheryl Thames

Physical Therapist, Pediatric Physical Therapy of Mobile

The power of mobility can change the life of a child with physical challenges. Just ask pediatric physical therapist Cheryl Thames. “I see children every day who overcome tremendous obstacles to do amazing things, things that doctors said that they may never do!” Her unique therapy methods, along with her ability to strike the perfect balance of challenging and encouraging young patients, help to create what she calls “little miracles.”

Her superpower Perseverance. But the patients that I see for therapy are truly inspiring!

Superhuman ability she’d choose I’d love to be able to duplicate myself so I could be two places at once.

Her kryptonite Negative people with no drive

Her greatest feats My children and opening my own private practice

ABOVE Thames with physical therapy patient Andrew Carpenter, 4. His mother, Amy, says, “Ms. Cheryl has been working with Andrew since he was 8 months old. She has so much hope for her patients’ futures and their abilities to achieve anything that they possibly can in their little bodies. She does everything she can to bring that out of them, despite their disabilities. Andrew has gained so much independence because of her help and guidance. One of the greatest moments for me was Dec. 21, 2011. While Andrew was at therapy, right in front of all of us, he marched off and took three steps. It was the greatest gift!”

text by Lawren Largue • photos by Matthew Coughlin

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