2017-12-31 / Insight

People with positive impact


Bobby Smoke Bobby Smoke Lapeer County is nothing without its residents. Every day, individuals make positive impacts on their communities, and throughout the year, The County Press has documented these efforts. Here are some of the people who have made Lapeer County everything it is.

Betty Kennedy has been the village clerk in North Branch for 30 years, and in that time she has received numerous awards and recognitions for her exemplary job performance. “Clerks really are important people in a local government,” said Kennedy in February. “In a lot of ways, they’re the backbone of an office.” When asked what keeps her going, she simply shrugged and said, “Basically I love my job.” Kennedy began her career as a clerk when she was elected in March of 1988, and the specifics of her role has changed slightly over the years. At points she has been a deputy treasurer, a deputy clerk, has worked part-time - moving exclusively to a full-time role in 1996 - and at other points she was working as the clerk for both North Branch village and North Branch Township – a situation she credits as providing her a solid background. “It was interesting, working for both (village and township),” she said. “I got to see things from a different prospective.”

Melissa Ogden Melissa Ogden The Local Scream Radio Show made its debut broadcast on Saturday, February 25, and since then, creator and on-air personality Denny Williams has seen the network he has developed blossom into a local music fixture. Williams, a Lapeer resident by way of Tennessee, noted in February that when he first arrived in Lapeer in 2006, he was amazed at the local music scene in the thumb area. “I became a big fan of several local bands,” said Williams. “And I wanted to do something to help support the scene.”

Steve Johnson Steve Johnson Regina Starr is a single mom, and life with son Brandon has taught her valuable lessons on the impact autism has not only on the person suffering with it, but on families and the entire community. “That boy is my life,” said Starr. “And if I can bring awareness to other families in the county, I’m going to try.” Starr founded the Forever Friends Network, an organization devoted to bringing autism spectrum disorder awareness and acceptance to families in Lapeer County. FFN moved into their own building in September, and Starr will continue to expand the possibilities of her organization into the new year.

Cierra Ostrom is barely a teenager, and was a foster child until she met the family that would eventually permanently adopt her. “I was in that position,” Cierra said in March of being placed in foster homes. “I just wanted to help kids and to give them something of theirs.” Cierra went through three different foster homes before coming to Kim, and from her experience she became resolved to help other foster kids who need it. To do what they can to make a difference to foster kids who find themselves in these situations, Cierra and Kim create “anchor bags” – care packages for foster children going into the region’s foster system. “The bags have many different things in them,” said Kim. “There are things for basic needs, for comfort like pillows and blankets, activity-based items that keep their minds busy during the transition – just a package of things that they can consider their own.”

Claudia Leandres Claudia Leandres Julie Ann Caris, along with her daughters Courtney and Lacey and a veritable army of volunteers and generous donors, has made it her mission to ensure that all children of Lapeer County can look forward to the Easter bunny providing them with a basket full of goodies and gifts. “If you have ever sponsored a child and/or family for Christmas or Thanksgiving, you understand that even that small amount of compassion and attention can make a world of difference,” said Caris in March. “So why not Easter?” This year’s basket drive was Caris’s eighth, and Jelly-Beans and Smiles donated over two thousand Easter baskets in March, and to date has provided over ten thousand to children in Lapeer County.

Tom Latimer Tom Latimer In Tom Latimer’s 94 years, life has gotten in the way several times, but the passion for art – specifically, pen-and-ink drawing and watercolor painting – has always been there. Beginning in February of 1943, Latimer spent three years with the army, but even then, he was still able to maintain his love for art even amidst the stresses of war. Latimer worked with the Army engineers to service the 8th Air Force, using his steady hand and drawing experience to produce topographical layouts of bombing targets the pilots would use on missions. Latimer’s art was displayed at Gallery 194 in downtown Lapeer last March.

Brenda Patrick Brenda Patrick For 25 years, Bryan’s Market in Deerfield Township has had the good fortune to count Bobby Smoke as a loyal employee, friend and even part of the family. Smoke has been working in the deli section of Bryan’s Market since May 11 of 1992 - almost a quarter of a century - and in that time, has rarely taken time off and is never late. Smoke was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 3. Now 45 years old, Smoke grew up in North Branch, and moved to Fostoria with his parents in 1987, where they’ve lived since. “He always has a smile on his face, he’s just wonderful,” said Bryan’s Market manager Bonnie Helton in April. “All of the customers love him and he’s always polite and friendly - and he’s always here, and always on time.”

Chad Myers, a 49-year-old former teacher at Rolland- Warner Middle School chased his dream of affecting positive change on Lapeer County’s educational system. Myers’s last day at Rolland-Warner was March 31, and as students in Lapeer County schools headed to spring break, Myers headed to Florida with his fiancée Joanna Wnuk to prepare for the next step in his education journey – a global experiment called Xtraordinary Educational Xperience (XE) that took place in Barcelona, Spain in May.

Everything is free, no questions asked. That’s the mission of the Good Samaritans of Lapeer, a charitable organization started by Donna Ruppert and her husband Bill. The Good Samaritans are a group of volunteers in Lapeer County who organize weekly food, clothing and home goods giveaways for people in the area in need of a little help. “If you’re hungry and need food in Lapeer County, we’ll feed you,” said Bill Ruppert in April. According to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, the Good Samaritans are the largest food providers in the County, serving an average of 2000 people each month. “It’s basically no qualifiers - if you need help, we’ll help.”

New pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Lapeer Alex Peterson didn’t know his calling was clergy at first. Peterson, 28, has worn several hats before settling in Lapeer in April as his church’s new head pastor. “I’m a lot younger than a lot of clergy,” said Peterson. “But I love what I do.” After graduating from Georgetown, Peterson worked for a nonprofit called Asylum Access for a year, which aims to empower refugees in Africa, Asia and Latin America to live safely, work, send children to school and rebuild their lives, and took over pastorship duties at First Presbyterian in April.

There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty, whether it’s literal or figurative, and students in Connie Anderson’s umbrella of business related classes have been getting their hands dirty with coffee grounds. The Bronco Brew, a student-run coffee shop located within North Branch High School, enjoyed its first month of operation in May, providing high schoolers, faculty and administration with a traditional coffee shop experience right in the middle of the school, all produced by Anderson’s Business Professionals of America (BPA) students, and as the teenagers and adults in the building attest, the sky is truly the limit.

For most young people, age 23 is supposed to be a time of discovery, of experiencing the world and beginning adult life. But for Melissa Ogden - at that time, a young twenty-something Canadian, already an accomplished pianist and recent graduate of Algonquin College - 23 was the age at which she had to begin life again, from the ground up. In June of 1989, Ogden contracted an extremely rare combination of both viral meningitis and encephalitis - a pair of brain ailments that render survival nearly impossible, but as Ogden approached her 51st birthday, it’s safe to say she has beaten some long odds. Melissa stays true to her passion, teaching piano and vocals at the Lapeer Heritage Museum through her private business Musically Yours - a business she started when she was 16. She also acts as the current musical and vocal director and pianist at St. Michael Church in Deford as well as the pianist at St. Elizabeth Church in Marlette.

Chatfield seventh-grader Holly Hudson wanted to do her part to stop cancer in its tracks and help people living with cancer in Lapeer. Hudson created donation jars with the help of her father and placed them in Chatfield classrooms, and after a month raised $271.46 she then donated to the McLaren Foundation and the McLaren Cancer Institute of Lapeer. 100 percent of the money Hudson and her classmates at Chatfield raised went toward helping cancer patients in Lapeer. “Anytime anyone donates to us it goes directly to the cause,” said Catherine Stacey, development officer with the McLaren Foundation, in June. “It helps with meds, transportation, help with patients’ utilities and other things.”

Steve Johnson, a Marathon Township man, doesn’t take anything for granted. Johnson suffered a broken neck in 1993 caused by a diving accident, and has had limited mobility ever since, spending most of his time in a motorized chair. But Johnson had been hitting the gym since October of 2016, and he’s now able to stand and even walk across a room, a feat that only a year ago would have seemed impossible. Johnson said that aside from the obvious physical improvements he’s experienced, what may be even more important is the effect the thrice-weekly exercise sessions have had on his mind and spirit. “I wasn’t in very good shape and I know I had to do something - I was really depressed, not getting up much,” said Johnson in June. “Now, I breathe better, I have better posture, and now mentally I’m so much better.”

With nearly 500 kids and over 200 leaders involved in one 4-H project or another, the organizational and logistical planning seems like the job of a team of several dedicated administrators – but in reality all that responsibility fell to one person, Brenda Patrick. And Patrick, who served as the 4-H secretary for 35 years, organized her last 4-H exhibits at this year’s Eastern Michigan State Fair before retiring in July.

“We’re fortunate up here (in Michigan), we don’t suffer from the kinds of things the other parts of the country do, so I think that’s why farmers in Michigan are so willing to help,” said Matt Schaller, a truck driver for Hunt Farms in Davison and an organizer for 501(c)3 nonprofit Ag Community Relief, in September. Described as a “Red Cross for Farmers,” Ag Community Relief is a coalition of a dozen farmers from the Thumb region of Michigan, as well as in Western Michigan and Ohio, that came together through a mutual goal to help fellow farmers and ranchers across the country suffering from the effects of natural disasters.

When Claudia Leandres’s son was diagnosed with autism, she found herself in need of direction. Leandres, at the time, was an attorney in Brazil, her home country, but no amount of law study prepared her for the journey she and her son had been given. In October, Leandres was putting the finishing touches on the paperwork needed to open Journey Therapy Center (JTC), Lapeer County’s first Applied Behavior Analysis center. JTC specializes in working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder aged two-years-old to 12, with plans to expand therapy services to teens in the future. “My view was to help my son, that’s why I went back to school,” she said in October. “But I started meeting families and that’s what I decided I was made for.”

According to MiGrove founder Joe Drinkhorn, there’s never a bad reason to climb a tree. MiGrove was founded in the spring of 2015 as a recreational tree-climbing club based in the Lapeer area. The group attracts members from across Michigan as well as Canada and Ohio, and serves as a forum for likeminded people who share an interest in arboriculture and nature, but most importantly, they climb trees. “There’s no better way to inspect a tree than to get into it,” said Drinkhorn in October. “You can use recreational tree-climbing to get comfortable with being in trees, or if you’re an arborist you can use the group to meet other people and learn new techniques and skills.”

Stepping into the office of the St. Matthew’s Anglican Church’s new Rector, Colleen Dewey, it’s clear that was once a house of finance is now a house of worship. Dewey, who was serving as acting rector for the past year, took over the position in an official capacity on Saturday, Nov. 11 during a special installation ceremony. Dewey has been involved in St. Matthew’s Anglican Church since its beginning, though, assisting her late husband, the Rev. Steven Dewey, in founding the church in 2005.

Seven-year-old Ellie Schroeder-Whitcomb, a second-grader at Lynch Elementary, helped her mom put together a mini Christmas photo shoot, handle the props and position people for the photos, and used the money she earned to adopt a family for Christmas this December. Ellie was able to raise over $500 and the experience has instilled a drive in her toward helping out others. “I just feel really good about what I did, I think I want to do it every single year,” said Ellie earlier this month. “I just felt really sad that if I saw kids waking up not having presents under the tree.”

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