Neil Volz

Planting Seeds…….to Build People

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Sharing Your Pain

The most meaningful impact many of us can have on someone else’s life will come from sharing our deepest pain. Sharing our pain is not always easy. It hurts. It can be awkward. Yet it can also provide meaning and purpose. Ask Phyllis and Darren Sudman. By sharing their pain, they have helped to save the lives of many other people.

It is an inspiring story, one which started nearly a decade ago.

In late 2004, Phyllis and Darren’s son Simon Sudman was born. He weighed six pounds, 15 ounces at birth, and by all signs was healthy and normal. At seven weeks, Simon smiled for the first time. 47 days later he died.

What no one knew at the time was that Simon’s tiny little heart had an unknown defect called Long QT Syndrome, which can result in sudden cardiac arrest. Phyllis and Darren had never heard of the defect. Before long, they found out that Phyllis also had the condition, and that this heart arrhythmia was responsible for up to 15% of all Sudden Infant Deaths (SIDs). Through the trauma and pain of Simon’s death, Phyllis and Darren began educating themselves about sudden cardiac arrest.

They learned that Simon was one of thousands of kids to die of sudden cardiac arrest in 2005. Many of those who died were babies, while many others were high school athletes.

“Sudden cardiac arrest is the #1 cause of death of student athletes,” Darren told me. “It is not just an adult thing.”

Darren’s words made me shudder. I felt for him. At the same time, I appreciated his willingness to share his pain. By doing so, Darren allowed me in to his story in a way that made what he was saying more personal and meaningful. Right away, I could see how Phyllis and Darren’s decision to “share their pain” had been so helpful to others.

In memory of their son, the two established Simon’s Fund. The mission of the organization is to save a child’s life . . . and then another, by raising awareness of conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death. Simon’s Fund raises money to provide free heart screenings to children. It also sponsors medical research projects, hosts awareness events, works with major medical institutions and promotes legislation dealing with sudden cardiac arrest. As a result of Simon’s Fund, dozens of students have discovered unknown, potentially-fatal heart conditions.

“All of the conditions are detectable and treatable,” Darren told me. “Yet it takes the lives of thousands of students every year. Have your family tested and help us spread the word,” he continued.

It is good advice.

Simon’s Fund works with many organizations across the country to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest, and creates ways for families to be tested. Of course, as I learned while talking to Darren, this really is an issue of awareness – which is something we can all embrace.

“Anyone can raise awareness,” he said. “It’s easy to make a difference. We don’t need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for research. We just need to make people aware,” Darren continued. “They’ll do the rest from there!”

That is where we come in to play. As I took in their story, I couldn’t help but think about the many young people Pam and I are blessed to have in our lives. If you are a parent or have influence in a young person’s life, I would encourage you to get them tested. For more information on Simon’s Fund and/or sudden cardiac arrest, feel free to click on the link below. And to everyone who helps make Simon’s Fund such a life-giving organization, THANK YOU.

And finally, to Phyllis and Darren, thank you for sharing your pain with the rest of us. I heard once that God does not waste a single tear, and your story reinforces that belief in me. You two and your family inspire the rest of us. Please let us know if we can ever do anything to help.

The link to Simon’s Fund is here –


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Being a Team Player

Teamwork is a crucial ingredient for a healthy organization. It allows individuals to accomplish things we couldn’t do alone. Good teamwork can be seen on the sports field as well as in the community. Just ask Janet Bartos.

Janet is the Executive Director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition. The broad array of groups and individuals who make up the coalition work together to tackle some of the toughest challenges in Southwest Florida. The homeless community is able to succeed because the coalition works together. Very simply, it works as a team.

Earlier this month, for instance, over 500 homeless individuals were shown the support of the community during the 14th Annual Homeless Service Day and Stand Down. The event was held at City of Palms Park in downtown Fort Myers. Homeless individuals were able to receive needed services, pick up essential items and spend time with people who care for them. The homeless service day is too big for any one homeless organization to fund or put together by itself. That is why teamwork was so important.

The ongoing effort to house homeless veterans in Southwest Florida is another example of that kind of teamwork in action. Last April, the local homeless community was invited to join the 100,000 Homes Campaign to house 100,000 homeless veterans nationwide. For our local homeless community, embracing a challenge like that is not as simple as saying “yes.” It means stretching budgets that are already stretched, and re-allocating valuable time towards a new effort. And that means saying “no” to other priorities. It means working as a team – which is exactly what happened.

Our local homeless community dug in, embraced the new program, and committed to working together to house 50 homeless veterans in 90 days. By the time the initial 90-day period ended, 52 homeless veterans had found housing. So, in July, the community committed to housing another 50 by the end of December. This goal was also met, as 85 veterans found housing and 20 more had secured vouchers. The effort to house homeless veterans continues.

Much of this success stems from the culture of teamwork that Janet brings to the cause.

“We have a responsibility to help others,” Janet told me when I asked her what drove the efforts of her and the coalition. “It needs to be done.” Janet’s approach is straight forward, and built around three basic principles.

One, a team has to be willing to change. This seems like a natural for an organization built around the concept of second chances. But it isn’t always that easy. Still, as the veterans program showed, when an opportunity presents itself, the coalition has shown it’s willingness to embrace change.

Two, a team has to have open communication. Last April, when the opportunity to house more veterans emerged, there were lots of conversations. There was hope. There were questions. And there was conflict. The conflict wasn’t about whether to help, but how best to help. Before long, the community worked through how best to fully embrace the opportunity. And formerly homeless veterans found homes.

Think about the communication involved. The amazing team that led the effort, including the Red Cross, the Veterans Administration, American Legion Post 38, the Department of Human Services, the Housing Authority, and numerous others, called each other every other week to identify program glitches and individual barriers to a veteran getting placed into housing. This constant communication helped strengthen every aspect of the operation. It improved the partnership with American Legion Post 38, who was allowing veterans to be with other veterans as they transitioned into their new life. Likewise, it improved the ability of local case managers and leaders in other organizations to plug-in to the effort. This brings us to the third key of a healthy team.

Members of a healthy team need to have appropriate expectations.

The coalition, like many other teams, is made up of various organizations. At any given moment, there are numerous priorities within the group. What Janet has done so well with the coalition is to focus on the team’s culture. In these two cases, that meant embracing the various agendas within the coalition, at the same time as she made sure the fundamental goal of having a successful service day or veterans program was a TEAM priority. Now that is the kind of teamwork that is worth celebrating!

If you would like to know more about the Lee County Homeless Coalition, feel free to visit (Full Disclosure, as most people who read this blog know, I am the Vice Chairman of the Lee County Homeless Coalition’s Board of Directors)

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Following Your Heart

“The crowd of waving children pulled at my heart,” said Chris Lewis, while discussing his first trip to Tanzania. As he boarded a four-passenger puddle-jumper back to the United States, the future physician decided to follow his heart. “I knew I would return,” he said.

Following our heart is rarely the easiest thing to do. Nor does it always make sense. But as the story of Chris Lewis and his work in East Africa shows, sometimes being “pulled” by our heart can make all the difference. That moment in 1993 is a great example. Such a heart-following move was the beginning of a life changing journey, not only for Chris, the founder and president of the nonprofit Village Life Outreach Project, but for tens of thousands of other people as well.

Over the next ten years, the East African villages of Roche, Nyambogo, and Burere would be transformed through their partnership with Chris and Village Life. In Roche, a health care facility would be built that now provides the first-ever access to permanent medical care for more than 25,000 villagers. Village Life’s Nutrition Program provides food for 1,200 Tanzanian school children. A school has been built in Burere. In a country where a child dies of Malaria every thirty seconds, the Village Life Malaria Prevention Program has distributed nearly 10,000 mosquito nets. They have also partnered with local and international groups to improve the distribution of clean water by drilling two borehole wells and maintaining 400 slow sand water filters. And next month, a distribution system to provide clean water to 7,000 residents of the Nyambogo Village will break ground.

A lot has happened in a decade. Smart people have gathered, learned and built sustainable systems to improve the lives of thousands. Communities have connected to create mutually beneficial relationships. And people have continued to follow their hearts – something that has been present since that initial visit.

Chris was a third-year medical resident the first time he visited Tanzania. His plan was to spend a month helping people who had never seen a doctor before. He was prepared for the lack of drinking water, mud huts and bucket showers. What Chris was not ready for, though, was the number of people who died on their way to his care. There was the pregnant woman who walked an entire day before dying. There was the 13-month-old baby who weighed 4 pounds. There was more.

Despite the hardships, Chris embraced his mission, and the people of East Africa. He got to spend real time with the families who lived in the villages. He learned to know them personally and enjoyed their shared community experiences. As Chris told the University of Cincinnati Magazine:

“I experienced the love, respect and dignity of the community. People were struggling to survive, yet success was gauged not by material possessions, but rather by how well one received guests. They welcomed me into their homes to dine with them, even if they had to skip two meals to do it.”

The heart beat of Village Life was born out of that experience. And it continues to fuel the vision of it’s founder. I got to see that first-hand when Chris and I connected a couple days ago. It was so encouraging to see my friend from High School mobilizing people behind the vision of Village Life. Over 400 professionals and volunteers have visited Tanzania with Village Life since that first step in the journey ten years ago. Thousands more help in other ways. They all connect with the vision – a vision of the heart.

“Why do I serve?” Chris asked me. “It’s my passion, man. I feel like I was put on this earth to spread love. To my friends, family, patients, colleagues and to those I may never meet.”

What a great vision!

“My goal is to spread that notion to as many people as possible and help them understand that by making other people’s lives better, you enrich your own life,” he continued. “My job is to show people that it doesn’t take a mansion and a yacht to feel good. Humility and one’s connection to the people of this earth are priceless.”

Clearly, the work of Village Life is worth celebrating. Their life-changing mission is also worth supporting. If you are feeling even the smallest tug of your heart to help, I would encourage you to let that “pull” get you more involved – in some way. After all, as the story of Chris Lewis and Village Life shows, following your heart has the potential to be the most amazing decision you will ever make. You can make a difference. Thanks to everyone who serves. For more information about Village Life, to get more involved, or to support their efforts, visit:

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Embracing Your Season

Our lives are full of seasons. Each season provides different opportunities to serve. Understanding how to embrace your season is an important part of effective service. Just ask Marlene English.

Marlene’s story revolves around her passion for serving the men and women of the United State military. During one season of Marlene’s life, she personally made and delivered nearly 50,000 cookies for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is a lot of cookies!! It is also a great reason to celebrate.

What would later become known as Patriot Cookies started when Marlene’s cousin was deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2003. Like many service projects, she started small. A care package for a family member was followed by a box of cookies for a friend. Year after year, Marlene’s effort grew.

By 2007, after a friend was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, the cookie making “took on a life of it’s own,” she said.

“Friends who came back from their individual deployment asked that I send cookies to their friends who deployed after them,” Marlene told me. “Some guys received cookies through 2 or 3 different tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the guys dubbed themselves the Cookie Monsters,” she continued. “When they deployed they would proactively ask me to put them back on the cookie list.”

“I was the beneficiary of her cookies,” said Marlene’s friend, Matt, who is currently in Afghanistan. “Her efforts meant the world to us. They were like receiving a touch of home.”

With her own money financing the effort, Marlene set aside a weekend a month to make cookies. “I would start Friday after work and bake and wrap cookies until Sunday evening,” she said. Marlene made chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles, peanut butter, sugar smash, sugar cutout cookies and more. Each one was individually wrapped. She even took requests.

The cookies not only nourished the bodies of those who received them, but they nourished their spirits as well.

“She tirelessly baked cookies to send to deployed servicemen and civilians,” Matt continued. “Her efforts meant a lot and are not forgotten.”

The relationship was a two-way street. Marlene said she once got tennis elbow from all the mixing and stirring. “One day a huge box arrived for me all wrapped in pretty paper,” she said. “When I opened it I found a beautiful Marine Red Kitchen Aid Mixer. A few of the Cookie Monsters had gone together to buy it.” By that point, she had already sent out more than 40,000 cookies.

For ten years, Marlene served those who served. She poured in to people day after day after day. During that season, she collected items as a part of an Adopt a Unit program. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon five times. She was a top fundraiser for Team USO. And she made LOTS of cookies.

Marlene embraced her season and made a big difference in other people’s lives. In many ways, her story is both encouraging and educational. It also continues.

Marlene is now in a new season. Because of health problems, she is no longer able to make cookies, coordinate unit adoptions or run marathons. She has had to change her focus.

Many of us know what that is like. The birth of a child, a new job, an accident, an illness, and more can all change our ability to serve. Finding ways to embrace that new season or changed circumstances is a challenge. But it can be done. Look at Marlene. For her, embracing her new season means serving differently. It means sharing her story. And encouraging others.

Who knows, maybe someone Marlene knows is beginning a new season in their life. Maybe they are looking to serve. Maybe her story will inspire them. Maybe that person is reading this story right now.

I asked Marlene if she had any suggestions for people who wanted to help our military families this Christmas season. She mentioned three organizations: the USO, TAPS and Team Red, White and Blue. Links to those organization’s websites are below.

If you are interested and able, feel free to take a look at those groups. And, as always, THANK YOU to those who serve.


USO – The Wishbook program.


Team Red White and Blue –

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The One

Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. The effectiveness of this simple concept is exemplified by the work of Southwest Florida’s Chris Brodd.

Think about it. Billions live in extreme poverty. Millions are in prison or fighting disease. Families all over the world are struggling. For many of us, the enormity of the suffering is overwhelming. It can make us feel like we aren’t able to make a difference.

That is why Chris Brodd’s story is so important. He implements Andy Stanley’s principle of “the one” effectively. It is both educational and inspiring.

I first met Chris in 2009. We were eating chicken wings at a Next Level Church event. Chris was looking for a way to serve and I was leading a group that served at the Salvation Army. Right away, Chris jumped in with both feet.

Before long, however, he started having second thoughts. He was busy. Chris also began to question whether he was making a difference.

“I promised to give this a try,” he told me. “And I keep my promises.” Not exactly the words of a man who had found his passion. But Chris remained committed to serving. And learning.

Fast forward to today. Chris remains busy managing a nearly ten-million-dollar-a-year organization, spending quality time with his family and being active at church. Nonetheless, every Wednesday night you can find him at Sally’s Cafe, the name of the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen.

What changed?

One thing that changed was Chris’s perspective. He learned to seek out “the one.” At any given point, Chris is personally invested in the life of someone who is hurting. While he dishes out hundreds of meals a week, if you ask Chris where he is making the biggest difference, he will give you a name.

“I am bringing Lionel over for Thanksgiving,” he told me the last time we hung out at the soup kitchen.

Conversations like that are the norm with Chris. He loves everyone who shows up at the soup kitchen. They all benefit from his servant heart. Likewise, he understands the need for systemic solutions to problems associated with poverty. But Chris also knows that his personal efforts at this time are most beneficial when they are focused on one person.

For instance, a few months ago, Chris called me about a young man named Jorge. Jorge was homeless. He was also living with Epilepsy. The combination meant he wouldn’t last long without some sort of immediate intervention. Again, Chris jumped in with both feet.

He spent Father’s Day weekend in the hospital with Jorge. Then, over the next few months, Chris and others helped Jorge reconnect with family, secure housing, find much needed medicine, and get a job. Jorge is now working, living with his family and attending Next Level Church.

Such success was possible because Chris learned to focus on “the one.” That didn’t mean ignoring other problems. It just meant that he was best able to help by focusing on Jorge.

Chris’s focus allows him to help several people a year get out of homelessness – and that is worth celebrating.

Of course, such celebration leads me ask a question. Is there someone in our lives who we view as “the one?”

Obviously “the one” doesn’t have to be a homeless person. It could mean helping that couple next door who is on the verge of divorce, or pouring in to the teenager in our class who feels alienated from the world. It might mean re-engaging with a family member or connecting with a fatherless child.

My view is if someone popped in our head when we read this, well, then that person might be “the one.” Maybe we can help them. After all, as Chris Brodd’s story shows, when we do for one what we would like to do for everyone, it really is possible make a difference.

Well, I hope this was helpful in some way. Thanks for serving.

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Finding Your Somebody

You can’t help everyone. But you can help someone. For those of us who lead, this is an important concept to process. I was reminded just how important during a recent visit with Tonya Van Scoy.

Tonya, her husband Tom, and their team of volunteers feed the homeless and hurting in downtown Fort Myers. Every Saturday they serve food to hundreds of people at a local park. For the last seven years, this has been their mission. As we approach the 2014 Homeless Stand Down, it seemed appropriate to dig in further to the service Tonya, Tom and their team provide to the people of Southwest Florida.

It began in 2006 when Tonya found her “somebody.”

“We found our calling,” Van Scoy told me, when I asked how they got started. “It is that simple. We love the people we serve.”

With smiling faces, words of encouragement and consistency of service, Tonya’s team has provided hope and dignity to thousands of hurting individuals in Southwest Florida. They have helped people eat, reconnect with their families, get jobs – and stand back on their feet.

As we talked, Tonya pointed to the long line of individuals waiting to eat. Most of the men and women at the park know her by name. Through her generosity, they have felt loved during tough times. Day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month and year-by-year, Tonya, her family and her team are making a difference in people’s lives.

Tonya’s story is inspiring. It is also instructive. Tonya and Tom did not wait until everything was perfect to start serving. They didn’t put finding money or getting assurances of success ahead of following their faith. They didn’t let the fact that they couldn’t help everyone stop them from helping someone. In fact, accepting the reality that they couldn’t help everybody was a huge blessing. Such limitations helped them to find their somebody. And that changed everything.

Think about it. When we understand that we can’t help everyone, it becomes easier to focus more clearly on those we can help. Tonya’s eyes lit up when I told her what I was writing.

“It is like Mother Teresa said,” Tonya continued. “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Many of us who serve struggle with this concept. I know I do. Some of us want to know the outcome of our service before we get involved. Or we want to build a more perfect mouse trap instead of getting starting, or make sure we have ideal motives before helping others, or somehow create a program that will fix all our problems. All those challenges are important. But the search for perfection can lead to inaction. Nobody is perfect. And all sides can get better through service.

That is why it is so important to focus on finding our “somebody”.

Maybe that somebody is a family member. Maybe that somebody is a cause, or a group of people. For Tonya Van Scoy, her somebody is the hungry and hurting who live in downtown Fort Myers. Learning who her “somebody” was made all the difference – not only for her, but for the people she serves. Maybe it will for you as well. Have you found your somebody? Whether you have or not, as always, thanks for serving.