By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer
If one ever needed proof that angels walk among us, Monday night’s Angels Awards banquet was nothing short of exhibit A.
No Use for Abuse honoree Elijah Benjamin Evans, for example, began earning his wings long before he even owned a driver’s license. He was just two when his biological mother dumped scalding hot water all over his tiny body, burning 43% of his tender flesh. That tragic event would have been enough to darken the heart of any sane person. But Elijah? He healed, was adopted into a loving home, and by the time he was a teenager, founded an anti-child abuse support program for kids.
In fact, it was after a bountiful Christmas with his adoptive mom, Lynore
Harding, that true inspiration struck.
“Mom,” he said. “I want to give a Christmas gift to all the foster kids who don’t get to have a Christmas like this. I want them all to have at least one gift they truly want.”
And so, he raised $5,000 from his community and began hosting Christmas of Hope parties, doling out 72 presents his first year. He was 14.
You see? Angel walking among us.
As he accepted his award, including our $20,000 grant, which he’ll use to start a scholarship fund, he thanked many people — in particular, his mom, whom he called, “the true angel tonight.”
“Be the change you want to see in the world,” Evans, now 17 and a Youngsville resident, reminded the audience.
But the 2015 Angel Awards banquet was special not just because of the nine honorees and their work. The night marked the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation’s twenty-first year hosting the grant program, awarding over the years more than $1.9 million to further work benefiting children across our state.
“It never fails to humble me,” Dr. Richard Atkins, foundation board of directors chairman, told a crowd of Angel honorees and their supporters, “that the people we honor do this because it’s their passion. It’s the good in them… That’s what we’re honoring tonight.”
Dustin Lafont of Baton Rouge is the embodiment of that passion, born out of a simple desire to help one bike-less kid scrape together enough parts to build his own cycle. In that moment, Lafont said, “We never thought we’d be on stage, we never thought we’d be accepting an award. We just thought we were helping one kid.”
In fact, in 2010, he launched Front Yard Bikes, which helps low-income kids earn a bike by rebuilding them (and along the way, they learn lessons about mathematics, physics and mechanics). Group bike rides and mentorships are also part of the package.
“I’m not helping underprivileged kids,” said Lafont. “I’m helping underprivileged cities help their kids.”
Kristen Maddox of Denham Springs founded A Door of Hope in Denham Springs, which lends a helping hand to survivors of domestic abuse or struggling with addictions and other self-destructive behaviors. Maddox helps young women who feel beaten and broken down because, she says, she was one of them – addicted to drugs (after her mom introduced her to them), pregnant at 14, and living on the streets by 26. She spent time in jail, turned her life around through her faith, and now counsels as many as 50 girls a month. She dedicated the award to her son, Ryan, who passed away not too many months ago.
Son of a Saint founder Bivian “Sonny” Lee III opened the doors to his New Orleans non-profit in 2011 to honor his mother and late father, former Saints cornerback Bivian Lee Jr. Sonny was just 3 year old when his dad died. So, as he tells it, he never learned how to do those time honored “guy stuff” things, like changing a tire and knowing your way around a Home Depot. Acutely aware of the pain that comes with growing up without a father, Sonny launched his own mentoring program, pairing up to 40 boys with influential father figures.
L.J. “Joe” Rachal is a tireless volunteer for Centennial Cultural Center (an arts program for kids in this rural region of Louisiana, with an emphasis on aiding special needs children) in Olla. He began many years ago, when his wife dragged him to the center to pitch in with a few repairs. Today, he is a board member. Speaking of his special needs kids, Rachal said, “Their will to live and their struggle to exist… That’s an inspiration to everyone one of us.” And then, holding back tears, he told his fellow award winners, “You’re not just a BCBS Angel. You are a
heavenly angel, too. I can guarantee it.”
In 2009, Elisha Wilson-Thomas opened Tallulah’s T.I.A.R.A. Girlz, a social club for girls aged 3 to 7. T.I.A.R.A. (Teaching Independence, Autonomy, Respect and Allegiance) is on a mission – to reduce the region’s rate of teen pregnancy and drug abuse, while boosting graduation rates and setting these girls on a path out of poverty. The group provides cultural opportunities, community service time and stresses leadership skills through interactions with “highly competent women,” Wilson-Thomas says. “Tallulah is a city where there’s a lot of pride, but not a lot of hope,” she said. “We’re here to instill in (these girls) a chance. A sense of hope.”
From her home base in Bossier City, Kassi Robinson is driven to make dreams come true. Pay it Forward Networking began in 2013, dedicated to granting wishes of kids with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses. In just two years, she’s already spearheaded wish granting for 92 children, calling on a member base of 14,000 to help out. “Many of these kids want some of the simplest things,” she said. A day with a firefighter. A new football. Letters of love from strangers. She added, “It doesn’t take all the money in the world to make a child smile.”
Paula Taylor founded the Sulphur Christian Community Coalition in
2010. The group embraces kids from her region’s toughest neighborhoods, offering them tutoring, summer camps and enrichment activities. And, most importantly, a safe place to just be. Her mantra? “I want my life to make a difference.” As she accepted her award, that difference was uppermost in her mind. “For weeks, I have just been whispering, ‘$20,000! $20,000!’ Do you know what a difference this will make (for the kids in our program)? Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
With all this goodness in one room, it’s hard to believe that the voice from one gentle boy, Andy Foil, pretty much stole the show.
“Thank you Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana,” he proudly announced from the stage, earning a hearty applause.
Andy, 16, has autism. And when a doctor first told his mother, Tanja
Foil, the news, she remembers feeling lost and overwhelmed. Where can I turn for help, she wondered? What’s next? Astoundingly, the doctor had no answers. Thankfully, she stumbled upon Families Helping Families of Greater Baton Rouge – a non-profit providing support for children with disabilities and their families. Tanja dove into the group and, today, is an active volunteer. “They helped my family when we needed it the most,” she said.
Tanja is also a BCBSLA staffer – making her the night’s Blue Angel Award winner. Families Helping Families will be awarded a $5,000 check on her behalf.
To close out this special evening, BCBSLA Foundation President Michael Tipton took to the stage to offer a few words of praise for our Angel winners.
“Please let tonight’s award and the investment in your organization be a powerful example to others,” he said. “We are inspired by you, we are incredibly thankful for you and we look forward to partnering with you in the years to come.”
As our winners made their way home for the evening, Lydia Martin, strategic initiatives manager for the foundation, summed up the moment this way: “You know, Louisiana is so often highlighted in the news for so many bad things. But here we are tonight, surrounded by all these spotlights of hope.”
Well said. We’re already looking forward to honoring the Angels of tomorrow.