Category: Unsung Heros

One Man’s Decision to Make a Difference

one man decision artilce positive impact magazine

Colorado Dentist Considers Serving a Privilege

When a friend asked him to go to Vietnam with Children of Peace International (COPI), Colorado dentist Dale Feichtinger decided to make a trip that would change his life and also the lives of others. COPI was founded in 1993 by Binh Nguyen Rybacki, who fled Saigon in 1975. Her goal for the organization was to improve the lives of Vietnamese children living in an impoverished and war-torn country. In his six visits to Vietnam, Feichtinger has helped to make this goal a reality, providing healthcare and hope to children who often have neither.


“The biggest step in getting involved is making a decision to make a difference,” says Feichtinger about what he had to do to make his service in Vietnam a reality. After his first mission with COPI, Feichtinger knew that he would continue his outreach in Vietnam. With so many children who still needed care and with a limited amount of time and equipment, Feichtinger returned home from his first trip feeling as though the job was incomplete. Through his subsequent visits, he has been able to continue what he started.


Each trip with COPI focuses on medical and dental care for needy children of Vietnam. Feichtinger and the other care providers are able to have one-on-one interactions with the children they serve—children whose lives are markedly different than the lives of most American children.  In addition to the typical dental procedures such as fillings and extractions , Feichtinger  provides dental hygiene education in orphanages, schools and rural medical clinics.

“Team members benefit as much as those they serve,” Feichtinger says of the missions. “The served receive healthcare, an open ear and the feeling of not being forgotten, while the server leaves with the satisfaction of having just given 200 people something otherwise unattainable.”

It is this feeling of contribution that fuels Feichtinger’s desire to help. Now when he returns to Vietnam with COPI, Feichtinger feels as though he is visiting friends. On his second trip to Vietnam, Feichtinger encountered a 20-year-old street vendor who remembered him from the previous year. She walked with the team all day. During another mission, a Vietnamese woman came to the hotel where Feichtinger and his team were staying.  Hoping to see a team member from the year before, she rode a moped 40 miles just to say hello.

Feichtinger’s passion for Vietnam only deepens over time. He and his family are currently trying to adopt a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl who they met at an orphanage in 2005, and Feichtinger became a part of the COPI board of directors in 2010. “There is a need that I am able to help fill,” Feichtinger says of his reason for staying involved in Vietnam. As long as he is able, he will continue to serve.

Despite the fact that there are lots of people in the U.S. that need help, Feichtinger can’t ignore the need that he has seen in Vietnam. He explains, “Unlike in the U.S., the needy of other countries (not just Vietnam) simply do not have any way of receiving an education, health care, a place to sleep… If there is only one dentist per 100,000 people in the country, and that dentist is 250 miles away, you are not going to get an infected tooth extracted.”  So Feichtinger clings to his passion and to the message on the COPI website: “To serve is a privilege.”

If you are interested in donating to the cause of COPI, or if you would like to participate in a medical mission, visit

Information about the organization’s recent documentary, A Necessary Journey, is also available at


Everyday Heroes Honoree Gloria West-Lawson

gloria FB Hope house
At a very young age, an encounter with a foster child left a lasting impression on Gloria West Lawson.
After graduating from Eckerd College with a BA in Human Development Services, she began her career working with troubled youth. Time and time again she encountered children in foster care that were suffering: children who were separated from there siblings, children who had changed schools numerous times throughout their education, children who feared they’d never be a part of a family again, children who had been in more placements than they could remember, and children whose behavior was so out-of-control that they were no longer growing up in a home; but a facility. These children’s stories became Gloria’s driving force to work toward improving our community’s foster care system.
After raising three children, she wanted to help give other children what all children deserve – a loving, secure and stable home: the fundamentals of building strong, independent and capable adults.  She founded Fostering Hope Florida in 2004. In 2006 the first Hope House began accepting children.  Fostering Hope Florida now owns three homes and its mission is not only to provide loving support and a stable home for foster children, but to keep siblings together during a difficult and stressful time in their young lives. Additionally, Fostering Hope works toward bringing community support to all foster homes.
In recognition of her good work in our community, Gloria was nominated for the Energizer Bunny Award in 2009, she was awarded the Bright House Everyday Hero Award in 2010, and she received the Woman of Peace Award in 2011.  Gloria continues to act as Executive Director for Fostering Hope. In addition she served as a Guardian AdLitem for dependent children in the 6th Judicial Circuit for 8 years. And along with her husband Jerry, she fostered 12 teenagers in her own home and they adopted two teen brothers in 2012. She considers herself a friend and an advocate to all children in foster care and their foster families.

Former Mrs. America Reveals Her Inner Beauty in the Fight against Blindness

By: Baily Foster

April Lufriu seems to have it all. She has been crowned Mrs. Ybor City, Mrs. Florida America and the 2011 Mrs. America; she runs a successful business with her loving husband and works part-time as a model and dental hygienist; she has two adoring children; and it’s clear to anyone that she has beauty. But April also has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic retinal degenerative eye disease that gradually leads to blindness.


The startling reality of this disease entered April’s family in 1989, when her sister, Melissa Escobio, was officially diagnosed. In February 2010, April and her two children were faced with the same, discouraging news.

From the time of her sister’s diagnosis, April has made the “fight for sight” one of her top priorities, becoming a leading champion for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Since her children’s diagnoses, this cause has turned into April’s life mission. She is determined to do anything she can to raise awareness and funds in the pursuit of a cure, and she is using her role as Mrs. America to accomplish her goals.

April’s journey started in 2007, when her sister began seeking the comfort of a local support group. In the search for support, April and Melissa discovered the Foundation Fighting Blindness, an organization that researches preventions, treatments and cures for people with RP and other retinal degenerative diseases. The sisters were surprised at the foundation’s shortage of chapters and fundraising events in the Tampa area. With dedication and determination, they took action and created one of the most successful chapters in the nation.

April and Melissa launched their first fundraising event, a 5K Vision Walk, in October 2008. The walk raised over $43,000 with an astounding 250 participants. Following the success of this initial event, a Tampa chapter for the Foundation Fighting Blindness soon came into being. As Chapter President, April continued to organize annual 5K Vision Walks, bringing in more funds and even winning an “All-Star” award for her commitment.

It was April’s involvement in the Foundation Fighting Blindness that helped her family cope with the saddening diagnoses of her children in 2010. With the well-being of her kids in mind, she became even more determined in her battle against RP and other degenerative eye diseases. In her role as the Tampa Bay Chapter President, April continued to channel her energy into increasing chapter membership and spreading awareness.

But something inside April longed to do more. She told Positive Impact Magazine, “When I found out about my kids, I felt so helpless,” she recalls. “And every time I was knocking on doors, I was getting doors slammed in my face.” That’s when she decided to try a different approach.

Having participated in a select number of pageants throughout her life, April knew they could present more opportunities to share her mission. Though she had won the crown in a 2008 statewide Mrs. Florida pageant, it had not opened doors to national exposure and recognition for her cause.


So in 2010, April entered the Mrs. Florida America competition. She was named second runner- up and, after being encouraged by a friendly Facebook follower to compete again, she re-entered the pageant in 2011. “I wasn’t going to leave until I won,” she says with a laugh. April’s passion and perseverance paid off in the end. The judges and audience members were awed and inspired by her clear commitment to her cause and deep love for her children. This beautiful woman’s touching story and selfless desire to help others made her the deserving winner of the crown.

After her success at the Mrs. Florida pageant, April took a short six weeks to prepare for the 2011 Mrs. America competition. With hard work and an enduring devotion to her platform, April captured the hearts of her audience and earned the crown once again. “I never thought in a million years that I would win,” she says with a lingering sense of awe.

“It’s been a very honorable privilege, and it’s opened so many doors.” Since winning the Mrs. America title, April has been able to engage people across the nation in her discussion on RP and the mission of the Foundation Fighting Blindness.


With the recent partnership between the Mrs. America Organization and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, April’s dreams will continue to become realities. On August 26, PBS aired a segment on her family and her platform for the battle against blindness. April has also been named the official spokeswoman for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and she continues her leadership in the local Tampa chapter.

If you want to contribute to April’s mission, just follow her advice: “The best way to make an impact is just to get involved. We take anything, from pennies to whatever you can offer.” April and her sister have been busy in their plans for upcoming fundraisers and events.

To find more information about the walk or to become involved in other ways, visit You can also follow April and her progress with the Foundation Fighting Blindness on her Facebook page.



How One Dolphin Made a Difference in the Film Dolphin Tale

By Julie Starke
Photos courtesy Warner Bros.

How One Dolphin Made a Difference in the Film Dolphin Tale

Clearwater, Florida celebrated in style recently as locals and celebrities alike turned out for the premiere of Dolphin Tale, the Warner Bros. family-style movie starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and Kris Kristofferson. The true star of the flick is ‘Winter,’ a young bottlenose dolphin rescued from the Florida shores, who is playing herself in the movie and is a stand out in her first role for the big screen.


The story begins in December 2006 when the then three-month old was found mangled in a crab trap, her tail stuck and her breath labored. Unable to free herself, her first months of life found a dependence on human hands, one that would never really end but one she accepted as if this was the way it was always meant to be.

In an unlikely series of events, she is saved by a little known aquarium, taken to live in a converted water treatment plant, raised by a trainer with a complicated personal life, and taught to swim with a prosthetic tail; only to become a symbol of hope for the disabled, particularly children, all across the country.


While this story is filled with raw emotion and a cast of characters that are solidly celebratory, Winter brings so much more to the screen than meets the eye. She has become the hero of the journey and, along with her new found friends and family, she has brought Clearwater Marine Aquarium to the forefront of the world.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not your average facility. It began its journey in 1972 when a group of dedicated volunteers decided to establish a permanent Marine Biology learning center in the Clearwater area. Their dream took shape when, in 1978, the City of Clearwater agreed to donate its abandoned water treatment facility to the newly formed non-profit, Clearwater Marine Science Center (CMSC).

These pioneering souls saw a perfect opportunity and were granted a permit to turn the large cylinders into 65,000-gallon holding tanks in which to rehabilitate injured animals of the sea. A dream was realized and, in 1981, CMSC opened its doors to the public with its first exhibit room.  By the 1990’s the vision had caught on and CMSC changed its name to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a well-loved community learning center and an engaged community participant.

The dream had been realized.

Little did they know, several decades later, this same facility would come to house the most famous Dolphin in the world. Little did they know that they would come to be the center of a Hollywood venture and the saving grace for those who see themselves as different.

Winter came to Clearwater Marine Aquarium and, along with her, she brought a big dose of ‘go with the flow.’ This little girl didn’t know that dolphins don’t drink from bottles, tails are needed to swim, and humans can hurt. No, Winter didn’t know any of those things but she didn’t need to know. She simply did what felt natural and used what she had to get where she needed to go.

So, Winter did what dolphins do. She swam, she ate, she played, and she loved.  As a result, Winter lived and, in the process of living, this one-of-a-kind dolphin showed others what it was like to embrace the life you are given and to find joy in each moment.


Disabled children from around the world began to look at Winter as a kindred spirit. They came from miles around to share in the acceptance they found when looking into her twinkling eyes.

A bond was formed, one that could transform the pain and suffering experienced in their own lives to one of acceptance and belief that life could be okay. In fact, life could be downright remarkable and, with a little help from a friend, life could be magical too.


Yes, Winter did that for them and so much more.

She propelled a little known aquarium in the back streets of Clearwater into a major player in the non-profit world of rescue, rehabilitation and release. Turtles, otters, and fellow dolphins can find a home here while they heal from the wounds that life has brought them. Children can come for education and experience environmental excellence while bonding with a modern marvel that has no prejudice.

The doors have been open through Winter, both at the aquarium and in the hearts of the world. For it is one dolphin’s journey to share the lesson of non-resistance, to ride the wave and move forward regardless of the odds.

While this is the story of Winter, a dolphin tale that far surpasses all other dolphin tales, it is also a story of courage. Not only the courage of a little dolphin who came to defy the odds, but a story of a community who led with love and made a difference to so many, and of an aquarium who found that miracles do exist and yes, they even come in Winter.

How to get involved:
Clearwater Marine Aquarium has many ways that you can give back to your community and your environment.  CMA offers volunteer programs at an Adult, Diver or Junior level with opportunities to contribute to general operations such as animal care, guest services education and hospitality.  There is even a Sea Turtle Nesting Summer Volunteer Program which allow volunteers to monitor turtle nests on Pinellas County Beaches.   Structured internships are also available to current full and part time students.  You may also support the mission by becoming a CMA member, adopting a resident animal, making a donation or even following CMA on Facebook.  For more information on any of these opportunities please follow the CMA link at


PGA’s Rodney Green: Turning Boundaries into Blessings

By: Marci Wise

Photos by: Charity Beck


It’s the Transitions Championship Golf Tournament at Innisbrook, and the top names in the sport casually meander by as we wait for Rodney Green, the most prominent African American director of golf in the United States.  He enters the room accompanied by a flurry of excitement, everyone clamoring to say hello to this warm and unpretentious history-maker.  Green has graciously agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to speak with Positive Impact Magazine about his life, sport and winner mind-set.

PIM: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ban being lifted on African American players in the PGA and here you are with this historic position.  Have you ever felt that being black has been an obstacle for you in the sport?

Green: The year the Caucasian-only clause in the PGA was lifted was the year I was born. The industry has changed quite a bit in 50 years. As a kid I remember some things that may have happened because I was black, but that was in the ‘60s and it wasn’t just in golf. African Americans were facing obstacles in many areas during that time period. Now it’s about business.  Establishments that still share in discriminatory practices are ultimately not going to be successful. There’s also a lot more accountability now.  Companies can’t run the risk of being exposed for inequalities that years ago went unnoticed.

PIM:  There are still relatively few African American players in the PGA.  Why do you think that is?

Green: I think it’s simply because of a lack of exposure, although there does seem to be much more minority involvement lately—and everyone can thank Tiger for that.

Tiger made golf cool.  Back in the day, I was teased because golf just wasn’t cool.  They’d say “Golf? You play that old man’s game?”  Of course that’s changed now.

PIM: Your own childhood was heavily influenced by the game, wasn’t it?

Green: Yes, I was very fortunate to come from a golfing family.  My uncle and my dad were both golf professionals, and I grew up on a golf course. I can’t remember when I wasn’t around a golf course in some way, shape or form. It probably stands to reason why I’m still involved in the game today.  Back in those days I never saw anybody but black folks playing golf, so when I hear that African Americans don’t play golf I say, “Yes we do. We’ve been doing it for a very, very long time.”

PIM:  What has been the biggest struggle for you personally?

Green: I refer to struggles as challenges.  I’ve also learned that all the challenges that I’ve faced were in preparation for something that I was going to have to deal with further down the road. Now I just embrace everything that comes my way knowing that it’s all a part of the plan.  To whom much is given…much is required.

PIM:  What advice do you have for young people who dream of having a professional golfing career?

Green: My advice would be to learn a little bit about everything that’s going on around you.  The more you know, the better your chances for advancement.  The biggest difference in playing now, as opposed to the past, is how in shape these guys are.  You have to hit the gym.  Heck, I remember the day when you would see a guy smoking a cigarette—he’d take a drag, throw the cigarette on the ground and hit the shot.  Those days are gone!  Now its power bars and sports drinks.  They’re eating chicken sandwiches at the turn to get protein and things like that. They’re stronger and more athletic. Don’t be one dimensional.

PIM: Who has been the greatest inspiration to your life?

Green: I’ve been blessed to have had many people who have inspired me. Obviously my parents are the backbone and the root of my foundation, but I know people like our owner Sheila Johnson, Julius (Dr. J) Erving, Ken Griffey Jr., Alonzo Mourning, Steve Harvey, and Branford Marsalis. These are people who have touched my life and still to this day allow me to reach out to them for advice, counsel, support and friendship.


Surrounding yourself with positive, successful people is an absolute necessity in life. I don’t take it for granted.  I’m thankful every day.  As I said before…I’m blessed.

PIM:  If you could look back at the end of your life, what’s the legacy you’d like to leave?

Green: That’s a tough question. My guess is most people who ended up being labeled as pioneers or people of influence didn’t start out trying to do so. They were probably just trying to make a living and provide for their families. I’m very fortunate to be able to have a job that is also my passion.  At the end of the day, it’s about the love you give and the lives you touch. If I have been able to give some love and touch some lives, then I’ll be all right with that as my legacy.

Rodney Green’s inspiring rise to the top proves that the most influential determiners of success are passion, perseverance and integrity.  He’s a man who exudes a zest for life and a genuine gratitude for all he’s achieved.  His place in history is accentuated by the shining example he provides for the youth of today, regardless of the color of their skin—and that truly is a blessing.

Marci Wise is Positive Impact Magazine’s  columnist for “A Moment of Clarity.” She is journalist, producer and societal visionary who has spent more than 20 years bringing people information to help them lead happier lives.


How Andre Agassi Is Changing The World

By: Paul Fein

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” −Anne Frank, Holocaust diarist (1929-1945)

In his poignant and inspiring autobiography, OPEN, retired tennis champion Andre Agassi bared his tortured soul with brutal honesty. He survived an abusive father, a “Lord of the Flies” environment at the Bollettieri tennis academy, and his own self-destructive ways on the pro tour. Then there was a foray into drugs and a failed marriage. He finally turned his life and career around, finding his true love, Steffi Graf, and a passion for the sport he hated for years. Of his extraordinary evolution, Agassi says, “Am I glad I went through it? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”


Agassi managed to change himself; and using the bittersweet lessons he learned, he’s now changing the world. “In tennis, the thing I ultimately connected with the most is this opportunity to affect someone for a couple of hours in their day. That’s been a deep inspiration for me,” Agassi says. “The thought of impacting someone for life is overwhelming, if I could have that kind of impact. And that’s why my [college preparatory] school and education in general have been so important to me. It’s about connecting with people to make a difference in their lives.”

Ironically,  Agassi, a ninth-grade dropout who hated school as a rebellious teenager, has become one of America’s leading and most passionate advocates for the education of disadvantaged children. Agassi profoundly felt the lack of education in his life and found himself looking at the lives of other people who also weren’t educated. “I realized without education you don’t have options. And when you don’t have choices, you wake up in a life you didn’t choose,” Agassi says. “For me, that meant tennis for a while. But for others, that means jail, it means gangs, it means poverty. It means waking up and seeing the devastation in your life, not to mention in the lives of others.”

While Las Vegas, his hometown, epitomizes glitter and glamour to outsiders, he saw neighborhoods and lives blighted by poverty and deprivation. So in 1994, he established the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education ( to assist at-risk children. The foundation initially benefitted the Assistance League of Las Vegas’ Operation School Bell, Boys & Girls Club, Child Haven (a shelter caring for abused and abandoned children), the Cynthia Bunker Memorial Scholarship Fund and the National Junior Tennis League.

Since the inception of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, Agassi raised $150 million to benefit the foundation, including $92 million from the Grand Slam for Children fundraising event that he started in 1995. The annual, star-studded concert has featured entertainers such as Sir Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Rob Thomas, Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Bill Cosby and Robin Williams.

His longtime dream was realized in 2001 when he created the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in West Las Vegas, a crime-ridden area with shockingly high teen pregnancy, high school dropout, and unemployment rates.


In June 2009, Agassi Prep, one of eight charter schools sponsored by the Clark County School Board, graduated 100 percent of its first senior class of 34 students. All were accepted into colleges, as were the 19 graduates in the class of 2010. As a result, Agassi Prep had the distinction of earning a “High Achieving” status for the elementary, middle and high schools from the Nevada Department of Education. Several elements contributed to that designation: students attend school for an additional two hours daily and an extra 10 days per year; the adoption of Balanced Scorecard metrics focusing on increasing student achievement; and school, parent and community engagement and accountability.


In his moving, inaugural commencement speech, Agassi told graduates: “Each of you closes an important chapter in your life today. A happy chapter. But the larger story into which this chapter fits is still a mystery to you. If I could tell you one thing and have you write it down and keep it in your pocket, it’s this: Don’t be afraid of the mystery. Don’t be impatient with it. You’ll figure out your story, your larger narrative, eventually, but it might not be on your timetable. In the future, when your life story seems to have no focus, no meaning, no momentum, refer back to this chapter. Reread this chapter. Tell yourself again the story of how you were a pioneer, how you proved the naysayers wrong, how you defied the odds and made your families and teachers and that one old tennis player so very proud.”

This extraordinary success story caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who toured the innovative school in August 2009. Afterwards, Agassi noted, “The education initiatives of this administration underscore my foundation’s core mission; to transform education locally and nationally in order to create greater opportunities for children.”

Agassi has also teamed with other sports figures to change the world for the better. In 2007 he, along with Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and seven other pro stars, founded Athletes for Hope. This charity is dedicated to empower the sports community, especially athletes, to make a difference, and to inspire others to pass their passion for philanthropy from generation to generation.

How would Agassi, a charismatic tennis great, ultimately like to be remembered?

“I hope I’ll be remembered for giving opportunities to kids that society was quickest to say do not have a chance and was quickest to write off,” Agassi says. “My hope is to educate those children and take one of those success stories and watch one of those children change the world. I hope somebody who changes the world can say it was because of a chance that somehow I was a part of.”

Author info: Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies, You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers, and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player, and currently a No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.


World’s First Hula Hooping Missionary is a “Light in a Dark World”

By Deborah Bostock-Kelley

The job title on Carissa Caricato’s LinkedIn profile reads “full-time joy spreader” and anyone who has ever listened to the gregarious 25 year speak knows the description is a perfect fit. Carissa Caricato wears her faith and joy like a brilliant neon sign that illuminates every aspect of her life and those that surround her.


“If you describe me without my faith, you are not telling the whole story,” Carissa explained to Positive Impact Magazine.

Earlier this summer, in an economy where employment is hard to come by, she voluntarily said goodbye to her mentors, friends, and job security as marketing and communications for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and risked everything to pursue her passion, Hoola for Happiness.


Caricato formed Hoola for Happiness after taking a local hula hoop exercise class through Hoola Monsters. It was there that she discovered the “travel hoop” and decided to combine her love of hooping with her passion for missionary work. 
Just for fun, she took some travel hoops with her to her second trip to Haiti in December 2009, (12 days before the earthquake) and began documenting her experience on an online blog and Facebook as Hoola for Happiness. As soon as people heard about her simple, yet effective plan to “help people find their joy,” doors swung open. Carissa explained she doesn’t just walk through those open doors. “It’s like I’m wearing a jet pack,” she joked.

Only a year into its birth, Hoola for Happiness has gained momentum both locally and globally and through several synergistic collaborations, including Hoopnotica who recently donated hoops.

“What’s so cool about the hulas is that they can go anywhere, with any missionary group, so we are working with a lot of different ministries,” said Caricato. “In Haiti, these kids had never seen a hula hoop. It was so much fun and just helped with the language barrier.”

Approved and only awaiting the IRS paperwork, Hoola for Happiness is becoming an official 501(c)3 non-profit.

Caricato credits a random stranger for making her vision a reality. In 2010, a young girl donated $1,500 to Hoola for Happiness.

“The night I met her, she just said ‘I just feel led to give you this money.’ I have never been blessed so much in a single moment that someone would have so much confidence in a dream that they would give to that dream,” said Caricato.

The mission statement for Hoola for Happiness is to “spread the joy of hooping to the world one hoop at a time, one life at a time.”
Carissa Caricato in Kenya

In the last two years, Caricato has “spread the joy of hooping” through missionary work in Haiti, London, Kenya, Uganda, Brazil and she has a trip to Dubai, Nepal, and India planned in mid-December and hopes to spend Christmas back in Haiti.

Though she will voluntarily be homeless at the end of November when her lease expires, Caricato is excited to embark on a nomadic adventure as “the world’s first hula hooping missionary.”


Carissa Caricato in Kenya

“I’m selling everything in my house, all my furniture and clothes! The less stuff I have the happier I am.” Caricato explained,

“I already have lots of people willing to let me stay with them. It’s like I’m living like a college student again. I don’t need all this stuff weighing me down. Now if an opportunity arises, I can just go.”

Though she freely admits that she overcame personal challenges in her teens, Caricato credits her faith for the positive impact on her life. “All that I am is owed to my faith. That is where I get my energy, my joy and my light.”

She also attributed Janine Minge, a University of South Florida professor and mentor in Caricato’s sophomore year as the person who sparked her interest in non-profits and ultimately changed her outlook on life.

“I really never had the desire to do anything non-profit-ish. I was in a college class called Women in Communication. We were charged with finding something on campus that needed fixing and fix it,” she said. “Janine was such a great inspiration to think about someone other than yourself.”

Caricato’s group chose the campus blue light emergency phones connected to the campus police station. With a reporter in tow, the group walked the campus and tested the phones to discover that half were inoperable. “We got administration and planning involved. Local media got involved. We raised awareness about the issue of campus safety.”

During the course of that year, Caricato and her group petitioned administration to fund 55 new blue light emergency phones on campus. They were installed that summer.

“We were able to see that the fruits of our labor – just as a small class project – could end up benefiting and maybe saving someone’s life in the future,” she said. “This project was something that helped me get my start. My mentor Janine taught me to look outside myself and make a difference in the world around me.”

Caricato’s group went on to turn their project into a campus organization, NITE, Necessary Improvements to Transform our Environment and adopted Take Back the Night sexual violence rally as their signature event. Both NITE and Take Back the Night are still a significant part of USF today.

Caricato became NITE’s president in her senior year at USF and was awarded “Pillar of the Community.” Though only a year old, NITE won “Outstanding Student Organization of the Year” and Take Back the Night, “Volunteer Community Program of the Year.”

“During our second Take Back the Night event in 2008, the people at the Crisis Center wanted to meet me and that’s how I got my job there.”

Though she has had no income in the last two months since leaving the Crisis Center, Caricato said that she isn’t worried in the least. She explained that she doesn’t have a five year plan for Hoola for Happiness:


“I’m open to go to anywhere. If people have an orphanage they want us to take food to or if they have an idea, everything is on the table. Next year I am looking to starting leading group Joy Trips. Once I’ve already been to a place and established a relationship there, I’m hoping to bring people back with me, maybe to Haiti and maybe a spring break trip to Brazil. They’d be going on their own and meeting me down there to spread joy,” Caricato said.

For more information on volunteer opportunities, donations or sponsorships or to learn more about Hoola for Happiness,, or

• Hula hoops all over park

• Part of nationwide Love Riot Flash Mob (with hula hoops) to raise awareness of human trafficking

• Event proceeds benefit Hoola for Happiness


Out of the Shadows: The Peace Women

By: Marci Wise
Photos by: Glenna Gordon

The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.
~Honoré de Balzac


Women have long made their contributions to the sanctity of the family, abiding over their homes with a quiet, moral authority.  Mothers are characterized by putting others’ needs before their own and instilling the values of civility, charity and compassion in their children – but perhaps those same qualities hold the promise for humanity in these troubled times.  Nowhere is that point illustrated more beautifully than in troubled Liberia where the women are stepping out of the shadows to bring hope and peace to their people.

Wearing white

The Second Civil War in Liberia brought with it the horrors and mayhem of all war.  The violence was so prevalent that there were no guarantees that loved ones who had left home in the morning would return that night.  With no end in sight to the torment, the women of Liberia took action.  They banned together, Christian and Muslim alike, and took a stand for peace by issuing this statement of intent:

“In the past we were silent, but after being dehumanized and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace!  We will not relent until peace prevails.”

Embarking on what could have been a death sentence, the determined women donned bright white T-shirts and head-scarves and marched into the warzone.  But instead of becoming further casualties of an already bloody situation, something remarkable happened.  The fighting temporarily stopped, their message was heard, and the first seeds of rationality were planted in a tense and destructive political climate.  The country’s leaders found that the women’s calm demeanors were an asset in difficult negotiations and enabled more civilized communication.

As a result, the Peace Women were instrumental in bringing an end to the civil war and the exile of alleged warlord Charles Taylor in 2003.

The fabric of society

Since that time, the Peace Women’s political efforts have begun to blossom into something more substantial and long-lasting by catapulting Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the role of Liberia’s first African female head of state.  However, there’s still much work to be done.  With unemployment and poverty rates both around 80%, the citizens of Liberia are in need of a means by which to flourish.

Threads of hope

Enter an American organization named Liberty and Justice, founded by Chid Liberty and Adam Butlein.  Born in Liberia, Liberty and his family were forced to flee to the United States as refugees during the war, making him intimately familiar with the plight of Liberia’s people. Together, Liberty and Butlein, two resourceful men, created a program designed to educate, employ and empower Liberian workers.  This is quite a task considering that many Liberians have never had any semblance of a traditional job nor the understanding of what goes along with that.  Yet Butlein says the citizens of Liberia are eager for opportunities. “There’s a strong quality of accomplishing the unimaginable in each and every one.”

To meet their needs, Butlein and Liberty created the first ever Fair-Trade certified garment factory in Africa.  They not only train and employ workers, but ultimately give each a piece of the company as well.  Their first endeavor?  Making white T-shirts as homage to the brave women who wore them to symbolize peace while protesting the civil war.

“The Right-to-Work” program not only provides these women with much needed income, but also returns their dignity and hopes for a better life.


Training consists of six courses that cover all aspects of the worker mindset.

Alignment – Creates a sense of personal responsibility in the worker and provides inspiration to commit to an outstanding future.

Working Assets – Teaches basic money management and an approach to building family assets.  Participants open individual bank accounts and their contributions are matched dollar for dollar the first year by the Liberian Women’s Community Development Fund.

Basic Apparel Production – Trains them on how to sew and operate commercial sewing machines.

Advanced Apparel Production – Attendees become skilled at operating advanced apparel manufacturing equipment. Also teaches skills such as marking, plotting, pattern-making, screen-printing and distressing.

Management and Leadership – (optional) Designed for workers committed to leading a team of colleagues – teaches strategies for effective communication.

Strategy and Entrepreneurship – (optional) Designed for workers committed to managing their own businesses upon completing their service with the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project.

The program boasts an impressive 100% employment rate for participants and adheres to strict labor laws.  Workers earn $100 a month, receive health benefits and are given incentive programs such as large bags of rice with which to feed their families.


Although the training is extensive, the women’s goals are strikingly simple. One worker revealed she was feeding 17 people a day with the earnings and rice rations that her job provided.  “Another worker told us that because of the money we have paid her so far, she’s able to bring her child home from a displaced persons camp in a neighboring country.  I can’t imagine knowing that I had a child that was stuck in a displaced persons camp and I simply did not have the money to bring them home.  It is remarkable,” Butlein said in a PIM interview.

Liberty and justice

From ending the violence to rebuilding their broken society, the inner fortitude of Liberia’s women is providing a lifeline for this war-torn nation.  Their story confirms what most of us have suspected in our hearts all along – that the strength and purity of a mother’s love has the power to change the world.

How to get involved

To buy a T-shirt, find out more about this amazing organization or donate to the cause, please visit

Marci Wise is Positive Impact Magazine’s  columnist for “A Moment of Clarity.” She is journalist, producer and societal visionary who has spent more than 20 years bringing people information to help them lead happier lives.


From Notre Dame to Bangladesh: Ending Poverty Is Shawn Ahmed’s Homework

By: Bailey Foster

After Cyclone Sidr hit the coastline of Bangladesh in November 2007, Shawn Ahmed traveled once again to the country where his parents grew up to see how he could help. While there, he met a young boy who had survived the devastating natural disaster. Shawn filmed this boy as he spoke of the cyclone’s damaging affects to both his home and the village school. This video was later viewed on YouTube over 140,000 times by people in 19 different countries. The extraordinary public response to Shawn’s video of “The Boy Who Lived” led to a flood of restorative projects in the village. With the support of Save the Children and individuals from around the world, Shawn not only helped to rebuild the school, but also provided new equipment for fishermen, assistance to single mothers, and clean water to the village families. Because of one boy’s story on YouTube, a town received life-changing aid. The boy is now a village hero, with his picture gracing the side of the newly built school—a reminder of his incredible impact.


Stories like these capture the mission and influence of the Uncultured Project, an informal effort that Shawn began in order to end extreme poverty in Bangladesh. Shawn had been exposed to poverty from a young age, making occasional family trips to his parents’ home country throughout his early life. But in September 2006, Shawn’s desire to help the poor was ignited into a burning flame—one that could not be extinguished. A graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, Shawn had the opportunity to hear Dr. Jeffrey Sachs speak on the issue of global poverty. Dr. Sachs’s simple, yet powerful words changed his life: “We can end extreme poverty – but I have to tell the students the bad news: it’s your homework.” Shawn took this homework assignment seriously.

After hearing Dr. Sachs speak, he withdrew from school, liquidated his savings and traveled to Bangladesh in June 2007 to do his part in ending extreme poverty. What Shawn thought would be a short trip turned into his life’s passion. “Three months turned into six months, six months turned into twelve months and now it’s 2011!” he says of his incredible journey.

This photo is taken in Galachipa, Bangladesh in 2009. The villagers here are survivors of Cyclone Aila. Everyone with their hand up has either lost their home or had their home destroyed by the cyclone. I am interviewing a Save the Children disaster relief official in this video. Photo taken by Paul Seevers. This is where I did the real-time notification and donation receipts via Twitter that I mentioned.

Shawn chose to call his project “Uncultured,” reflecting its unstructured and informal nature, but also his own background as a “third-culture kid.” By taking an unconventional, spontaneous approach to extreme poverty, he sought to create a more personal connection with the poor, serving them as people of dignity, rather than objects of pity. When it came to sharing his message, Shawn felt that the Internet was the best way to reach today’s generation. During his initial visit to Bangladesh, Shawn blogged about his trip and exposed the nation’s primary issues with poverty by posting videos to YouTube. Over time, Shawn’s inspiring message captured the attention of countless people, including Kelly Stevenson, the Bangladesh County Director of Save the Children, who embraced Shawn’s ideas and began working with him to achieve his goals in Bangladesh.


As the Uncultured Project expands across the cyber world, via blog, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook, Shawn continues encouraging people to look at world poverty in a new way. Rather than using guilt as a tool, he spreads a hope-filled, empathy-based message on poverty, allowing individuals to make personalized contributions to the poor people of Bangladesh. His pro-active approach uses technology to create links between individuals across the globe. Based on what they see in Shawn’s videos, people have helped to decide what service projects come next in Bangladesh by casting online votes. Another YouTube video of native village health workers prompted enough support to help 10,000 children in South Bangladesh. Shawn has also used Twitter to track donations, share exactly where they go and put names with individual contributions. To Shawn, this makes such donations feel “less like a handout and more like one person helping another.”

With the amazing ways that technology helps to promote his goals, Shawn urges people to actively share his message online. To Shawn, the main way to get involved with the Uncultured Project is by helping to amplify his voice.

“I would rather get 1,000 people to share a video on YouTube than $1,000,” he says emphatically.

So what’s next for Shawn and the Uncultured Project? Having recently won the prestigious Davos Debates at the World Economic Forum, Shawn will continue speaking out about global poverty, revealing how his generation can bring it to an end. This March, Shawn will present at the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington. With his expanding amount of online support and his continued dedication to his project, Shawn’s mission to end poverty in Bangladesh gains momentum and hope each day. His homework has truly become his life’s work.

How to get involved

To become an active part of Shawn’s work, visit, which features links to YouTube, Twitter and more. You can also click on the “Donations” link if you’d still like to donate to the impoverished people of Bangladesh, or to Shawn’s project.

Bailey Foster recently graduated from the University of South Florida with a B.A. in English. She loves to encourage, motivate and inspire people through her writing.


Foster Parents Make An Impact

By: Sandra Meyer

Whitney Houston sings, “I believe that children are our future.  Teach them well and let them lead the way.”  Unfortunately, many children in our society aren’t given the opportunity to learn and thrive in this world because so many parents are struggling with drug, alcohol, mental or emotional problems.  Fortunately, people like Janet and Jim Brehm are doing something about this.


Janet and Jim are foster parents in Pinellas County, Florida. They opened their house in 1999, and since then have fostered more than 70 children. By 1998, Jim already had two grown children from a previous marriage, but when Jim heard a report on Tampa’s news station WFLA about the growing need for foster parents, his heart was touched. After discussing the issue with his wife Janet, the two of them immediately decided to become involved in fostering. They haven’t looked back since.

In 1999, the couple completed their training and were certified as foster parents. Within weeks they received their first foster child, Eddie, and their journey began. Soon they were notified that Eddie had an older sibling also in foster care and were asked if they were interested in taking both boys. Without a second thought, Janet and Jim began the necessary paperwork and the brothers had a new home together. Today the boys are 13 and 12 years old, and are legally adopted by the Brehms.

Since that time there have been two more adoptions, Jenna May 10, and Allie 6, also foster children, giving the Brehms a ready made family of four. “I was never able to have children of my own and this way I’ve had more than I could ever have conceived,” Janet says.

But the Brehms didn’t stop there. Throughout the care of their four adopted children, they fostered dozens of infants as well as some older children. The children come to them through Eckard Youth Alternatives, a nationally recognized organization that “champions the good in every child.” Many of the infants come to their home right from the hospital after they are born and the couple tirelessly change diapers, bottle-feed and get up for the middle-of-the night feedings.

It takes a special kind of person to give so selflessly and completely to another human being, and the Brehms have done it over and over again.

This is not just an effort on Janet and Jim’s part, however. Their four children play a large role in helping with the care of the babies that come to them. The entire family pitches in changing diapers, holding, feeding, and playing with the babies.

Their generosity and devotion are inspirational. They understand that the babies can be taken back to their own families at any time, and even though they’ve already fallen in love, they dutifully return the children when the time comes. “A lot of the babies we get are drug babies and the parents have a year to complete tasks and case plans. It’s then up to the courts to determine if the children will return to the parents,” Janet explained.

The couple has fostered babies anywhere from overnight to several months. One baby they had for three years from birth, before a family member stepped in to adopt the little boy. That was a particularly difficult separation for the entire family, but once again they put their own feelings aside. “I had this little guy come up and call me Dad,” Jim said with a visible tug at his heart.

The Brehm children had a particularly hard time when that boy left because after three years, he was their family. But instead of taking a break from fostering, the children quickly asked when they would get their next baby. “The choice is made as a family to keep fostering,” Janet said.

Janet and Jim seem to have an endless supply of love, and each child that comes to them becomes their own, whether for days, weeks, months, or years.

“Every time we get a baby we say this is the best one we’ve had,”

Jim says with a big smile. He is also holding a beautiful seven-month-old baby on his lap who came to them at birth. “I’d keep him forever,” he said.

“We love kids,” Janet said. “We are blessed by the children. People think it’s the other way around, but the children bless us,” she concluded.

Foster parents are needed virtually everywhere. If you feel you have that special something that it takes to become one of these amazing heroes, there is a wealth of information available on the internet to help you on your journey. The National Foster Parent Association is a great place to begin. The basic requirements of becoming a foster parent, as well as a link to state license and training requirements, can all be found on their website at: