Occupation: Owner of Paper Pups, LLC
Charity: American Cancer Society, Cattle Baron’s Ball
Inner Beauty: “A person with true inner beauty is selfless, gentle, and has God in their heart. You can’t see inner beauty, but it doesn’t take long for someone to realize that a person possesses that goodness. It is amazing how beautiful, one becomes when their inner beauty is realized…..also amazing how much less attractive a person can become if they don’t possess these qualities. A person with inner beauty sticks with you.”
Charity work is one of Michelle Ezell’s first memories. Nearly 30 years ago, her parents chaired the Cattle Baron’s Ball, where Ezell can vividly reminisce about her early awareness of the importance of giving back. In 2012, she and her husband were approached by a Cattle Baron’s advisory board that asked them to get involved, and the answer was a simple one, which snowballed to co-chairing the 2015 “South Texas Strong” Cattle Baron’s Ball.
Ezell explains that “It is easy to become so involved and passionate about the American Cancer Society (ACS) and its mission, because cancer has truly affected someone close to everyone.” She, herself, has a long list of loved ones who have fought and beat this awful disease, including her mother-in-law. “[My husband] Matt and I knew in 2012 when we were called by the Cattle Baron’s committee that it was meant to be, because his extraordinary mother was fighting her battle,” Ezell recalls.
Volunteering for the ACS has hit home in so many ways and continues to bring inspiration to Ezell. “I spend a lot of time at the ACS office, and I will always remember the time I saw a man and his beautiful, bald, brave wife stop by to obtain and use the resources that ACS provides. Countless individuals and families from the Coastal Bend receive support, transportation, housing, wigs, and so much more from the local American Cancer Society office and being able to see that makes me want to work even harder to raise money and awareness.”
“Matt has always been so calm and patient, and our 2-year-old son, Easley, has taught me to be patient, and I believe that patience is a valuable trait to have. I get to volunteer with the most amazing, hardworking, selfless people in the Coastal Bend. It is a privilege to know these people and to see the difference that they are making or will make in our community,” Ezell shares. Patience and patients: a rewarding combination.
Name: Merritt Kennedy
Occupation: Stay-at-Home Mom
Charity: Women’s Shelter of South Texas
Inner Beauty: “Inner character, confidence, love, positivity and strength, are the qualities that make a person truly beautiful. Sure, we all want to look attractive, but true beauty lies in acts of kindness and generosity. The staff and counselors of the Women’s Shelter of South Texas are shining examples of “inner” beauty on a daily basis. They welcome with open arms and hearts women, children and men who have mustered the courage to leave a dangerous and abusive home life.”
The unfortunate truth is that there is an increasing domestic violence epidemic in our 12-county area. But the fortunate truth is our Coastal Bend is made up of incredible individuals who are passionate, empathetic, and go above and beyond to help. Merritt Kennedy is the perfect example. She was nominated by a friend to serve on the board of The Women’s Shelter of South Texas two years ago. Just last year, The Shelter served more than 2,600 clients in 2014. Of those, 1,200 were children and 32 were men. About half of Corpus Christi’s 25 criminal homicides last year stemmed from domestic violence. These statistics speak for themselves. Prevention programs are just as important for the shelter as intervention programs. However, the funding for prevention is far too low. But education is key, Kennedy explains. “The shelter is hard at work maintaining and growing their eight-week education sessions for junior high school students about domestic violence. We have to start early!”
In these past two years, the hard work and dedication of everyone associated with the Women’s Shelter of South Texas has been Kennedy’s biggest inspiration. “It’s quite an honor to be part of a very solid and respected organization. Our community must confront domestic violence head-on and stop the cycle of abuse,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy learned from an early age the act of giving back, as both her grandmother and mother were passionate about their volunteer work and were instrumental in passing this on. Kennedy and her husband, Paul, work at teaching their two children (ages 9 and 7) the importance of volunteering.
As a proud South Texan, she feels immense passion to give back to a place that has enriched her and her family’s lives. Kennedy would encourage everyone to stop and do what you can to extend yourself in kindness and grace to another person or organization. There is a plethora of causes in which everyone can become involved in philanthropic acts, regardless of financial means. In the words of Charles Dickens, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
Name: Carol Scott
Occupation: Owner/President of Kailo Communications Studio
Charity: American Heart Association
Inner Beauty: “It is the twinkle in the eye, the love behind the smile, the personality that shines and the heart that is open.”
Carol Scott is no volunteer newby. Her dedication and past with the American Heart Association (AHA) goes back decades. Since the late 1980s, she’s supported their work. A few years ago, she and her husband Mark were asked to co-chair the Heart Ball. That experience ignited Scott’s involvement in the Circle of Red to promote awareness of heart disease in women. This has evolved to holding a position on the local AHA Board of Directors.
While lifestyle changes can prevent cardiovascular disease, investment in research must continue to provide new surgical techniques, better emergency interventions and improved medications for treatment. Scott explains that the AHA is the leading private funding source for this research. “An extra moment with close friends and family members who have been stricken with cardiovascular disease is proof to me that my volunteer time and financial resources are well spent,” expresses Scott.
Synergy is the main ingredient. Satisfaction is gained from working with other people, learning from them, sharing ideas, and in the end, developing something bigger and better because talents were pooled to elicit the desired results.
Scott’s parents instilled in her a strong work ethic, and she hopes she’s passed that work ethic by inspiring and teaching her children to contribute something of value to the world. It’s not about being the best, but doing your own personal best.
Name: Belinda Cantu
Occupation: Administrative Assistant
Charity: Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation
Inner Beauty: “Inner beauty is a reflection of your soul. It’s what has been instilled in you by God. Galatians and Proverbs talk about a virtuous woman and the fruit of the spirit,” says Cantu.
#Knowyourstatus and #beHuman are two of the main mottos at the Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation. Hashtags are IN, but the Wellness Foundation wants AIDS OUT. Belinda Cantu, Committee Member on the Red Ribbon Ball and originator of World AIDS Day is on a mission: To end the stigma. But it doesn’t end at AIDS. The foundation, once called the Coastal Bend AIDS Foundation, changed its name in 2013 to better identify what they’re all about. Over the years, the agency turned into a multi-faceted organization providing an array of services, including substance abuse treatment, youth wellness programs, and addressing additional community health needs.
Cantu has intimate ties and a compassion for empowering women, the LGBT community, and of course, those with HIV/AIDS. Friends of Cantu’s have passed due to the disease, and she started to branch out to the transgender community because it hit home for her. Thus #beHuman was born. #beHuman is a mission to support transgender teens and their families. A place they can come and take refuge. “I am currently organizing a benefit concert with local artists and guest speakers sharing their stories to bring awareness of the transgender community and to unite us all in the same mission….#beHuman,” says Cantu. Becoming personally involved in this foundation was such an obvious choice and Cantu is fulfilling her purpose.
“I advocate safe sex. I advocate living a safe and healthy lifestyle. I am not here to judge anyone. I have met some great people that have turned into wonderful friends that are living with HIV/AIDS. Although it does affect the majority of the gay community, this disease does not discriminate. It can affect anyone,” Cantu wants everyone to understand. The foundation offers free and confidential testing HIV testing along with educational materials so that everyone can obtain a better understanding of the disease. “We serve the 12 surrounding counties with more than 800 people affected with the HIV virus. Although the numbers world-wide have decreased and the medical advances have helped patients stay healthy, we still have so much to do,” reminds Cantu.
HIV/AIDS should never define someone. Education. Awareness. Strength through diversity. Confidence. Humor. Life. These are the things that matter.
Name: Dina Zughni-Esquivel
Occupation: Director of Business Development for Security Title
Charity: Walk With Pride
Inner Beauty: “Inner beauty to me is defined as the qualities and attributes that are not physically visible. Those qualities are kindness, compassion, and to be caring and open-minded. These traits are what truly shine through and will last a lifetime,” says Cantu.
Dina Zughni-Esquivel has a few addictions: Bringing a smile to a child’s face, and shoe shopping. And the Walk With Pride foundation, a Corpus Christi Association of Realtors (CCAR) non-profit charity, allows Zughini to do just that.
As a former Realtor, Zughni got involved in this charity back in 2005, as the CCAR encourages its members to give back to the community. The charity raises money to help kids start the school year off with not only a new pair of kicks, but also a bag filled with school supplies.
Each year, just before school starts, children get to come and pick a new pair of shoes that the foundation has been able to gather. “There is nothing like watching the excitement in a less fortunate child’s face as they pick their very own NEW pair of shoes. I see the same children come back year after year. Rightfully named, watching the kiddos ‘walk with pride’ in their new shoes is the most rewarding thing. It puts a spring in their step,” Zughni revels. Zughni and husband, Sam Esquivel, have two boys ages 8 and 3, and as parents to younger children, they know the importance of not only the necessities, but also the confidence kids crave going into a new school year.
“Children are our future. I hope by helping the less fortunate children in the community start off the first day of school on the right ‘foot’ it will help them feel good about themselves and encourage them to focus on their education,” wishes Zughni. As far as her own energetic boys, she aspires to teach them to always be involved and help make a difference in the community in which they live. If not us, then who?
Name: Mary Jane Garza
Charity: USO of South Texas
Inner Beauty: “Inner beauty is reflected in your soul. Your passion to be of assistance. Your smile that is welcoming. The way you behave toward others and the way you feel about yourself. The prayer of San Francis to me speaks of inner beauty,” says Garza.
‘…Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness, ever joy…’
Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Mary Jane Garza believes she owes her family and community for the woman she is today. Each morning as she’d walk out the door, Garza’s mother would give her blessing and remind her that every day is a gift and we were here to serve our fellow man. “I heard these same words every morning for 25 years,” recalls Garza. Then, at the end of each day around the dinner table, Garza’s father would ask the same three questions: 1. What did you learn that you did not know? 2. How will this help you? 3. How did you help someone? “I was very blessed to be raised in a family that loved life and in so doing loved their children and taught us to maximize each day for ourselves and others,” says Garza.
It’s due to these core values that Garza is as passionate about her charity work as she is. “I try to make a difference by being actively involved every day by my words and most important by my actions,” explains Garza. Although Garza volunteers at multiple charities, the USO of South Texas exemplifies the engrained notion of helping those that help you. USO provides critical support to forward-deployed troops, military families, wounded, ill and injured troops, their families, and caregivers, families of the fallen and troops in transition. The USO of South Texas recognizes all that our troops and their families do to protect the freedoms we, as Americans, enjoy daily.
It’s here that Garza feels the devotion to give back. One of the better-known benefits of volunteering is the impact on the community. “Unpaid volunteers are the glue that holds a community together. Volunteering allows me to connect to my community and make it a better place. It expands my circle of friends, my knowledge, learn new skills, and it makes me happy to be able to contribute,” Garza says.
Ghandi once stated, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” So watch out, world, Garza is here!
Name: Liza Wisner
Occupation: Founder of PowerUp.org and Manager at The City of Corpus Christi
Inner Beauty: It is undeniable that humans are attracted to things that are beautiful on the outside, but inner beauty is something we all have in abundance of we are courageous enough to let it out, because what I have realized is that inner beauty demands that we accept the beauty of others. When I don’t see beauty in another person, I believe that is my ego getting in the way. We need to work to understand each other on a more emotional level, understanding and accepting each other by first attempting to see things from their point of view then seeking out ways in which we can turn each interaction with them into a win-win situation. I feel like inner beauty is a challenge for me to cultivate and appreciate, like a sunrise. A beautiful sunrise that gradually shines through and can inspire all who take the moment to view its beauty. Its rays of passion and kindness are not only a true sign of personal success, but they also light the way for others. To see rays of sunshine you have to get to know them, and isn’t that really and truly the goal, to see with our heart instead of our eyes?
Liza Wisner wears many hats a top her beautiful head of hair and even more beautiful intellect beneath it. From Nairobi, Kenya, Wisner ventured to America on a golf scholarship representing Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s golf team. But she’s made her mark on America in outstanding ways. Her incredible list of achievements include TV personality, awarded golfer, local public figure, entrepreneur, radio host, executive leader and independent global distributor of healthy organic gourmet coffee by Organo Gold, Jamba Juice ambassador, brand ambassador for Justin Bieber’s perfume “GIRLFRIEND,” but best of all, avid volunteer.
Perhaps the one she’s most passionate about is the organization she founded herself in 2009, PowerUp! It stands for Providing Opportunities Where Everyone Rises Up! The foundation creates technology-rich environments where everyone can reach their full potential. In 2010 after becoming the Top 3 finalist on the television show The Apprentice with Donald Trump, Wisner started making what she called “PowerUp Trips” and doing “PowerUp Projects,” where she raised funds for a specific project to increase resources for community success.
Wisner explains that “There is an unspoken expectation that today’s child must be prepared for the high-tech world of tomorrow. Despite the widespread availability of technology and connectivity, many children who come from disadvantaged areas and technologically-disengaged home environments are at risk of being left behind. Having access to learning tools is critical to the development of children and their future contribution to a global society.”
“It is my belief we can bring about greater positive change in the community by more effectively coordinating our resources, allowing each charity to do what it does best while working together to address the challenges. It’s all about taking the ego out of aid and refocusing on the primary objective, providing people in need with a network of organizations that can help them meet their greatest challenges and get them powered up for a better tomorrow.” Wisner is a huge believer that by building a network of support and collaboration among the different groups available in our city, we can make a bigger difference together. She hopes that 100 years from now, people will be benefiting from the foundation that we are building regarding technology and support integration in communities.
Taking frequent trips back to Kenya, Liza works hard to identify and empower these young minds and ensure that every child has access to the tools and technologies that will help them become assets to their families and communities. “The most rewarding part for me is visualizing the future in the eyes of a person,” Wisner says. She made her first PowerUp trip in 2010 to Kenya as a goodwill ambassador to inspire children of all ages, demonstrate the societal gains of technology and contribute to much-needed resources at schools, hospitals, and children’s homes.
“I believe everyone needs a support system. That’s my role in our community.” Wisner does this by bringing people and technology together to help us succeed. She is truly powered by a passion for living her best life! Outside of work, this involves hittin’ the golf course and relaxing on the beach with husband, Denis, and their two sons, Zaleik and Zamar, and pup Ziggy!