Despite the darkness created by COVID-19, there have been many points of light. Following are 10 inspiring stories of people—our neighbors—who are making our community better. There will be no awards dinner for these 10 individuals. No ceremony honoring their contributions. Out & About was simply inspired by their efforts. And we felt you would be, too.
When the pandemic shut down everything in Delaware earlier this year, Nataki Oliver, owner and gallerist of the Sold Firm, didn’t sit idle. Not only did Oliver launch a powerful art exhibition, she turned her gallery into a voter registration site.
The Sold Firm, located on Eighth and Tatnall streets in Wilmington, is an art gallery that exhibits modern and contemporary artists who tackle diverse subjects. When the pandemic canceled one of the gallery’s upcoming major events, Oliver went back to the drawing board.
What she envisioned was a way to celebrate artwork created by Black artists during a time of societal upheaval and quarantine. The exhibit, “Pendulum Swing,” featured 15 artists, most of whom live or are from Wilmington, and “took [the artist’s] creative outpouring and the inequities the Black community faces daily and put it on paper, on wood and other mediums,” says Oliver.
As part of the opening reception, Oliver sold merchandise. She then used a portion of the proceeds to provide private art lessons for Black youngsters taught by famed local artist James Wyatt. She also bought the kids take-home art kits. As the 2020 election neared, Oliver converted her gallery into a voter registration site. The move was partially in response to a first-hand experience she had in 2019, when a computer glitch at the Department of Motor Vehicles accidentally changed her voter registration status to “no party” during the license renewal process. She knew without party affiliation unknowing would-be voters wouldn’t be able to vote in the primaries.
“I didn’t want anyone to go through what I went through [with the Department of Elections] to be able to
vote,” she says. So, with help from a member of the Democratic Party, Oliver set up a pop-up voter registration site in her gallery for a week.
“We set up every single day at 6 a.m. with signs and balloons,” she says. On the final day, someone brought in an 83-year-old gentleman to register him to vote.
“He had never voted in his life,” says Oliver. “He felt this vote was that important that he needed to register.”
Sean Locke’ life was on a constant upward trajectory: Homecoming King as well as basketball and baseball star at St. Mark’s High School; captain of the University of Delaware basketball team; played in the 2014 NCAA tournament; dozens of friends; a great job with the Buccini-Pollin Group in Wilmington.
But beneath this textbook existence he waged a years-long battle with anxiety and depression, and on July 18, 2018, just weeks shy of his 24th birthday, Sean killed himself.
Four thousand people came to the viewing.
“He was a great kid, a ton of friends, never gave me an ounce of trouble,” says his father, Chris, a lawyer with Lang Development Group in Newark. “I talked to him every single day—about everything—and he never said a word [about suffering from depression].”
After his son’s death, Locke came to understand that depression is a secret kept by many in our society. “It’s a disease like heart disease or cancer, but depression can paralyze a person, and keep them from getting help. And in Sean’s case, he was an athlete, and athletes are taught to push through pain, show no weakness.”
Chris Locke, his family and friends have taken action to ensure that Sean’s death will not be in vain. Their efforts have resulted in SL24: Unlocke The Light Foundation, which has raised several thousand dollars—and, more recently, Sean’s House, at 136 W. Main St. in Newark, where he lived while attending UD.
Calling it “a safe haven” for anyone age 14 to 24 dealing with mental health challenges, Locke says, “You can drop in 24 hours a day, grab a cookie and a soda, or a book from the library, and talk to one of the people there. All free of charge.”
The house is staffed by a supervisor, 18 UD students trained in peer support, three on-call doctoral students, a chief psychologist, and volunteers. Meanwhile, Chris Locke and other members of the SL24 foundation have spoken to 9,000 high school students about mental health and suicide prevention.
“We opened the house on Oct. 1 and during the first 22 days, over 175 kids dropped in,” Locke says. “We saved three kids already who were suicidal.” For more: UnlockeTheLight.com.
Jay Macklin isn’t called a community doer for nothing. For the past 20 years, she has helped thousands of people through Stop the Violence Coalition, Inc. (STVC).
The Coalition, which was founded in reaction to the shooting deaths of two people killed in a Wilmington barbershop, will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. It strives to prevent violence by creating community programs, including parenting classes, mentoring, and financial literacy. Macklin creates programs and services for STVC, which has served more than 200,000 people in the tri-state area over the years.
In 2017, Macklin founded Academy for Peace (AFP) in response to the “violent deaths of two teens in and near one of our local schools,” she says. The Academy operates under the umbrella of STVC and promotes peace in neighborhoods and schools by offering youths and families educational workshops that focus on diversity, conflict resolution and meditation.
In response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, Macklin and Wilmington folk artist Eunice LaFate organized a Black Lives Matter art exhibit for young artists. And as part of Delaware Peace Week in October, the duo conducted an arts program for 12 youngsters from the Claymont Boys and Girls Club.
“All lives matter when Black lives matter,” read a slogan on a T-Shirt designed by one student participant.
Then when COVID-19 struck and began stripping away jobs, Macklin created a five-week Zoom series: “Help! I Can’t Stop Thinking About Money During COVID-19.”
The program provided pointers to 25 participants on everything from budgeting, saving and credit repair, to stress relief tips through exercise and relaxation.
A grant from Trauma Matters Delaware sponsored the program. Economic empowerment is an ongoing goal of the Academy.
Macklin says she does what she does because “all people deserve to live a healthy, productive life. If I am blessed with gifts, skills and talents that can ease the pain and suffering of humanity, then it is my duty to serve.”
Creativity and compassion have been key in how A.J. Schall has combatted COVID-19.
As Delaware Emergency Management Agency director and the governor’s homeland security advisor, Schall began meeting on COVID-19 on Jan. 28. Then he began doing.
“This is the most critical time of our life since World War II,” he said, and “we’ve been very creative in some of our solutions.” That creativity includes joining other states on supply chains (he’s bought 19 million pieces of personal protective equipment and ordered super-cold refrigerators to handle sensitive vaccines under development), blocking off floors of hotels to quarantine people (and arranging for laundry services) and reaching out to the public in different ways (like this interview).
As for compassion, he cites the Southwest Airlines mantra he prominently displayed in DEMA’s Smyrna headquarters: “There’s no formula except compassion.”
“Disasters are always followed by dollar signs with lots of commas,” Schall said, “but money can only go so far. People have to heal on their own.”
Healing for the pandemic includes physical well-being as well as rebuilding communities. “A sense of community drives my mission,” he said.
That sense first showed up in high school in Illinois, when he volunteered at his county emergency management office. It continued in Delaware, where he has been a volunteer with the Aetna Hose, Hook & Ladder Company since 1999, now serving as deputy chief. This winter, he joins the University of Delaware as an adjunct.
Schall uses corporate skills honed at Bank of America, such as team building and project management, to lead DEMA’s staff of 45, with the capability of marshaling thousands. He’s starting an afteraction review to assess the COVID-19 response and “leave us better tomorrow than it was today.”
“He is the type of person that knows you need help and offers before you even have to ask,” said Rob Coupe, Chief of Staff for the Delaware Department of Justice and Schall’s old boss. “He creates a culture of continuous improvement, sharing his vision to always make things better with everyone he has a chance to work with.”
Sanjay Malik is juggling the top two jobs at the Food Bank of Delaware while the nonprofit is juggling to handle what’s trending to be twice the demand.
Malik, the chief financial officer, was named interim CEO after Patricia Beebe resigned in April. He doesn’t track his hours in running an organization with a $32 million budget, 50 full-timers, five part-timers and volunteer help that adds up to 24 full-timers.
“What needs to be done, I do, and I have a great leadership team,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to become CEO permanently.
“To say he’s gone above and beyond is an understatement,” said Andy Larmore, Board Chair for Food Bank of Delaware. “More importantly, he keeps the team in a good mental place, especially important with all the stress we’re going through.”
“He’s such a calm and level-headed individual, allowing others to step up and their energies to feed each other,” Larmore said. “They’ve rallied beyond measure to help a community in great need.”
When the pandemic hit this spring, health restrictions grew and the economy flatlined. The food bank stopped its in-person culinary and logistics programs as well as its nutrition and financial-literacy training and diverted the staff to food distribution.
Demand by the newly needy soared. In its last fiscal year, which ended in June, it distributed 8.6 million pounds of food. Yet in the latest six months, it distributed 9.6 million pounds. The Food Bank estimates the number of food-insecure in the state has grown from 121,850 before COVID-19 to 171,930 today.
To handle the growth, Food Bank turned to Easterseals for drivers from its facilities in Newark (which doubled in size last year) and Milford. It set up monthly mobile pantries in each county, working with the National Guard to give out food boxes and the Delaware Department of Transportation to smooth traffic flow.
Although some mobile pantries early on ran out of food after serving 2,000 households, staffers have learned to handle the demand. The Food Bank has sent trainers back to training, in a hybrid way, of course.
“Sanjay is so proud of his team,” Larmore said, “and we couldn’t be more proud as well.”
Delawareans often describe the state as a revolving door. No matter how far or long one moves away, the strange gravitational pull of the “Small Wonder” brings you back. In the case of Chelsea Spyres, a Newark native and a 2014 UD graduate, Delaware called her back earlier than expected.
While attending graduate school at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., a mutually perfect opportunity presented itself. So in January 2020, Spyres became Pastor of Community Engagement with Grace United Methodist Church and Co-Pastor of Riverfront Church, and a leader in the fight against hunger and homelessness in Wilmington.
Community service is in Spyres’ blood. “I moved to Detroit for two years after U.D. in a Volunteer Corps with the United Methodist Church. While there, I worked at the NOAH Project (whose mission is to empower low-income and homeless Detroiters to achieve stability by serving as the first step on the journey to self-sufficiency), serving as a caseworker,” she says.
From Detroit, she moved to the nation’s capital, working at a church in Bowie, Md. for three years while attending seminary school. Though intending to finish graduate school in D.C. and “figure it out from there,” she got the call to serve and she answered, moving to Wilmington and starting her new jobs just months before the COVID-19 crisis began. She got to work immediately.
“Through the pandemic, one of our main responses has been around food. In April, we began daily food distribution, and through the city Parks and Recreation Department, we’ve distributed over 10,000 individual meals; and through the Food Bank of Delaware, 600 large food boxes through their mobile pantries,” Spyres says. “Food distribution is, for us, a way to meet a physical need while connecting with our neighbors through story-sharing and relationship-building.”
When she has time, Spyres loves to explore the relatively-new-to-her city of Wilmington, go hiking and camping, and host friends for meals at her home. However, her primary focus is, as always, service.
“My favorite days are when I’m out walking in the neighborhood or when someone comes for food and we get to talking. The story-sharing and the trust-building that happens is humbling and life-giving. Each time someone trusts me with part of their story, I give thanks and I’m amazed at the ways community forms.”
Those interested in volunteering can email email@example.com
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one,” Mother Teresa once said.
Christian Miller and his friends Ethan Ferreira and Paul Pomeroy fed 91 this summer.
Between July and August, the 17-year-old Archmere Academy seniors raised $3,055 through a Facebook fundraiser and collected a $1,000 worth of donated food. The Latin American Community Center (LACC) in Wilmington added the donation to a fund collection that feeds hundreds of Hispanic families left jobless due to COVID-19.
According to the organization, $50 feeds a family for a week. The LACC’s programs and services address the needs of the Hispanic community in Wilmington.
“I chose the LACC because I had seen on the news a statistic about the disproportionate effect that the pandemic had on the Hispanic community,” says Miller, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “To help feed families even if just for a few weeks felt like a duty I needed to rise to.”
Every Sunday during the fundraiser, the students also collected food and money from neighbors. If neighbors couldn’t drop the items off at one of their homes, the students picked up the items themselves.
Many Hispanics in Delaware work in restaurants, hotels, bars and manufacturing companies severely impacted by COVID-19. Based on an August report by the PEW Research Center, unemployment rates remain higher among Hispanic workers than U.S. workers overall. And due to the group’s occupations, many have a higher risk of exposure to the virus than other ethnic groups.
Taking action made Miller feel he was part of a community effort to alleviate the affects of the disease. “It allowed me to direct my energy towards something productive in a time where I had begun to spend every day doing nothing, and it made me feel like I was doing something to combat COVID-19 by helping those the pandemic hit the hardest.”
It also helped him meet and connect with his neighbors. “I’m admittedly not very well acquainted with many members of my neighborhood,” Miller says. “But despite this unfamiliarity many members of my community stepped up to support the effort.
If you’ve never met Rob Pfeiffer, it’s a safe bet you know of his deeds or you’ve seen him walking with divine purpose at all hours throughout the neighborhoods of his beloved Wilmington. You’ve probably had one of his incredible craft beers during his stints as head brewer at Twin Lakes Brewing Company and Smyrna’s Blue Earle Brewing, or at one of the myriad of Delaware breweries to which he has lent his decades of knowledge to as a consultant.
He may have mixed sound at your band’s show, been the home inspector when your sister bought her first house, or even officiated the ceremony at your cousin’s wedding in his role as a minister of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude (really). Though the term is overused, Rob Pfeiffer is a Renaissance Man. But it’s his tireless work as the honorary Mayor of Tiltlandia, his nickname for the Tilton Park/Cool Spring community in which he resides, that has been a beacon of light and hope in these troubled times.
The Mayor’s philosophy is as simple as it is beautiful. “My thing has always been to make sure my awesome friends and neighbors are OK,” Pfeiffer says. “I could look at the big-picture political scene, and I do, but I prefer to make sure the kids eat and are safe in my neighborhood.”
Pfeiffer’s ethos is on full display in Tilton Park, which he and his fellow true believers have transformed into a safe and thriving community gathering place through years of effort and vigilance.
As COVID-19 has hurt the most disadvantaged in his community the hardest, Pfeiffer has chosen to help rather than complain. “During the pandemic mess, we’ve been working with Harvest 2020, a program to get food to the people that need it the most. We gather excess produce from community gardens and get it to an accessible food distribution point,” he says. “I volunteer with the Food Bank to distribute food, but I also grab some from the pickup points to give to people around here who can use it, but can’t make it out to the distribution points.”
As a resident of Cool Spring, and one lucky enough to call Pfeiffer a friend, I’m comforted just to know he’s out there spreading his special brand of laid-back positivity, guitar in one hand and beer in the other. In his own words: “I guess I was raised to help others, and I do what I can. It’s hippie stuff. That’s why I’m still poor!”
What began as a hobby became a full-time career for Wilmington-based artist JaQuanne LeRoy.
“I never thought I could pursue art as a career,” he says.
His path included being an educator and studying advertising design. Today, he’s Teaching Artist and Curator in Residence for the Delaware Art Museum, Delaware College of Art and Design, and Chris White Gallery.
LeRoy started painting as a coping mechanism, not from a specific event, but from what he calls his “quarter-life crisis.”
“I didn’t know what or where I wanted to be in life,” he says.
LeRoy’s style is best described as abstract realism. His aesthetic came from a lesson he learned in one of his drawing classes. “[My professor] taught us that we should not erase our lines when sketching but restate them,” says LeRoy. This encouraged him to see potential in all his paintings and that it was OK to paint over lines that already existed.
LeRoy’s two most recent works have centered around his relationship with God and coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement. His work depicts scriptures that are most meaningful to him, including Psalm 18: 16-17. This scripture is the namesake and inspiration for LeRoy’s mural on Ninth Street in Wilmington, which was a partnership with Flux Creative Consulting. The Scripture reads:
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
LeRoy’s other notable work was as the lead designer on the “Freedom and Justice” mural located at the King Street entrance to Wilmington’s Peter Spencer Plaza. The mural included symbols found in traditional African clothing and was “something that anyone could embrace and feel connected to.”
At the Delaware Art Museum, LeRoy has partnered with the museum’s operation technician Iz Balleto to curate a new photography exhibit: Seeing Essential Workers Through a New Lens. The exhibit (on view through March 14, 2021) highlights the many people who have kept our communities going through this pandemic.
Sharon Kelly Hake
When she set out to form Great Dames, Sharon Kelly Hake took inspiration from the film Field of Dreams. “It was kind of like, ‘create it, and they will come,’” she says.
Kelly Hake knew the need was there for the nonprofit she had in mind, one that would provide services and opportunities for women and girls to enhance and encourage their personal and professional development. That insight came from 28 years of traveling the globe as a DuPont executive and talking to women leaders from many backgrounds about their leadership styles.
“And a pattern emerged,” says Kelly Hake. “They felt undervalued and unheard, and every single one of them said, ‘this is so needed.’”
In 2009, along with her daughters, Heather Cassey and Deirdre Hake, she founded Great Dames. And as she suspected, they came—first by the dozens, then by the hundreds, until today, more than 11,500 women worldwide have taken part in Great Dames programs.
Now, backed by a board of directors (which includes men), Kelly Hake leads an organization that offers mentoring, personal branding workshops, and an inspirational speaker series. It also has provided financial and professional support to 600 women entrepreneurs and 275 nonprofits.
Funding comes from fees for the programs, $95 annual dues paid by Great Dames Circle members, and a for-profit headed by Kelly Hake that receives consulting fees, which she plows back into Great Dames.
This year, the organization has held more than 20 events—most of them virtual, including a five-day September conference that drew participants from 12 countries in four continents.
Kelly Hake emphasizes that the programs—usually led by world-class speakers who charge no fee—are not of the “oh, that was interesting” variety. “We hold women accountable,” she says. “We expect them to go out the door and do something with the information or insight or inspiration. We’re all about taking action.”
Says Board Member Maria Hess: “Sharon has guided and inspired many legacies. As the leader of Great Dames, she is compassionate, selfless, and insightful, and she works harder than anyone I know. Not many people truly lead by example like Sharon does.”
For more on the organization, visit GreatDames.com.