Sarasota may be known as a destination for retirees, but local residents nonetheless work tirelessly to help underserved and disenfranchised populations gain traction on new paths out of trying situations. Whether financing higher education for the impoverished or offering emotional support to those battling disease, area nonprofit organizations hope to empower beneficiaries with the tools to scale their personal mountains. From large scale organizations like Community Foundation of Sarasota County to one-man operations like Music Heals Us, people in need will sleep better knowing a helping hand is ready to assist

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Some people escape a burning building and never look back, others run into burning buildings and look to pull others from danger. Andrew Lakey, founder of nonprofit organization Music Heals Us, is the latter. Hoping to go beyond the personal victory of his own cancer survival, Lakey continues to help others fight against the emotional burden of the disease. “I am a cancer survivor myself,” he says, referring to the tumor excision and chemotherapy he received at the tender age of nine. “After chemo was done,” he says, “I wanted to give back to combat the tyranny of pediatric cancer.” His gratitude for each breath has compelled him to form an organization that seeks to provide a therapeutic, constructive distraction from the depressing existential questions many cancer patients grapple with. The inspiration for the organization comes from the coping mechanisms he employed during his own treatment, in which he would knit, practice origami and play music. It was during this time that Lakey taught himself to play the ukulele, a learning process that helped focus his energy on doing rather than plummet down a rabbit hole of despair. Modeled after this experience, his organization strives to give as many ukuleles as possible to kids that are going through cancer. He has distributed 35 of the instruments to children in cancer wards, with the goal of giving away 100 as soon as possible. Kids request a ukulele through the Music Heals Us website and can begin watching Lakey’s introductory videos immediately. Long-term, Lakey wants to expand the scope of his organization to include a broader range of ages and a variety of instruments. Currently, he is working with Yousician, an online music instruction platform, to develop more advanced videos for the kids who want to go further with the music. Looking to the future, Lakey wants to build his organization’s visibility and donor community. With a strong base of support, he hopes to pay forward the other central tenet of his organization. “I had a really great team around me to help me get through [my illness],” he says, but knows that not all kids are fortunate enough to have a group of cheerleading caretakers in their corner. “I want to be that team member for them.” Ultimately, Lakey wants to establish a therapeutic Music Heals Us meet-and-greet in which current and former members can share their stories, offer emotional support and play some songs—perhaps a communal rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles, Lakey’s favorite ukulele adaptation.

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Struggling to make ends meet with his four kids and an ailing father, Daniel Freeman decided it was time to set his sights on a career that could afford him and his family the opportunities they deserved. That’s when he enrolled in the CNA program at Suncoast Technical College’s Alta Vista extension campus, a stepping stone out of poverty that would also allow him to be more involved with his two younger children who attend Alta Vista Elementary. The program is part of Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s two-generation approach to ending the cycle of poverty. “Two-generation” refers to the notion that poverty is typically an inherited socioeconomic state—children born into poverty often remain so for lack of access to higher education, a lack of financial literacy and resources, higher instances of chronic health issues and a shortage of social capital. “The approach involves working with children and their parents simultaneously,” says Murray Devine, a communications and marketing manager for the Foundation, rather than the one-dimensional approach of helping individuals without accounting for their home environment.  And the results are profound. “It’s just an amazing thing,” Freeman says, “my kids got to see their Daddy going to school every day, it set a good example.” Therein lies the genius and beauty of the program—parents are afforded an opportunity to show their children the importance of an education rather than tell. Receiving an education has become so normalized in Freeman’s family that even his 7-year-old son recently told him, miraculously, that he loves math. His older daughter, a freshman in high school, can’t seem to find enough hours in the day for her pursuits, which range from taekwondo to performing as first chair viola in Sarasota Youth Orchestra. Freeman is now a state-certified CNA working for a private home health agency and, more importantly, he gets to do what he loves: interact with people and be an active father to his kids. “With my old job, I wasn’t around as much,” he says, “and they struggled.” The struggle to climb the ladder out of poverty is never over, but now he and his family have a path laid out before them. The two-generation approach, more than funding and assistance with logistics, gave Freeman and his children a future with an impossibly high ceiling.

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Bryan Jacobs’ day starts as early as 0600, depending on which farmer’s market he’ll be sourcing his ingredients from for the day. He applies a farm-to-table philosophy in his work as a personal chef, with a meticulous attention to detail that belies his military background. “Veterans are very mission-oriented,” he says, but there was a time when he was living out of his car with no prospects, an ex-soldier without a mission who struggled with PTSD. Jacobs spent time as a front-line paramedic, surviving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But war can shake the most indomitable of spirits, making it difficult for surviving soldiers to smoothly reintegrate into a civilian life. In addition to the chronic aches and pains associated with traumatic injuries are the unseen scars, the ones that make it difficult to sleep at night or enter a crowded room, the ones that sometimes lead veterans to self-medicate just to cope. Jacobs found a way out when he, inspired by his grandfather, who was a chef and WWII veteran, enrolled in culinary school in Virginia. Once he battled out of his trench, he felt it was time to give back to his brothers and sisters in arms also struggling to reintegrate. In this spirit, he created an organization called Vets2Chef, and, with it, Jacobs hopes to leverage veterans’ military mindset to provide a career path out of homelessness, while also giving them a new mission. Vets2Chef is a chef-training boot camp that Jacobs operates out of USF’s Culinary Innovation Lab in Lakewood Ranch and works in conjunction with Goodwill Manasota’s Veteran’s Services. In his program, he implements a rehabilitative philosophy he affectionately coined “recipe of life,” predicated on mindfulness in processes, in understanding all of the little steps that go into making a dish. He hopes that this philosophy can translate into meaningful change for the veterans he works with, as it may help facilitate a realization that their lives can be transformed by a daily regimen of the thoughtful, deliberate pursuit of a worthwhile goal. “What they realize,” he says, “is the recipes aren’t that simple, and neither are their lives.” Up next for Jacobs’ program is an expansion of the Vets2 suffixes to include bakers, brew masters, vintners and farmers—careers that can give veterans tangible (and tasty) results as they seek new meaning and direction through gainful employment.

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When she’s not studying for a big test or training her hands for a braille competition, Kate Antolak enjoys an evening of conjuring with a Bram Stoker novel. “I like dark, paranormal stuff, basically witches and vampires,” she says between nefarious giggles. “Those are my people.” She is also the star pupil of Lighthouse Manasota’s Transition Program. The program is geared towards individuals between 14-22 years of age who are on the verge of transitioning into college or a career. “The main focus is job readiness and life readiness,” says Angela Freniere, who acts as transition coordinator and an orientation and mobility instructor. In addition to helping students navigate the college admissions and financial aid process, Freniere teaches interview skills, how to fill out an application, résumé building and community involvement—essentially how to perform the activities of adulthood in a world that doesn’t always adequately accommodate the needs of those with a vision impairment. Lighthouse is also the place where Antolak honed her braille-reading skills for the National Braille Challenge, a highly competitive event drawing participants from around the US with the aim of advancing the opportunities of visually impaired children. She placed 2nd in 2015 and 3rd in 2016, and says the number one training technique is “to read a lot and write a lot,” which works well for her as an insatiable consumer of literature and an AP English student. Lighthouse was founded to promote the independence of individuals who have lost some or all of their vision. In this case, they found a student of such profound talent and ambition that independence alone will not be enough to satisfy her. Antolak, not yet a high school graduate, is 100 pages in on a novel she’s working on—the story is a secret, but it would be safe to assume there will be elements of horror in it. The summer after graduation, Antolak will be joining SRQ for an editorial internship in which she hopes to gain some journalism experience and continue to work on her writing, before shipping off to college to major in creative writing.