When we first started the St. Augustine Social Person of the Year contest, we never expected it to get the reaction that it did. We had dozens of entries and thousands of votes for people with different backgrounds, stories, acts of kindness, and skills. But they all had an incredible community spirit that we felt was perfectly captured in the diversity of our top six winners. So read on and discover the fabric of the city, woven with the lives of six outstanding individuals.
With its history, quirky nature, joviality, and sense of community, St. Augustine was the perfect setting for Gary Williams to debut the personification of his canine companion Guen. Certainly it befits our small town to have a talking yellow lab who regales residents of the daily adventures of her human with the use of some frivolous repartee. And after some extensive historical research for an upcoming novel set in the area, Gary has become a treasure trove of historically accurate and engaging tidbits. Who doesn’t love a little local history served up with a wet nose and a dog cuddle? The endearment of his canine companion, Guen, and Gary’s eagerness to share his knowledge has created a captivating presence on the streets of St. Augustine.
Most days Gary gets up early and walks Guen at daybreak. They often make it to Castillo de San Marcos and stroll alongside the bay before returning to King Street. Upon arrival back at home, Gary makes a Facebook post, usually with a humorous anecdote by Guen, which begins with “While walking through the historic streets of St. Augustine this morning…”
These posts, which began as an intermittent pastime, led to an almost cult following, with fans putting in requests for a daily dose. “Gary,” says Cheryl Bacon, “starts my day off with a smile and even a laugh.” While Beth Thomas insists, “On Gary’s daily walks with his dog, he enlightens us all to the wonderful history of St. Augustine through conversations with his ‘talking dog’ Guen.”
“St. Augustine,” says Gary, “became home the moment we moved in. I love nothing more than walking the streets with Guen and meeting people, sometimes sharing my historical knowledge or just allowing Guen to be Guen.” It’s lucky for St. Augustine that the charm of the city beckoned to Gary and his wife Jackie when they became empty nesters with three grown children (Josh, Jeff, and Kristin) in 2013. Gary thought the atmosphere would be the perfect creative cove he needed to pursue a full-time writing career. However, it is Gary’s unique conversations with Guen that have captured the hearts of locals and visitors alike.
“When Makala was seven,” says Makala Corbin’s mom Heather, “she said to me, ‘Instead of buying a toy for a child this Christmas, can I buy pet food for the homeless pets?’ Since that conversation Makala’s giving heart has fundraised thousands of dollars to help homeless pets, children, and hurricane victims in St. Johns County.” A simple idea inspired by Makala’s third-grade teacher, Ms. Fenner, would be the roots which grew into Makala’s expansive giving tree. It all started with Makala making bookmarks with duct tape which she sold for $1 each. She earned a total of $275 that she donated to Dreams Come True, a wish-granting organization in Jacksonville.
At the surprisingly young age of 10, Makala is about to embark on her third annual furry friend fundraiser which benefits the SJC Pet Center. She also created the Summer Fun Campaign to assist the homeless children in St. Johns County. “Unfortunately,” says Makala, “St. Augustine has a lot of homeless children. Last summer we were up to almost 800 homeless students in the school system, and this has affected my heart because it’s so sad. I do a Summer Fun Campaign to buy toys for these children so they can have an enjoyable summer.” Makala’s keen intuition and instincts help her identify needs in the community. After Irma, she collected personal hygiene products, school supplies, laundry soap, and linens for blessing bags. She distributed two bags to ten families from local schools.
All this graceful giving got Makala nominated for the Beaver Toyota Extraordinary Accomplishment Award which led to a radio interview which aired for a week.
It might seem like a girl as philanthropic as Makala wouldn’t have spare time for herself, but she loves her American Girl doll collection, gymnastics, and basketball. She has also been learning ASL for about a year. Makala enjoys spending time at Vilano Beach with her family. She says, “In the evenings my family goes there to look for shark’s teeth, sea glass and to play. It is a nice way to end our day.”
You can help out Makala’s cause by visiting her website at www.makalacorbin.com.
Katie Lay didn’t hesitate to become an organ donor when she got her first driver’s license on her 16th birthday. “My parents,” she says, “raised my brother Kris and I to believe strongly in helping others, and we’ve done our best to teach our children the same lessons. We lead by example as much as we can.”But that was put to the test in April of last year when Katie heard via a friend on her Facebook page that Scott Christensen needed a kidney that could not come from a relative due to it being a genetic disorder. Katie felt compelled by the story right from the beginning. “I felt like it was something I was meant to do, and I had a very calm peace throughout the entire process.”
She consulted with her husband Steve and her twins, Megan and Jeremy, and they offered her their full support. The recipient was in Connecticut, and the lengthy medical preparation involved several trips to both Connecticut and New York. “Scott may have been a stranger in the beginning,” she says, “but I got to know him and his wife Anne pretty well, and by the time the surgery came around, I felt like I was donating to a friend, not a stranger.” Scott says, “Katie Lay is a true angel that saved my life. She is a great mom and wife and truly cares about people. My life has been given back to me, and this allowed me the walk the aisle this past summer with my daughter on her wedding day.”
Katie moved to St. Augustine with her husband (a local deputy sheriff) in 2000. She works for the fundraising organization which aids in supporting Flagler Hospital. Katie was completely surprised when she found out her friend Kelly Wilson nominated her for good neighbor. “As I watched Katie’s consistent service for others over the years she became my role model,” says Kelly. “When I heard the news of the kidney donation, Katie’s role model status elevated to an angel on Earth in my eyes. She is the true meaning of selfless and completely humble in all she does.”
Harold George just celebrated his 30th year with the St. Johns County Library. “Often people comment that they love books,” he says, “and would be interested in working at the library. However, when it comes down to it, it is more about people than books. It’s been very enriching to serve so many people.”
Harold came from a large family, and his mother was a native of St. Augustine. When he was young, he was eager to leave the small town and came and went for a while before fate brought him back and he settled into his current post as Extension Services Manager for our library system. This position puts him in charge of extending library services to those who don’t have accessibility due to a variety of circumstances.
He accomplishes this with two bookmobiles and the placement of little libraries in some key locations around the county. To bring awareness to the bookmobiles, Harold brings it to events like the St. Augustine Farmer’s Market, Ancient City Kid’s Day, and the Christmas parade. He says, “We extend the relationship residents have with the library by bringing it into their lives.”
“Thirty years ago,” Harold muses, “I would never have imagined I would still be at this job. However, I have the best life, and I love having roots in a place that is both culturally and historically unique. I was a very shy and introverted kid, and through my role in this community, I feel embraced and supported, and there is nothing I love more than to cheer this town onward and upward.” Harold’s nominator, LaKay Cornell, says “Harold is constantly connecting with the community to promote reading and literacy. Whether it’s money, time, creativity or just social media shout outs, he is always uplifting, supporting and helping St. Augustine in any way he can.”
Harold was honored to be part of the Public Information team during Hurricane Irma. “I am always better in a challenging situation,” he says, “if I have a role in helping people.”
Adam Morley has a deep love and respect for both his wife and the water. “I may sound a little biased here,” he says, “but I seriously have the best wife on the planet, and we have the cutest 2-year-old daughter named Elon who makes me smile every day. They are so supportive of my efforts and a huge part of why I do the things I do.” About St. Augustine, he says, “The water is what makes the community stand out amongst other communities. The variety of beaches, waterways, and rivers allows everyone to be connected to the water.”
“Adam,” says nominator Nana Royer, “teaches and walks the talk of a true environmentalist.” After taking some residents on a waterway cleanup with the eco tour boat he captains, Adam had an idea for something more permanent. He did some crowdfunding, found a used pontoon boat, and outfitted it with winches, nets, and boat hooks. Now the “Litter Gitter” and Adam host weekly Matanzas clean-ups. Everyone loves the boat ride and the opportunity to assist in keeping our river pristine.
Adam and his wife opened and operated a recycling business for seven years, starting in 2008. They sold it to First Coast Recycling in 2015. “I attended a meeting about Adam’s recycling business,” Nana Royer says, “and was most impressed by his knowledge and acumen regarding the business of recycled materials, along with his sincerity regarding the need to mitigate their effect on the environment.”
Now Adam is using his knowledge of politics to go one step further in pursuing his passions. He is running for State Representative for District 24 next year. He regularly hosts trips to Tallahassee to educate citizens on how to better understand and become more engaged in the political process at the state level. He said, “Our groups have advocated for issues like solar, Amendment 1 funding, clean water issues, and protecting Home Rule.” Adam is thrilled he will soon be taking over Genung’s Fish Camp where he worked as a youth. His love of the water has brought him full circle back to his roots.
School principals have the opportunity to be notably influential stewards of a community. The delicate adolescent years benefit substantially from a supportive mentor. Jay Willets fulfills that role as he watches over 1500 students at Pacetti Bay Middle School. “One of my goals,” he says, “is to teach kids to live in this world and be citizens of good character. I want to instill in them a lifelong desire to help others.”
Jay loves spending time in classrooms and catching those moments when students and teachers cross through the barriers of challenging content. This past October, Jay taught by example by being the core leader of the school when it became an activated shelter. Pacetti Middle School was built to be a special needs shelter with reinforced buildings and an oversized generator. The facility accommodates anyone that needs electricity to stay alive and will hold up to 250 people. For both Irma and Matthew, the shelter took in around 230 people. Jay and his family all remained on the site 24/7 during activation to attend to everyone’s needs.
Not surprisingly, Jay has a few stories about incidents at the shelter. “A vent blew off through a storm, and the health department loaned us a body bag to cover the hole. I ended up on the roof with the maintenance person duct taping the bag on the vent. Another day, Tim Tebow came in to surprise everyone and raise morale. You never know what each day will bring.” Jay spent several years as a lifeguard with Marine Rescue. He says his training there and as principal of three local schools has served him well and helped him to feel prepared to take action in all types of situations. Jay’s wife Sonja of twenty years says, “Jay’s good character shines through in his consistency and generosity with every situation and each person he encounters. He truly listens when you speak to him, and his response is always fair, reasonable, genuine and honest. His dedication to his family and community is evident in everything he does.”
Photography by Rob Futrell