Connecting for children; honoring excellence

The Marion County Children’s Alliance combines numerous groups in support of local children. On April 13, the agency celebrated successes and honored the work of The Pearl Project and Kut Different nonprofits.

Marion County Children’s Alliance board member Brad Rogers, left, and MCCA Executive Director Beth McCall, right, present the 2023 Dr. Mike Jordan Award of Excellence to Joy and Stephen Zedler of The Pearl Project during the Children First Gala held April 13, 2023, at the Country Club of Ocala. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette 2023]

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Posted April 14, 2023 | By Andy Fillmore

The fifth annual Children First Gala and awards presentation on Thursday night at the Country Club of Ocala saw volunteers, elected officials and community leaders gather to recognize the work of the Marion County Children’s Alliance (MCCA) and the many volunteers and partner organizations that cooperate to improve the lives of underserved or troubled kids in the community.

The gala, which serves as the MCCA’s primary fundraiser, included the third annual presentation of two awards named in honor of Dr. Mike Jordan, one of MCCA’s founders and 18-year volunteer and executive director. The recipients were introduced by MCCA Executive Director Beth McCall and presented by MCCA Board of Directors member and volunteer Brad Rogers.

The Pearl Project, founded by Stephen and Joy Zedler, is the recipient of the 2023 Dr. Mike Jordan Award of Excellence.

The nonprofit organization is a ministry of supporting children with a history of trauma when traditional parenting approaches have failed, according to Joy Zedler.

The Zedlers, themselves foster parents of children with past trauma, attended an Empowered to Connect conference and became aware of the work of Dr. Karyn Purvis. The Karyn Purvis Institute provides a method of Trust Based Relational Intervention for parenting children with “early trauma.” The Zedlers found the experience broadened their empathy for their foster children’s history and gave them hope and “practical parenting skills,” the award presentation stated. The couple has since provided hundreds with training in “faith guided” Trust-Based Relational Intervention, the presentation noted.

Stephen Zedler said after the gala that in the case of children who may have been, for example, subjected to abuse or neglect, the foster parent must build up a relationship of trust with the child.

“Traditional parenting didn’t work,” he said.

Joy Zedler said about 60 people are currently attending their classes.

“MCCA (has been) a huge support,” she said.

The Dr. Mike Jordan Award of Vision was presented to Kut Different, a nonprofit mentoring outreach for Black youth in grades four through eight, which wasfounded by brothers and Ocala natives Jamie Gilmore Jr. and Eddie Rocker.

Jamie Gilmore Jr. of Kut Different, center, receives the Dr. Mike Jordan Award of Vision from Beth McCall, the president of the Marion County Children’s Alliance, right, and Brad Rogers of the Marion County Children’s Alliance, left, during the Marion County Children’s Alliance fundraising gala at the Country Club of Ocala south of Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, April 13, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

The program provides “quality educational time during the school day with minority men who serve as mentors and role models” and summer field trip to businesses (and other venues) to “help open (students’) minds to the numerous possibilities afforded to them,” according to the award presentation.

“(The award) is an honor and privilege,” said Gilmore who accepted for the organization.

Ocala Police Department (OPD) Chief Mike Balkan, a member of the MCCA Board of Directors, said the work of the organization is “incredibly important.”

City Councilman Ire Bethea cited grant support the MCCA had provided to the city.

Retired county judge Jim McCune said the MCCA takes on the cause of “kids who don’t have a voice” so they in turn can take their role in caring for the community.

Musical entertainment for the Marion County Children’s Alliance’s Children First Gala held April 13, 2023, at the Country Club of Ocala was provided by Forest High School students Emery Robbins and Camden Collins. [Photo by Bruce Ackerman]

Musical entertainment for the gala was provided by Forest High School students Emery Robbins and Camden Collins.

The MCCA mission to “improve the lives of children” centers around “communication and collaboration among agencies and individuals who work with children” and help parents and children in need get help and be a “voice for children” in local and state government.

McCall, moderator for the gala, spoke about the organization’s involvement in the community and collaboration with various nonprofits, departments and agencies. She termed the organization’s approach as thinking “out of the box” to approach often acute and rapidly evolving crises.

She gave an example of a mother with eight children, victims of domestic violence, who were stranded recently at a local service station and received immediate assistance from several agencies, including Interfaith Emergency Services, made possible through quick networking.

McCall spoke of the Marion County Public Schools (MCPS) alternative school, the Silver River Marine Institute, and students who are impacted there and then return to their “base” school. She cited an example of a student who was asked to join a confrontation at his base school but called upon his mentor and resolved the situation. The skills to reach out to his mentor were provided through MCCA involvement at Silver River Marine Institute. MCCA programs at the institute include a Gun Violence Prevention Program.

Jeremy Vickers, a project specialist with MCCA workgroup Supporting Kids Involving Parents (SKIP) and Kelley Windham, SKIP program coordinator, were recognized for their work in mentoring youth.

On hand for the Marion County Children’s Alliance’s Children First Gala held April 13, 2023, at the Country Club of Ocala were board member and volunteer Scott Hackmyer, left, and Ocala City Councilman Ire Bethea. [Photo by Bruce Ackerman]

Scott Hackmyer, a volunteer and board member, was recognized for his tireless community volunteerism with MCCA. A great many other MCCA board members also were on hand at the event.

MCCA partners include OPD, MCPS, the city of Ocala, Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Department of Health in Marion County, Marion County Sheriff’s Office, United Way of Marion County, Marion County Board of County Commissioners, Kids Central, Inc. and a host of private businesses.

MCCA’s main workgroups are Marion County’s Opioid and Addiction Task Force, Community Council Against Substance Abuse (CCASA), Supporting Kids Involving Parents (SKIP), Safe Kids and Family Violence Prevention.

Among the statistics cited were that more than 400 adults saw the CSCASA presentation “Hidden In Plain Sight” in 2022, there are 11 Students Against Destructive Decisions Clubs with more than 350 members and that 134 victims of domestic violence were helped in 2022.

Rogers said a main element of the MCCA is “connectivity.”

“We’ve got to keep the connectivity going,” he said.

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