Since 2006, Takoma Foundation has sought out and recognized the community’s biggest difference makers through its annual Azalea Awards. The “people’s choice” nominations, for individuals and organizations across eleven categories, are collected early each year with voting and results being announced around mid-May.
We’re proud to present the nominees and winners for Takoma Park’s 14th Annual Azalea Awards. Note that some categories may have multiple winners.
Fiber artist Stacy Cantrell is the creator of the enormous, colorful crocheted creatures that surprised and delighted passers-by in Takoma Park for several months. In early October the 15-foot-tall, 300-pound octopus Oct O’Clock took up residence on top of the clock tower in Old Town with suckered tentacles draped around the support posts. Meanwhile, at the other end of the city two caterpillars, 80 and 65 feet long, appeared on a fence along New Hampshire Avenue near University Boulevard to form the installation “Scoochin’ Down the Avenue, Two by Two!” Both octopus and caterpillars featured the City’s colors. The octopus’s stuffing recycles plastic bags, water bottles, etc., and the caterpillar pieces will be repurposed as baby blankets for needy families. On April 23, Oct O’Clock got a new home and a new name when Stacy helped the children and staff of Takoma Children’s School carry it a few blocks to the school playground and install it on top of the shed, where it will be known as Octoshedopus.
This January Theodore Carter’s vision of free and accessible art in public spaces transformed Takoma Park into a Frida Kahlo wonderland. While Theodore’s “Night of 1,000 Fridas” (#1KFridas) touched fifteen countries on five continents, from a mural painted in Sao Paulo, Brazil to drawings by children that hung in the windows along Carroll Avenue, his ambitious celebration of public art and the human spirit originated in Takoma Park. Beyond the Night of 1,000 Fridas, Theodore makes sure to bring his creativity and passion to our City, as you may have noticed some of his rogue public art installations that help keep Takoma Park special. Theodore also recently volunteered his time and talents to a paint a ferocious mural with his daughter at our very own VFW Post 350 for all of us to enjoy.
“Mr. Gabe” Hutter, the Pied Piper of Takoma Park, has delighted children and their caregivers for the past decade with tuneful, rhythmic classic songs and original compositions. Performing solo and with his band, the Circle Time All-Stars, Mr. Gabe has played to capacity crowds at the community center, the gazebo, and elsewhere, and donated his time to the Takoma Park Library and at fundraisers for two local preschools. Parents report that their children go home afterwards and pretend to be Mr. Gabe, singing and “playing” the guitar. He contributes to a dynamic arts community and is part of what makes our city special.
Charlie Pilzer is a mover and a shaker. The owner of Tonal Park studio with recording room and performance venue Allyworld, a Grammy award–winning recording and mastering engineer, and an accomplished pianist and bass player, he’s comfortable on stage and off stage. Charlie has “great ears,” able to critique music from jazz to folk, from Ethiopian to Swedish, to bluegrass and beyond. Musicians want his touch on their project, and he understands all levels of music recording and digital mastering. He’s constantly expanding the limits, adding new gear, trying new methods. Charlie’s generosity is legendary. He houses musicians, features them in concerts, and helps them maximize their creativity. In addition, he invited Takoma Radio WOWD-FM to set up their station in his studio. Charlie has lived in Takoma Park for more than 30 years with his wife Cecily, who also exudes the same warmth as Charlie.
Since Christie Balch took the helm as Executive Director of Crossroads Community Food Network in 2013, the nonprofit has more than doubled its programming, budget, staff, and impact. Now even more low-income residents have access to fresh, healthy food at Crossroads Farmers Market, and those seeking to improve their economic status by starting or expanding a food business can do so at the Takoma Park–Silver Spring Community Kitchen. Christie strengthens and inspires innovative food access initiatives through strategic community partnerships and an assets-based lens, viewing all community members as valuable and essential contributors to Crossroads’ mission. The business behind creating an integrated, hyper-local food system is freshly infused throughout our town in great part because of Christie!
Want an icon in Takoma Park? People who have been living here for over 25 years will rank Mark’s Kitchen and owner Mark Choe in any final list. Located in Old Town Takoma, Mark’s restaurant has stood the test of time for two reasons: great food and enduring support of the people of our wonderful city. Since 1990 Mark has maintained a pleasant neighborhood restaurant that provides outstanding food including the availability of a complete breakfast all day and an excellent selection of vegetarian and vegan fare. But Mark is also known for his community spirit and philanthropy. He has given year after year to support youth soccer teams, Boy Scout Soapbox Derby races, and many other charitable entities. Mark’s Kitchen also provided help to residents who were highly impacted by the recent government shutdown.
Kenneth Flemmer is the Executive Director of the Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington (ACSGW). This wonderful organization is there to lend a helping hand to those who just need a little more to make ends meet in the short term and to provide valuable training so they can help themselves in the long run. ACSGW provides computer and other educational courses so that residents can improve their living situation by changing their career and earning more money to take care of their families. ACSGW’s case management group helps individuals weave their way through various government assistance programs to get the help they are entitled to. ACSGW has been on hand to help in disaster relief as was needed after a devastating apartment building fire in 2016. They partner with the City of Takoma Park, Montgomery County, and other community organizations to provide healthy and beneficial out-of-school activities for the community’s youth.
Deric Tomenko Is landlord and part owner of BTT Management company, which oversees many properties in Takoma Park. Anyone who has lived in in an apartment knows how frustrating it is to have urgent repairs go unattended to by landlords. Deric is always available for his tenants. He responds to maintenance requests the same day or the next morning. The employees he hires are all friendly and attentive to work. He is very open to renovation suggestions and appreciates tenant initiative. He has allowed them to create a garden in a common area yard from which they can harvest their own homegrown vegetables. His tenants agree that Deric is the “absolute best and fairest” landlord in Takoma Park.
With a friendly, smiling visage, Doris Rodgers stands at the corner of Maple and Philadelphia Avenues every day, helping children cross the street safely against the morning and afternoon traffic. She has worked as a Takoma Park crossing guard for nearly five decades and remembers some of today’s parents who were students in the 1970s and 1980s when she made sure they got across the intersection. Doris takes pride in knowing students by name, but she stays focused on the road, cars, and children. She starts her day early, first with students heading to Takoma Park Middle, then moves on to a second wave of students going to Takoma Park Elementary and Piney Branch Elementary. A native of North Carolina, Doris has brightened the day of thousands of Takoma Park families over the years.
The relationship between a tenant and landlord can often be tenuous when it delves into the area of rental increases—especially in a city like Takoma Park, which has a Rent Stabilization Law. Landlords and tenants are lucky to have someone like Jean Kerr, who has helped them work through their problems for almost 30 years as a Housing Specialist in the Housing and Community Development Department. Through her monitoring of this law, she has been successful in getting more than $30,000 in illegal rents and fees refunded in this fiscal year alone. In addition, she assists rental property owners in converting to ownership properties through the City’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase program, and works closely with tenant associations in multi-family buildings throughout the City. Renters and landlords know they can get a fair and honest hearing when they have Jean looking out for their interests.
Turning thought into action requires a hardworking, dedicated planner, and the City of Takoma Park is lucky to have Javonte McDonald as its Recreation Program Coordinator for Youth Success. Javonte has developed a “Think Tank” after school homework club for 5th- through 12th-grade students at Hampshire Tower Apartments. This club provides one-on-one homework help to augment and enrich the learning process. In January, Javonte helped Hillwood Manor Apartments organize an ice cream social event for their community youth. He was a force behind the first annual Success Fair, a community event that brought together resource partners to support the development and success of Takoma Park residents. In coordination with the Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month activities, Javonte served on the planning committee, organizing and directing a variety of hands-on activities, including music, farm animal interaction, face painting, a glow walk, and a community resource area. He also coordinated a Hip Hop Yoga program at Takoma Park Middle School. It is talented and creative city staff members like Javonte who make Takoma Park a truly special place for our youth to grow up in.
Leicia Monfort can’t remember when she wasn’t part of the Recreation Department. As a kid growing up on Maple Avenue she was the one having fun and learning about life, and then as an outstanding employee for the past 19 years she has given the same gifts to countless other children. She worked her way up from an After School Leader, to a Staff Assistant, to an Office Manager and now is the Teen Programs Manager. She helped develop the Teen Program Division and implemented the ACTT Now and Teen Invasion Initiatives. At the same time she has been busy coordinating the Teen Camps, the Youth Employment Program, the CIT program, the Partnership with the MANUP Mentoring Group, the Teen Lounge, the Back to School Program, the Cinco De Mayo and the Cornucopia Celebrations. More recently, Leicia has worked to create a safe space for LGTBQ youth and is incorporating more life skill courses for teens. She is a jewel when it comes to helping them write résumés, prepare for SAT testing, job interviewing, and other challenges on the way to adulthood. In addition, for several years she oversaw the MLK Jr. Day celebration as a volunteer and helped organize the free Friday fish fries at the Glorified Church of God in Christ. She clearly is one of those “does it all” employees everyone wants.
Is your street safe to walk down? Do you have to be concerned about your parked car at night? What do you do to keep safe during a Tornado Watch? What is happening with all the street construction? For informative answers to your questions just check in with our outstanding Police Department Public Information Officer Catherine Plevy. She has been working for 12 years to keep the community informed. Using email, Facebook, and Twitter she provides crime prevention tips, safe conduct reports, updates about pets that have been lost or found, safe routes for students to walk to school, advice on how to protect your bike, and many, many other important lessons. Cathy often works late during the week as well as on weekends and holidays to make sure that the residents of the City of Takoma Park are continuously informed about events and activities. Be informed. Be aware. Check in with Catherine Plevy!
When something happens to the proverbial tree in the woods and it is not captured by print, film, or electronic storage, does it really happen? To make sure all that really happens in Takoma Park is recorded for all time, we have to thank our hardworking City TV crews. These remarkable individuals work days, nights, and weekends to guarantee that the recorded events will be documented, preserved, and distributed not only to the residents of the City of Takoma Park but, through the internet, to the world. They provide coverage of City Council meetings and special events such as the Folk Festival, Street Festival, Independence Day events, Celebrate Takoma, City Elections, election forums, the Monster Bash, art exhibits…the list goes on and on. They have been led for the last 18 years by Alvaro Calabia, who immediately points out that it is truly a group effort.
Sat Jiwan Ikle-Khalsa, aka Coach SJ, brings the joy of play and the delight of movement by teaching tennis to people of all ages from those just old enough to run to those in their golden years. He brings a love of tennis so captivating that you find your own love or recapture the love you used to have. With portable nets, racquets and an assortment of tennis balls stowed on his bike wherever he goes, tennis becomes available in any venue, block parties, festivals, you name it. His positive attitude and gentle manner make him a coach who makes you feel great about you.
Eric Saul’s commitment to kids covers a wide territory, and his ability to impart the game of baseball is exceptional. Teaching anything to children requires you understand the subject and the audience very well, and these are two very different abilities. Eric has them both. He explains complex things in ways kids understand whether at a local ball field, a community gym, or his backyard pitching machine (which he shares with other coaches). But he doesn’t stop there. He regularly organizes trips to the legendary baseball country of Cuba for groups of boys and girls, who receive an unforgettable sporting and cultural experience along with a few life lessons. His devotion to our community’s kids is in the best of Takoma Park traditions.
Kerry Cesareo is a wonderful coach and role model for her Takoma Soccer Girls-6 “Purple Panthers” team. She has been coaching the team for twelve seasons, and her dedication and enthusiasm is incredible. Kerry patiently teaches her girls technical skills to be successful soccer players while also teaching them the importance of teamwork and good sportsmanship. She encourages the girls to support each other and always try their hardest, with the ultimate goal of having fun. Under her leadership the Purple Panthers have grown into a very tight-knit soccer family, with “family” as the operative word.
Undaunted by rain or wind, Kerron Miller has not missed a practice or game for the past eight seasons as the coach of his daughter’s Takoma Soccer team. “Soccer has taken over our lives,” his wife says. “Chores, vacations, weekend plans with friends, they all come second.” Kerron’s devotion starts with a pre-season ritual of inflating all the balls in his bag, and it carries over to his remarkable patience on the soccer pitch. The players on his Girls-Two Yellow team are 2nd-graders who may be super-energetic, perhaps from a bit of a sugar high, or just the opposite, tentative and shy. As if by magic he gets them to participate. Even if they don’t take naturally to soccer his message is that it’s great to be outdoors in sunshine and fresh air—or even in rain and wind.
Because indoor soccer can be expensive, Gregor Wallace took it on himself to set up a tournament for primarily ESOL kids at the Presbyterian Church gym this year on MLK Jr. Day. He even arranged to give them medals. This is only the latest in Gregor’s contributions to the soccer community and to our community at large. For several seasons he has served as the coordinator of an all-girls division, as well as a coach, in the Takoma Soccer league. He also attends the games of other teams to monitor and mentor the corps of teenage referees. Last year he recruited other soccer lovers to petition Montgomery County Parks to consider a soccer surface in their redesign of Silver Spring Intermediate Local Park. When Gregor is not promoting all things soccer, he is organizing "international night" at Piney Branch Elementary and other events to benefit kids.
Rebecca Lane has made a difference in the lives of countless Takoma Park children in her 15 years teaching fifth grade at Piney Branch. Ms. Lane’s warm, caring demeanor and high expectations for each of her students regardless of past academic history make them feel safe and valued and help them believe in their ability and build on their strengths. Her success stories include one child who entered her class reading on a pre-primer level and struggling with below-grade-level math and went on to excel in honors level classes in middle school. Others have learned to face tests with equanimity instead of shutting down at the word “assessment.” Not that Ms. Lane neglects her higher-flying students: she meets each child on his or her level, celebrates their successes, and gently points out where they can do better. She encourages all of her students to seek opportunities to learn and excel in and out of the classroom, with the result that from year to year her class has been well represented on the school’s GeoBowl teams. Many of her students and their families will tell you they consider Ms. Lane one of their best teachers ever.
Learning to read is one of the most important life lessons human kind passes on to our children. It connects us to our past, grounds us in the ever moving present and helps us shape our own future. Karen Akpan is the oracle for many a Takoma Park child. She is making a difference to the children that live in the Essex House, Hampshire Towers, Park Ritchie and Park Montgomery Apartments. She has been a reading teacher for the Ace Academy after school program for approximately three years; City of Takoma Park Lunch and Learn Summer Program since 2016, and as of this year part of the homework club for Essex Apartments students. She also devotes her time to the students who go to her local church. Karen is an enthusiastic and loving person who is able to help children by developing and concentrating on the tools the students need to advance their reading skills.
Kathryn Medland is a wildly popular teacher at TPMS, and with good reason. Her energy and enthusiasm for writing is contagious, and her students get so caught up in the lively conversations in class that they sometimes don’t even hear when the bell rings.
Dawn Moffitt of East Silver Spring Elementary School is a world-class educator. Ms. Moffitt has spent the past 12 years of her long public school career at ESS, where she has made a lasting impact. She has influenced hundreds of students by giving them the support and encouragement necessary to achieve at the highest levels. At the same time, Ms. Moffitt has helped enhance the physical environment at the school, instilling a notable pride. She took the lead role in developing the school’s edible garden that provides a hands-on learning and gardening experience. Similarly she worked with students and community members to create a mural that is on display by the school office. Walking down the hallways she is greeted with enthusiasm and joy. Her commitment to students and families is unrivaled.
You may be aware that plastic straws are an unnecessary environmental evil, but did you know that we have fewer plastic straws in town thanks to some socially active young kids? These kids have formed a coalition called The Last Plastic Straw Takoma Park. They are a team of middle schoolers allied with adult artists and environmentalists. Working with the City Council and the Committee on the Environment, they persuaded local restaurants to give up straws voluntarily. The kids in the group went from one eatery to another and talked to the managers. Adults in the group set up a website and helped arrange for the purchase of substitute straws made of materials that can be composted. Many restaurant folks were won over. Meanwhile, the City Council enacted laws placing significant legal restrictions on the use of plastic straws. It only goes to show: Listen to kids. They are our future.
Gretchen Goldman’s commitment and dedication to fighting for a greener, safer, and more inclusive community transcends local activism, but it certainly benefits us in Takoma Park. Over the past year, Gretchen consistently worked with our mayor and county officials from multiple jurisdictions on local transit equity solutions, culminating with WMATA finally installing desperately needed bus shelters along New Hampshire Avenue. During this time, Gretchen spent her maternity leave testifying in front of the EPA with her newborn strapped to her chest about the importance of scientific facts and research (can’t believe she had to state the obvious). Wherever she goes, Gretchen works tirelessly to ensure we have a better tomorrow. Her passion and expertise are accessible to all—you can read her articles in Science Magazine; learn about climate change while listening to her podcasts; see her at national climate marches with her family; admire her commitment to public transportation as she routinely commutes by bus, bicycle, and train; and visit her in her backyard as she teaches Takoma Park children about composting worms. Not all superheroes wear capes, but if Gretchen did, hers would be green.
Robert Patten literally walks the walk, constantly picking up the litter he finds as he walks throughout town to dispose of it properly (recycling/compost/garbage). Bob can’t walk the half block from his house to Old Town without filling his hands with trash. Furthermore, as a neighbor to Takoma Urban Park (also known as Westmoreland Park and Kombe Park), Bob spends several hours every month clearing up trash, removing poison ivy so the kids in the park don’t get into it, and maintaining a small trail for children in the back of the park. Due to the limited oversight of this park by Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), Bob has taken over the role of unofficial caretaker so that children and adults can fully enjoy the public space.
As an early leader of Takoma Park Mobilization’s Environment Committee, Jody Peltason jumped into volunteer activism with both feet. Her goal has been to organize the remarkable energy, experience, and people power in our activist community for the benefit of Marylanders everywhere through strategic campaigns and strong coalition-building. In 2018, Jody played a lead role in organizing a coalition-driven campaign to raise the profile of climate change in the state-level elections, building relationships throughout the state and working to get Democratic gubernatorial candidates on the record with bold plans for climate action. After the primary, she organized local activists to canvas for pro-climate candidates in Baltimore County, Prince George’s County, and on the Lower Shore. Jody continues to be an active member of the Mobilization and also volunteers on the weekends for the children’s garden on the municipal grounds.
Denise Jones, a parent and longtime resident, has been serving her community since she moved here more than two decades ago. A former Girl Scout leader (Daisy to Senior/Ambassador), school volunteer, NAACP Parents Council representative to two Takoma Park schools, School Improvement Team member, member of the Superintendent’s Minority Achievement Advisory Council, chair of the Parents of Children of Color at the Holton-Arms School, and member of the City Committee on Recreation, Denise has walked her passion for equity and access to opportunity in education and in life. Currently, she is a youth development and community engagement practitioner who offers capacity building youth development, parent engagement, and education and workforce development programs to youth, teens and adults through her business, Brass Ring Company. Denise also manages the Healthy Families: Healthy Community Project situated at Essex House Apartments, in partnership with Carpe Diem Arts, with whom she serves as the Director of Community Engagement. This grant-funded project provides support for the residents and neighborhood through parent engagement, a “quilting conversations” group, healthy cooking classes, and a series of house concerts, thus creating cross-cultural exchanges and establishing social, racial and economic connections so important to those who choose Takoma Park as home.
Middle school is a tough time for most kids. There is the pressure of learning increasingly difficult material combined with the psychological adaptation required as kids mature physically and emotionally into adults. Some kids fare better than others—though everyone thinks that their lives are “like, the worst ever!” Having an adult to talk to often helps these young adults cope with their ever shifting world. Such a person is guidance counselor Pamela Lever at Takoma Park Middle. Ms. Lever is always there for the kids. She guides them through organizing their schedules and agenda books, but also just listens if they’re having a tough day. Her door is open all the time, and she gives kids a supportive place to retreat to when the pressures of school are wearing on them.
Girl Scout Troop 1273 leader Jennifer Manguera is a super mentor. She leads one local troop of young girls and another of Teen Scouts, with more than twenty of her girls over the years earning the Gold Award, which is the Girl Scouts’ highest achievement and opens doors to college admissions, scholarships, and civic opportunities. Jenn’s troops are active in community service, including at Progress Place, the DC Diaper Bank, Capital Area Food Bank, and Samaritan’s Purse. They have cleaned up Sligo Creek, planted trees, and tended horses in a shelter for battered animals. They march in the Takoma Park July 4th Parade and volunteer at the DC Cherry Blossom Parade. They are a regular fixture at the Silver Spring Martin Luther King Jr. holiday event, helping children create meaningful crafts. And of course they sell cookies! Jenn is an example of our community at its finest, developing young women leaders.
A few years ago Steve Ney was faced with a familiar question: How could he use his spare hours to make a difference? In 2014 Steve started tutoring and mentoring in the After the Bell program at the Community Center. Subsequently, he became a teacher in the Lunch and Learn program, and for several years he’s been a mentor/tutor in the ACE program at the Essex House Apartments, working with kids and families new to the U.S. Through the school year he is an extra teacher in the students’ lives, helping those who are struggling with reading and math. He attends parent-teacher conferences and accompanies students to school and sports events. Steve has used his unique qualifications as a special education attorney and former public school teacher to successfully advocate for several students to receive the special education services they need. His goal is to see these children graduate from high school and go on to college.
Being a teacher is a monumentally difficult task with rewards beyond measure. When teachers can work with dedicated assistants such as Sacdiya Siyaad, both teacher and students come out winners. For the last five years, Sacdiya has made sure each student that comes into the classroom of the Lunch-and-Learn summer program receives breakfast and lunch so they are nutritionally able to concentrate on the lessons. In the classroom she helps in every way possible to make a difference for the students. Due to her dedication, love, and hard work during the school year, it is not uncommon that children, the ultimate voters, actively seek to be assigned to her class.
Alfreda Jackson Tanner has been a resident of Takoma Park since October 1998. She lives in Hampshire Tower and serves as Vice President of the Hampshire Tower Tenants Association Board of Directors. Alfreda volunteers by distributing food to the residents in need. She provides free day care to children in the Towers. She assists residents by explaining management notices and procedures. She also coordinates rides for seniors who need to get to the bank, doctor appointments, and grocery stores. Outside the Towers she helps teachers and students at Takoma Park Elementary School and is an administrator at her church where she has been a member for 20 years. People who know her are thankful and blessed to have a person like Alfreda in their lives.
Linda Carlson, the coordinator of the Communication Committee of the Village of Takoma Park, provides a quiet and knowledgeable voice to the “neighborhood” of seniors and people with disability. In the position of the communication coordinator, she executed essential functions: Carefully evaluating the available computer management systems and recommending and developing a highly efficient system, forming an active communication committee, and developing a website that in 2017 had 25,443 web visits and 1,808 logged-in visits. On an ongoing basis, Linda edits the Village’s very much appreciated newsletter that combines reporting with providing basic information for seniors, and manages the membership that has risen to more than 230 members. Without effective communication and management, a grassroots group like the Village of Takoma Park could not sustain itself.
Lee Howard just finished a two-year tenure as Cub Master of Cub Scout Pack 33 following a number of years in other leadership roles with the Pack, including Assistant Cub Master and Den Leader. He has now moved on in providing leadership to Boy Scout Troop 33, where both of his sons are active Scouts. He is inspired by his own journey to Eagle Scout and the example of others (like our very own Dave Lanar), and continues to inspire others on that journey to do their best. Lee did a fabulous job organizing the annual Pinewood Derby competition, complete with participation from Mayor Kate Stewart, and the Blue and Gold Dinner. When the Pack was celebrating its 80th anniversary, he arranged for Rep. Jamie Raskin to attend and present a Congressional certificate of recognition to the Pack, the boys, and their families. Lee is a terrific example of a Takoma Park neighbor who has planted seeds in our community and tended them so that they bear fruit in the lives of young men.
Twitter is an online news and social networking site where people communicate in short messages called tweets. Individuals sign up to read messages on subjects that are of particular interest to them. In Takoma Park we are fortunate to have an individual, Arthur David Olson, who keeps us informed about what is happening during our City Council meetings. He reviews the City Council’s agenda and minutes to make sure that the items mentioned in residents’ tweets are included, and he often attends Council meetings to “live tweet” the news as it happens. He uses this modern communication technology to make sure that residents of the City of Takoma Park are informed about actions taken by the Council.
Lia Salza Goldstein and Shana Sabbath have led the way in making equity a priority for the Takoma Park Elementary PTA. Since the fall of 2017, with the agreement of the PTA executive committee, more money and time has been spent to benefit students who need help the most. With Lia as President and Shana as Equity Chair, the PTA and TPES teachers jointly started a homework club to provide extra academic support. The PTA got a breakthrough grant to bring STEM activities to 1st and 2nd graders and give all kids robotics enrichment. Lia and Shana also participate in the Racial Equity Working Group and helped bring the Lunch-and-Learn program to TPES this coming summer. Add in fundraising for a new mural in honor of TPES’s long-serving principal, Dr. Zadia Gadsden, and opening two sensory rooms for students in need of extra down time and/or sensory input. And they continue to build bridges between groups to address issues of racism and equity.
Kelly O’Keefe has been a tireless advocate working on behalf of Montgomery County’s students with dyslexia, a specific learning disability that unless confronted and conquered can be a locked door to success. Dyslexic students can learn to read, but only with appropriate identification and intervention—and for most students, this has been happening after years of falling behind in reading, if at all. Kelly helps organize regular meetings of a local Decoding Dyslexia advocacy group, encourages parents and students to testify to the County Board of Education, and manages a local Facebook page to keep parents informed and coordinate advocacy efforts. Kelly led local advocacy in a successful statewide push for the Ready to Read Act, currently awaiting the Governor’s signature, which calls for universally screening Maryland’s kindergartners for reading difficulties.
Jay Keller has had a hand in establishing several of the annual happenings in Takoma Park that, in total, bring together a large number of us regardless of race or social standing. Not only does Jay serve on the organizing committees, but he is hands-on. On frigid MLK Jr. Day mornings he is the one toting trash bags from a cleanup of Takoma Woods, and hours later he is on hands and knees plugging in the sound system for the evening celebration. At the Celebrate Takoma festival he hauls chairs, water jugs, the mechanical bull, gazebo tents. For the children’s garden at City Hall he weeds, screens compost, digs potatoes, takes photos. As chair of the City Recreation Committee he helped launch the very diverse youth basketball league and other youth programs. Currently he is mobilizing support for a new recreation center on New Hampshire Avenue, after many years of organizing a spring beautification there with paint and flowers. Also he is a member of the City Grants Committee, the Racial Equity Working Group and What’s My Bias, a non-profit that conducts anti-bias trainings locally. You name it—Jay has done it and with an incredibly upbeat, friendly, and buoyant attitude.
Colleen Cordes is a longtime resident and a key activist with Community Vision for Takoma. In addition to working on Community Vision issues including Takoma Junction, improved City budgeting, and racial equity, Colleen envisioned and organized a Citywide teach-in on the problems with proliferation of small cell towers and with next-generation 5G technology. She also coordinated Community Vision’s efforts to help residents work with the City Council to develop an ordinance protecting public interests as much as possible given federal restrictions on local authority over cell towers.
Shayla Davis is a model for civic leadership. Through her volunteer work with Takoma Park Mobilization and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, she demonstrates a fierce commitment to community growth and accountability. From her spearheading efforts to support people reentering our society and the workforce from prison, to her engagement with legislators at the state and local level, to her dedication to raising awareness on the most pressing social justice issues of our time, Shayla catalyzes important dialogue and spurs community-led action. Her passion for the work and for making sure everyone has a seat at the table—and is heard—is truly inspiring.
Mary Jane Muchui has been the backbone behind forming a Takoma Park group called Parents of Special Needs Adults (POSNA), which provides support for our adult children in the following areas: housing, jobs, safety and recreation. Mary Jane volunteers her home as a meeting place for POSNA and regularly welcomes everyone, even those she has never met. Mary Jane worked with the Village of Takoma Park to secure a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to enable adults with disabilities to enroll in SPIRIT Club therapeutic exercise classes, which help participants to develop physical coordination, practice weight control and other healthy lifestyle habits, and engage in social group interactions. Also, for the past 15 years, Mary Jane has been collecting food from the Old Takoma Farmers’ Market and taking it to Shepherd’s Table.
Nancy Illman is the artistic spirit behind the transformation of the steps from the library parking lot to the Takoma Park Elementary field. After conceiving of the idea several years ago, she researched translations of “going up” or “ascending” in many languages and collected other inspirational phrases from immigrant neighbors. Then last April Nancy solicited paint donations and coordinated teams of volunteers to prime the risers, local kids to paint each of the 57 risers a different base color as a Youth Services Day project, and artists to paint the words. In the year since its creation, the “Uplifting Staircase” has become a favorite backdrop for family portraits and even Christmas cards, with many people posing on the step with their native language, confirming Nancy’s belief that the staircase belongs to all who helped create it and who use it—a Native American phrase on one of the steps means, “It belongs to all of us”—as well as in the power of art to strengthen our community. And so on May 18, you can watch her as she teams with the Difference Makers to wrap the decoration around to the side wall.
Yeshi Gila is a spirited educator and volunteer member of our community. She volunteers as a reading teacher for elementary aged school children living at the Essex House and Park Montgomery Apartments. As a former Physical Education teacher, Yeshi often incorporates sports and play into her reading curriculum and visual arts programs. This led Yeshi to be recruited to Takoma Park’s very own Lunch and Learn summer camp where she has taught for the past 3 summers. Yeshi’s excellent organization skills serve her well in her work role and allow her the time and ability to go the extra mile. Most recently, Yeshi’s role as Site Coordinator for the Ethiopian Community Center has been crucial in addressing the growing need for weekly English and Workforce Development classes for immigrant residents living along Maple Avenue. Her overall desire to serve the community through education, sports, and community service, in addition to her joyous essence is a blessing to the organizations and residents she serves daily.
Danny Griffin has been a DJ on WOWD Takoma Radio since it launched, and hosts an amazingly creative, thought-provoking, enjoyable show called “Walking on the Moon” on Wednesday evenings. He combines interviews, sound pieces, music and musings around a different theme each week – some timely, others timeless. Danny draws on his wide network of friends, family, and colleagues to bring a broad range of perspectives on matters philosophical, psychological, and occasionally political. We’re lucky to have him in Takoma Park. His radio show enriches the community!
Knitty Cats (motto: “Resisting One Stitch at a Time”) started as a “resistance knitting program” between the 2016 election and January 2017 Women’s March but has recently found a “purrfect” fit in Takoma Park selling their knitted products to raise funds for exceptional causes. They meet Thursday evenings at Roscoe’s where they pounce and tackle their latest projects. Selling their wares at events like the recent Takoma Park Holiday Arts Show, they have raised thousands of dollars for RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network), Planned Parenthood, International Rescue Committee, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, World Central Kitchen, and The Advancement Project. A new project underway is making 150 sets of hats and mittens for next year’s Kindergarten class at New Hampshire Estates. By creating a whimsical, activist silver lining in a time of stress and uncertainty, the Knitty Cats truly embody the spirit of Takoma Park.