Since 2006, Takoma Foundation has sought out and recognized the community’s biggest difference makers through our annual Azalea Awards.
We’re proud to present the “people’s choice” nominations for individuals and organizations across seven categories for 2023. When you’re ready to cast your vote, use our Azalea Awards Ballot to select your favorite nominees. Please note that polling closes at 5 pm on Tuesday, June 6.
A person or organization that promotes progressive spirit through local commerce
Laura Barclay, executive director of Old Takoma Business Association/Main Street Takoma, is indefatigable when it comes to supporting and sustaining downtown businesses. During the pandemic, Laura applied for and distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to keep stores and restaurants open. Creatively she extended dining and sitting areas into the street for outdoor enjoyment, known as a Streetery, which is now a permanently bustling part of Old Takoma. She has also added new events to Takoma Park's busy event schedule, including Takoma Pride, Takoma Flea, and two holiday markets. And she keeps us up to date with the latest happenings each week.
Over the past year, Chris Brown has continued his streak of providing Greater Takoma with dining options that are delicious and eclectic. Additionally, these restaurants often serve as important fundraising sites for worthy causes. After helping launch SOKO and Zinnia to great acclaim, Chris has stepped into the void of Republic’s departure with the upcoming Motorkat restaurant, which promises to offer accessible as well as upscale options. Having a talented and accomplished restaurateur apply his skills here has made Takoma Park a more interesting and tasty place to live. Chris, what’s next?
Antonio Castillo created The LabDC, a school in Takoma DC, as a way of developing the art of break dancing among local young people. Generously he included scholarships that benefit at-need youth. Along with Antonio’s own programs and summer camps, he partners with organizations such as the Takoma Park Folk Festival and the TPSS Co-op to give a bigger stage to the talents of The LabDC students. Last year’s annual championship competition at Takoma Park Middle School attracted 600 spectators and further spread the message of break dancing.
Chris Hishmeh of Olive Lounge consistently gives back to the Takoma community. As a result of Chris’s leadership, Olive has been a regular and strong supporter of the Foundation’s Beerfest fundraiser. Olive also consistently hosts fundraisers for local schools, nonprofits and nurseries. During the pandemic’s early days, Chris supported other local businesses by creating a space on Olive’s patio for makers and designers to sell their work. The bottom line is that the leader and owner of Takoma’s neighborhood bar regularly demonstrates the importance of supporting worthy causes.
Dean Paris, owner of Paris Design, LLC, is a behind-the-scenes mainstay, designing public signage, banners, window displays, and playground guides for several years. Last year Dean received the Let’s Play America Spirit of Play Award for freely contributing his talented graphic skills to design and update the Takoma Park Playground Guide on three separate occasions. For Historic Takoma in the heart of Takoma Junction, Dean provided free guidance on display techniques to create effective seasonal window displays. Other examples of Dean's efforts include eye-catching signage and banners for Main Street Takoma and local businesses including the Co-op, the House of Musical Traditions, the Sunday Farmer's Market, Takoma Business Center building, and the Kin Da restaurant’s window logo.
A public employee who goes the extra mile in service to our community
Desiree Hernandez leads the third-grade teaching team at Piney Branch Elementary. This year she has also served as the PTA’s Equity Vice President and Co-Chair of the Equity Committee. Desiree’s wonderful work as a teacher during the day complements and deepens the positive impacts she makes with her thoughtful and creative leadership as a PTA volunteer after hours. Along with helping support families facing hardship, broadly distributing after-school club scholarships, continuing to support the PTA Rainbow Club and other equity objectives, she created new ways of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, including a writing project for students and a special evening event. Desiree’s public service as a beloved teacher and volunteer bring together the values of excellence, kindness, equity and inclusion that make our community a better place.
One of the most popular faculty members ever to walk our school hallways Louis Hoelman seems to gain more energy every year. Most recently, as the new head coach of Blair’s varsity co-ed golf team, he led the team to the final round of the state championship. Impressively he was doing double duty as the longtime head coach of Blair’s girls’ softball team, reaching his 300th win this season, all the while teaching PE at the school. During the pandemic he taught from his living room, starting off each class with a 20-minute workout on screen. Rare among teachers Louis is a local alum of both Blair and Eastern Middle. In 1993 he returned as a teacher at Piney Branch Elementary and then moved in 2001 to Blair, where he has also coached basketball, handball, field hockey and cross country. He has been named “coach of the year” by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
As a Children’s Librarian at the City library, Kati Nolfi has shown exceptional leadership skills. She creates engaging literacy-based activities that are both fun and educational. She's a valuable resource for teachers and parents seeking book recommendations for children of all reading levels and interests. Her warm and welcoming demeanor fosters positive relationships with children and educators alike, and she consistently demonstrates cultural awareness and competency. A multitasker par excellence, she takes on storytelling, book organization, communication and craft coordination, plus she facilitates music and movement activities. With her energetic and charismatic presence, Kati is herself a natural educator, encouraging a love of reading among the children of Takoma Park.
In January of last year, Haven Rhodd started working as the City’s Youth Success Coordinator. Three months later she was promoted to Teen Program Supervisor. During her time in these roles, she has worked to provide safe spaces, as well as unique and enriching experiences, for local teens. Starting the job during the pandemic created unique opportunities. As an example, Haven has implemented new processes for teens to participate in Teen Lounge programs, Summer Youth jobs, and the Takoma Park Youth Council. Teens have filled up the summer camps and gone on numerous fully attended trips, and she rolled out new programs such as Mentorship Monday.
Being a teacher is a monumental task, but when teachers can work with dedicated assistants such as Sacdiya Siyaad both teachers and students come out winners. Sacdiya is employed at Takoma Park Elementary as a classroom para-assistant, and due to her dedication, love, and hard work it is not uncommon that children and teachers want Sacdiya to be assigned to their classes. For the last eleven years, Sacdiya has also worked at the Takoma Park Lunch and Learn summer program where she not only helps in the classrooms but makes sure every student receives breakfast and lunch so they are nutritionally able to concentrate on their lessons. And, since 2013, Sacdiya has been the director of the After School Program for Essex House, again making a difference in the lives of many children.
Remember the giant crocheted octopus on the Old Takoma clock tower or the public piano in the Carroll Avenue gazebo? Have you seen the sidewalk poetry around town or the chalkboard mural at B.Y. Morrison Park? These public art projects were all spearheaded by Brendan Smith, the City’s arts and humanities coordinator. With a very limited budget Brendan also brings art and culture to us through free art exhibitions, concerts, poetry readings, film screenings, and theater performances at the Community Center. Additionally, as president of AFCSME Local 3399, the union representing most City employees, Brendan has advocated for fair wages and better working conditions for the people who keep everything running.
Someone who “walks the walk” to improve their neighborhood
Darryl Alexander and David Shelton are active neighborhood volunteers who promote gardening with a focus on native plants. They began their activities amid the pandemic when Darryl founded the New Hampshire Gardens Citizen Association’s Gardeners Listserv with other neighbors. Since then, Darryl has been posting notices about gardening events, sharing native plant advice, and giving tips on invasive plant control on the listserv. David toils in all types of weather to enhance the Jackson Avenue entrance to Long Branch Creek/Park by adding native plants and shrubs and other landscape features along the pathway. Darryl and David opened their garden to the public to showcase their shady native plant garden and organized a recent plant swap of native plants and edibles, which drew more than 30 new and longtime residents of the neighborhood.
Steve Badt and Alice Weiss are described as “perfect neighbors.” Steve organizes weekly food deliveries to the House of Ruth while Alice organizes food drives and countless PTA events at the local schools. Best of all they organize an annual Halloween show at the corner of Tulip and Cedar that is simply spectacular. During the month of October they build a set in their yard with clues as to what the story might be. They enlist neighbors to act in the play and put on a full production. One year it was Clue, another Peter Pan, and they have done Hugo Cabret. They set up scenes in great detail, write a script, direct the cast, and act in themselves. The people who come to watch, about a hundred last year, bring donations for the food drives. Everyone looks forward to it.
Sarah Voisin consistently goes out of her way to help and support her neighbors. When pandemic isolation hit, Sarah saw art as a way for people to stay mentally healthy and created the Takoma Free Art Library which provides free art supplies for all. Her mission is to encourage creativity and to recycle unwanted items into art. She started with her own supplies and now relies on donations. She has created a strong social media presence featuring frequent photos and videos. Popularity led to two expansions, resulting in three large cabinets at the end of her driveway. In addition, Sarah mentors teen volunteers and assists people with their ideas. During the pandemic Sarah organized weekly neighborhood art classes in backyards and now plans to host monthly sessions at the library with free instruction. Sarah’s artistic spirit has gained many admirers since she is always finding creative, fun ways to enrich the lives of others.
A parent who brings the best to our schools
Angela Anderson, the Whittier Elementary PTO president, is an incredible and passionate leader who goes beyond the extra mile to campaign for the school’s needs and to celebrate the amazing students, teachers and staff. Whether it’s planning a fundraiser, putting together a thank-you breakfast, or testifying before the District of Columbia City Council to advocate for Whittier, Angela brings her full self and heart to everything she does. Whittier and the broader community are indebted and grateful.
Kaitlin Caruso serves as vice president of Communications and chair of Social Services for the Takoma Park Elementary PTA. She started a weekly newsletter, collecting the many school events and announcements into one central place. In addition, she organized a winter coat drive, holiday gift drive, and coordinates with school counselors for ongoing needs. On top of all that, she volunteers every week, tutoring a group of students on phonics.
Sara Lewis serves as executive vice president of the Piney Branch Elementary PTA, leading the rebuilding of the PTA’s volunteer operation, a substantial undertaking after the pandemic. She puts in a tremendous amount of time, care, thought, and kindness. By organizing and helping recruit more than 200 volunteers Sara has rebuilt and restored links among students, families, school staff, and teachers. From the return of vibrant and meaningful cultural events to staff and teacher support to the restart of massive organizational efforts such as the Geo Bowl, Readathon, and STEAM Night, Sara has provided meaningful learning and connection across our community.
Margaret McDonnell has served as President of the Takoma Park Elementary PTA for the past two years. She always wears many hats and performs each role with a smile and attitude of service. During her tenure, Margaret has focused the PTA’s efforts on addressing learning loss from the pandemic. She has enabled classrooms to have more hands-on learning materials, securing hundreds of dollars for books in the library and after-school clubs and for a supplemental math-learning program.
Shivani Sutton has chaired Takoma Park Elementary’s book fair for the past several years. Her keen attention to detail and extraordinary organization skills have enabled this event to run seamlessly. Not only is the book fair a highlight for students, it also enables teachers to have more books in their classrooms. Thanks to Shivani for fostering the love of reading at Takoma Park Elementary.
Stephen Tippett has served as Takoma Park Elementary’s PTA treasurer the past two years. Not only has he worked tirelessly tracking the budget and keeping the PTA fiscally responsible, he also conducts the bookkeeping for Tommy's Pantry, now an independent nonprofit after branching off from the local PTAs. Stephen always pitches in and organizes the DC United fundraiser for the school in memory of his late brother.
A civic leader who inspires others by example
Even before moving to Takoma Park three years ago, Sawa Kamara was involved here as a member of the TPSS Co-op board. Since arriving, she has jumped into civic activism with both feet, not deterred by the pandemic. Her service includes time on the Police Advisory Board, the Library Board, the board of CHEER (Community Health and Empowerment through Education and Research) and the Takoma Foundation. Throughout the pandemic, Sawa volunteered to distribute food and other necessities and joined with Ward Five neighbors in a mutual aid group. Then she worked as a coordinator for Community for Immunity (C4I) to promote vaccinations. As part of the Police Taskforce, Sawa helped devise better ways to deliver City services and close gaps in public safety. She is also a CASA volunteer and a mentor to young people as a court-appointed Special Advocate. Sawa says that she is passionate about neighborhood revitalization, civic engagement, and volunteerism, and she is clearly living up to her word.
As a committee chair and board trustee of the Village of Takoma Park, Dana Robinson has been instrumental in several programs and initiatives such as leading efforts to increase the level of diversity and assisting seniors in signing up for SNAP benefits. During the pandemic, he helped make Village members aware of COVID-19 regulations and protocols, including vaccinations and testing, and helped distribute masks. He worked with the VTP Membership Committee to help plan the Takoma Park Health Fair. In his committee role he also makes sure members are kept informed of all Village activities through phone calls, letters, monthly reports, and Zoom meetings. It’s been a significant goal of Dana’s to recruit Takoma Park residents of all cultures to set up and participate in focus groups that will hopefully increase the diversity and determine some next steps for the Village. Through all of his volunteer work Dana has been an outstanding asset to our community.
In 2019 Susan Schreiber played a lead role in launching an initiative to document the experience of Takoma Park’s original Black community through the voices of older residents who grew up under segregation in the mid-20th century. These reflections would form the basis for both films and a book. Under the auspices of Historic Takoma, Susan raised funds for the Takoma Park African American Oral History Project to bring on folklorist Alison Kahn and documentary filmmaker Michael Fincham. She led all phases of the project, initially with former resident Denny May, and worked with community advisors, most notably and importantly Patricia Matthews, a lifelong resident of “the Hill”—one of the two main Black neighborhoods—and the daughter of legendary community leader Lee Jordan. As a key liaison, Patricia identified interviewees, made introductions, and consulted on content. An interviewee herself, she provided insightful accounts of her childhood and a personal perspective of her father, encapsulated in the film They Called Him “Mister Lee.” This year Susan organized a premiere at the Community Center, where Patricia introduced the film. The afternoon event drew a diverse overflow crowd, attesting to Susan’s leadership of this exemplary project and to Patricia’s critical contributions.
Bruce Williams is probably best known as our long-serving mayor and councilmember (a total of 22 years), but beyond his role as a local politician he has been a leader on issues that set precedents and broke down barriers. Bruce was the founder of the Takoma Park Task Force on Family Diversity, which led to changing the definition of family in Takoma Park to include domestic partnerships and which then led to making health insurance available to many government employees throughout Maryland. He was the lead plaintiff in the successful lawsuit that declared the state sodomy statute must apply equally to heterosexuals and homosexuals, and he was a plaintiff in another lawsuit that helped save transgender protections. Since 1988 he has been an indispensable member of Takoma Park Lesbians and Gays, which is a lively social network and an organizer of popular community projects. Also, Bruce has been at the forefront of Takoma Park’s involvement in climate conservation and other environmental initiatives. When having fun he still does good. He’s one of the baseball fans who brought the Thunderbolts to play at Blair in a wooden-bat league and had a hand in building a first-class stadium.
Reflects local character with panache
Nafkote Dana has worked tirelessly as a volunteer serving as a site coordinator for Small Things Matter. She picks up and distributes fresh produce twice a month for the families that reside at Maple View Apartments. Many of the families she serves are elderly so she has taken it upon herself to deliver the groceries door to door. Nafkote is also volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and is working on fixing up a house that her family will be purchasing in Takoma Park. She is always there with a smile and a willingness to help those in need.
Marcia Diehl shares her musical talents as a conductor of Takoma Park’s Community Band. For several years this all-volunteer band has helped set the fun, lively tone for the annual Play Days held at Takoma Park Middle. Prior to the pandemic, the Community Band’s entertaining music could be heard at the annual Takoma Park House and Garden tour as well as at the Independence Day festivities. Recently, the band started holding free concerts at the Community Center. We are fortunate to have the amazing conductor Marcia Diehl.
Lizz Kleemeir actively engages with folks in Takoma Park about the need to plant native trees and other plants, opening up her backyard recently to sell and distribute them to her neighbors. As someone who puts her philosophy into practice Lizz was instrumental in establishing the Friends of Native Trees in Takoma (FONTT) organization. She has led FONTT members in interacting with City Council and Montgomery County government leaders to promote planting more native vegetation in public spaces and on private residences and was behind the creation of the Takoma Park Native Tree Selection Guide. Lizz has inspired many people to work together on various efforts to bring back the habitat that once thrived where we now live.
A busy mom juggling a number of community activities, Ellen Marcus is chair of the Takoma Park Elementary PTA committee whose members are planting a vegetable garden at the school and is supervisor of the Weed Warriors who are attacking weeds and invasive plants in local parks. As the leader, Ellen has trained five new Warriors so far, and in furtherance of the fight against invasives she gives away native plants from her yard. This year she became chair of the Takoma Park Recreation and Community Engagement Committee leading discussions on how to improve recreation opportunities while expanding community involvement. Also, Ellen is a gifted artist and illustrated the children’s book “Isabella and Little Birdy” (the author, Rini Saha, owns the Fullfillery in downtown Takoma Park). It tells a story of how we can reduce plastic at birthday parties.
An educator, coach or mentor who motivates children to aim high
As organizers of the Takoma Park Children's Business Fair for the past five years Holly Chang & Kerron Miller and Tracy Stuger Scott & Duane Scott have helped kids acquire essential entrepreneurial skills. The two couples started the nonprofit organization to give children a chance to meet and interact with local business owners in Takoma Park as well as exercise their problem-solving talents. To participate in the fair kids must develop a brand, create a product or service, build a marketing strategy, and then open for customers at a one-day marketplace. The adult team challenges them to demonstrate communication, creativity, critical thinking, time management, collaboration and grit. Local entrepreneurs fund the fair and serve as judges. The children gain self-confidence, learn how to connect with others and become leaders.
Liz Hoge coordinates all Scout activities at the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, which has a long and glorious history of supporting both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Liz makes that support happen, day in and day out. She arranges meeting space for several Girl Scout troops that meet in the building as well as for the very large and active Boy Scout Troop 33. Over the years, with Liz as overseer, the church gymnasium has been the site of such traditional community events as the Daughters’ Dance Night and the annual pancake supper. These events help Scouts, and they also help build community across Takoma Park. Liz keeps everyone on track and accommodates every special request she can.
Julia Lipton Marnon has been coaching teams with Takoma Soccer for several years, including through the pandemic, and she has been a wonderful coach, guide, and support to our kiddos. Julia is consistently focused on building their confidence, particularly with young girls who may not feel as athletically confident as their male counterparts. Anytime players have a rough moment in a game—if a goalie gets scored on, for instance—she makes a point of telling them the things that they did great and that she can see improvement. There was one particularly tough game that the team lost by several goals. Everyone was feeling pretty down, but her speech after the game, about how proud she was of them for working so hard, never giving up, and showing good sportsmanship in a trying situation, was so kind and kept the kids going. She is never fluffy or insincere but always accurate and valid, and she reinforces the best of what sports can bring out in people.
Takoma Soccer coaches Terry McDonough and Stephane de Messieres have been coaching the Takoma Turkeys, now 11 & 12 years old, since the kids were preschoolers. Terry and Stephane have been exceptionally committed to working with this group, teaching them teamwork, sportsmanship and character in addition to soccer skills. They look for ways to inspire and motivate the team by setting up trips to DC United games and finding female as well as male role models, noting that it's important for boys to see women playing at a high level as well. They bring patience, fun, and heart to their coaching roles. The sense of belonging and encouragement has kept kids and parents coming back not only to their team but to other teams of the same age. Terry is the coordinator and Stephane is the scheduler for all 6th-grade coed soccer teams. The two of them have been a constant during a very tumultuous time.
Tim Miller has been an absolute dynamo with Boy Scout Troop 33 in Takoma Park and most recently with Cub Scout Pack 23 in East Silver Spring. When the pastor at St. Michael’s approached Tim about the need to start a Cub Scout pack for the many immigrant families in the parish with young children, Tim could not refuse. Scouting is a different experience from formal schooling. Children learn hiking, camping, whittling and building a fire, as well as the value of service projects. Tim organizes the annual spaghetti supper and teaches the Cubs to take orders and serve meals. Tim previously was both the Cubmaster and Scoutmaster of Troop 33 for several years, demonstrating to his son and many other boys what “can do” means. Parents saw their boys transform into thoughtful young gentlemen. This year Tim was awarded Scouting’s highest honor for service– the Silver Beaver award.