Meet Our 2021 Spirit of Manatee Honorees
Manatee Community Foundation’s “Spirit of Manatee” honors the generosity of givers and the resilience of nonprofits serving Manatee County.
The annual awards program began in 2006, established to recognize the unique and lasting contributions of Manatee County residents in their communities. Honorees were chosen from individuals nominated by nonprofits for the notable differences made through their support of positive outcomes for others, often impacting multiple missions and organizations during their lifetimes. Attendance at the Spirit of Manatee virtual program on Wednesday, March 24 at noon is free for anyone in the community, thanks to the sponsorship of the Milestone Financial Group at Morgan Stanley.
“This year’s Spirit of Manatee offers a special way for people to be inspired by the ongoing generosity and thoughtful giving that has taken place in Manatee County over the years, with highlights of nonprofits that have done extraordinary work during the pandemic. We are all in need of some positive and uplifting reminders of the power we each have to make the community just what we want it to be. During this hour—whether attendees are sitting at home with their laptops, having lunch at their desks, or watching from a phone—this opportunity to hear from extraordinary people is open to all,” said Susie Bowie, executive director of Manatee Community Foundation.
The 2021 Spirit of Manatee honorees include:
- John Weichel, Lifetime Spirit Winner, nominated by State College of Florida Foundation
John Weichel is a deeply admired leader who served much of our community during his working days at Bradenton Insurance and Service Insurance Company, a business he started in 1954. His charitable giving has nurtured the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of young people. John has gifted nearly $200,000 to State College of Florida (SCF) Foundation. His noteworthy and impactful philanthropy has included a major capital gift to SCF Lakewood Ranch Center for Innovation and Training Building which has served thousands in credit and continuing education classes and events. This gift has been vital to the technological and innovation needs for workforce development in our region. John has given recent high school graduates a jump start on their college education through the SCF Summer Bridge Program and deserving SCF Music Excellence students opportunities through scholarships.
During his lifetime of contributions, John has made a significant difference in the work of Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida and its family foster homes in Palmetto. This model provides care and safe shelter for children, allowing siblings to stay together after the traumatic experience of being removed from their homes. John has also contributed to the Manatee Performing Arts Center, Bradenton Christian School and through his fund at Manatee Community Foundation, SOLVE Maternity Homes, and Young Life of Manatee County. John was Scoutmaster for Troop 17 and an Elder at the First Presbyterian Church, Bradenton.
- Henry Blyden, Leadership Spirit Award, nominated by Sarasota-Bradenton Kappa Alpha Psi, Manasota Black Chamber of Commerce, and United Community Centers
Henry Blyden is an extraordinary forerunner in efforts that support children, education and health, Henry has dedicated his life to serving and encouraging others to support philanthropic efforts. His public contributions began in 1963 when he enlisted in the Army, serving in Panama, Germany, Japan and Vietnam. For more than 30 years, he has worked on local substance abuse and mental health efforts, building supportive alliances and partners along the way. In Kappa Alpha Psi’s annual community toy and food drive at United Community Centers, Henry has raised money from friends and colleagues to ensure that children in need can have a joyful Christmas. The event has grown from benefiting fewer than 50 children in its first year to well over 400 in recent years.
For almost a decade, Henry has used his influence to help design a community prostate cancer screening event in partnership with Dattoli Cancer Center that has dramatically increased participation of African American men, leading to early detection and saved lives. Under Henry’s leadership, the event was tied to the MLK day of Service and was recognized as the highest ranked project. Henry has also been an esteemed member of the Gamma XI Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, where he has helped to organize and implement the Boule’s summer program with Career Source Suncoast for four years, impacting more than 200 young people. He has also helped to raise funds supporting the Boule’s Journey to Success youth development programs. Henry has been recognized as Kappa Alpha Psi Man of the Year, NAACP’s Unsung Hero, Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association State Professional of the Year, and NAACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
- BMO Harris Bank, Community Spirit Award, nominated by Realize Bradenton
BMO Harris Bank has contributed to Realize Bradenton as a major supporter of major events since 2012, such as the nationally recognized Bradenton Blues Festival that increases civic participation in our region. Their employees have volunteered at every Bradenton Blues Festival, contributing hundreds of service hours to support youth and creativity programs in Bradenton. As the Presenting Sponsor of the event, BMO Harris Bank has served in a leadership position which has helped Realize Bradenton secure 55 other businesses contributing cash and in-kind support annually. As a result, the festival has become an economic driver attracting people from 10 foreign countries, 39 states, and 225 Florida zip codes, as well as helping Realize Bradenton fund its “Blues in the Schools” program which has served more than 4,000 public school students in the past five years. BMO Harris Bank staff contribute talents and knowledge as board members of many nonprofit organizations in Manatee County. The bank has been a supporter of the work of many nonprofits in our community, including The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature for over a decade and Manatee Community Foundation.
- Emma Bittar, Young Spirit Award Winner, nominated by Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County
As the Lead Youth Health Advocate in Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County’s Teen Health Educator program, Bittar served as a vocal spokesperson to educate potential funders, government officials, and anyone who would listen. She advocates directly for Healthy Teens Coalition to promote youth health and to secure funding for youth drug prevention and mental health. People positively respond to the impassioned pleas that this impressive young leader makes. She started her philanthropic work as a high school freshman when she authored a $3,000 grant on bullying prevention. The impact that she has made on the health and well-being of youth has been monumental through her advocacy, volunteerism, and success gaining government funding through the Manatee County Commission and with private funders. In 2019, Emma was chosen as the sole student representative in the nation to advocate with members of the US Congress in Washington for the federal health and human services funding to prevent sexually transmitted illnesses in youth. She was also appointed as the only student in Florida to serve on the statewide Florida Department of Education’s Family Life and Disease Prevention Committee.
- Barbara Brownell, Charles Clapsaddle Community Spotlight Award, nominated by Parenting Matters.
For decades, Barbara has put a spotlight on the need for prevention services and fought to make parenting education available to all families. Her wisdom, determination, and belief in others have transformed our community by elevating the importance of parenting and building strong futures for our children. As a founding board member of Parenting Matters and more than 20 years dedicated to the organization, Barbara has impacted more than 16,000 families. She started the organization when a group of educators and child welfare advocates grew concerned over the lack of child abuse prevention programs focused on parenting in Manatee County. Barbara trained and led her team of Parenting Educators to provide the highest quality of service, while freely sharing her knowledge and expertise with the community to make everyone stronger. She developed and authored programs, curricula, and trainings implemented locally by Parenting Matters, Manatee Junior College (State College of Florida), Forty Carrots, Manatee County School District, and local foundations. She co-chaired the Manatee Community Council for Children’s Task Force on Funding in 1990-1992 that resulted in the tax referendum for Manatee County’s Children’s Services Advisory Committee which now provides approximately $13 million annually supporting programs that benefit tens of thousands of children. To Barbara, the work is never about credit. She would give all the credit to the parents who sought support and made changes to give their children a better life.