by Jim Abbott
Work is more than a paycheck to these local leaders. It’s a mission they live day-in and day-out to make their community a better place.
Too often, work gets a bad rap.
Sure, it can be a grind. But for a fortunate few, work, play, and life mix in careers that go beyond punching a time clock on the 40-hour routine.
Here’s a look at four local residents who gladly put in the overtime, but only because they have passion for their professions and the community service they provide. They don’t just do their jobs, they live them!
A Star Among the Stars
Where do you go with a physics degree and a flair for the dramatic?
For Derek Demeter, there was only one answer: the planetarium, of course.
“It allows you to do science, but it also allows you to create,” says Derek, director of the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium at Seminole State College (SSC) in Sanford. “I always jumped between those two lines. I loved science, but I was also into theater, the arts, and things like that. In a planetarium, the marriage of those two worlds works really well.”
Derek started looking at the stars as a child in Winter Springs and never stopped. On trips with his father to the Orlando Science Center and the planetarium at what was then Seminole Community College, Derek’s curiosity turned into a career and life goal. When his friends were playing video games, the budding astronomer was volunteering at planetariums, learning how they worked.
“There’s really no coursework in schools to learn how to run a planetarium,” says Derek, who earned a degree in physics with a specialization in astronomy at UCF. “It’s one of those increasingly rare professions where you have to be by somebody’s side to learn it.”
It’s a new era of planetariums, Derek says. Technology has transformed the domes into “virtual reality spaces” that go beyond stargazing to explore Earth and cultural sciences. As such, Derek spends much of his free time getting out from under his dome to find new and engaging content, material he excitedly shares with SSC students, planetarium patrons, and even local teachers who come to the planetarium for professional development in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
On a recent research trip to New Mexico, Derek gathered images for a show on Native American archeological astronomy to open at the SSC planetarium in November. An expert astro-photographer, Derek shot spherical panoramas of the night sky to be featured in the presentation.
He took the images atop a 10,000-foot mountain, only to turn around and see tourists looking in the wrong direction.
“Everybody was looking down at the lights of the city below,” Derek says. “We have no connection to the universe anymore. How many of us today even bother to look up?”
Fortunately, Derek still looks to the stars and brings them down to Earth for us all to enjoy.
A Passion for Helping
No matter the hour, Beth Davalos answers the phone when a parent calls.
As coordinator of Families In Transition (FIT), a Seminole County Public Schools program to help students facing homelessness, Beth literally wrote the book on connecting local families with crisis services. At the same time, as a single mother, she understands the human side of each desperate appeal.
“You realize it’s a very vulnerable situation,” says Beth, a licensed clinical social worker who helped start the Seminole County program in 2003. “My personal experience has helped me as a social worker to understand how difficult it can be when you don’t have a lot of support. I was never homeless, but I was a single mother, and it’s a time period that felt very scary, despite one’s knowledge or experience. Anyone can be subjected to facing economic hardship, and you need to have resources.”
Beth also focuses on outreach, connecting the FIT program with community volunteers to provide essential services for needy families.
“I had done a variety of jobs in social work,” she says. “I had worked in an adolescent psychiatric unit, in private practice for children and families, and had volunteered at shelters. I saw a lot of gaps of services for families.”
Beth is determined to close as many gaps as possible, so she picks up the phone whenever it rings.
“If someone calls for help, I want to answer right away,” Beth says. “It’s hard to sleep at night when you know that someone’s calling you, saying ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’ These are real things happening to real people who are our neighbors, and it’s very scary to them. We might not be able to solve it that night, but for them to know that someone’s working on it is extremely helpful to them.”
Homegrown Role Model
Ask the reigning Teacher of the Year at Sanford’s Pine Crest Elementary about the secret to reaching second graders… and he’ll smile and shrug: “I don’t know what I do,” says William Tillman, Jr., now in his fourth year at one of Sanford’s most economically challenged schools. “I’ve been told that I have a great relationship with the students, that they love me and do whatever I ask them to. I just go in and do what I do.”
Push beyond that modest description and it’s apparent that William, who grew up in Sanford, shares a bond with his pint-sized pupils, many of whom face challenging circumstances at home. William once roamed the same streets and emerged as that rarest commodity: a homegrown role model.
An alumnus of Idyllwilde Elementary School, Greenwood Lakes Middle, and Lake Mary High (class of 2003), William earned a music education degree at Rollins College in Winter Park. He planned to be a music teacher until a stint as a substitute teacher at Pine Crest changed his mind.
“The staff members encouraged me to get my certification in elementary education,” William says, recalling the words of colleague Bernie Brown in particular. “She told me, ‘There are not many black males in education, and young black males need a positive role model at Pine Crest.’”
William answered the call, becoming not just a teacher, but also a 24/7 mentor to many young students who don’t have strong role models in their lives. And William still makes use of his music education by teaching group classes in piano after school. He also plays clarinet in the classroom to get lessons across.
“I play clarinet, and I play piano for my students,” says William, 30. “I’m a musician; that’s me, so I let them see me. I don’t know how to be anyone else.”
William stresses discipline, but counters his tough side with a habit of writing encouraging notes to students: “You’re going to accomplish great things!”
And why not? Their teacher certainly has.
Two Decades of 24/7
The phone never stops ringing at Pet Rescue By Judy, the venerable pet rescue and adoption center in Sanford. Volunteers field calls with the urgency of a hospital emergency room or a police dispatcher.
“Your dog was stolen from your backyard?” a staffer shouts into the receiver. She shouts because there’s a dozen barking dogs in the lobby, asking for morning walks.
Meanwhile, two UCF students in fraternity jerseys wait at the front desk to pick up supplies for an on-campus fundraiser, and – in the middle of it all – the organization’s founder and namesake is talking about two rescue dogs that just arrived from Russia.
“We’re international now,” says Judy Sarullo, who has been saving abandoned and abused pets for more than 20 years in Seminole County. It’s a non-stop job that stretches from 5:00 a.m. walks and afternoon chamber-of-commerce meetings to late-night calls from the police about animals failed by their owners.
A transplanted New Yorker, Judy, 66, is a diminutive dynamo known for her blunt good humor.
“I used to be normal,” she says, explaining how a soft spot for strays evolved into a $1.1 million, 9,000-square-foot rescue center because “I forgot to stop.”
Judy’s love for creatures remains strong, but she has become less forgiving of humans.
“I just hate people more now,” Judy deadpans, weary of listening to decades of excuses from would-be pet owners inconvenienced by the responsibility. “People tell me, ‘I’m moving.’ Well, find a place that takes an animal. You made a commitment. Now go and do it.”
That hard emotion is balanced by the affection Judy feels for her volunteers and the animals, like the new arrivals Mischka and Butter who take to snoozing in the bathtub of Judy’s home. It’s a happy ending after a long night of emails and phone calls to sort out flight changes from Russia.
“They are so sweet,” Judy says. “They slept on my lap the whole way home. I think I was more traumatized than they were.”