By Fred Hamilton
When Rachel VanNess talks about her dogs, rabbits and “her kids” one can hear, in her voice, the passion and pride she has for them.
What they don’t know is that she never gave birth to Emmanuel or Prenell.
“They’re all my kids,” said VanNess, a Delray Beach police officer who has rescued some of the animals and has been mentoring the two young men for several years.
The Boca Raton resident’s passion for giving of herself unselfishly to improve the lives of area youth, resulted in her being recognized recently as one of KOP’s 2013 Mothers of the Year. Four other women shared the honor.
The other honorees were:
– Athalone H. Brailford, a retired educator who was one of the founders of Operation Save the Children. The program, which morphed into the Knights of Pythagoras Mentoring Network nine years ago, was one of the earlier tutoring programs in south Palm Beach County. Brailford and a handful of other black teachers tutored children in math and reading at Pompey Park on Saturday mornings for more than 30 years.
-Vera Rolle Farrington founded the Spady Cultural Museum in Delray Beach after more than 30 years as an educator in the school system. She continues to educate youth about the history of African Americans in Delray Beach and Palm Beach County.
– Cathy DeMatto parlayed her professional expertise in marketing and development to assist disadvantaged children in the greater community. Her commitment to help youth causes is evidenced by the number of organizations with which she has been affiliated. Among them are the Boys and Girls Club of Palm Beach County, the Caridad Center, the Milagro Center, Delray Beach Police Advisory board, the Spirit of Giving Network, Kids in Distress, Zonta International, and the City of Delray Beach Education board. She has chaired the city’s “Principal for a Day” program for five years.
– Janet Meeks, whose name is synonymous with youth, education and children– at least in Delray Beach. She was one of the founders of the Plumosa School of the Arts Foundation, she served on the Chamber’s Education foundation and was an adult mentor for the city’s Youth Council. She was a board member of the Boys and Girls Club, a mentor for Take Stock in Children and she has championed many educational programs such as the Mayors’ literacy initiative, Principal for a Day, and the Delray Beach Pop Up Book. Meeks continues to promote the importance of education in the community.
A panel of past honorees selected the five women from a list of 13 nominees, organizers said.
The organization, formerly the Knights of Pythagoras Mentoring Network, honored the women at a picnic on May 11 at Lake Ida Park. Each received a personalized embroidered towel, a rose and proclamations from the City of Delray Beach and Palm Beach County.
“Officer Rachel has devoted so much of her career in this city to helping kids in the city,” Chris Pierre Louis, president of the Atlantic All Stars Leadership Academy, a mentoring program at Atlantic High School, told the attendees. “She and her husband gave their money, time and love unconditionally to improve our lives.”
When VanNess is not on patrol downtown, she can be found meeting with representatives from community groups to plan an event or drafting a performance improvement plan to help a child excel in school, Pierre Louis said. She has recruited local business people to help tutor students at Village Academy or help them with homework.
“She is a kid at heart,” said Giovanni Martinez, vice president of the Atlantic All Stars. “She loves horses and it is not unusual to find her taking a group of us to one of the horse stables in west Delray.”
VanNess exposes them to a life outside the city limits, the boys said. She has taken them kayaking and canoeing at Jonathan Dickenson State Park in Jupiter.
“And this is above and beyond her regular job as a police officer,” Martinez said. “In the truest sense, she is an example of community policing.”
VanNess often downplays her role. She used the story of the starfish as a model.
A boy was walking along a beach when he saw hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand because they were washed up in the tide, she said.
A man, stuck by the apparent futility of the task, told the boy, ‘You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.’ VanNess added.
“And then the boy looked at him, stooped down and picked up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, ‘It sure made a difference to that one!’” she said. “That’s me. If I can save one person every week, I can make a difference in this city.”