Each fall, Williamson County locals are nominated as Philanthropic Heroes to be featured in our Fall Philanthropy edition of YOUR Williamson. This year our nomination are nothing short of amazing. No surprise, as here in Williamson County, there is an abundance of people who dedicate their time to making our community better. We are delighted to present to our readers the 2022 Philanthropic Heroes!
Shelly Sassen has lived in Williamson County since 1976 and was part of the first graduating class of Brentwood High School. “As an adult and businesswoman, I’ve owned two local companies in Williamson County: Once Upon a Child and Jump!Zone,” says Shelly. She also served as Connections Director at Church of the City’s Franklin location for a while and was a former Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO) President of Centennial High School.
Shelly currently serves as the CEO of The Well Outreach Food Ministry, a nonprofit providing for the hunger needs of our community. She has been with The Well since 2019 and was the first full-time employee and Executive Director.
Shelly shares: “The Well’s Food Pantry serves over 750 local families in need monthly. In addition, their JetPack ministry serves twenty-five local Williamson and Maury County schools and over 950 at-risk students every weekend (during the academic year) – students receive a drawstring bag of food containing five meals and snacks, where otherwise they would go home to an empty pantry.” This sixteen-year-old ministry is in the heart of the growing city of Spring Hill.
Shelly feels passionate about The Well’s mission because “food should not be a privilege in a time when we have so many opportunities. There should not be students stranded in a rural food desert with nothing to eat, having to choose to give their food to a younger sibling, or coming to school on Mondays, not having eaten all weekend.”
“We all can give something: Our time, our gifts, our skills, money…something!” exclaims Shelly. “Giving back gives one’s life meaning and purpose. It ‘saves us’ and makes us whole. It matters. It’s life-changing!”
Shelly believes we all have something valuable to give and contribute. In her experience: “I never thought I could run a ministry because I wasn’t a trained theologian or a Bible scholar. But, eventually, I realized God could use a businesswoman who knew how to lead people and manage processes if I had a heart for Him and others. It’s about the heart!”
Blandina Vergara - Cruz
Blandina Vergara–Cruz has lived in Williamson County for fifteen years. She is the Executive Director of Ray of Light Foundation, a nonprofit in honor of her son, Raymond M. Cruz. At the age of sixteen, Raymond was diagnosed with Ewing-like Sarcoma, and sadly passed away after a three-year battle. Blandina says, “My son’s foundation is important to me because Raymond used his time on earth to spread love, positivity and generosity daily. Even on his hardest days of treatment, it was necessary for him not to let the cancer be what people remember him by. He taught me the importance of giving back and that life is what you make it; not how much time you have, but what you do with your time. My son’s legacy will live on in those who knew him and through his foundation by helping others.”
In addition to Ray of Light Foundation, Blandina has worked with adults and children at various theater companies in town, including Pull-Tight Players and Expression City. She is the director of two children’s theatre programs with Williamson County Parks and Recreation: Little Stars and Rising Stars. And to top it off, Blandina owns two businesses with her daughter, Riley: Riley’s Family Salon and Dreams Do Come True Princess Parties.
“Helping my community has been an opportunity for me to grow as a person and give meaning to my life,” says Blandina. This summer is my son’s first summer camp called “Shine Your Light Arts Academy,” a visual, performance and technology camp for youth. Next year, I hope we can implement an additional part of our Academy for patients at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital with our Academy in a box. This will allow the patients to attend camp, but in a way, as they can participate from their hospital rooms or home. It was a dream of my son’s, and I am so excited to make that dream come true.”
Blandina is honored and thankful to be nominated as a 2022 Philanthropic Hero. “I know there are so many people deserving of this nomination. We are all doing our best to give back to our community. If there were more time in the days, weeks, months and years, I would be involved in all of them. It is a blessing to have the opportunity to give back, and I am truly honored to be a part of the philanthropic community here.”
Trish Munro has lived in Williamson County for sixteen years. But, before coming here, she lived in New York City for twenty years. Although retired, she is involved with numerous philanthropic efforts across middle Tennessee, keeping her busy and, most importantly, fulfilled.
Trish is a board member at Studio Tenn, a Broadway-quality theatre company, and has been involved there for almost ten years. Additionally, she has served on the board for the past four years at Centennial Park Conservancy. The Conservancy group helps maintain the Parthenon and improve Centennial Park through conservation. “It is a treasure. Everyone should do an architectural tour of the Parthenon and go to Musicians Corner,” says Trish.
In recent years, Trish joined the board at the Nashville Zoo in 2020. She admits: “I love the Nashville Zoo. It is one of the best in the country.” And her philanthropic involvement does not end there. Additionally, she serves on the Equal Chance for Education board which helps Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students obtain a college degree. She says: “It is very, very rewarding to see students so appreciative.”
Through her years of philanthropic involvement, Trish has learned the importance of community. She says: “Being part of a non-profit helps solidify the foundation for the common good in said community.” Trish shares that there are excellent educational opportunities for children and adults through any and all philanthropies.
When asked why Trish feels giving back is important, she replied with a scripture verse: “To whom much is given, much will be required. (Luke 12:14).” Trish says: “If possible, give up your time by supporting your local nonprofits. It will bring you a lot of satisfaction and joy.”
Derrick Solomon has lived In Williamson County for eighteen years with his wife, Marquita, and son, Darius. Derrick has worked at Hard Bargain Association (HBA) for three years as Executive Director and has been involved with the Association for over a decade as Board of Director and Co-Chair of the Board. Marquita’s grandfather is the co-founder of HBA.
Derrick says: “This organization is not simply a career, but a family legacy that truly builds generational wealth. It honors Harvey McLemore’s vision through the Hard Bargain mission by enriching our neighbors’ lives through preservation and development. Since the early 1800s, Hard Bargain has been the oldest African American community in the heart of downtown Franklin. We must preserve this beautiful, rich history. The families have been here for over 150 years – most of whom were the very ones that built Franklin and made it into what we see now as a vibrant, charming town.”
In addition to HBA, Derrick is involved with the following organizations: Leadership Franklin, City of Franklin Taskforce (Toussaint Cemetery), My Friends Place (Mentor), Boys and Girls Club of Middle Tennessee (Block Captain for Wine Down Main Street), Boy Scouts of America, S.T.E.M. Scouts, Star 6 Sigma Global Academy and Empowerment Community Church. “I am involved with so many organizations because God charges us as followers of Christ to provide our time, talent and treasure for His Kingdom. So give all of yourself to God as He has given to you since the day you were born,” Derrick says.
Through his philanthropic involvement, Derrick has learned: “It isn’t always about a structure and the preservation project such as a home. Sometimes it is about the very people within the four walls of the home that are going through major concerns. As we are in the current, post-pandemic climate, many families are still riddled with trauma from different scenarios. There have not been many raises in salary, although, most families have gone back to work. Average, moderate families in Williamson County face many barriers and struggle to make ends meet.”
Derrick hopes to continue his nonprofit endeavors, starting with efforts to fix attainable housing concerns within Williamson County!
Ashley W. Roberts
Ashley W. Roberts grew up in the Grassland community of Williamson County and has lived here her entire life, except while studying at The University of Alabama. Her love of philanthropy began when she was the Director of A Vintage Affair, a nonprofit foundation that benefits many local women and children’s charities in Franklin. Ashley is a Realtor with Daniel-Christian Real Estate and an Appraisal Trainee with her family’s business, Roberts Appraisal Company.
Ashley “firmly believes that it is our responsibility to give back to the community where you live. The more active you are in a community, the more you will love it and want to help!” Ashley says: “I have learned that even though we are in prosperous Williamson County, there is ALWAYS a need somewhere. You don’t even have to look that hard to find it.”
A Vintage Affair was just the beginning of Ashley’s philanthropic involvement. Currently, she is involved with Youth Leadership Franklin, serving for the last twelve years including as past President; a board member of Friends of Franklin Parks; a member of the Franklin Transit Authority and a Commissioner for the Franklin Public Arts Commission. Most recently, she has taken on the role of Chairman of the Williamson County Association of Realtors (WCAR) Community Outreach Committee. Ashley says: “All of these organizations are important to me for different reasons, but they all circle back to one thing – connecting people to this great community of ours!”
Ashley would love to help people get connected and involved. “It can be a bit overwhelming to get started, but so many organizations could use your time, resources, contacts or talents! If you just think of one area where you have an interest – animals, children, literacy, parks, etc. – I promise you that someone can find you a place to volunteer locally. Ashley also uses social media to help spread the word about nonprofit events and fundraisers.
Guy Whitley is a Nashville native who has lived in Williamson County for thirty years. He has owned Whitley Jewelry Company – a family business started in 1949 in downtown Nashville – since his father’s death in 1989. Guy says: “I started working with my dad at the age of twelve, going in the store on Saturdays and during Christmas. I attended Gem City College and spent two years learning watch and jewelry repair.”
Guy has been a Reserve Deputy in the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department for ten years. He admits: “I enjoy helping people at the worst time of their lives. Being in a Sheriff’s uniform gives me a better understanding of what it means to be in law enforcement, and I hope that my actions will encourage others to join.”
“I have been in the Masonic order for forty-eight years, serving as the leader in 1993, and currently the treasurer for the past thirteen years,” Guy says. For the past forty-four years, Guy has been in the Al Menah Shrine Clown Unit, attending parades and the circus, making people laugh and forget about their problems for a short time while he entertains in full clown makeup. Guy says: “Being a clown speaks volumes for the Shrine to help kids. Helping others puts a smile on my face. Being a clown brings joy and laughter. Clowning has given that opportunity to me.”
In 2014, Guy had a heart attack and died twice, which put things – life, loved ones and those in need – into perspective. “By the grace of God, after four stints and four bypasses, I lived. I believe in paying it forward, which I consider to be giving back. God has given me a great family and friends; with that, I am truly blessed,” he says.
Guy would love to further his philanthropic efforts by being involved in baseball for kids. “It teaches them respect, to learn the game and appreciate what it means to win and lose,” he says. In addition, Guy hopes to share his jewelry and watch repair expertise with those willing to learn.
Rachel & Justin Peck
Rachel and Justin Peck have lived in middle Tennessee for almost ten years. In 2018, the couple founded 431 Ministries with the mission to tend to the needs of the overlooked and under served women of middle Tennessee by providing safety and stability, giving them hope and a plan for an independent future. Their vision is to provide a place where any woman can find authentic community, compassion, dignity and full restoration in Christ so that she has no doubt she is known, seen and loved.
Since the start of 431 Ministries, Rachel and Justin have been determined to learn what other gaps existed in women’s crisis services in middle Tennessee. As the Executive Director, Rachel is very involved in the daily operations. She explains: “We are meant to live in community. Our society has become so individualistic, but humans were made for relationships. Serving side-by-side with other people is just one way that we can start developing new community and relationships. It also allows us to step outside our ‘bubble’ and connect with someone with different personal beliefs. It also reminds us that the world is bigger than those we see daily!”
Rachel continues: “Being involved in a ministry or philanthropic organization impacts me just as much or more so than the person(s) I am serving. It highlights my weaknesses and areas of growth and allows me to focus on more than myself. I have learned what is truly important and will make time for those things.” Justin says. “I have learned that the Lord uses us in our weaknesses, not in our strengths, so that He can be glorified.”
Justin and Rachel admit: “We never thought that we would be the one to launch an organization that helps women coming out of crisis. We thought it would always be ‘Justin and Rachel helping where they can.’ But God had other plans. If you see a need that is not being met, you might be the one that needs to step in. It only takes one person, one couple, to say yes. Your yes will inspire others, and their yeses will follow. Take the leap, do it scared, be willing to make mistakes and fix them, and eventually, you will be doing it right and making a larger difference than you ever thought possible.”
Marie Jordan was a lifelong Franklinite. For her selfless ninety-three years of life, she lived and breathed all things Franklin. Marie attended Franklin High School followed by studies at Ward-Belmont College (Belmont University). Soon after, she entered a life of wife, mother, grandmother, community volunteer and heartfelt advocate for the city of Franklin, as she deeply loved her hometown and the people who live in it.
A lifelong lover of reading, Marie was involved in Friends of the Library for several decades, including roles as every board officer. As a strong supporter of the Franklin Library system, she was a driving force in securing funding for the current library structure. In 2009, her work in heralding Franklin’s library services was acknowledged by the State of Tennessee’s House of Representatives through an official proclamation to recognize these voluntary efforts. She would have loved to introduce and build libraries for under-served communities if she had the time.
Along with the public library, Marie enjoyed volunteering for numerous local nonprofit agencies. If there was a fundraising event on the calendar, she would likely be the first face you would see at that event’s registration table, with a smile and, of course, dear friend, Eunetta Kready by her side. Both ladies reminding guests of the reasonable efforts being performed by the evening’s charity! Marie also delivered Meals on Wheels to local citizens until she could no longer drive. These are just a handful of the activities and organizations where she contributed her time.
Since this piece is in remembrance and honor of Marie, her son, Lance Jordan, played a big part in sharing her story. In fact, she passed along her philanthropic qualities to him; he says: “As a nonprofit professional for over thirty years, including the last four as an Executive Director here in Franklin, it would logically appear that I inherited her desire to help make the world a better place.” Lance admits:“The activities she took on and her volunteering, were commonplace while I was growing up. I just assumed everyone did the same.”
Marie felt that giving back to her community was vital because she was a proud representative of her hometown. “She was secure with her faith and her relationship with her Church, which contributed to her desire to live a life heavily influenced by servitude,” Lance says. “And, if someone picks up a library book donated in Marie’s honor, and that book inspires the reader to check out even more books, then Mom’s legacy of library and literacy support will live on and on.”