One reason the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission had its annual awards banquet at Greenspring Village Retirement Community in Springfield this year is that the commission's Lee District representative, Michel Margosis, now lives at the facility. Another is that the Greenspring Village Volunteer Program was one of the award recipients at the Thursday, May 17 banquet.
Each January for the last 28 years, the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission has sought nominations from throughout the county and then selected a nonprofit organization, a business and one or two individuals as winners, explained Victor Dunbar, the commission's chairman. In recent years, a Fair Housing Award has been added.
"The biggest issue in Fairfax County is affordable housing," Dunbar said. He added that the commission also often recognizes work that supports equality in healthcare or that focuses on tutoring at-risk children or re-training adults for employment.
"In a perfect world, we would not need something called a Human Rights Commission, but this is not a perfect world," said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock). "We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go." She said it could be difficult to look at a situation closely enough to see that someone is being treated unfairly, "and the Human Rights Commission does that."
THE EVENING’S keynote speaker was Michael Anthony Mason, executive assistant director of criminal investigation for the FBI, and a former marine. Mason echoed Bulova's sentiment when he noted that what the FBI and the Human Rights Commission have in common is that "we both long for a world in which there will no longer be a need for our organizations."
He pointed out that, while the U.S. is "a great country," it has a long history of "disparate treatment" for those who have been different from the mainstream. "And all through our history, we've had heroes who were willing to fight for social justice," he said, adding that, like the evening's award recipients, these were often "people whose pictures never appeared in a newspaper or magazine."
As an example, he described a recent meeting of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. "I was struck by how many of the chiefs there were the first black people to serve in their positions," said Mason.
He also asserted the need to protect civil rights while fighting terrorism. In his post at the FBI, he said, he had received many reported "threats" along the lines of: "One lone male of apparent Middle Eastern descent taking pictures of the White House." Eventually, he said, "I began to wonder, 'Where are all the white people who used to come to Washington and take pictures of the White House?'" Mason emphasized that, in fighting terrorism, "we must be led by facts and not fears."
When the commission presented the Greenspring Village Volunteer Program with an award, Margosis noted that the program had faltered years ago, due to staffing difficulties, but was revitalized under the leadership of its latest coordinator, Elke Martin. Margosis said Martin had made the program succeed by "creatively developing new programs to connect us to each other and to the community." The program teaches English as a second language (ESL), brings high school students in to volunteer at the facility and reaches out to those with disabilities. The ESL volunteers logged a total of 2,250 hours last year.
Accepting the award, Martin said she had the "best job in the world because I get to work with wonderful people." She went on to thank some of her fellow volunteers.
THE AWARD FOR a nonprofit organization went to the Northern Virginia Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which is headquartered in the City of Fairfax but serves all of Northern Virginia. The 72 volunteers make weekly visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities to ensure quality care, help the elderly and disabled to advocate for themselves, and mediate complaints.
Human Rights Commissioner Manny Solon is one of the program's volunteers, and as he presented the award, he noted that all of the volunteers were "in the business of treating somebody like a human being."
Program coordinator Rita Shumacher accepted the award on behalf of the organization, crediting volunteers with persisting despite having to see difficult situations in the field. "I don't know how they do it," she said, noting that much of her time is spent in the office.
Frank Palmer of Annandale took home the individual award. Introducing Palmer, Dunbar noted that Palmer had served on the boards of both Habitat for Humanity and Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services (FACETS). Through Palmer's efforts, said Dunbar, thousands of the county's more affluent residents "have been brought face-to-face with the poverty here." Since he retired in 1994, Palmer has raised millions of dollars for the needy, tutored at-risk children and encouraged others to serve as volunteers. "He raises the money, he recruits the volunteers, and he inspires," said Dunbar.
Palmer took the opportunity to commend Fairfax County's commitment to end homelessness in the county by 2016. In Fairfax County, "the homeless live in woods, under bridges, in their cars and doubled up with relatives," said Palmer. "This is not OK. Not in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation." He noted that the Implementation Committee to End Homelessness expects to publish its plan to by the end of the year. As individuals, he said, residents should be accepting of affordable housing in their areas and should volunteer at nonprofit organizations, schools and libraries in order to tutor at-risk students and re-train adults for the work force.
Digressing for a moment, Palmer noted that as he spoke, the gun-rights organization Virginia Citizens Defense League was hosting a "gun giveaway" at the Mason District Government Center to protest New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to crack down on illegal gun sales in Virginia. "Gun enthusiasts think they have the right to own guns at their will. I think the 32 victims at Virginia Tech had the right to live out their lives," said Palmer. "I place the blame for this tragedy on Virginia's lax gun laws."
As Commissioner Heather Lawson introduced Rolling Productions, Inc., which received the Fair Housing Award, she explained that the company created informational videos to educate the public about disability issues. Rolling Productions made a film about affordable, accessible housing for wheelchair users, and the company helped to create the Coalition for Housing Opportunities in the Community for Everyone (CHOICE), a nonprofit that works to increase housing options for those with disabilities.
Fatima Miller and Neel Ellis of Reston created the company but are currently working on a project in Pennsylvania, explained their attorney, Barry Weintraub, as he accepted the award on their behalf. Weintraub read some words Miller and Ellis had asked him to say, in which they noted that the U.S. Constitution begins with "We, the people," not "some of the people." Throughout the country's history, Weintraub read, Americans laid down their lives to fight for equality. "Let us carry forth the message: 'We, the people' means all the people."