The winner of the Invest in Others’ 2021 Volunteer of the Year Award is Kenneth “Larry” Agee, owner of Agee Financial Group, for his volunteer work with Disaster Aid USA. The group provides immediate disaster relief and humanitarian aid and assistance during times of natural or man-made disasters.
“When disaster strikes, Larry Agee rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, volunteering countless hours at home and abroad to give people hope and ‘rebuild communities together.’ From delivering meals and supplies to removing debris and mucking and gutting homes, Larry has demonstrated his commitment to making a difference in a hands-on way,” said Megan McAuley, executive director of the Invest in Others Charitable Foundation.
The foundation announced Agee as the winner with a video released Wednesday. The in-person celebration of the group’s 15th annual awards in Boston was canceled this year due to the pandemic. The winner of the final awards category will be released similarly tomorrow.
The two additional finalists in this category were Kevin S. Bode of Northwestern Mutual for his work with Knead Community Café and Isaac Simon of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management for his work with Coalition for the Homeless.
Each of the finalists will receive $20,000 for their charities and Agee will receive $50,000 for Disaster Aid USA.
The profiles of Agee, Bode and Simon that follow were written by Deborah Nason.
VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR WINNER KENNETH “LARRY” AGEE
Owner, Agee Financial Group
When disaster strikes, Larry Agee is ready to spring into action.
“We’re a force multiplier,” said Agee, owner of Agee Financial Group in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and co-founder of Disaster Aid USA, a nonprofit made up of response teams across the U.S. that respond quickly to natural disasters. “We may come in with 15 people who help 150 volunteers be more effective,” he said. Substantial financial and volunteer support comes from hundreds of Rotary clubs across the U.S.
Disaster Aid’s teams helped Agee’s own hometown when it was devastated by two hurricanes in 2020. Fifteen teams showed up, leading efforts that helped more than 10,000 residents.
Teams range in size from three to 15 people, and team leaders coordinate logistics such as organizing the distribution of aid (food, water, supplies, PPE), volunteers, distribution centers and more. The nonprofit also makes grants to local organizations for post-disaster support.
Each team has its own domestic response trailer stocked with chainsaws, generators, water filters, emergency supplies, survival equipment, and debris-removal equipment.
Why are private rescue teams needed?
“FEMA is a very big wheel that takes time to get moving,” Agee said. “In the meantime, we do 80% of the immediate emergency recovery work.”
VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR FINALIST KEVIN BODE
Financial adviser, Northwestern Mutual
Sometimes you just have to go big and go bold. In 2016, Kevin Bode, a financial adviser with Northwestern Mutual in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, decided to help the town feed its hungry and recover from decades of economic decimation caused by a huge plant closure in the 1970s.
He and a newly formed board decided to purchase and renovate a three-building complex in the heart of the abandoned downtown. With $100,000 raised in less than a month, the pay-what-you-can Knead Community Café was born.
“We were overwhelmed by the response and there’s been a steady increase in traffic ever since,” Bode said.
Run by volunteers, the café has transformed the community, serving more than 100 diners every day, with lines out the door. The restaurant provides an average of 25 free meals daily and 270 free take-out meals weekly.
The location also serves as a community center and event space, providing an economic spark to the downtown and attracting numerous new businesses, as well as holding well-attended events such as craft shows, seminars and social and religious gatherings.
“When people see what’s happening in their community, it gives them hope — for more jobs, more businesses and better housing,” Bode said.
VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR FINALIST ISAAC SIMON
Senior vice president, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management
Isaac Simon has been a volunteer van driver for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City every Tuesday night for the past 15 years – and he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. Simon, a senior vice president with Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, drives from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., handing out food and clothing at 10 distribution points, reaching more than 200 people per night. Many have become his friends over the years.
The nonprofit, which serves 50,000 people per year, also helps them find temporary shelter and permanent housing, access crisis services, prevent evictions and find employment. As a volunteer team leader, Simon recruits and schedules volunteers to accompany him, and he also collects financial and in-kind contributions from businesses.
Does he ever get depressed from this work?
“No. I get a sense of hope from seeing the young volunteers. There’s a six-month waiting list to volunteer one night with me,” Simon said. “It brings joy, seeing how appreciative [the recipients] are and knowing that I’m helping to break the cycle of poverty.”
The people that the coalition helps are hopeful. “The toughness they have is a toughness we’ll never know,” Simon said.
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