JACKSONVILLE, Fla — All month long, First Coast News has been highlighting people who make a difference in our communities through our 12 Who Care awards. In this extraordinary year of 2020, however, it was impossible to choose just 12 people. There are three more people we wanted to add to the list: Sunny Mulford, Steward Washington and Ashley Speers.
Sunny Mulford is the co-founder of Epic-Cure, a 100 percent volunteer group dedicated to rescuing unused food from grocery stores, farms and distributors and donating it to people in need.
"A lot of times you hear that thing about hunger in the U.S., and hunger around the world, and you feel like it’s just too big of a problem but then when you see this you’re like ok well we can make a dent in it here we can do this here," Mulford said.
Mulford said she was inspired by the movie "Wasted! The Story of Food Waste."
"We were out to dinner with some of my husband's colleagues and the conversation took a lot of turns and it ended up on sustainability and the environment," she said.
She said one of her husband's colleagues asked if they'd seen the movie.
"I watched that movie and that changed our lives, so I made the whole family watch it and they all got on board with us starting this corporation, this nonprofit," Mulford said.
Mulford was also inspired by her own childhood.
"When we grew up we were very poor at times we were even homeless a few times and so, I guess I’m trying to do what somebody would’ve done if that were happening back then, I wish somebody would’ve been working on it, but that wasn’t the case back then," Mulford said.
Within four months of forming, Epic-Cure got a warehouse, and within five months of forming, they started food distribution.
"I'll work as hard as I can to make sure kids don't have to go to bed hungry or seniors or people that are disabled or any of those, so there’s just no reason for it and if I can do anything to further prevent that I will," she said.
Mulford said she has seen the need increase significantly in the two years since she started Epic-Cure, but especially during the pandemic.
"We’re increasing our sources as much as we can to keep up with the increased demand. The people are the inspiration definitely," she said.
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Steward Washington has been volunteering practically since birth.
"My parents ... it was in my blood in the community," he said. "They did this kind of thing in the community, so that's all I know," Washington said.
He started off helping provide resources to underserved communities.
"After I retired, I built up those relationships and so after I retired, I got involved in mental health. My undergrad is in psychology, so and my masters is in guidance counseling I became licensed and started doing mental health counseling on the job and in the community," he said.
Over the years, he got involved in Mental Health America, became the president of the local chapter and helped create Northwest Behavioral Health Services nearly 30 years ago.
The Ken Amaro Bow Tie Classic Golf Tournament benefits Northwest. The agency offers mental health, substance abuse and case management services for children and adults in underserved areas of Jacksonville.
"I’m the type of person that I don’t feel balance unless I know my brothers and sisters are ok, and I’m don’t mean that necessarily racially. I mean people period," he said.
"I just feel passionate about, I’m here for a reason and if I was blessed enough to have the quality of life that I’m satisfied with, then I think everyone should get the same grade," Washington said. "There's so much talent and self-worth that's lost in people because they can’t find their way, and a lot of people it doesn’t take much, but it takes what they need at the time they need it before they get stuck at where they are," Washington said.
"The adoption days are definitely very rewarding ... just kind of seeing kids' faces and the crying, it's very hard not to be emotional for sure," Ashley Speers said.
Speers is a senior program attorney with Guardian ad Litem, a program that advocates in court for children who were abused, abandoned or neglected.
"I can’t really see myself doing anything else because I do see this an avenue where we truly do represent what’s best for kids, but we’re their voice in court and I see that as a very important thing," she said.
“It’s truly inspiring how much she gives back to the kids she works with and it makes me want to be a better attorney," Amber Speers, Ashley's sister, said.
Ashley's childhood inspired her advocacy.
“When I was growing up, our parents, they divorced and separated at a pretty young age, and so I think through that you know, I realized that kids don’t really have a voice in divorce, those types of situations, and so really that’s why I went to law school to try to make a difference to be a voice for kids," Ashley said.
She volunteered with the program starting in 2010 while she was in law school, then started as an attorney in 2013.
“Knowing that kids are safe at the end of the day, seeing that they’re smiling and that they’re going to have a better future, you know, than what they did when they were born, that’s really the most fulfilling and then working with our volunteers has been one of the most rewarding things for me," Ashley said.
Ashely has also been a foster mom.