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Giving Back: Children help her heal, too

October 16, 2017

By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

Originally posted in The Florida Times-Union

Judy Hicks vividly remembers the first time she walked around Hillside Cottage, one of the residential houses at Daniel Memorial. The cottage is a treatment home for children facing significant mental health disorders, most often attributable to abuse, neglect and/or abandonment.

Judy Hicks recently received the 2017 United Way of Northeast Florida Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion Award for service. Credit: Photo by Jeremy Paterno

“I remember asking ‘where’s all their stuff?’” Hicks said. “When I was told that [it was] all they have, that they often come with nothing, I decided ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

That was 15 years ago. Ever since, Hicks has been a tireless volunteer and fundraiser for the children Daniel serves.

From the first Christmas toy drive to working with the realtor and building community to have renovations done to Hillside Cottage and other parts of the program, Hicks continues to find ways to make the lives of the children at Daniel a little brighter – especially for the teenage children who have faced homelessness, abuse and other difficult situations.

It is why she received United Way of Northeast Florida’s 2017 Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion Award winner for volunteerism and service.

The awards, which honor longtime United Way philanthropist Sherwood H. Smith, recognize two community individuals annually, one in service and one in advocacy. Hicks was nominated for and won the service category. The Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion awards are made possible by a legacy endowment gift from his son, Sherwood H. Smith Jr. and family.

For Hicks, trying to create a better environment for the children of Daniel was more than just noticing a need. It was a reminder of the difficulties, chaos and resiliency that had been part of her own childhood.

A legacy of generations struggling in the coal-mining communities of Virginia and West Virginia followed her parents as they struggled to make a new start in Cleveland, Ohio.

There were times when life was fine and other times when family hardships were incredibly challenging.

Hicks decided her own life was going to be decidedly different. Her determination to not be defined by tough circumstances helped her get through school and begin a career in real estate in 1993.

That first exposure to Daniel and Hillside Cottage came just as Hicks’ real estate career was taking off. Rather than limit her volunteerism and focus on her new job, she used her new-found connections in the community to help build that first Christmas toy drive.

In 2002, she founded her own organization – Womenade – to bring together like-minded professional women interested in helping children, especially the children of Daniel.

Since then, her career and work with the children’s organization have bloomed together. While she continues with fundraising and renovation projects, she believes that the legacy she is leaving will continue to help both the kids and youth at Daniel.

When Hicks talks to the children at Daniel, she tries to impart to them the message that difficult times don’t define you.

“I work in an industry that is all about ‘pretty,’ and these children don’t have that,” Hicks said. “I know and you know it shouldn’t hurt to be a kid, but the reality for many is that it does. These kids have been taught they don’t matter, but they’re our future.”

Her goal is to make sure they know they can have a bright future.

For more information on United Way of Northeast Florida’s Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion Awards, visit unitedwaynefl.org/sherwood-smith-awards.