Faces of Change

From health care and family services to sustainability and the arts, these six local leaders spend their days working to improve quality of life in their communities

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Photo by Jason Nuttle

The Urban Cowboy

Mayor Mike Meier

Mike Meier is far from a career politician. “I first got involved in local politics when city staff reached out to me to weigh in on a proposed backyard-chickens ordinance,” explains Meier, who grew up in Stuart. “As the local farm guy, they thought I might be able to help.” As he conducted research, helped to craft the ordinance, advocated for it, presented, and tracked its progress through city hall, he “fell in love with city government through the process,” he says. “One thing led to another, and I just kind of stuck around.”

He was elected to the Stuart City Commission in 2018 and, in 2019, the 32-year-old was elected Stuart’s youngest mayor in 63 years.

Becoming mayor may not have been a life development Meier expected, but neither was farming. He had been working for a tech company in New York City when he began doing volunteer work at his local community garden in Brooklyn. Eventually, he was compelled to exit tech and take up gardening. “I wanted to do something better for society and the planet rather than just for my pocketbook,” he says. “I got into farming as a way to connect people to food and also to work toward a more sustainable environment.”

Meier started a small farm in New Jersey before returning home to Stuart to plant another: He cofounded Ground Floor Farm—Stuart’s first urban farm, market, and restaurant—in 2014 and remains involved today with CoLab Farms (who recently partnered with Ground Floor to create CoLab Kitchen, which is scheduled to debut this fall). At CoLab, Meier oversees the construction of new greenhouses. “Life changes,” he muses about his life trajectory. “Things inspire you and you have new opportunities, and sometimes you make drastic shifts that all work out for you.”

As mayor, Meier is focused on building a sustainable future for Stuart. Already, he has helped enact a plastic straw ban and water-reduction programs, but he’s not looking at sustainability solely through an environmental lens. His affordable-housing initiatives presuppose a societal angle too. “The way I see housing and the environment intersecting is through my strong focus on infill, redevelopment, and the compact urban form—New Urbanism principles,” he explains. “Historically, our area has been all about sprawl: single-family homes covering everywhere, with lots of roads to connect them and strip malls here and there. That’s the least sustainable way to grow. If we can focus on development within our urban centers, that will give us the housing stock we need. And it will do so with much less impact on our local taxpayers and also protect the environment out beyond the urban core.”

Through his efforts, Meier hopes to see more people living and working in the downtown area (and, consequently, more people walking and biking to work), a vibrant arts and culture scene, additional green spaces, and a new approach to development that takes into account climate change and the threat of sea-level rise. “I hope my legacy will be a denser, more vibrant, more sustainable downtown Stuart,” he says

Photo by Jason Nuttle

The Good Samaritan

Dr. Dwight Dawkins

Jamaican-born Port St. Lucie resident Dr. Dwight Dawkins knew from an early age that he would devote his life to healing. “I always wanted to be a physician to be of help to people physically, mentally, and even spiritually,” he says. In pursuit of that goal, he attended the University of Miami School of Medicine, receiving his doctorate of medicine in 1997. After a residency at the University of Florida, he worked with Treasure Coast Medical Group for 10 years before venturing out on his own in 2010 and is currently on staff at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce, St. Lucie Medical Center, and Cleveland Clinic Martin Health.

Six years ago, Dawkins took his commitment to care a step further. “I used to do ER calls,” he says, meaning that when patients lacked insurance or a primary care physician, he was called on to be their admitting doctor and facilitate their stay. “What happens is, after a patient is discharged, often times they have nowhere to follow up. If they don’t have any funding, there’s nowhere for them to go. And certain chronic medical conditions require a physician to follow up and to refill medications. So it just made sense that I could volunteer to provide that service to them.”

That’s where The Good Samaritan Free Clinic comes in. Dawkins was a founding physician of the volunteer-based, donor-funded community clinic that has been providing free medical care to St. Lucie County residents in need since 2014. The Fort Pierce clinic, where he continues to serve as medical director, was created on the basis of a biblical mandate to care for the afflicted—of special importance to Dawkins, who is an elder in his church.

At the clinic, Dawkins provides the ongoing care that many people need but have no other way to acquire. In taking care of these patients, Dawkins sees “the purity of medicine.” Through his efforts, he also hopes to encourage lifestyle changes that can prevent people in the community from landing in the hospital and requiring invasive surgeries in the first place. “A lot of people suffer because of small things that, if they changed [their behaviors], it would prevent them from going down a path where they end up, for instance, losing their legs or their sight,” he says. “The desire is to have a healthier Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie by making sure people have access to health care.” On the clinic’s very first day in operation, volunteers saw eight patients; today, the clinic has more than 1,000 patients on its roster.

Dawkins describes his passion for medicine as a true calling: “When I say ‘calling,’ I mean I can’t think of anything else that I would be comfortable doing, apart from what I do.”

Photo by Jason Nuttle

The Grand Brander

Nerissa Okiye

Native to the Virgin Islands, Nerissa Okiye is a Palm City resident by desire, not by default. After attending college in Massachusetts, she returned to the Virgin Islands to work as special assistant to the islands’ first lady—but when the governor lost the next election, Okiye was out of a job. She moved to Atlanta to work for Swissôtel, and when her manager went on to become the deputy commissioner of tourism for the State of Georgia, she brought Okiye along. She worked in economic development for nearly 13 years—and then, she says, “Snowpocalypse hit.”

“I was completely tired of being landlocked—I’m from the islands,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Why am I waiting until it’s time to retire to go somewhere where you’re actually living versus existing?’” She set her sights on sunny Florida, applying for jobs with a three-year plan to move here. In just three months, however, she had landed a position with the Martin County Office of Tourism and Marketing—her plan was in full swing earlier than she’d intended.

Since assuming the role of tourism manager in 2014 (she was promoted to tourism director last year), Okiye has developed the division and its branding, along the way garnering numerous accolades and bragging rights as she helped Stuart earn titles like “Must-Visit Small Town” and the like from preeminent publications. Coastal Living even awarded its “Happiest Seaside Town” honor to Stuart—the first and only Florida town to win.

Okiye likes to tout Martin County’s “ingrained love of outdoor space and conservation” thanks to local waterways, natural beaches, wildlife refuges, and beyond. “We talk about the feeling you get here,” she says. “We have a four-story height restriction [on buildings in Martin County], which protects the county’s natural beauty and is an important part of what makes our area unique. You can really feel it when you’re driving over the bridges—it’s an exhale. Martin County is human-scale and has an eclectic collection of communities, so there are many different stories to tell.”

In addition to leveraging what makes Martin County unique, Okiye is keen on supporting local businesses. “Integrating them into the stories we tell about the destination is always a priority,” she says. A perfect example is last year’s brilliant “Like a Local” campaign, which Okiye says “helped us showcase our unique attributes and directly tie in businesses.”

Of course, when COVID-19 came to town, Okiye and her team were forced to pivot on a dime. The focus became “How can you experience Martin County without being here?” as the team launched initiatives like digital postcards and a meditation series highlighting local scenery. They struck gold, garnering more than $300,000 in earned media and 31 million digital impressions, all without spending a cent. Martin County even banked a spot in a travel article titled “7 American Cities Where Virtual Tourism Is Thriving.”

Okiye’s future goals on the job include balancing out the season with year-round visitors, thereby supporting local businesses, but she also wants to deepen local appreciation. “Tourism is the third-largest employer [in the county],” she reveals. “We’re able to have the exceptionally high quality of life that we have as Martin County residents because a lot is offset by not having to pay additional taxes, thanks to tourism. The influx of out-of-area spending impacts all of us and gives us a greater quality of life.”

Coastal Click Photography

The Guardian Angel

Jamie Bond

With a background in hospitality, management, and operations, Jamie Bond was working as general manager of a high-end steakhouse in 2010 when her life took an unexpected turn. “I learned about human trafficking and how Florida was number three in the nation,” she says. “Palm Beach County, where I lived at the time, was number three in the state. It stopped me in my tracks and made me realize there’s so much more outside of what I was doing day to day.”

She began seeking an opportunity to use her talents for a higher purpose. On a chance invitation to Christ Fellowship, she heard a young man share his success story: He had gone from being homeless to earning a full-ride college scholarship thanks to an organization called Place of Hope. Moved, Bond says she knew she was hearing God’s calling. The following day, she poured her heart into a cover letter to Place of Hope’s CEO and COO. She recalls: “I wrote, ‘My background is not in child welfare or social work, but I believe this is where I belong. There is a passion lit inside of me that I didn’t know existed, and I’ll do whatever it takes to be part of the team. Here’s my résumé and everything I’ve done; put me to work somewhere.’”

They hired her—and she has dedicated her life to serving overlooked and underprivileged children and families ever since. As director of advancement and development for Place of Hope Treasure Coast and Northern Palm Beach County, she works tirelessly to honor the organization’s mission to care for children who have entered the foster-care system due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment; aged-out foster youth or otherwise homeless youth; and
human trafficking victims and survivors. “In a nutshell, we’re trying to break the cycle of abuse and neglect through restoration, recovery, and prevention,” says Bond.

Accepted into Leadership Florida last year and 2020 chair of the Treasure Coast Human Trafficking Coalition, Bond says one thing that drives her is witnessing disadvantaged youth defy statistics and blossom beyond their circumstances. “Hearing them say, ‘I’m not going to be a victim; I’m not going to become what my parents were’ and then seeing them break the cycle is the most rewarding part,” she says. “It’s great to see our mission really come to life.”

“Everybody wants to be a Monday-morning quarterback,” she continues. “We talk about how homelessness is a detriment to society. We talk about mental illness, drug abuse, human trafficking. We talk about these things—how we don’t want them to happen in our community—but what are we actually doing about them? These young adults, these babies left unwanted in the hospital, born addicted to drugs… We as a community can do something about that, about their lives, and give them an opportunity.” 

Photo by Jason Nuttle

The County Cheerleader

Charlotte Bireley 

Spreading the word about all there is to love about St. Lucie County comes naturally to Charlotte Bireley. After all, save for a stint in Jacksonville, she has lived there her entire life, attending high school in Fort Pierce. “I grew up on the Treasure Coast and, after about 11 years in Jacksonville, I was ready to move back home and raise my family here,” she shares.

“I feel honored and very lucky to be able to promote and market all the activities and beauty that I grew up enjoying,” continues Bireley, who is director of tourism and marketing for St. Lucie County. “The water recreation, boating, and fishing… The culture here on the Treasure Coast is how I grew up and how I’m raising my children.”

Like most areas that rely heavily on the tourism and hospitality industries, St. Lucie County is facing some challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing many from traveling. But Bireley says the same Treasure Coast culture she grew up loving—a wide array of inherently socially distant activities like boating, fishing, beaches, and golf—makes the area well-positioned to recover quickly.

Still, the situation demanded a creative pivot. Together with neighboring partner agencies, the St. Lucie County Office of Tourism launched the “Don’t Come Here” campaign, which takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to grabbing the attention of potential visitors with taglines like “Don’t come here… unless you love stunning sunrises.”

Another strategy Bireley implemented is a play on semantics—swapping out the clever but overused (and now somewhat tainted) buzzword “staycation” for “nearcation.” She explains: “With everyone staying home and staying put in quarantine, people have been getting the message ‘Stay home; stay safe.’ So we didn’t want to use the word ‘stay’ anymore.”

Bireley’s marketing initiatives have consistently attracted positive publicity and public recognition. Moreover, St. Lucie County’s tourist tax revenue has more than doubled since 2009 (when Bireley came on board), and the last three to five years have been record-breaking.

Ultimately, Bireley’s vision is to balance tourism with local economic impact and sustainability. “I believe there is so much natural beauty that our area has to offer, and I don’t want that to ever go away through overdevelopment,” she says. “I want to build a sustainable tourism industry so we don’t ever become overvisited or overdeveloped, but we always have this balance where all of our tourism-related businesses are sustainable, supporting the families who work hard to create these great experiences for visitors. A balanced tourism economy is what I really strive for.” 

Courtesy of Nancy Turrell

The Arts Advocate

Nancy Turrell

When Stuart resident Nancy Turrell graduated from New York University in 1989, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her marketing degree—and what she didn’t want to do. “I couldn’t see myself working in the marketing department of Procter & Gamble selling soap for a living,” she says. “I wanted to do something where, every day, I was affecting people in the community I lived in.”

She worked for United Way—first in Los Angeles County and then in Martin County, as well as a local mental health facility while pursuing a master’s degree in philanthropy and development. In 1999, she found her way to The Arts Council of Martin County, where she has served as executive director for more than 20 years. “It was always important to me that the arts be in communities and available to students to enhance their education,” says Turrell. “I was a band and choir kid in high school, and I always went to museums. I was never an artist but always had an affinity for the arts and culture sector.”

Turrell’s day-to-day is devoted to inspiring local participation in and passion for the arts. Two of the council’s long-standing initiatives include ArtsFest, the first and largest local celebration of the arts, and the mARTies Awards, which Turrell calls “a great opportunity for us to present stories and people who have made a difference in the arts community.” The annual show recognizes outstanding local artists and educators and grants scholarships to budding student artists; since introducing scholarships in 2014, The Arts Council has awarded $8,500 to 17 students. Throughout the years, the list of offerings gets longer and longer—including the introduction of an EcoArt movement (marrying the arts with the environment), Cultural Excursions trips, a Cultural Conversations series, and numerous musical events, exhibitions, arts education initiatives, and more. According to the council, the arts generate more than $27 million in economic activity in Martin County.

“I have seen how the arts can transform things—both people and situations,” Turrell says. “There are students I’ve talked to who, without the arts being part of their schooling, wouldn’t have even bothered going to school. They would have ended up being dropouts. But [because of arts], they found themselves and found their passion.”

Turrell cites a 2006 study presented by The Arts Council, in partnership with Martin Memorial Health Systems (now Cleveland Clinic Martin Health), where a doctoral candidate studied the effect of music on post-operative open-heart surgery patients. “Her research showed that patients who had the music of their choosing were able to come off the intubators twice as fast as patients who didn’t have music in their space,” she says. “There are really powerful things the arts can do for people. That’s why I’m driven to make sure art is available to everybody who needs and wants it.”

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