Photography by Molly Hayden
No matter their cause, Savannah’s game changers and keepers of kindness remain dedicated to making our city better, stronger and more connected. Meet six local visionaries, in the words of the people who know them best.
President of the Rotary Club of Savannah, owner and operator of five local McDonald’s, champion of Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Coastal Empire and the Savannah Economic Development Authority, all-around multi-tasker.
“When I was asked to serve as president of the Rotary Club of Savannah in 2014, my first call was to Nina Gompels to ask her to be my secretary-treasurer. She had already been very involved with our club and I knew having her on my leadership team was crucial. Luckily, she accepted the position and we worked together for over a year. During that time, I met Nina for lunch one day, and before going inside the restaurant, she changed into another pair of shoes. Noticing the puzzled look on my face, she explained that she had just finished working the fryer at one of her McDonald’s locations. She told me she always keeps an extra pair of ‘work shoes’ in her car. I asked how often she works at her restaurants and she said, ‘whenever and where I’m needed.’ This work ethic and commitment carries over to everything she does.”
– Holden Hayes,
regional president, South State Bank
To learn more, visit savrotary.org
Founder of Enki Research, astrophysicist, climate-control advocate, the man behind the Facebook page that Savannahians counted on for real talk during for Hurricane Irma.
“One August day in 2011, an earthquake shook the East Coast. Wondering if he’d heard more about it, I called Chuck Watson, my go-to source for everything earth science, weather and energy.
‘Oh, it registered on my seismograph here,’ Chuck said, from his Savannah home. Of course he has a seismograph. He’s Chuck Watson, the smartest guy not just in the room, but probably in the state. You’ll know it after talking to him for five minutes. Regardless the topic, Chuck will tell you something that you probably haven’t before heard. You might Google it later, curious to find out if it’s all true. You’ll discover that yes, it is.
As hurricanes Matthew and Irma headed this way, Chuck’s smarts and expertise saved many Savannahians from major freak-outs. On his Facebook page (@enkiops), he calmly explained what was likely to happen. No hype, no bravado.
Still, Chuck never downplays the power of nature. His company, Enki Research—which he named for the Sumerian god of mischief and seawater, among other things—models the impacts of tropical storms and other natural and manmade disasters, working for major insurers and foreign governments. He’s been quoted in the New York Times and Wired, and continues to share his knowledge and with local news outlets to help keep his hometown safe.
Chuck often begins a Facebook post with a wry ‘You’re doomed.’ But thanks to his informational generosity, that’s far from the case.”
environmental reporter, Savannah Morning News
To learn more, visit enkiops.org
Block by Block program director at Deep Center, avid writer, megaphone for Savannah’s young voices
“Keith Miller has a bazooka. You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. And you probably won’t know he’s used it until you look over your shoulder and realize that, like it or not, Keith has cajoled, compelled or otherwise insisted that you become part of the solution for Savannah’s young people. He only talks about this bazooka when he has made the tactical decision to not use it. ‘I almost had to pull out my bazooka,’ he’ll say with a smile in his voice and a fierce insistence in his eye, while reporting on some business that, until he got hold of it, had been in the way of one of the young people whom he raises up at Block by Block.
Keith is changing the way Savannah thinks about leadership. He’s doing this for our young people who crave community leaders who meet them where they are and who understand that Savannah’s youth don’t need grit or character-building—they need opportunities. They need tools to help them overcome the structural inequities that have impacted Savannah’s working families for generations. And some of the most empowering tools are the ones Keith carries: the ability to creatively express yourself, embrace who you are even when—especially when—who you are challenges old ideas, and be driven by curiosity rather than conformity.
Keith has lived it, and Deep’s young people know this. He grew up in poverty on the West Side of Savannah, and he struggled academically until middle school. He witnessed the struggle of his mother, who held together his family as a single parent. Many of the qualities that make him a powerful educator today made it hard for him to fit in as a boy, and he was the constant target of physical and emotional abuse. He first learned to escape through reading, and that led to a deep connection with writing.
Because Keith is a writer, he uses powerful metaphors, like that ‘bazooka,’ to describe the passion, purpose and fearless commitment that he carries around inside of him. If you ever find yourself on the business end of it, you just might find yourself grateful to have been upended by the blast—you might pick yourself up and, like Keith, get busy.”
executive director, Deep Center
To learn more, visit deepkids.com
A lead curator at Telfair Museums, social justice warrior, avid forager into Savannah’s past
“Beneath Shannon Browning-Mullis’ quiet demeanor burns a passion for social justice. From the moment she joined our team at the Owens-Thomas House as curator of history and decorative arts, she has worked to bring the history of oppressed people to the public through architecture, artifacts and personal stories. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty researching the unique history of the Telfair’s 200-year-old historic landmark building. And she’s equally comfortable scanning historic documents as she is climbing through creaky attics and dusty basements.
Shannon is currently working on a major reinterpretation of the Owens-Thomas House, which will result in the full inclusion of the enslaved men, women and children into the site’s narrative—a project that recently received a major award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She’s also planning an important symposium on race in America today that will connect the legacy of slavery to contemporary issues including the mass incarceration of African Americans. Yes, Savannah is a place known for its history, but for far too long this history has been told from one point of view. Shannon works tirelessly to ensure that all sides of the American story get told, and that our historic houses become even more relevant to future generations as places for learning and cross-cultural understanding.”
CEO, Telfair Academy
To learn more, visit telfair.org
Executive director of Greenbriar Children’s Center, community equalizer, fairy godmother
“Gena Taylor shows her unique human qualities through her propensity to help children, especially those who are most vulnerable. She demonstrates a sensitivity and a deep understanding of their needs.
Gena’s connections are rooted in leading and coordinating the care of children and youth. She is present during momentous events in their lives. She joins in celebrations of their accomplishments. Gena has been and continues to be at the heart of teams of people involved in serving children and families in greatest need.
At a time of rapid change in children’s services, Gena is the constant: always steady, never flustered, pragmatic but unwilling to accept anything other than what is best for the children in her care. She advocates for them, ensuring that they have access to all they need. And she has supported this mission by being a strong advocate for Greenbriar Children’s Center and its programs, helping to pull the right levers and press the right buttons to make things happen.”
—Dr. Ann Levitt,
superintendent, Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools
To learn more, visit greenbriarchildrenscenter.org
National president of AMBUCS, basketball and football coach at Blessed Sacrament, first-time bike ride patriarch
“‘You are AMBUCS,’ I recently told Kevin Sheehan, following another successful event put on by our volunteers. After the crowd had dwindled, I noticed him packing up boxes of materials. He had some rather large and cumbersome stand-up posters, and clearly wouldn’t be able to lug everything out to his car without making multiple trips. My friend and I asked if he needed any help. He thanked us and said he could manage, so we had to insist on giving him a hand. That very moment is when I really took stock of how much this one man does. He would never admit this about himself, of course. Instead, he always expresses gratitude for the time and efforts of the volunteers.
Kevin believes in AMBUCS with every fiber of his being. Whenever differently-abled children are presented with their own special Amtryke therapeutic tricycle, their faces just light up—and so does Kevin’s. He lives for these moments. He shares laughs, tears, hopes and dreams with these children and their families. Recently, while we watched one of the Amtryke recipients joyfully ride around on his new bike, Kevin said to me, “This is what it is all about.”
To learn more, visit ambucs.org