Flora Schoonover is a quiet West Virginia native whose family calls her the "caretaker of the world." She takes a humble view of her volunteer efforts but tries to take every opportunity to encourage people to get involved.
"Sometimes I think people get the feeling of, 'What difference does it make what I do?' " Schoonover said.
But Schoonover and 19 others were honored Sunday by the Orange County Human Relations Commission for making "outstanding contributions in the field of human relations" and proving that people do make a difference.
The 59-year-old, who has worked with the Orange County Congregation Community Organization since 1989, was honored for being a principal player in the Santa Ana Youth Action plan, which spawned a police substation in a neighborhood notorious for drugs and violence and is credited with reducing crime.
The 26th annual awards ceremony was held at the Costa Mesa Community Center and attended by more than 200 people.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner read a special commendation from the board, praising commission leaders for continuing to improve relations and understanding among the various groups in the local community.
"The strength of this great country of ours is its great diversity,' Steiner said.
Throughout the night, the audience heard inspiring stories about local residents who helped to improve people's lives by donating their time and effort to local programs or by starting their own groups to address special needs.
Schoonover, for example, also helped establish seven after-school homework centers that serve more than 500 children.
Among the award recipients was veteran Buena Park High School teacher Myra Philpott, who helps students get on the college track by encouraging them and helping them fill out financial aid and college applications.
Philpott also invites former college students to come back and share their experiences. She said that since many of her students may become the first in their families to go to college, it's her job to make sure they have a chance.
"I believe in kids, that they're going to make this a better place," Philpott said. "But they're not going to do that without having some goals. I think the kids who do have goals will do better. They won't wind up in drug rehab centers or out on the street."
Philpott also serves as an advisor to the school's Inter-Ethnic Council, a group of students, parents, teachers and administrators that promotes activities emphasizing racial awareness and respect.
"We have a mini United Nations on this campus," she said. "You'll see people being friends not because of their ethnicities, but because they're people. That's what we want to promote around here."
Many recipients of the commission's awards talked about the need to foster better understanding among various groups in the community.
La Palma Police Chief David S. Barr said he was inspired by the special needs of his disabled son, who is dead, when he developed a program to help police officers interact with disabled people.
"There is a real need out there for people who just understand," Barr said.