Desert Companion

Holiday guide: Kickstart my heart


Denise Jackson, Three Square, Dress for Success

Denise Jackson, Three Square, Dress for Success

The passion and purpose of Southern Nevada volunteers

‘Of course, I have a lot of fun with this, too’

Denise Jackson — Three Square, Dress for Success

At 16 years old, Denise Jackson picked up her first volunteer’s position with Head Start, a school readiness program for low-income families in Washington, D.C. This would be the first in a lifetime of volunteer commitments that Jackson would take on for the betterment of her community — but also her own life. Any committed philanthropist is apt to preach about giving’s own rewards, but Jackson points out the less-acknowledged perk of volunteering: an expanded sense of living.

Before retiring to Las Vegas in 2013, Jackson held a 41-year career in bank regulation as a senior management analyst with the FDIC. But even then she was volunteering. She delivered meals to homebound victims of HIV and AIDS; she worked with Habitat for Humanity; and she did a four-year stint as a volunteer firefighter with the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in southern Maryland. 

“My philosophy was, I could volunteer into positions that I wouldn’t necessarily get hired for. So, if I wanted to be a firefighter…”

Jackson’s Secret Service clearance, as a federal government employee, led to volunteer opportunities in the White House, too. Under the Clinton administration, she helped with an Easter egg hunt and a Christmas open house. Later, she served on Obama’s (second) presidential inaugural committee. “Right there,” she says, remembering the scene with an elegant gesture, “was where the President and Mrs. Obama danced ... I mean, you can’t buy your way into things like that. It was just a thrill! My last salute to Washington.”

Support comes from

Now Jackson’s a sous chef for Three Square, where she volunteers three days a week at the food bank under the tutelage of Executive Chef John Hilton, a celebrated Las Vegas chef to the stars. “I mean, I was always a cook,” says Jackson, “but I’ve learned so much.”

She spends a fourth day outfitting disadvantaged women for the workforce, at Dress for Success’ non-profit boutique. “I do want to do my part. And I’m a fashionista — I have 41 years of heels and pearls,” she says. “Of course, I have a lot of fun with this, too.”

Travis Kelso

‘Be okay with telling your story’

Travis Kelso — The Shade Tree

It was through his job that 28-year-old Travis Kelso discovered The Shade Tree, the valley’s shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. As the executive director of charitable outreach for MacFarlane Group, it’s Kelso’s job to seek out charities that the locally based business services corporation can get behind. He never imagined this would lead to his position as president of the charity’s board of trustees.

But his interest in Shade Tree is more than part of his job. It was last year — almost two years into this lead role — at a fundraiser celebrating the shelter’s 25th anniversary that Kelso finally mustered the courage to speak out about his own abuse. A child of divorced parents, he had moved back and forth between his father’s house, where his stepmother abused him badly, and his mother’s house, where alcoholism and drug abuse set another violent scene. “We always had beer in the fridge before milk,” he says.

One story in particular stands out. It happened when he was eight. Kelso was running to get his mother help when his stepfather caught him, put a gun to his head, and threatened to kill him. Their fights often landed both parents in jail, but this one sent his mother to the hospital. This is the story that had Kelso’s voice shaking when he addressed the crowd last year.

“Be okay with telling your story,” he says today, “because it will allow somebody else to connect with you.” And he makes time to listen to the stories of the women he meets through the shelter. He’s exceedingly proud of their successes. He tells one story of a woman escaping her abusive spouse by fooling him with a false trail of hotel and flight bookings at various places around the world. “These women are smart.”

No detached figurehead, Kelso also makes time to serve lunch to The Shade Tree’s residents, and he insists that everyone on the board do the same, incorporating mandatory in-shelter hours into the board’s bylaws.

His goal is to double the size of the 38,000-square-foot facility, which currently serves as sanctuary to 364 women and children. “If we’re completely occupied, every single night, and turning people away, that means there’s a need for it,” he says. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t expand.”

Liz La Monica

‘I’d get a knock on my door’

Liz LaMonica — Candlelighters, Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada

In December 2006, a month after her eight-year-old daughter Luci was diagnosed with leukemia, someone started leaving treats on Liz LaMonica’s doorstep. “I’d get a knock on my door, like a doorbell ditch, and there would be gifts for all three of my children,” she says of the presents ranging from $50 Target gift cards to Lifesaver storybooks. Finally, on the eighth night, LaMonica threw open her door to discover Melissa Cipriano, the executive director for the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada. 

“It’s just a nice thing to do for a family whose kid was diagnosed with cancer,” says LaMonica of Candlelighters’ 12 Days of Cheer program.

It was this thoughtfulness that warmed LaMonica to the organization that would become so important to her family. The LaMonicas were fortunate not to need financial assistance during these difficult years, but they did appreciate Candlelighters’ family counseling services. And when Luci was discovered to be allergic to her chemotherapy, Candlelighters helped them get another chemo treatment otherwise difficult to come by, delivered from France and only available in California.

When Luci completed her treatment in 2009, LaMonica joined Candlelighters as the executive committee’s secretary. A physical fitness expert who’s taught and trained in the valley for more than 20 years, LaMonica has strong ties to the community. This, she believes, is why she was approached to join the board.

But today, LaMonica does more than take minutes and campaign for the cause. In fact, her professional expertise has come to play an instrumental role in the charity’s fundraising efforts: Each year, she dedicates herself to training a team of Runners for Candlelighters Kids to run the Summerlin Half-Marathon. It works like this: Each participant pledges to raise $1,000 and LaMonica trains them from January to April, all the way to 13 miles. “Lots of people have never run a half-marathon and don’t think it’s possible,” she says, “But they totally do it! And they end up loving Candlelighters!”

Last year, LaMonica’s runners raised $40,000 for her favorite cause — a good chunk of change to help support local families of young cancer patients. 

Verise Campbell

‘One positive constant adult in their corner’

Verise Campbell — Clark County Court Appointed Special Advocate program

In her earliest years, in her home state of New Jersey, Verise Campbell lived with a loving family in a nurturing home. Then, when she was eight, her mother — or the woman she had believed to be her mother — delivered her to a second family where she was told she would need to stay. It turns out that the woman who had raised Campbell from infancy was actually her godmother. She was being forced to return young Verise to her biological family — where she would live out the remainder of her youth the victim of every kind of abuse.

“I’m like, ‘Mom, where are you going?’ It was the worst day of my life,” says Campbell.

Campbell survived her abusive childhood and went on to thrive as an adult. Today, she is the loving mother of three grown children. She also has a successful career as the deputy director of the State of Nevada’s Foreclosure Mediation Program. She credits the positive turn of her life to those formative early years and the influence of her first mother figure.

That’s the type of inspiration Campbell strives to be for her kids in the Clark County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA) . “Growing up in that type of environment, I knew I needed to make a difference for other children,” she says.

For 10 years, Campbell’s been a volunteer with CASA, working with abused and neglected children in foster care and representing them in court. But more than this, Campbell is committed to the relationships she has with these kids.

“They’re moved around in the foster care system. Placements change. Caseworkers change. Everybody changes. But, I’ve been there and I’ll still be there, one positive constant adult who is in their corner, as they’re growing up,” she says.

“You can’t fathom living in five, six, seven, 12, 14 different placements. In a matter of three, four, five years. You can’t imagine not having a bed to call your own. That’s the reality for these kids,” she explains. “And we have too many kids in the foster care system who don’t have CASAs, so we need more volunteers.” But besides advocacy, Campbell tries to give them something even more fundamental: validation. “They need to know: ‘You’re still worthy. It wasn’t your fault.’ Because for many years, I thought everything had to be my fault.”





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