By Jan Worth-Nelson
Amy Cuneaz, who has served more than 8,000 victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and Thomas Yeotis, beloved former Genesee County Circuit Court judge, were named recipients of Sybyl Awards Thursday night at the Genesys Conference and Banquet Center. The two were selected from a group of 17 community nominees, the largest group of nominees in the award’s nine-year history.
The annual event, which invariably draws a “Who’s Who” of the community’s nonprofit and civic leaders, honors the legacy of the late Sybyl Atwood, for many decades a formidable lynchpin of community volunteerism at what was then called Resource Genesee. If an agency needed volunteers, Atwood recruited and placed them, and found help for those in need. When she died at 72 in 2007, she was lauded as “the grande dame of Flint area charity work.”
In kicking off the event, emcee Dale Weighill, for whom Atwood once worked, said “Sybyl knew everybody, Sybyl helped everybody. Sybyl worked with everybody. Sybyl was Google before there was Google.” She was a diehard advocate for the downtrodden, proceeding with such ferocity that one of her acquaintances declared, “she had brass ovaries.” Weighill noted Atwood kept a quote by Socialist Eugene Debs on her office wall that said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Criteria for the award, Weighill said, include demonstrating leadership; providing valuable services especially to marginalized individuals; connecting people with community resources; building a stronger community by creating new connections; mentoring and inspiring others to realize their potential; and residing or working in Genesee County.
Cuneaz has filled many roles in her 23 years at the YWCA of Greater Flint’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services program, including interim director and director. She now serves as the DVSAS grants coordinator, a position through which she has raised thousands of dollars for the Y’s domestic violence programs. She was lauded by introducer Diana Kelly for her “remarkable impact on countless clients.”
“She has always maintained a non-judgmental approach and extends a genuineness that instills trust and confidence within some of the most broken souls. She believes in their ability to survive and regain their lives without abuse and she helps them believe in themselves once again, or perhaps for the first time,” Kelly said.
Yeotis, honored by the selection committee as a “special recognition” recipient, had been a licensed attorney for 49 years and Genesee County Circuit Court judge for 32 years. His introducer, Lindsey Younger, said he was known for trying to “give the defendant standing before him the fairest sentence that he could,” noting Yeotis “would also cite Aesop’s fables as a learning experience to those who came before him.”
The judge was a founding member 25 years ago of New Paths, a program for released prisoners creating positive experiences and working to prevent relapses into criminal behavior.
He also was a founding member of the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame and a founder and former president of the Mott Community College Bruin Club. A lifelong sports lover, for 60 years Yeotis coached numerous championship church and city league basketball and softball teams.
The other Sybyl nominees were Glenda Beatty, Geraldine Clark, Bernadean Clothier, Traci Currie, Father Thomas Firestone, John B. Henry, Dena Johnson, Regina Laurie, Marilyn Lewinski, Jack Minore, Judge Geoffrey Neightercut, Kay Schwartz, Denise Smith-Allen, Verona Terry, and Harold Woodson.
“Despite our well-documented difficulties as a community, Flint has an abundance of riches in terms of the amazing people that we have –friends, neighbors, colleagues, volunteers, philanthropists — you are after all surrounded by these folks at this very moment,” Weighill said.
Proceeds from the event help support Metro Community Development, Inc.’s Community Homeless Prevention Endowment Fund and the SYBYL Award Program.
Sponsors include ELGA Credit Union, the Hurley Foundation, McLaren Flint, Mott Community College, Genesee Health System, Tummala Family Foundation, and Landaal Packaging.
Editor’s Note: This article has been modified to clarify the working relationship between Dale Weighill and Sybyl Atwood. Atwood reported to Weighill.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.