When Toni Short learned that she had won a national award for her community service work, her eyes filled with tears, and the room at the Baywood Clubhouse Restaurant in Millsboro erupted in applause.
During a toast later in the evening, one of Short’s friends described her as humble. That character trait could not have been more apparent than when the Delaware nonprofit founder stepped up to accept the highest Jefferson Award for public service on Thursday night.
Her first words? Not about herself, but about the people she serves.
“When you see a homeless person, don’t always think something bad,” Short said. “We always have a few bad apples in the bunch, and they [overshadow] those who are good. I know, I was out there.”
Short is the founder of the Rehoboth Beach nonprofit Lighthouse for Broken Wings, which provides transitional housing to people who are experiencing homelessness. She also recently opened a temporary shelter at the Rehoboth Beach American Inn.
Before she was the one making phone calls and giving to others, though, she was the one looking for an outstretched hand.
While working as a nurse several years ago, Short was injured after lifting a heavy patient. Suddenly without a job or income, she needed to leave her home of 15 years and had nowhere to go.
Short found herself in a Sussex County Walmart parking lot with a group of about 25 people who were living out of their cars. She knew this parking lot because years before she was calling a friend and organizing the delivery of spaghetti dinners to people in need.
Now, she had an even more personal connection to these people, and her drive to help them only grew.
“I was curious about each person’s story and why they were out there. I learned about them – what was wrong, what they needed fixed,” she told Delaware Online/The News Journal when she was first notified about the state level Jefferson Award in April. “A lot of them needed mental health treatment. Some of them – not a lot – were substance abusers.”
That was the beginning of her nonprofit Lighthouse for Broken Wings, which has served as many as 120 people over the last year.
As a boots-on-the-ground type of leader, it was rare to see Short dressed in a long black dress and earrings that sparkled under the warm restaurant lighting, but this was a special occasion. This was the moment that Short would celebrate how far she has come and accept a special honor.
Short is one of five people from across the country awarded one of the highest Jefferson Awards for grassroots organizers: the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities.
The Jefferson Awards is a program led by the national nonprofit Multiplying Good, and it recognizes people who have made an impact in their community, ranging from notable public figures, local organizers and nonprofit leaders. This year’s recipients include well-known names and brands like Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of Sesame Street, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
But it wasn’t the award-winners who often step in front of cameras or grace the pages of magazines that took center stage on Thursday night. It was the everyday people like Short, and the army of people who surround her with support.
As Short looked out at the banquet room, she named each person and how they helped her. Many of these people she called “brother” or “sister,” showing just how closely she holds her friends and those she loves – they were all family.
Many of her friends joked that Short needs to be reminded to take time for herself or take a day off. Many more poked fun at Short’s assertive personality and her good-hearted but firm way of roping in volunteers.
For Short, it’s never been about making money or attracting attention. The real reason goes back to that Walmart parking lot.
“I know there’s people out there that need help. Because when I was out there as a kid, no one helped me,” she said. “Everybody needs somebody.”
How to help
Donations to support Toni Short’s work helping those experiencing homelessness can be sent to the Lighthouse for Broken Wings by mail at 179 Rehoboth Ave., Unit 123, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joy Ashford contributed reporting to this story.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.