The Big Idea 2021

. January 1, 2021.
New Project

1-1 BIG IDEA - Co-owners Jacob Estrada and Sylvia ChukiesJacob Estrada

Owner, Lowrider Cafe
Why You Should Know Him: Created Love Tokens— a way for patrons to donate a free meal to needy Toledoans

When people started asking Lowrider Cafe owner Jacob Estrada for spare food, he knew he wanted to do better than leftovers. As a global pandemic strained the usual restaurant experience, Estrada and his partner Sylvia Chukies upped their game— giving back to those in need while navigating their second year success.

Estrada’s culinary career has traveled seamlessly with his love of music and humanitarian values. From volunteering with FLO— setting up medical tents, entertaining with music and passing out clothing— to working as a cook and in several other positions at Cherry St. Mission Ministries, Estrada lifts up the community by placing his values at the heart of his business. This philosophy is quickly catching on to the growing customer base at Lowrider Cafe.

“I grew up in a home of music, cooking and charity— helping out. Those 3 things are the key to what I do today,” Estrada said.

Lowrider Cafe offers Mexican cuisine, coffees, teas, smoothies and desserts. Their breakfast menu is just one area creating a loyal customer base as well as their Taco Tuesday specials and vegan cuisine. Musicians are encouraged to get in touch to play brunch. “Tacos Love & Coffee and Mucho Mas” reads the headline above “We want to be a community center for all” on their official website.

The downtown cafe has much to offer including daily charitable acts during the course of the COVID pandemic.

“We started getting people in here asking, ‘Hey Jacob, do you have any food for me?’ And I knew I wanted to do something more than leftovers— I hate giving out leftovers, even to a dog. So I asked Sylvia, ‘what can we do?’ and we came up with Love Tokens.”

Love Tokens provide a way for patrons and community members to donate toward a free meal for someone in need. Lowrider Cafe matches the value donated and places tokens in a dispensary at the end of their counter. When someone comes in asking for food, a love token is dispensed and a delicious meal including 2 tacos, rice, beans, chocolate and a drink is given to the guest. Estrada says they use love tokens for 2-3 people per day.

“I just want to do the good, like I was taught to do. Even if I’m imperfect, I feel like I’m doing something right.” 

Lowridercafe.com —Ashley Hill

1-1 BIG IDEA - Amanda HeldAmanda Held

Founder, H.O.O.V.E.S.
Why You Should Know Her: Creator of a non-profit that helps veterans overcome PTSD

Horses have always been there for Amanda Held. Growing up in Swanton, Held dealt with social anxiety through her love of horses. After high school, she joined the Air Force. Throughout her time in the service, Held dealt with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by childhood trauma.

“I found myself in a really dark place when I was stationed at the Air Force Academy. And I had actually adopted a baby wild mustang, because they had an equine facility [at] the Air Force Academy. And training that horse dramatically changed my life.”

It was those experiences that inspired Held to found the non-profit organization H.O.O.V.E.S. — Healing Of Our Veterans Equine Service. “Our mission is to enlist rescued horses to help veterans transform Post-Traumatic Stress into Post-Traumatic Growth,” Held said.

“We ask them to enter our program through one of our four-day retreats. And in these retreats, we teach twelve core lessons on how to transform your trauma— we call it transforming your struggles into superpowers. We’re not about eliminating or getting rid of trauma, because nobody can do that. We teach veterans how to take the things that have happened to them, and instead of allowing those things to hurt them, we teach them how to use those things to empower them.”

Held began working individually with veterans after leaving the military in 2006, on a farm she owned with her dad in Swanton. Sadly, her father passed away in 2013, leading to Held losing the farm. But one of H.O.O.V.E.S.’ foundational principles is “There’s an opportunity in every challenge.”

“What losing my dad and losing my farm forced— or allowed— me to do is get really conservative with the program and how I was doing it,” Held said.

Held moved from individual sessions to groups and developed a six-week program, which eventually condensed into the intensive four-day retreats that H.O.O.V.E.S. specializes in today. The program is always continuously evolving, with new additions like yoga and essential oils being added in the past year.

“I tell everyone that comes here, if I’m teaching you the same thing in six months that I’m teaching you today, I’m not doing a good job. So I am constantly learning and studying and researching on the latest and greatest in neuroscience and psychotherapy, and human behavior, and animal behavior, because the horses are a big part of it,” Held said. —Jeff McGinnis

1-1 BIG IDEA Mandy Jacomet, Cindy Pisano, Valerie Moffitt 1Mandy Jacomet, Valerie Moffitt and Cindy Pisano 

Collaborators, Mercy Franklin Financial Aid Center
Why You Should Know Them: Working to offer financial and health assistance under the same roof for Toledoans

On September 1st, The Financial Opportunity Center opened at Mercy Health’s Franklin Avenue Medical Center in Toledo. Especially in a time like right now, people are struggling financially and may be afraid to ask for help. Other concerns for the community include physical and mental health as well as infant mortality. The Financial Opportunity Center is more than a financial aid service, it’s a life service. 

The Center is a collaborative effort, consisting of key individuals Valerie Moffitt, Director of Financial Opportunities for the Toledo Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC); Cindy Pisano, Supervisor of the Healthy Connections Program at Mercy Health; and Mandy Jacomet, the CFO of NeighborWorks Toledo Region.

Since opening the Financial Opportunity Center, 54 individuals from the community have reached out and met with advisors for their services. Representatives from the FOC say 99% of the individuals are long-term engaged, with 98% taking advantage of the FOC’s bundled services.

The Financial Opportunity Center not only wants to help people manage their finances, they help to make sure they’re getting the income and benefits they need to fit their budget. The term “under-employed” is another way to describe what the FOC wants to help correct for people.

Franklin Avenue Medical Center’s Financial Opportunity Center has been well-received by the staff, patients, and members of the community who have already taken advantage of their services. For the coming year and future, the goal is to bring in at least 200 people a year to provide financial, occupation, and overall health assistance within the community. In a time where finances and overall health are compromised more than ever, Mercy Health and its partners (the Toledo Local Initiatives Support Corporation and NeighborWorks) are here for those who need them. —Tanner Wertz

1-1 BIG IDEA John JonesJohn C. Jones

President, HOPE Toledo
Why You Should Know Him: HOPE Toledo is behind the College Promise Initiative, which has promised to pay for the secondary education of Scott High School’s 2020 class

“We believe that education is arguably the civil rights issue of our time,” said John C. Jones, President of Helping Our Population Educate (HOPE) Toledo. The organization, founded earlier this year by serial entrepreneur and Ottawa Hills native Pete Kadens, is taking bold steps to bring a holistic “cradle to career” model of education to Toledo.

“We want to make sure Toledo is providing the educational opportunities and closing gaps in the area of education that will close gaps in all the other things that we’re looking at, such as housing access and food insecurity,” said Jones. “Education is the link to all these issues.”

That philosophy led to a pilot of their College Promise initiative, which sent shockwaves through Toledo when it was unveiled in January: Each student of Scott High School’s 2020 graduating class would have their post-secondary education paid for. HOPE Toledo will cover the cost of any tuition, books, board, and fees remaining that isn’t covered by other grants or scholarships.

The offer is good for any student who completes their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and registers in a 2-year or 4-year program offered from an accredited public college or university in Ohio, as well nearby Lourdes University. For students more interested in learning a skilled trade, the offer also covers trade schools. The opportunity also extends to one parent of each student; so far, 30% of parents have chosen to take advantage of it.

The board of HOPE Toledo includes such figures as Mayor Kapszukiewicz, ProMedica CEO Randy Oostra, and Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Romules Durant. And the group is just getting started. With the pilot completed, the group is exploring how to expand the College Promise initiative, and is setting its sights on another bold vision: Funding universal pre-Kindergarten throughout Toledo.

For more information, visit www.hope-toledo.org—Sean Nestor

1-1 BIG IDEA Ruth LeonardRuth Leonard

Filmmaker
Why You Should Know Her: Creator of a documentary series examining men and their ability to express themselves

Ruth Leonard was born with an inquisitive mind and a passion for justice. A bespectacled 34-year-old from Maryland, Ruth came to Toledo seven years ago in pursuit of her Master’s in Educational Leadership at Lourdes University. It didn’t take long for her passion to put her in the public eye. She soon became a candidate for Toledo Public School Board and a prominent fixture at Black Lives Matter rallies. 

Earlier this year, Ruth unveiled her latest work: a documentary exploring the intersection of race and masculinity called Black Men: Unfiltered.

The idea came to her a few years ago from a conversation with her mother. On reflecting that she’d only seen her father cry twice – once in church, and once at his mother’s funeral – she was struck by how his reaction bothered her. “There was a part of me that felt uncomfortable with it. I felt like, ‘He’s not supposed to be crying! He’s a strong guy!’ And I realized that that had more to do with me than it had to do with him.”

Filmed entirely on an iPhone, Black Men: Unfiltered isn’t just an exploration of the personas men– particularly black men– are pressured to adopt; it’s an assertion that their thoughts and feelings matter. To create the film, several black men around Toledo were recorded answering questions on subjects such as black male privilege, generational trauma, and the role their fathers played in shaping them. The resulting work both highlights and celebrates the diversity of feelings black men have while providing an opportunity for others to listen, bear witness, and accept those feelings.

“That’s why I created the documentary, not only to deal with the relationship of myself with black men, but also to force the public to deal with their own emotions toward black men.”

Black Men: Unfiltered can be viewed online at: https://vimeo.com/380326358 —Sean Nestor

1-1 BIG IDEA - Julian MackJulian Mack

Activist
Why You Should Know Him: Leading voice for Black Lives Matter, City Council Candidate in 2021

Julian Mack became politically aware at a young age when he would observe and really take in political and social news he would hear, whether from his family or on TV news stations. This would lead to him getting involved in politics in his teens.

A lifelong Toledoan, Mack attended Rogers High School (Class of 2003) followed by the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University. His experience includes working in multiple campaigns, including being a part of Marcy Kaptur’s Youth Democracy organization. Mack noted his regular dialogue with Kaptur made him feel like his voice and opinions mattered. He added that seeing Jack Ford becoming Toledo’s first black mayor was deeply impactful.  

Mack originally ran for Toledo City Council in 2017 but didn’t receive an endorsement. Now, for the 2021 election, he feels a new-found confidence in his platform.

When asked about the current political climate in Toledo, Mack said we’re “on the right side of history” where progression can be made, but we can’t “tiptoe” around it. All things considered, action needs to be taken immediately. Part of his campaign is emphasizing environmental justice and putting it into legislation, partially inspired by the algae bloom of 2014 that impacted our community. 

As an activist and leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, Mack looks to continue his activism work as a councilman to rid Toledo and beyond of racial injustice, while also making sure voices of color in Toledo are heard and involved. Mack also looks to ensure all Toledoans have easy accessibility to city council meetings to hear exactly what’s discussed. Mack’s campaign also emphasizes public safety, striving towards more affordable and— someday— free healthcare and much more.

When asked what positive changes he envisions happening in Toledo by 2030, Mack replied, “Seeing more people of color and gender-neutrality in power in all facets, leaps and bounds towards free healthcare.” He also added “for Black Lives Matter to not have to be a thing anymore, and for passed national legislation in favor of environmental justice.” Julian Mack is a proud lifelong Toledo citizen and wants to continue being a “servant of the people” for our city. 

“If you can change Toledo, you can change the world,” Mack said.

For more information on Julian Mack and his campaign, please visit https://mackforus.com/ —Tanner Wertz

1-1 BIG IDEA James PaatJames Paat

Founder and CEO, Inxite
Why You Should Know Him: Toledo native whose company has created the iX360 robot

It cleans. It disinfects. It purifies the air. It checks people in and can keep track of their temperature. It’s the iX360, the world’s first COVID-fighting robot. And it’s the brainchild of a Toledo native.

James Paat is the founder and CEO of Inxite, a Columbus-based healthcare solutions company open since 2012. A graduate of St. John’s High School, Paat visited his brother Richard’s Community Care Free Medical Clinic in September to unveil the iX360, a robot designed to help medical centers and other spaces to protect against the Coronavirus.

“[It’s] the first smart robot— fully autonomous smart robot— to create COVID-safe environments. So with the spread of COVID-19 and the global pandemic, it’s significantly changing how everyone has to deal with creating safe spaces,” Paat said.

Paat likened the iX360 to a Roomba. You can set it to fulfill certain sanitation tasks, and the robot will take care of it. The iX360 can disinfect surfaces, purify the air, dispense hand sanitizer, it even has an ultraviolet light system to kill bacteria on hard-to-disinfect areas like keys.

“We’ve taken technologies that we’re familiar with, and we had a very focused energy to package that into a smart robot to ease the burden for businesses and organizations to be compliant,” Paat said.

The response to the initial introduction of the iX360 has been “phenomenal,” Paat said. “The first thing is, it draws a lot of attention. People see it, it’s very futuristic and they very quickly see the benefits, because everyone firsthand understands the challenges, especially with today’s environment.”

Enthusiasm is such that Inxite has been aggressively increasing production of the iX360 in the past few months, as well as working to develop new models of the robot.

Even though Inxite typically focuses on creating products for health care facilities, Paat said that schools, businesses and more are expressing interest in the iX360. “Really any place where there’s a high population of individuals coming through, they’re struggling with how to create these COVID-safe environments. So you’re gonna see more and more of this as we increase production.” —Jeff McGinnis

1-1 BIG IDEA - Paula RossPaula Ross

Founding Member, The Matriots
Why You Should Know Her: Bipartisan group works to expand the number of women running for office

During the last political season, a political action committee gained ground by advocating for— and getting—  more women in government. With the slogan “when women lead, Ohio prospers,” The Matriots made it their goal to include more and better representation for women in local government. One of those Matriots is Paula Ross, who became a founding member of the group in 2018.

“I attended the first Matriots’ gathering in Northwest Ohio in 2018,” Ross explained. “I was inspired by the impact of the Matriots’ strong and early support of Theresa Fedor in her 2018 primary race for state Senate.” The Matriots (a portmanteau of “matriarch” and “patriot”) all share a similar idea, that “correcting the under-representation of women is crucial to a better future for me and my family,” according to Ross.

The Matriots’ origins go back to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. Marchers from Columbus decided when they returned to Ohio from the march, they would take inspiration from the event and use it to further female representation in their local government. 

Today the organization has grown to nearly 1700 members in what the group refers to as “the hive”; like-minded men and women “from Ohio and beyond” whose long term goal is to have 50% of Ohio elected officials be women. The hive mentality is an important ideal, which is why the group’s logo is a bee. “In addition to endorsing and supporting a diverse slate of women candidates,” explained Ross, the Matriots worked to build local ‘hives’ throughout Ohio, including in Lucas County.

The PAC is already seeing their work make progress. During the 2020 election, The Matriots endorsed 64 female candidates in various races. 35 of those officials were elected, including Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson and Toledo Councilwoman Katie Moline. “The Matriots’ endorsement process is strong and value-based,” said Ross. “Those values include: ‘The well-being of our families, communities, and country is directly impacted by the economic independence, health, and safety of women.’”

Learn more about the organization by visiting MatriotsOhio.com —Jon Ruggiero

1-1 BIG IDEA - Meyling RuizMeyling Ruiz

President, Latino Alliance of Northwest Ohio
Why You Should Know Her: Organization has founded a new scholarship program for undocumented students

“We see the needs of the Latino community here in Northwest Ohio,” Meyling Ruiz said of the Latino Alliance of Northwest Ohio.

A nonprofit organization headquartered in Toledo, the Latino Alliance is aimed at fostering a positive working relationship between a variety of organizations that serve the Latino population of the area. Among the programs under the Alliance’s umbrella is the Diamonte Awards, an event that has raised money for scholarships to BGSU, UT, Lourdes and Owens Community College for over 30 years.

“[The Diamonte Awards] were founded by Image of Northwest Ohio, which was a local advocacy group. And then in 2016, it was handed over to Latino Alliance,” Ruiz said.

This year, in an effort to expand the assistance available to students at each of the four institutions, the Latino Alliance voted to begin awarding an additional scholarship themselves— four $1,000 scholarships to aid undocumented Latino students.

“We have different subcommittees as part of the Alliance, and in one of them, there were these talks about how we can help additional students that aren’t receiving funding through the universities, or can’t apply for funding. So we raise these funds every year, so the Alliance has this money that we can give to either our partner organizations or, in this case, put it back into the community in the way of scholarships,” Ruiz said.

Now that the Diamonte Awards are part of the Latino Alliance, the group felt it was the perfect time to add their own scholarship to the program. The impact of COVID hindered the Alliance’s ability to get the word out this year, however.

“The issue has been with the pandemic and everything going on, we weren’t able to promote it as much as we would have liked,” Ruiz said.

The Latino Alliance did award four scholarships this year, though because one university didn’t have any applicants, the group was able to award two scholarships for the University of Toledo. The hopes are to expand the scholarship’s focus in the next few years.

“Right now, we have made it to be only for undergrads, but we did have some applicants that would like to continue in grad school, and they also have the same problem of not being able to receive any type of federal funding. So we want to be able to expand it in the next coming years, to award an additional scholarship for grad students.” —Jeff McGinnis

1-1 BIG IDEA - Greg Zilba CasinosCareGreg Zilba

Founder and CEO, Casinos Care
Why You Should Know Him: Created a way for casino patrons to donate change to charity

Greg Zilba developed a way for casino patrons to give back to the non-profits in their community with the creation of the Donate Button from Zenergy Systems. As founder and CEO of Casinos Care, Zilba is energized as valuable support for non-profits makes its way across the nation.

With a background in gaming development, Zilba recalls the moment he came up with the beginnings of the Giving Module. 

“I believe it was gifted to me,” Zilba said. “I loved it. The product was bigger than me.”

Zilba is a Sylvania native who caught the gaming bug in Las Vegas. He’s always been a creative person, which led to the initial idea to give back to non-profits doing good work in the communities around casino properties. His previous company built slot machines and developed software. He created the Donate Button in 2010, and it took over seven years to reach the market. 

“We worked a long time to get it to market and now it’s one of the hottest products in gaming… because of the coin shortage,” Zilba said. “But the best part is all the great work we get to do for the non-profits.”

The software provides a way for patrons to donate while reducing coin handling on the floor. Once a patron is at the ATM for Cash Out, they will be given the option to donate their change- appearing on 90 percent of the tickets. If a patron opts out, they will receive a printed ticket to take to the casino cashier. However, Zilba said that even with 50 percent of patrons inside, they are seeing a 20-35 percent increase in donations across the board.

“Obviously the credit goes to the casino patrons, they are doing this, they deserve the credit,” said Zilba. “But through this we’ve been able to give more than 10 homes away to wounded veterans through the Military Veterans Support Foundation. We’ve provided over one million meals… We’ve also been able to give so much money toward Toys 4 Tots for kids for the holidays. And the list goes on.”

Visit Casinos Care for a list of casinos and non-profit partners at: casinoscare.org —Ashley Hill