Meet five of the Light’s 2019 Unsung Heroes

Docent Julie Williams leads students on a tour of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center on May 9. Photo: Bill Motchan

Julie Williams

Julie Williams has been a docent at the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center for a full decade and even sits on the docent advisory committee. It is a role that allows her to make change happen every day as field trips from schools across the St. Louis area bring busloads of youngsters eager to learn, not just about one of history’s most tragic chapters, but also how they might be able to apply the lessons of the past to the realities of the present. 

Her interest in teaching tolerance also resonates on a personal level. One of her three daughters, now age 23, is both transgender and autistic and often suffered bullying and harassment while at school. That led Williams to testify before the Missouri Senate’s Education Committee in opposition to a proposed “bathroom bill.” Locally, she’s offered testimony before the Pattonville School District regarding the “school-to- prison pipeline” and policing issues. 

Since 2015, Williams, 55, has been a part of West County Community Action Network, which speaks out on everything from racial justice to voting rights, issues that came to the forefront of the national and local debate in the wake of unrest in Ferguson.


Karen Flotte

The Central Reform Congregation Mitzvah Farm, which Karen Flotte spearheaded with co-congregant Wendy Bell, is now in its third year of growth and has become an almost year-round affair. CRC now plants for three seasons. After these crops harvest, Flotte and her fellow gardeners will replant okra, sweet potatoes, green beans and cucumbers in the summer before returning to greens in the fall. 

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“One of the things about greens is that they are the nutrient powerhouses in the plant family,” Flotte said. “They provide the most dense and most needed nutrients for the human body.” 

The garden grew out of a larger partnership between the synagogue and local churches to address issues in the community such as food insecurity for the working poor. 

But Flotte, 56, and CRC are now helping to replicate the idea elsewhere by teaching the techniques of growing a garden to help pantries.

Dr. Gary Ratkin

A retired oncologist, Dr. Gary Ratkin, 76, volunteers at Casa de Salud, a low-cost health clinic in Midtown, where he and other healthcare providers try to find a way to keep patients from having to make a costly trip to the emergency room. That’s because at Casa, which focuses on Hispanic people, the providers are dealing with a patient population that primarily is uninsured and that, unfortunately, means that many have had negative experiences with the health care system.

Ratkin developed a plan in which the Casa staff would try conservative outpatient management, with a close follow-up sooner than normal for a similar problem. In many cases, this has kept the patient out of the hospital.

In addition to his work at Casa, Ratkin also volunteers with Ready Readers, a program in which he reads to preschool children in low-income communities; at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry; the Jewish Community Center’s Garden of Eden, which provides fresh produce to the food pantry; and as a guide of historic architecture in St. Louis.  

Jennifer Rothman Mancuso

With her husband Vincent Mancuso, Jennifer Rothman Mancuso, 47, founded the VJ Mancuso Memorial Fund after their 3-year-old son passed away in 2010. To date, the memorial fund has raised more than $250,000. 

VJ was born with a rare, congenital disease called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which the left side of the heart is critically under-developed. VJ needed three major surgeries to help correct this condition. He made it through the first two fine, but sadly had complications after the third surgery.

Each year since VJ’s passing, the namesake foundation hosts a trivia night fundraiser, the proceeds of which go to benefit primarily four organizations: St. Louis Children’s Hospital and its Camp Rhythm; Rockwood School District Early Childhood Center, where VJ attended; Temple Israel religious school; and St. Ambrose School.

Barbara Finch

Barbara Finch, 81, co-founded Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice in 2005 to educate people about social injustice issues and advocate for change. Membership now tops 500. 

Gun control. The environment. Affordable health care. Economic justice. Human rights. Racial justice. Reproductive justice.

“Those are our core issues right now,” Finch said, adding that Women’s Voices sponsors free public lectures by experts on issues.

“We go on field trips, we protest, we march in parades like the Pride parade,” said Finch, who belongs to Central Reform Congregation. “We talk about how discrimination affects people of color.”

The group has no religious affiliation and, despite its name, people of any gender, race or age, are welcome.

Read the Heroes’ full stories in our May Oy! Unsung Heroes magazine and join the Light in saluting the 2019 Unsung Heroes during a special 10th anniversary event at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22 at 560 Music Building, 560 Trinity Ave., in University City. Complimentary valet parking is available.

Join us to honor our 2019 Heroes, along with many of the 100 Heroes from the past decade. The cost is $35 and includes a bountiful kosher buffet reception. RSVP at or call 314-743-3660 no later than Monday, May 20.