3 Inspired People

Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Lynn Phillips-Gaines, Starkville
Her apparel is professional. Her hair is perfectly coiffed. Her diction speaks of class.

Lynn Phillips-Gaines is an award-winning financial planner and wealth manager, recognized by both Forbes and Money Magazine for her business acumen.

She is also a deacon at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. A seeker and a searcher. A strong-willed woman with a deft hand, quick mind and a tender heart.

She never feels she’s doing enough.

As a teenager, she longed to help those who had no voice. That longing was the impetus for Starkville’s Bridges Out of Poverty, a grassroots movement teaching the community’s poorest denizens how to achieve their dreams.

Her dream was simple: She wanted her life to count.

She wanted to shatter stereotypes — within herself, her community and the lives of those who attend the free Bridges training sessions.

It is a deeply personal, sometimes difficult, look at the causes of poverty, socioeconomic divides, choices and options.

It is not a quick fix, Phillips-Gaines emphasizes. It is a promise: For those willing to work, she’s willing to help. And she’ll walk beside them, every step of the way. Through the classes, she’s learned respect and patience, grace and forgiveness, she says. By seeing the divinity in others, she has become more aware of her flaws.

She gives until she has nothing left, and then gives a little more because she so passionately believes that poverty can be eliminated.

“Regardless of socioeconomic class, people share similar motivations and dreams,” she says. “The class teaches them to ask, ‘What do I want my future story to be?’ And they start to dream of how life can be different.” 

George Irby, Jr.
George Irby Jr. was just a boy when he saw a photograph of his father, George (Happy) Irby Sr., dressed as Santa Claus.

It was then that he realized his father not only loved Christmas — he loved people. He loved people so much that he devoted his life to helping the less fortunate, establishing a Christmas fund to buy presents for needy children, distributing gift baskets to the elderly, touching the lives of others through the way he lived his own.

When Irby Sr. passed away, he left a void in the community and in the heart of the son who is his namesake.

He had worked in customer service at the Columbus Air Force Base Officers’ Club, using the tips to establish his Christmas fund, and he maintained a warm relationship with CAFB through the years, inviting commanders and their wives to the Irby home for the holidays and even going to Atlanta to defend the base when it was threatened with base realignment and closure in 1995. After Happy’s death, George Jr. wanted to maintain the family’s connection to CAFB and carry on the beliefs that were important to his father, so when he was asked to chair his father’s “Happy Fund,” he accepted.

And now, like his father, he has become synonymous with Christmas in Columbus and the spirit of the season, raising money throughout the year to buy presents for the area’s needy children.

“A lot of people do things they want recognition for, but 90 percent of the people who work on this just feel good that they’re doing something and their money goes to help someone,” Irby says.

Helping others is a simple but powerful concept, benefiting the giver as much as the recipient.

“My father epitomized that, and I understood it more after he passed. He was always helping people.”

Carol Hazard, West Point
Carol Hazard is warm and open, part small town girl, part world sophisticate, ever the gracious Southerner — even if she did grow up in New York.

The one word you’ll never hear her say is “no.” People ask for her help, and she can’t resist — giving back is part of her nature.

Much of her time is devoted to the First Presbyterian Church (EPC) in West Point, where she serves as a deacon and her husband, Steve Hazard, is an elder.

Her pastor, Steve Davis, comments, “Carol is involved in our Community Christian Children’s Choir, led also by Susie Marshall. It’s an outreach program for children from all demographics that we do twice a year. She’s there every Wednesday, doing everything from cooking to helping direct children. She visits the elderly and those who are homebound and takes them dishes, and she mentors some of our young people. Carol is always there, behind the scenes, doing things that make a difference.”

But it was in missions work that she found an answer she didn’t know she was seeking. She had always wanted to work in missions with children, so when the church organized a trip to Kenya, she signed up.

She thought she would help the people; she didn’t know they would help her, too, forever changing her perspective.

She walked into a world where there was no running water, no electricity and overwhelming poverty. But the Kenyans were rich in love.

As she and her group built community churches and schools, she grew close to the people, especially one child, who arrived at camp with a horrific injury to his hand. She had little to help him, so she offered what she had — Neosporin and love.

She has traveled to Kenya three times now, and every time she returns more blessed.

“I was brought up to love everybody,” she says, “to have compassion for all.”

She admits she’s busier than ever, but she has no plans of stopping. Wherever her hands are needed is where she wants to be.

“This is something I want to do forever,” she says.