LoveLakeland’s October 2019 CityMaker

Kathy Abels

By Jonathan Camargo

Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio

There’s a story for every great moment in our lives. A face to a memory, a spark to a flame.

For many of us, our stories are not our own. They’re shaped and molded by the experiences we have throughout a lifetime of forks in the road. There’s no telling what each path holds, except for a chance at a new beginning.

In celebrating our community, we celebrate those that share their knowledge and connections with their fellow person, all in the name of communal betterment. Our October 2019 Lakeland CityMaker goes out of her way to connect our community with the resources and individuals that benefit us all.

A Town Called Home

Amid antique motorcycles and pairs of walking shoes, Kathy Abels lives a busy life – by choice, of course. She’s a “Dynamite Volunteer,” quietly working behind the scenes to help accomplish some of our community’s signature events and volunteer projects.

You may occasionally see her walking Lake Hollingsworth, something she does just about every single day. It’s that very same lake that originally piqued her interest nearly two decades ago.

Kathy moved to Lakeland in 2002. Born in Alaska prior to it becoming a state, she bounced around the country before settling here in Florida. On a map of our town, her eyes were instantly drawn to Lake Hollingsworth and its perfectly round shape. She and her late husband Raymond only needed to take a single stroll around its shores before they knew they’d found home.

Background to the Present

Kathy worked in big business for over 43 years. Her diligent work ethic left little time for outside involvement, but that changed when Raymond passed away in 2011. With enough money in savings, Kathy decided it was time to retire, choosing to spend her time doing something good for the benefit of others with open arms and an even bigger heart. In time, Kathy met and married Bruce Abels who helped her in those goals by introducing the Lakeland community and philanthropy.

Since then, she’s had a hand on seemingly every Lakeland-based project or volunteer group imaginable. Her hard work isn’t front-facing, as she’s normally hidden behind the scenes silently making things happen without taking an ounce of the credit. It’s her drive to make a difference, and a connection, whenever and wherever possible that our community benefits from so greatly

A Lesson in Volunteership

Kathy’s reach knows no bounds. She helped organize local Salvation Army Bell Ringing efforts around the holidays, an annual tradition that makes an incredible difference for families and individuals in need. At her church, First Presbyterian, Kathy’s served on committees and as an elder, offering her knowledge and expertise to the betterment of the group. She also greets and ushers, always making sure to extend a warm welcome to all that come through their doors. That’s not to count the many mission trips she’s taken to provide aid where it’s needed most.

At our town’s renowned Lake Mirror Classic, she coordinated antique motorcycles and bikes. She also volunteers her time annually at Sun ‘n Fun.

Then there’s Parker Street Ministries, a nonprofit that seeks to “join God’s transformation of our neighborhood through living and working” therein. Here, she dedicates her time and efforts to helping out at their special events, all themed around the success of the children and residents of the Parker Street community.

Kathy’s also affiliated herself with VISTE (Volunteers in Service to the Elderly), where she delivered weekly meals for five years. Nowadays, she helps deliver birthday cakes to members of our community who are 90 years old or over. “Teenagers will bake the cakes and somebody will decorate them, and then there’s usually somebody in town who will give us plants and goodie bags,” Kathy explained. “So we’re usually walking there with our arms full of stuff to give to them.”

More recently, Kathy’s focused her efforts on organizing tours at Bonnet Springs Parks, inviting the community one buggyfull at a time to take a glimpse at the serene beauty that can be found in our very own backyard.

“The thing about Bonnet Springs Park is that she sees something interesting and she thinks other people would enjoy it too,” said Linda Wiggs, longtime friend and wife of former Lakeland mayor Howard Wiggs. “She started organizing tours, but it wasn’t anything they [asked of her].”

This is a common trend for Kathy, who thinks of others in everything she puts her mind to. It’s her dedication and commitment to bringing our community together that is truly exemplary.

A Connection at the Heart

To make a friend is to live a life well spent. Through shared grins and grimaces, friends are the glue by which a community is formed. It all starts with a connection – however small it may feel – that inevitably sends ripples throughout both time and space that shape something much greater than all parties involved. 

For Kathy, connections are everything. She’s the first to extend an invitation to those that she thinks would be the perfect fit for a given opportunity. From philanthropy to professional development, she uses her knowledge of our community to bridge the gaps and be the difference-maker needed to get people involved. 

“What I find about Kathy is that she actively seeks out what’s going on, what’s happening in the city, what can we get involved with, and what can we do,” shared Linda Wiggs.

For those she reaches out to, Kathy is the connector for so much more. She never asks for anything in return; she simply wants the best for both her community and the individuals she shares it with.

“What I find about Kathy is that she actively seeks out what’s going on, what’s happening in the city, what can we get involved with, and what can we do,”

“What I find about Kathy is that she actively seeks out what’s going on, what’s happening in the city, what can we get involved with, and what can we do,”

A Walk Toward Something Great

Sharing all that Kathy’s done is nearly impossible. It’s the nuanced, everyday moments of life that create and inspire a community to do more and be more. She’ll book a table at an event just to fill its seats with friends and new faces, introducing them to a charity or cause that may have previously gone under their radar without Kathy’s intervention.

She sees the opportunity that surrounds us and does all she can to share that however means possible. Previously, she’s organized tours to local nonprofits and philanthropic organizations to spread their message of good with all of those willing to lend an ear.

“What’s really nice [are] the stories where they saw something at one of the tours that was able to be used to help someone in trouble,” Kathy shared. “It’s just like a chain effect here.”

Perhaps to make a difference, we simply need to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking that challenge our routine-based mindsets. After all, to expand our horizons is to open the door for harbingers of greatness to enter.

For Kathy, expanding her horizons means sharing her love for travel with her family and loved ones. From Jordan to Vietnam and Morocco to Croatia, she’s experienced life at the farthest points away from our everyday reality.

“I love to travel,” Kathy explained. “I’d consider myself an adventurer.”

Homeward Bound

Coming home, Kathy’s passion lies in helping her fellow person get involved. As a member of the Lakeland Rotary Club, and a past board member at that, she helps organize weekly speakers for the organization that prides itself on providing “Service Above Self”.

In her hopes for our city, she wants nothing more than for it to continue being the extraordinary place that it is.

To those teetering on the fence of our community, Kathy’s got an invitation for you: “Come here and see what’s going on.”