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10 Lakelanders Inspiring Our City to Do More, Be Better, and Achieve Higher

Photography by Dan Austin

The movers and shakers of our city and how they are using their influence to make a significant impact

We all have influence, but what sets an influencer apart is what they choose to do with the power they hold. Lakeland is filled with individuals who are contributing greatly to our community in an array of areas. In our first-ever list of local influencers, we’re highlighting individuals with diverse stories who share a common theme. These are the movers and shakers of our city who are committed to not only succeeding in their sphere of influence, but using that success to serve others. They are the artists and doctors; philanthropists and homemakers; educators and  advocates. They represent a few among the many influential people who make up Lakeland, and they inspire us to be as selfless and relentless in our work ethic to achieve more in our homes and city.

Introducing The Lakelander’s 2020 Influencers.

Steven Achinger, MD, FASN ||  Managing Partner & Chairman, Watson Clinic

For close to 80 years, Watson Clinic has provided quality healthcare to patients because of medical doctors and leaders like Dr. Steven Achinger, Managing Partner and Chairman of the Board since 2018. Achinger joined Watson Clinic in 2009 and cares for patients with kidney disorders through his nephrology practice. Achinger also oversees daily operations and quality assurance for the clinic.

Uniquely, Watson Clinic is 100% physician-run and governed. Watson Clinic’s independence gives Achinger and his team the freedom to focus on patients and their needs first, providing quality care without burdening regulations and restrictions.

According to Central Florida’s Development Council, Watson Clinic is one of Polk County’s Top 10 employers with more than 1,800 employees, including 300 physicians and providers at 18 different locations.

“My overarching desire for Watson Clinic is to see all patients get the best care possible,” says Achinger.

He was born in Syracuse, New York, and spent a brief portion of his life in the Marshall Islands. Achinger moved to Ormond Beach when he was seven years old before eventually landing in Lakeland in 2009. He received his medical degree from the University of Miami and completed his residency and fellowship at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, TX.

Achinger hopes that Lakeland continues to prosper and “grow at a responsible rate,” hoping the city “does not lose its beauty or charm at the expense of growth.”

“Lakeland has a great small-town feel, and people are genuine,” says Achinger, who loves the laidback Florida lifestyle. “The city is very family-friendly, a great place to raise kids, and not too far from major attractions in other cities.”

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I would play soccer on the beach with my kids.

Top three favorite places in Lakeland?

• Nineteen61
• Being around Lakes Morton, Mirror and Hollingsworth
• Watson Clinic

Pam Mutz || Mentor & Community Leader

Careers are not always defined by fancy titles, salaried day jobs, and paychecks; sometimes the greatest professions carry obscure titles, countless hours of work, and little-to-no pay or recognition. Yet, such a covert calling brings about positive and life-changing impact on the parties served.

Need an example? Meet Pam Mutz: wife of 41 years to Mayor Bill Mutz and mother to 12 children (and lots of grandchildren) who has spent more than 40 years serving her family. From supporting and doing life together with her husband to preparing her children for life, Mutz is called to sacrificially and devotedly support her family. She has also mentored and taught life skills to women all over Lakeland and supported young families as they grow.

This faithfulness is rooted in her relationship with Jesus Christ, who she considers her greatest mentor “because of his teachings, kindness for others, and love.”

Born and raised in Littleton, Colorado, Mutz considers herself a “mountain girl” with a love for hiking, skiing, snowboarding, and many other outdoor activities like tennis. Mutz then met and married her husband in Indianapolis, Indiana, where they started their family by having their first 10 children. Finally, Mutz and her family would land in Lakeland, calling it “home” for the last 23 years.

“Lakeland is an amazing place to raise a family because the community cares about people,” says Mutz, who appreciates the strong family values the community possesses. “We have seen this in educational settings, athletic coaches, and even therapists for our special-needs daughter.”

Mutz desires to influence the next generation with character and values and build healthy families, which she believes are at the heart of strong communities. Mutz, along with her husband, encourages parents to make their families a top priority, believing this focus is how to best shape the next generation.

Mutz envisions Lakeland as one of the most influential communities not only in Central Florida, but across the whole state of Florida as well, built on a “strong core community, strong infrastructure, and outstanding education.”

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I would hike to a beautiful place, sit outside, draw, watercolor, and journal.

What are your three favorite places in Lakeland?

• Scarpa’s
• Café Zuppina
• The nature in my own backyard!

Sarah Powers || Founder & CEO, Top Buttons Inc.

As a former youth minister and social worker, and, frankly, as a mom of four kids, Sarah Powers’s passion is to encourage young women to find their identity and value in Christ, “not in the provocative, disrespectful, and inappropriate.” Powers is the founder and chief executive officer of Top Buttons Inc., which exists to build young women’s self-worth from the inside and out through mentorship, education, and fashion.

Born and raised in Lakeland, Powers desired to live elsewhere early on like most ambitious youth and young adults. Now, a wife, mother, and business owner, Powers is grateful to be back in her hometown and could not see herself anywhere else. She sees and loves many others in the community with passion, work ethic, and commitment to bettering the community.

Powers would like to see those who are broken and lost find hope, purpose, and support, closing the gap to help people find their way. Powers, who built an entire program on giving hope, desires “to see young women known for who they are as a whole person, which is far more than just a pretty face.”

Influencers in Powers’s own life include Jeanne Mayo, a national youth leaders coach. Mayo encouraged Powers while speaking at a conference and the two ended up working in ministry together. Others like, Jeremy DeWeerdt, founder and leader of Master’s Commission, had a big impact on Powers, who spent five years in his program.

“The time spent in Rockford,” Powers says as she reflects on her time at Master’s Commission, “has forever impacted my perspective on what it means to love and serve people in your community.”

Time spent studying the Bible with her husband and investing in others keeps Powers grounded with a healthy perspective.  “Getting our eyes off ourselves and on the needs of others is one of the best ways to stay healthy all the way around,” she says.

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I would go for a long run. I absolutely love running.

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Lake Hollingsworth
• Downtown Lakeland (Kentucky Avenue)
• Peterson Park

Ana Rivera de Ramos || President & Founder, Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Polk County

Puerto Rican-born, and raised in the Bronx — a true Boricua — Ana Rivera de Ramos now calls Lakeland home. For the past 12 years, Ramos has served as president and founder of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Polk County. Ramos felt a lively representation of Hispanic culture, spirit, and soul was missing in the Lakeland community and, naturally, the chamber was born. The Chamber exists to serve small and upcoming Hispanic businesses, keeping pace with the influx of Hispanic families into Lakeland.

“Some groups do an excellent job of celebrating Hispanic culture,” said Ramos. “Lakeland needed one that would lead the Hispanic demographic — specifically families, entrepreneurs, and the community as a whole — into feeling like they belonged here in Lakeland.”

Ramos desires for Lakeland to embrace the Hispanic youth and millennial population more enthusiastically, as they are the future and in need of embracing. With this in mind, and the city becoming more diverse and inclusive, Lakeland will undoubtedly become a “beacon on the I-4 corridor,” in the eyes of Ramos.

“I am looking toward what else this new decade will bring for my family, my friends, my organization, and, of course, the city of Lakeland,” says Ramos. “Hopefully, I will be involved in continuing to change the panorama of the Latino community here in the beautiful city of swans.”

Many people influenced Ramos, including her mother, Señora Ana Ocasio, and great grandmother, La Señora Sixta N Colon. Both, clearly, had an early impact on Ramos. Ramos’ faith, along with the love of her family, both past and present, sustains her daily work as she seeks to inspire those around her and be a compassionate change in her community.

Oh, and for Ramos, some lively Latino music helps — a staple of every Puerto Rican household!

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I would be coming up with a new way to help my Hispanic community. Also, I could spend time with my hubby or binge watch one of my favorite TV programs.

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Munn Park
• First Fridays
• The Pink Piano

Marvin Tarver || Captain, Lakeland Police Department

Marvin Tarver has been a member of the Lakeland Police Department since 1996, serving in multiple roles like SWAT operator, criminal investigator, and most recently, police captain. Tarver oversees the Uniform Patrol Division (UPD) and is responsible for the direction, planning, and coordination of all functions of the division.

Tarver’s first role model was his mother, who taught him dedication, persistence, and resilience, as well as treating all people with respect and to never give up on your dreams. This is significant, as Tarver eventually chose law enforcement because he wanted to help and protect people from individuals who prey on the weak and exploit the helpless.

“The idea that men and women were willing to put themselves in harm’s way to preserve life and maintain public safety appealed to me,” says Tarver, who believes that “law enforcement is more than a job; it’s a calling.”

Tarver was born and raised in Bartow, Florida, and graduated from Bartow High School. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Polk State College and is a graduate of the Florida Criminal Justice Executive Institute, Senior Leadership Program. He has received numerous awards over the course of his career, including Officer of the Year. Tarver loves spending time with family, cruises, visiting local theme parks, and attending church regularly, as each keeps him balanced emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

Tarver’s love for Lakeland is rooted in how the community’s leaders and citizens work together to improve the city, making it a premier place to live and visit.

Tarver wants to see Lakeland as a leading city “whose citizens work with their police department to reduce crime, and the fear of crime, so that the people and their children can enjoy the amenities that the city offers and take advantage of the opportunities that are made available to its residents.”

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I like to think of myself as a do-it-yourselfer. So, I enjoy learning how to do new things. For instance, I wanted to learn how to play the keyboard so I read some music books, watched YouTube, and, within a few days, I was playing Luther Vandross’ hit song, “Dance With My Father” and a holiday favorite, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Purple Onion
• Texas Cattle Co.
• Lakeland Square Mall

Alexander Rich || Executive Director & Chief Curator, Polk Museum of Art  | Chair, Florida Southern College’s Department of Art History and Museum Studies

At two years old, cartoonist (at the time) Alexander Rich dreamed of becoming a Disney animator. Years later, Rich never imagined he would live 45 minutes from Mickey’s magical playground, teaching art history at Florida Southern College (FSC).

In June 2019, Rich was appointed executive director and chief curator of the Polk Museum of Art and chair of FSC’s newly established Department of Art History and Museum Studies. Among many responsibilities, Rich is tasked with providing creative vision to the museum.

“It’s a dream come true,” says Rich, “directing a museum, curating its exhibitions, and teaching future art historians in and out of the classroom. I love nothing more than being a teacher of art history, and my passion in life is making others love art, and art history, as much as I do.”

Rich, born and raised in New York City, moved to Lakeland in 2014 and started out as assistant professor of Art History at FSC. Rich has grown to love Lakeland as it has provided him with a dream career, a great community of coworkers and friends, and so much more.

Rich hopes Lakeland continues what he calls its “spectacular upward trajectory,” suggesting it can “easily claim the title of ‘coolest’ small-ish city in Central Florida. This New York City boy feels very privileged to call himself a Lakelander,” he says.

While in college at Dartmouth, and at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, Rich encountered many influential teachers and mentors, “whose instruction, scholarship, advice, and teaching methods” still impact his approach to the classroom and museum today. Yet, Rich’s creative art interests were fostered early on without reservations by his parents and other family members.

Rich emphasizes that he “owes my fledgling development as an art historian to my paternal grandfather, who took me to all of New York City’s museums throughout my childhood each time we got together.”

“I love nothing more than being a teacher of art history and my passion in life is making others love art, and art history, as much as I do.”

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

Apart from most likely seizing the moment simply to relax, I would spend it with our Mini Schnauzer puppy, Wilkie. I would also very likely try to go for a nice swim, grab a bite with friends, or head out to Epcot to eat and drink around the world.

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Polk Museum of Art AND Frank Lloyd Wright Campus at Florida Southern College
• Lakes Morton & Hollingsworth
• Lakeside Village

Tim Rice || Lead Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church

Tim Rice is known for many things, but one of the main characteristics people know him for his faith. From God to his family to Lakeland, Rice faithfully and sacrificially serves what he loves most.

Rice planted Trinity Presbyterian Church in 1997, where he serves as lead pastor and director of church planting. Since 2005, Rice and the Trinity network have “daughtered” (planted) nine churches across Polk County and assisted other non-denominational church plants like Grace City Church and The King’s Church.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in Charleston, West Virginia, Rice moved to Lakeland in 1986 and quickly fell in love with the city and its people.

“I hope to die here,” Rice says. “It’s full of amazing people and such a generous, loving community.”

Culturally, Rice loves that Lakeland is modest, seeing humble people with means eagerly sharing with people in need. Spiritually, Rice desires widespread renewal, as 85% of the people in Lakeland are not part of a church in a meaningful way.

Rice candidly shares, “I think the church, at large, has probably earned certain criticism and cynicism for being insular, selfish, smug, and aloof.”

That statement alone speaks volumes because leading the way for Trinity’s church-planting network is a pastor (Rice) who shows humility, awareness, leadership, and compassion. “I do what I do because I love Jesus and I love the people of our city,” says Rice.

Rice has had many important influences throughout his life, like his parents, both members of Trinity and active in Lakeland at 93 and 89 years old, and well-known pastor and church planter, Tim Keller. Rice has been influenced, challenged, and encouraged by his best friend, Tim “Timo” Strawbridge, co-pastor at Trinity. Rice is also indebted to his wife, Julie, and their four brilliant and courageous kids: Tyler, Molly, Abby, and Campbell.

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

The Tampa Bay Frogman Swim – a fund-raising swim for the Navy SEAL Foundation, where we swim from St. Pete to Tampa. It has been my yearly highlight as far as a physical and mental challenge. I love to swim – it’s my exercise of choice since I was in high school. And I am sure that my swim crew has not only kept me fit, but also sane.

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Gandy Pool
• Mitchell’s Coffee Shop
• Lake Mirror and the surrounding areas

Judy Oncu || English Teacher, Lakeland Christian School

Since the 1950s, Lakeland Christian School (LCS) has been known for its ability to educate, equip, and empower the next generation of learners and leaders. While the school grounds itself is a Christian foundation, it relies on an important vessel to bring about growth among its students: quality teachers. An avid reader, lover of great literature, and writing pundit, Judy Oncu fits the description.

Oncu has faithfully served and guided students at Lakeland Christian School for more than 35 years. Born and raised in Romeo, Michigan, just north of Detroit, Oncu moved to Lakeland with little plans but great faith. Oncu would find a home not only in the city of Lakeland, but at LCS as well, where her passion for preparing students was cultivated and released.

Oncu’s enthusiasm stems from one of her own personal influences, an English teacher from her senior year of high school who encouraged her to pursue continuing education. This came as a slight shock to Oncu, as no family member of hers had ever graduated from high school.

“I am so confident that moving here was totally led by God,” said Oncu, “and I have peace and contentment in all areas of my life because of that.”

Whether at a local restaurant, where the servers call her by name, or being greeted like an old friend at a local coffee shop, Oncu loves the small-town atmosphere of a larger city. With that, she wishes for a greater mingling of the diverse groups, ethnicities, and races within the city of Lakeland — a model city of racial and ethnic integration.

Oncu has faithfully served and guided students at Lakeland Christian School for more than 35 years.

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

Grab an iced tea (unsweetened, I am from the North) and read a book

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Heritage Baptist Church
• Lakeland Christian School
• Starbucks at Lakeside Village

Barney Barnett || Former Vice Chairman, Publix Super markets | Philanthropist, Publix Super Markets Charities

Barney Barnett retired in April 2019 from Publix after more than 50 years of service. Throughout his tenure, Barnett served in multiple roles, including executive vice president, before eventually becoming vice chairman in 1998. In a 2019 Publix press release on his retirement, the company noted that Barnett is one of only 20 individuals who served as a Publix employee for 50 years.

Barnett was born in North Carolina during World War II and moved to Lakeland, as his father was a native of the area, when he was six years old. A lifelong Lakelander, outside of two brief stints outside the city, Barnett has spent 64 of the 76 years of life in Lakeland. Barnett’s greatest influences were his parents and grandparents as well as teachers and coaches. During his time at Publix, Barnett also received great mentorship.

“I consider myself lucky, being born in the USA and fortunate to grow up in Florida,” says Barnett after some reflection. “I am also very fortunate to have gotten my job at Publix.”

Barnett currently serves on the Publix Charities board, which seeks to meet the needs of individuals in communities in Florida and throughout the nation. He also works with a group designing and building the upcoming Lakeland recreational attraction, Bonnet Springs Park, a 180-acre park that will feature a botanical garden, nature walks, a new Explorations V Children’s Museum, and much more.

“It is hard not to love Lakeland,” says Barnett, referring to its proximity to the I-4 attractions, being between the Gulf Coasts, and the people that make up the community.

Barnett’s love for Lakeland is seen in the way he and his family faithfully support Lakeland by continually pouring their resources back into the community. He tirelessly aims to beautify and unify the city in hopes that Lakeland will continue its steady growth as a premier area.

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I love to watch sports and give back to our great community.

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• My home
• Florida Southern College
• Lone Palm Golf Club

Ben Stevenson || President & CEO, Lakeland Housing Authority

Ben Stevenson, a straight “A” student as an 8th grader (the only one in his class), earned a college scholarship at seven years old and was destined to succeed with his wit, drive, and passion. Stevenson, who graduated from University of Florida and eventually earned two graduate degrees, serves as president and CEO of the Lakeland Housing Authority.
Stevenson grew up in a phosphate mining town in Pierce, Florida, where his family passed on work ethic and, clearly, humility. A “country boy,” as he affectionately calls himself, Stevenson does not use an alarm clock but wakes each morning for a walk and talk with God at 4 a.m., listening to Gospel music on his stroll.
Seven years ago, after being away for more than 40 years, Stevenson returned to the place where he was born, Lakeland, to provide vision and daily oversight to the Lakeland Housing Authority.
“Lakeland is facing an affordable housing crisis,” says Stevenson, “as every ten families seeking affordable housing, there are only three units available.” Despite the crisis, Stevenson is optimistic, hopeful, and encouraged by what he sees among the city officials and citizens of Lakeland.
Stevenson has a knack for cleaning up financial messes and providing steady leadership. Winning multiple local and national awards for his work in places like New Orleans, Tampa, and Lakeland – and receiving recognitions from presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – serves as testimonials to not only Stevenson’s work, but his heart and commitment as well.
Ever since Stevenson was a little boy, he simply wanted to help people. “I always said if I won the lottery, I would use it to help poor people,” says Stevenson. In a way, Stevenson won the lottery by the many positions he has filled and helping people along the way.
In case you are wondering, Stevenson received a scholarship at such a young age after winning an art contest. Add that to the list of incredible accomplishments and one deeply diverse, inspiring, and influential individual.

If you had two hours of unhindered free time (no obligations!), what would you do?

I would work on something that would use my gifts to serve mankind and bring glory to God.

What are your top 3 favorite places in Lakeland?

• Harry’s
• Keke’s
• Hollis Gardens

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