The Man with a Golden Heart…

Community legend Henry Blyden on his decades of giving back.
- May 12, 2021 -

WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton

Like an inevitable Tsunami swirling dark, angry waves in the ocean, perilous influences, and risky behavior nearly drowned Russell Serreia in the mid-1990s. Plagued with alcohol addiction and a fractured home, 15-year-old Serreia navigated the cold shadows of Bradenton neighborhoods, rolling in and out of street fights and jail cells.

Hardened, lost, and flirting with danger, Serreia happened to land in a recovery program where his life course steered out of the storm and into the safe harbor of his treasured mentor and forever hero: Henry Blyden.

Blyden, a gentle giant with a golden heart and insatiable desire to give back to his community, shined like a beacon for Serreia as he scooped up the wayward teen time after time with heart and motivation.

“He took me under his wing and walked me on a journey, step-by-step, and never gave up on me,” said Serreia, who is now married, a father, and holds a successful job. “If Henry were not a part of my life, I would have ended up in one of two places. I would have ended up in prison or dead. Or I would have figured it out way too late.”

Serreia, along with thousands of others, luckily crossed into the powerful, magic force field of Blyden – a charismatic Army veteran who has dedicated his entire life to lifting up others. A community legend, his name garners broad smiles and a collective, unwavering assessment that spills enthusiastically from the mouths of everyone he knows. They sing in chorus the same phrase: Blyden is an incredible, selfless person with a remarkable gift for inspiring people to come together for a united mission.

“I’d like to be remembered as a guy who has not only helped people but also given some sort of guidance and been able to deliver positive ways and positive attitudes – just a positive way of living,” said Blyden, a father of three who served abroad in Germany, Panama, and Vietnam. “It is so important we as people live in a positive way and get along.”

Investing decades of work in substance abuse and mental health programs and a meandering list of foundations and boards that will leave you breathless, the U.S. Virgin Islands native has collected a sparkling array of accolades, including the VMA Community Hero and NAACP Lifetime Achievement awards. His friends and family recently applauded when he accepted the prestigious Manatee Community Foundation Leadership Spirit Award.

“Mr. Blyden is the kind of person who can simply ask a question of you and understanding his sincerity and passion for the issue at hand, you will gladly say yes,” said Susie Bowie, Executive Director of the Manatee Community Foundation. “His gentle but persuasive leadership has encouraged people to get medical tests, donate money, mentor youth, show up when they are needed, and rise to the responsibility of caring for the community as if it is an extension of one’s own family. He is a living example of service.”

Basking in the morning glow of his pond-side lanai shaded with majestic palms, mango, and avocado trees and serenaded with birds, the awards dangle farthest from Blyden’s mind, despite his phone ringing off the hook with buddies calling to congratulate him. Glorious jasmine, strutting full bloom, sweeten the air as he energetically rattles off all the work that still stretches ahead of him. And how he can rally brothers to join from his beloved organizations Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Gamma Xi Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, and the Studies of African American Life and History (ASALH), to name a few.

“His enthusiasm to help others is infectious,” said Dr. James Stewart, past president of ASALH. “People around him respond with wanting to get involved. I really view him as the glue of the community because he pulls people together. I’ll do whatever Henry asks me to do.”

Stewart, who considers Blyden a dear friend, points out Blyden will do anything for people in need. “Henry will also do the hard work,” he said. “A lot of people have ideas, but they don’t want to put energy into the groundwork. Henry will jump in and never complain. He has an extremely good nature and makes you laugh. He is one of the most giving individuals I have ever met.”

After serving 20 years in the U.S. Army, Blyden retired in 1983 and embarked on a mission as Director of Adolescent Recovery for Manatee Glens, where he guided all prevention programs, including substance abuse, HIV, and mental health for youth and adults. And when the weekend cooking staff would call in sick, Henry would snap to action – sprinting to the facility on a Sunday to fire up grease for fries or dole out sloppy Joes. When he noticed Serreia struggling to connect, the two would escape the program’s corporate environment and bond while hanging Christmas lights or pruning landscapes together out in the community.

“When I retired, I wanted to be of service and get into something where I could help people,” said Blyden, who fell in love with fishing while serving in Panama. “I’ve just always had a way with young people. You need to listen to them. You can’t say do this or do that all of the time because they have a mind of their own. You have to let them figure some of it out.”

Growing up in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, Blyden spent the first eight years of his life separated from his parents and three sisters in New York while his grandmother raised him. Memories of chasing behind cows and stirring pots of stewed goat in the kitchen take him back to his island childhood. When nudged, he can instantly slip into a thick Caribbean accent.

“You can’t forget where ya come from,” said Blyden, who you might find cruising the aisles of Acapulco Tropical Supermarket in Ellenton, searching for authentic Caribbean ingredients.

Against the backdrop of soaring coconut palms, he learned how to fry fish and boil plantains under the watch of his beloved grandmother, who famously kept two pictures hanging in her bedroom: One of Jesus and one of Blyden in his Army uniform.

“That was my girl,” said Blyden, eyes smiling and drifting skyward. “She always gave me strength and support.”

In turn, thousands of young people have gazed up to Blyden for guidance and leadership, including Aaron Randall, president of Kappa Alpha Psi. One of Blyden’s fraternity brother’s sons, Randall, recalls memories tagging along to houses for meetings or charity events.

“Growing up, I saw Henry as a leader in our community always giving back,” said Randall. “He was a role model and taught me how to be a leader as a whole and view everything from a 360-degree lens so you can see how decisions affect this group or that group. But when I think of Henry, I think of the toy celebration.”

When you mention Kappa Alpha Psi’s Holiday Toy Celebration, Blyden beams with pride. Marking its 20th Year, Blyden created the event when two colleagues expressed sadness a toy drive directed to the minority community did not exist in Manatee County. Blyden pooled his resources and bought enough toys for 39 kids that first year. Now, during the month of December each year, Blyden can’t even park his car in the garage because every inch sparkles with piled-up toys.

“It just grew and grew and grew,” said Blyden. “This year, we served 689 children!”

On a chilly Florida December morning, an impressive line of cars snake out from the Dream Center parking lot and wrap around the street. Santa greets the parade of children tucked inside their vehicles and squirming anxiously for a coveted gift. COVID forced the event to pivot into a drive-through style this year, but enthusiasm only soared. Set to begin at 11 a.m., cars piled up by 9:30 a.m.

“Come hell or high water, I was doing this event,” said Blyden, who is known to keep extra toys in his garage in case a struggling family misses out on the celebration. “Next year, the event is going to be named the Henry Blyden Toy Celebration. I said, ‘Y’all better do it right. It has my name on it.”

In addition to the crafts, cuddly stuffies, and games gifted, Blyden inspired his Boule brothers to contribute $2,500 in Publix gift cards for the families.

“I asked for $2,000, but they tossed in $500 more because they said it’s for Henry,” said Blyden, who also happens to be a 32nd degree, Mason, and Shriner.

Gamma Xi Boule President Gregory Matthews agrees Blyden’s requests are hard to turn down.

“Leadership exudes Henry, and he is a charismatic individual – just a caring person,” said Matthews, who can’t think of one cause from Blyden that the fraternity has turned down. “He raises the consciousness of how to improve things through friends, associates, colleagues, and the community at large. It is unbelievable that just one man can do so much.”

Matthews recounted Blyden pitching to help a young man and his mother travel to New York City to speak in front of the United Nations for a competition. With no means to journey there or purchase a suit, Blyden pleaded with his brothers.

“By the end of the meeting, we all went into our pockets and collected enough funds to send this young man and his mother to New York and buy him a suit,” said Matthews, who shared Blyden hosts a Friendsgiving each Friday after Thanksgiving. “Henry took it upon himself to make sure the young man had the right suit. And this young man won the competition.”

A leukemia and heart attack survivor, Blyden doesn’t just focus on youth. When he discovered nearly one in five African American men will develop prostate cancer and that they are severely underserved in the battle to fight this disease, Blyden’s problem was solved. He rallied his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers and partnered with the Dattoli Cancer Foundation to provide free screenings for the African-American community.

“Henry took it upon himself to ensure African American men could get tested, examined, and have their prostate checked,” said Matthews. “He brought it to their awareness and that this is something good for them and to not be concerned. If caught early, it is treatable. This really resonated in the community.”

President of Manasota ASALH David Wilkins emphasized the toy celebration and prostate screenings represent the wide spectrum of people Blyden strives to help.

“Henry has a real heart for the community,” said Wilkins, who shared Blyden will often pick up the phone to just check in on him and his wife. “He has a desire to do whatever he can do to help – one of those rare human beings who seems to live through giving. He has a commitment to give beyond his small circle. I love him dearly.”

In addition to his fraternities, Blyden has served on countless boards and foundations, including Take Stock in Children, Suncoast Community Capital, and North Sarasota Library Friends. He’s an active member of NAACP, FADAA, Humanities Working to End Genocide, and ASALH.

Trading in snowy winters of the northeast for sunshine, Blyden loves his community.

“I can still remember my drive into Sarasota for the first time,” said Blyden. “I saw all of these palm trees and coconuts and mangos. I thought this is it. This is it. This is home.”

Serreia discovered a home with Blyden, who cycled Serreia through the recovery program three times without giving up on him.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Serreia, who views Blyden as a father figure and role model who helped him gain skills to walk into any staff or business meeting. “God gave him superpowers. Even when I disappointed him, Henry was there. He gave me tough love and directed me where to go. He let me venture off the path and learn that every choice has a consequence – a cause and effect.”

Like an engraving burned into wood, Serreia remembers with complete clarity the day he realized how much love he felt for Blyden. Clipping and pruning, the two were gardening a landscape on Siesta Key together when Blyden clutched his chest and staggered to the floor. Heart attack: The words still rattle Serreia, who spun into a panic while Blyden remained calm and walked Serreia through steps on how to get help.

“I realized I was there for Henry on the most important day in his life,” said Serreia. “Now he had to be there for mine.”

After years of the recovery program, Blyden stood up for Serreia at his wedding on the courthouse steps.

“It’s not just a sense of accomplishment with a young person,” said Blyden. “It’s also a sense of pride.”

Lunchtime on Blyden’s back porch rolls around, and he contemplates a plum and a few moments to gaze across his pond. Blyden, who also ran a catering business for six years, can whip up orange-glazed Cornish hens and potato salad on a dime. Actually, there’s not much Blyden can’t do, especially when it comes to inspiring a community of givers.

“Give your time, give your finances, your resources or thoughts and ideas, and let’s make this community, this state, this world a better place,” Blyden said. “I have a prayer each night and say, ‘Henry Blyden has had a damn good life.”

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