You are here
Classic Woman Awards 2006
Meet five wonderful women who exemplify the best in American volunteerism.
She Is a Classic
You all know her. When she hears about heartache, she rolls up the sleeves of her (classic) blouse and goes to work feeding the homeless, rescuing abused animals, welcoming refugees, teaching kids to read, ministering to the imprisoned, cleaning up rivers, and comforting the dying. She's the first to open her heart and the last to look for accolades.
To her we dedicate our November issue, which celebrates our second annual Classic Woman Awards. We know you'll be bowled over by this year's honorees, nominated by you from across the country, profiled here, and honored at a ceremony in New York City on October 12.
These dedicated women are proving that you can change the world, by starting in your own little corner of it. We are pleased to present to you our 2006 Classic Women Award honorees.
Photography: Michael Weschler and Kevin Lein
On Point for College
Syracuse, New York
"You have a plan of action, then you just do it," Ginny Donohue says, recalling her career switch from teaching to the corporate world. In that world, Ginny was the first woman in every post she held. Such lessons in determination were not lost on her daughter. When a fellow high schooler complained about not having the resources to go to college, his young friend replied, "Sure you can go. My mother will find a way." And Ginny did.
Soon after, Ginny recalls, she helped "a couch kid-someone who couldn't live at home so just went from sleeping on one couch to another." After he got into college, two other kids approached her. "They were in a program for chronically homeless kids, and when I went to pick them up, a whole bunch of kids piled into my car."
They continued to pile in, and Ginny continued to work with them on an ad hoc basis until 1999, when she made another career switch-this time leaving a successful executive career to found On Point for College, a nonprofit organization in Syracuse that helps kids from low-income families go to college. The organization has since helped more than 1,000 inner-city youth go to state and community colleges, and an impressive list of private colleges and universities across the country.
From the start, Ginny understood that the challenge wasn't just about advocacy, admissions counseling, or helping kids with forms, but one of providing a supportive environment. On Point students are tutored in how to budget time, work in study groups, get along with roommates; they are provided with backpacks, alarm clocks, bedding, clothes, and all the other basic back-to-school supplies.
Often, it's just a little thing keeping them out of college. Ginny recalls a boy whose family members were political refugees from Togo. "He had lived in a camp for a year. St. Lawrence University wanted him-he was an excellent soccer player. But he needed to take the test for English as a Second Language, and he didn't have the $35. We did. That was all it took; he graduated in three years."
Each fall, every new student is visited on campus by On Point. Ninety-eight percent of them are the first person in their families to go to college. "A lot of their parents are living on the edge," Ginny explains. "The kids are used to doing without. If a student doesn't have a textbook, he might not tell us. So we visit them. We walk them to the financial-aid office, to the learning center. We make sure they have the books they need." And at the end of the year in May, the organization sponsors a job fair, because On Point students have few job contacts or networking opportunities.
Ginny's happiest moments come on college visits. "We'll be walking around the campus, and it hits them. You can see them thinking 'I could really come here.' Everything they could ever be in their lives has just shifted." Call it being on point for life.
Gloria L. Taylor
Community Women Against Hardship
St. Louis, Missouri
Gloria Taylor's commitment to community began with family, taking root in the Atlanta home of the grandmother who raised her. Her great-grandfather presided over dinners where family members of all generations discussed what was in their minds and hearts. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was sometimes a visitor to the home as well. It was at these gatherings that young Gloria formed her values-a strong work ethic, a focus on the positive, and most importantly, a desire to help people in need.
"I grew up listening to the talk," she recalls of those formative years. "There was nothing negative, no bad language. The conversation was always positive, always about figuring out what we could do. And there is a stick-to-it-iveness about all this stuff from the past. It was an interesting beginning."
What has emerged from that beginning is more interesting still. Believing that local communities can thrive on those same values today, Gloria started Community Women Against Hardship (CWAH) in 1988 in St. Louis to assist single women in need and their families; 33 percent of the city's African Americans then lived below the poverty level. "When I saw the stats on how many children go to bed hungry, that was my dramatic moment," she recalls. "I knew there had to be something we could do."
The volunteer-based program starts at home. "Food was always important, and so was the kitchen," she says. "Someone comes in hungry, you hand him a sandwich. You don't ask questions. It's about finding ways to share." Since its beginning, CWAH has offered food and clothing to more than 5,000 women and children; it has sponsored health-care programs, computer training, academic tutoring, and jazz programs; and it has purchased (for $1) and renovated (with some 30,000 hours of volunteer help) a former elementary school for a family support center.
Gloria became a Catholic at age 16, and her faith fuels her work. "There are days I just think I need to pray a whole lot more," she says. She recalls one girl who became pregnant at 14 and was kicked out of school. "Her mother had her own set of problems, and they lived in the projects. Our caseworker got her back into school, stayed with her, took her to church, and she graduated from high school with honors. She went on to major in math at St. Louis University." Today, that same young woman is working on her masters degree and has volunteered at CWAH, using hip-hop music to teach math, reading, and grammar skills, perfectly reflecting Gloria's conviction that "God gives us these skills so we can give back."
Among Gloria's biggest challenges now is the permanence of CWAH. "What bothers me the most is that I can't be here forever." It's likely she'll face this challenge the way she does the others, one step at a time. "I don't go after the big things," she says. "I don't ask for iPods. I'd rather see families coming together, so I ask for games-Scrabble, Monopoly. That's what I go after. And books."
It's one of the few points Gloria could stand to be corrected on. It's clear, after all, that she is going after the big things.
The Morgan Arts Council
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
Not everyone buys the local movie theater as soon as they move to town, but Jeanne Mozier has her own way of doing things. "I'm opportunistic more than visionary," she says by way of explanation. "We knew we had to do something."
Well, maybe. But some vision was in play. When Jeanne and her husband, Jack Soronen, moved to Berkeley Springs, in Morgan County, West Virginia, in 1977, they quickly got their new business-the 325-seat movie theater-up and running. But there were few shops, no spas, and no place to eat after 7 p.m. There were a few artists and some old-time music, however, and that was all it took for Jeanne to arouse interest in the Morgan Arts Council she founded. "Forty people came to the first meeting," she recalls, and when she realized none of them knew each other, she knew she'd found her work.
Jeanne also knew that art could be an economic force to revitalize the historic town once celebrated for its warm mineral springs, and she recognized the synergy between the arts and tourism; the people who come for the spas, B and B's, and shopping will also support the arts. Today, with three galleries, curated exhibits, and open studio tours, Berkeley Springs is home to some 150 artists who work in jewelry, ceramics, textiles, glass, metal, painting, photography, and more. The town attracts retirees as well and was recently voted the No. 2 arts destination among American small towns and cities. Along the way to making this happen (and as she was logging more than 50,000 volunteer hours), Jeanne also managed to found the Museum of Berkeley Springs and Travel Berkeley Springs.
"We never sat down and said, 'Let's see how we can revitalize Berkeley Springs.' We just took the opportunity whenever we could," Jeanne explains. "Now artists are in the fabric of daily life." The Morgan Arts Council mission statement-"Getting art out there"-has a similar directness and reflects Jeanne's innate pragmatism that "You don't necessarily need a main-street program, or even a friendly town government. It's more sustainable when it is derived from the industry itself. When artists come and are committed, you don't need a lot of state agencies." Nor is money all that is needed to bring art into the schools. Instead, it is community programming, and in Morgan County's student population of 2,000, there are 14 art teachers.
Today, Jeanne serves her third appointment to the West Virginia Commission of the Arts. But lest anyone assume her talents are strictly limited to administration, publicity, fund-raising, promotion, grant-writing, marketing, hosting a radio show, writing newsletters and press releases, and the list of other tasks she takes on, one of the favorite parts of her job is emceeing the hog-calling competition at the town's annual Apple Butter Festival.
"There is no real agriculture here, so this was not really about hog calling," she explains. "People come in costume, play the guitar, tell stories. It's performance art, and it's colossally successful." And you might still find her serving popcorn at the Star Theatre on Saturday nights. "It's always been about having fun," she concludes. "And about keeping your purpose in mind."
The Joy Foundation
St. Louis, Missouri
"My mother wasn’t an artist, but she lived life as a creative act," says Kathy Feldt. "Ordinary moments became adventures." So when Joy Feldt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001, she approached her illness with the same spirit. "She had something she called a ‘healequin’ doll, like a mannequin," recalls Kathy, "and she would use it to signal days when she was having an especially hard time."
When her mother died, Kathy felt called to share her mother’s gift with other cancer patients. "My mother lived creatively, and if we can’t always show people how to do that, we can give them the creative tools that art provides." Kathy started The Joy Foundation in St. Louis in 2001, believing that healing through the arts helps battle cancer.
The foundation’s Lids for Laughter, then, is a workshop program that brings the studio experience to cancer patients, where they can make hats, hoods, and headwear of all sorts. Expressive, often exuberant, such hats—traditionally a negative sign of cancer—suggest how a painful experience can morph into an inventive, even inspirational, act. One 8-year-old patient wrote: Thank you for the cool crown activity. It was the only time today I wasn’t thinking about being sick. I feel like a princess wearing my crown!
If Lids for Laughter is a patient-care tool, Kathy’s Lids for Life program, established a year later, reaches out to people in underserved communities who may feel shut out of the health-care system. Drawing people together with similar creative hat-making activities, the program then introduces them to such services as free mammograms and prostate screening. Another program, Jazz for Joy, brings live music to treatment centers—soothing jazz concerts, for example—for patients as they undergo their chemotherapy treatments. Another of the foundation’s endeavors—St. Louis Community Healing Arts—connects people with cancer and their families to community arts organizations—museums, theaters, dance companies, and concert halls—that donate tickets. Whether it’s two tickets or 200—to the opera or the Harlem Globetrotters—the idea, Kathy says, is that "at a time when people can be overwhelmed with grief or fear, art can transport them into something life-affirming."
Kathy’s conviction that art and healing are compatriots is served by her business background in health-care marketing. And while she acknowledges the value of these baseline skills in navigating the health-care system, she also admits that her mother’s diagnosis "changed everything." As a social entrepreneur, she recognizes that dedication often has its roots in personal experience.
If her mother’s life—and death—inspired her foundation, Kathy knows today that she "also draws on what I am seeing in the families we serve." It is this nurturing cycle of life that may best express the creative spirit of her work. "I have a 9-year old daughter, and I want her to understand that we are given gifts in life and it is incumbent upon us to share these with our communities," she says. "My mother taught me that."
Beyond the 11th
The bonds between parent and child, siblings, or special friends may need little explaining, but that bonds of equal strength and resilience can be forged among strangers is one of life’s paradoxes. It is a paradox familiar to Susan Retik, and one she has based her work on.
Susan, the mother of two, was happily married and expecting a third child when her husband was killed aboard American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001. "People asked how I got through such a tragic loss," she recalls, "and the answer was always the same. I received so much help and support from strangers around the country, around the globe—whether it was a handwritten note or a hand-sewn quilt. Just knowing that someone out there was thinking of me lifted me up."
Her empathy led Susan, only months later, to imagine how Afghani women might be lifted up as well. War-torn for decades, Afghanistan is home to thousands of impoverished widows. Perhaps it was simply the shared experience of unbearable loss, but Susan found herself thinking about "how I could help those women even before we invaded Afghanistan. It was a terrible place to be a woman and an even more terrible place to be a widow."
The following February, Susan met another 9/11 widow and mother, and mentioned her hope of helping just one woman in the way so many people had helped her. "There was no aha moment," Susan says. "The idea just evolved naturally when we realized that the money we could donate was a fortune in Afghanistan and could help many more than just one woman."
The two women founded Beyond the 11th in 2003 to do just that. Today, the organization channels funds through three organizations—CARE International, Women for Women International, and Arzu, a group that teaches Afghani women rug weaving to provide them and their families with resources for health care, education, and literacy. Most of all, the funding assists women in securing an independent future. Through these agencies, Beyond the 11th has helped more than 500 widows on the road to self-sufficiency. Something as simple as providing these women with chickens affords them both food and income when they sell the eggs. With each widow having an average of nearly six children, Susan’s support has aided nearly 3,000 impoverished Afghanis.
In September, Beyond the 11th sponsored its third 275-mile bike ride from Ground Zero to Boston; last year it raised $175,000, and Susan hoped to raise $250,000 this year. As a result of a documentary on her work, Susan anticipates more speaking engagements. "I want people to see the real Afghanistan. These are women with beautiful souls who want the same things for their kids that we want."
Meeting the women of Afghanistan on a recent trip there made Susan’s mission more heartfelt than ever: "Poverty breeds terrorism," she says. "It’s about desperation. If an Afghan family had a young boy, the Taliban would offer that family a sack of rice to recruit him. We don’t want families to have to make that terrible choice. We want to give them that sack of rice."