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Classic Woman Awards 2007
Meet five wonderful women who exemplify the best in American volunteerism.
Orphans. Refugees. Wars. Floods. Elderly people in need. The classic women we salute in our November issue don’t have time to bemoan the ways of the world; they’re too busy changing it.
It is to the quiet passion of these untiring women that we dedicate this issue, and that we honor the nominees selected as recipients of a 2007 Traditional Home Classic Woman Award. On these pages, you’ll meet our five national honorees, nominated by readers from around the country, recognized at a ceremony in New York City on October 10, and celebrated here.
But other unsung heroines you told us about deserve accolades, too. For many, charity began at home after they suffered personal travails. But as they began rescuing others in circumstances similar to their own, their efforts gathered momentum and spread throughout their communities and even around the globe.
Consider Betty Jo Knott of Orange Park, Florida, whose daughter Rhonda, now an adult, was born with cerebral palsy and brain damage. Refusing to settle for what others told her to expect, she taught Rhonda to walk, started a preschool for children with multiple handicaps, and cofounded an agency that offers camps, a day treatment program, and residential group homes for special-needs children and adults.
In New York, empty-nester Colleen Knauf was ready to kick back and play golf. That is, until she helped her church resettle a Somalian family. Eventually, her refugee center moved from her garage and became Saint’s Place, where services include language tutoring and child care.
Out in the Northwest, Zöe Higheagle-Strong of the Nez Percé tribe and husband Mack Strong of the Seattle Seahawks founded Team-Works Academy and After School Program to assist Native American youth at risk for suicide and drug, alcohol, and academic problems. In her spare time, Zöe is a college student and mother of two busy boys.
Former model Allison Clarke began Flashes of Hope in Cleveland when her son underwent cancer treatments and she realized that professional photographs could make children feel dazzling during difficult experiences. We could go on, but like Allison, who is taking her program national, you get the picture. As novelist Virginia Woolf wrote, "As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the world."
Photography: Michael Weschler
Cheri Brown Thompson
The Healing Species
Orangeburg, South Carolina
"Just because someone has hurt you, that is not who you are," says Cheri Brown Thompson. This core belief informs everything she does. Cheri was a law school graduate in 1999, interviewing prison inmates, when she discovered two things: that violent offenders were very often abused as children, and that their own violence often began as children with hurting creatures—usually animals—more vulnerable than they were.
"The missing link was compassion," Cheri says. To help provide that link, she established The Healing Species, a program in which rescued dogs help teach children how to cope with abuse, neglect, and grief, all the while nurturing both self-respect and respect for the feelings of others.
Cheri gave up practicing law to found and direct the ambitious 11-part program without salary or reimbursement for expenses. It is designed for 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders who, on the cusp of their teenage years, are old enough to understand the message, which she says is "about acknowledging matters of the heart."
In the first week, for example, a trained instructor brings a rescued dog into the classroom and narrates its history of abuse and rescue. The lesson, Cheri says, is that "What happens to you in life is not what defines you. And what this dog did is keep her heart and her love."
The Healing Species reaches between 2,500 and 3,000 students annually in 15 to 20 schools throughout South Carolina. Satellite programs have also been established in Seattle, Miami, and Phoenix. An especially valuable part of the program, Cheri says, is that it not only "lifts children up from their own world of hurt, but it helps them evolve to a point where they realize they must give back." Indeed, a formal evaluation of the program determined that, for participating children, out-of-school suspensions have fallen by 55 percent, general aggressions have decreased by 62 percent, and choices based on empathy have increased 42 percent.
Cheri’s own captivating smile and healing hands reach well beyond the classroom; the program urges children to tell a reliable adult when they are the victims of abuse, and one such confession prompted her and her husband to take in two foster sons. Now 10 and 11, they are part of the Thompson family—along with 12—yes, 12!—rescued dogs.
When Cheri introduced the program to older teenagers in maximum-security facilities in the Department of Juvenile Justice, she discovered that it sometimes takes longer "to break the ice." Still, when asked by an instructor what they had learned, responses ranged from "You have to talk to people about a longtime problem" and "You can have power but in a positive way" to "I can handle a bad situation by responding with generosity."
Behavior, though, still speaks louder than words. One teenager incarcerated for a violent crime later told "Miss Cheri" about rescuing four puppies he’d found abandoned by the side of the road. "I took them to a shelter," he said. "They didn’t have to suffer. I knew that the last hands that touched them were hands that loved them. They were my hands."
Text: Akiko Busch
Pat Rowe Kerr
Missouri Veterans Commission
Jefferson City, Missouri
"If you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution." Pat Rowe Kerr lives by these words, never stopping until a solution is found for the military families she serves. Recently, she arranged 24-hour child care, cooking, cleaning, and transportation services for a mother of four who broke both arms while her husband was in Iraq. Pat coordinated volunteers and sometimes drove 40 miles to help out herself.
She became all too familiar with the problems that military families face when her daughter, Capt. Kate Numerick, then the mother of 13-month-old Abraham, was deployed to Iraq in 2003. The family was facing its own state of emergency: Pat’s husband was recovering from a serious car accident, leaving Pat as the sole care provider for their grandson.
Only weeks later, she organized the first of several "Support Your Troops" events on the lawn of the Missouri state capitol, with speakers ranging from the mother of a soldier to a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. Besides organizing events, Pat also began advocating on behalf of troops—always looking for ways to fill the gaps in government assistance for soldiers, whether in health care, income, or legal matters.
Eventually the Missouri Veterans Commission asked Pat to raise awareness of its advocacy programs, and in 2004 she left her work as a court reporter to become the Missouri State Veterans Ombudsman—the first of its kind in the nation—where she created the support program Operation Outreach. Through this program, Pat—who has testified before a subcommittee of Congress—has coordinated more than $1 million in resources and benefits to military families and veterans.
For proof that compassion begins at home, consider Pat’s grandson, Abraham—an infant when his mother left for Iraq—who is now 5. When he told Pat he had 11 cents he wanted to give to her injured soldiers, the idea was born for a patriotic educational program in which schoolchildren give 11 cents on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Veteran’s Day. In two years, Missouri’s children have raised $50,000 for the needs of citizen soldiers. "This is not about politics," Pat says—never forgetting that her mission began at home with her daughter’s deployment—"but about supporting the troops and their families."
Text: Akiko Busch
Sandy Neville Haggart
Feed the Dream
Whether she’s toting thousands of vitamins in her backpack in 117-degree heat or learning how to make tortillas from the laughing young women of a remote village—"Theirs were perfect circles, and ours looked like Play-Doh!"—Sandy Neville Haggart’s laser-beam focus never wavers from the one corner of the world she is determined to improve. That corner is the Guatemalan Highlands, where everyday realities are bleak: 98 percent of the water is not drinkable; 72 percent of the population lives in poverty; and the malnutrition that begins in the womb often becomes a life sentence. "Everything we do makes a difference today, but it also starts a cycle for the future," says Sandy of Feed the Dream, the nutritional, educational, and agricultural program she founded in 2004.
The story began in 1997 when Sandy read about a medical mission trip to Guatemala. With typical big-hearted gusto, she volunteered as a translator for patients, many of whom had cleft palates or burns from open fires. Both she and her adult daughter, Holly, who went along, fell hard for the Guatemalan people—so hard that five years later, Holly adopted a Guatemalan girl, sparkling Sarah, who is now 5 and the light of their lives.
"I was swept away by the country and its incredible people—beautiful, warm, friendly, humble, and, despite their astonishing poverty, full of hope and appreciation," Sandy recalls. Granddaughter Sarah brings Sandy so much joy that just two years ago, she started giving back with Feed the Dream in one village.
Today the program has spread to other villages and affects 500 people daily. It trains indigenous people to help their own by providing snacks and vitamins to young children and pregnant women, building bathrooms, and planting community gardens that emphasize diverse and nutritionally intense crops. Feeding centers show villagers how to cook on enclosed stoves that use less wood, which is in short supply. The results include bigger and healthier babies, richer mothers’ milk, healthier air, and fewer burns from open fires. In the hamlet where the program began, a villager’s reaction brought Sandy to tears: "We didn’t know anyone cared about us."
Without knowing it, the charismatic Sandy was preparing all her life for Feed the Dream—as an exchange student, translator, hospice volunteer, administrator, and wife and mother. She not only visits Guatemala several times a year but also chairs fund-raisers, writes publicity materials, and gives presentations at home. Her motivation is as straightforward as the Guatemalan people she so loves: "I fell in love with a country. I saw a need. It was crucial to give back, and I just went with it."
Text: Akiko Busch
Sustainable Harvest International
A sense of urgency drives Florence Reed. By some estimates, an acre of the rain forest she has dedicated her life to preserving is lost every second. Florence came to love nature early, hiking and camping as she grew up in the Northeast. She joined the Peace Corps immediately after college and was stationed in Central America. What she saw there—a destructive cycle of traditional slash-and-burn farming in which ash is used as fertilizer but soon washes away, degrading the earth—led her to found Sustainable Harvest International (SHI). The nonprofit organization that now promotes sustainable farming in Central American communities began in the spare bedroom of her parents’ New Hampshire home. She was trying to help some families in Honduras, but she had no money and was unsure of how she might raise some.
What she did have was determination. "Things here grow like mad," she said recently, referring to the rapid growth of trees in Honduras. But the statement applies just as well to the development of SHI. Today it serves, by invitation, 90 communities in Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, and Belize. Twenty field trainers, hired locally, travel by foot, truck, dirt bike—or dugout canoe, if need be—to get from one community to another, where they teach how to farm the land without depleting it. (Florence confesses that it was while walking in knee-deep mud that she realized what it meant to be the director of an international nonprofit group.)
Field trainers educate farmers about alternatives that restore ecological balance, including erosion control, composting, mulching, the use of natural pesticides, crop rotation, and reforestation. Add to that the practice of multi-story cropping, in which fast-growing hardwood trees are planted to act as sun shields for shade-loving crops such as coffee and cacao. Lastly, community loan funds and education in basic business skills give farmers the help they need to better support themselves and their families.
Florence attests to the warm welcome that greets SHI workers, adding that, "The hardest part now is being approached by other communities who know about our work, and having to tell them that, because we’re using all our resources, we just don’t have the funding to hire another field trainer." To that end, SHI is practicing a different kind of cultivation: While it has assisted Central American families and schools in planting 1.9 million trees and has helped to save tens of thousands of acres, it is also working as hard to educate neighboring North Americans.
"We want to show people how it’s all connected," Florence explains. "If a farmer grows coffee or cocoa using sustainable agriforest systems, that provides a habitat for the North American songbirds that winter there. And it helps to mitigate global
warming. Buying organic coffee makes a difference. There are all these connections."
Asked by her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, to advise students who want to change the world, she answered, "Never let the fact that something seems impossible stop you from doing it."
Text: Akiko Busch
Nancy Ahlberg Mellor
The dusty town of Coalinga in Calfornia’s Central Valley is four hours from the academic-urban hurly-burly of the University of California at Berkeley. But for the children of Central Valley farm workers, it might as well be a continent away.
When Nancy Ahlberg Mellor followed her husband to a job in Coalinga in 1984 and began teaching middle-school math there, it wasn’t the division problems in the book that caught her attention but the division in the classroom. Children from the immigrant community were deeply divided—from the white, middle-class students and from the chance for a higher education. "It hit me, and it has not stopped hitting me, that these wonderful kids did not have educational opportunities." So she founded Coalinga-Huron-Avenal House—a program named after her school district—that prepares students who have not had educational advantages for college.
When she first arrived, the Quaker teacher with a classroom pet rat named Pepito couldn’t have seemed more different than her charges. But pupils and teacher learned what they had in common when a straight-A Hispanic student named Gilbert was barred from honors English: It was for the college-bound. Mrs. Mellor begged to differ, and ultimately Gilbert went to Yale. She also arranged for another student, Ricardo, to take summer courses at Berkeley. The 14-year-old boy was lonely there, and Nancy could relate—she grew up in rural Michigan, then attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts among worldly, affluent classmates. She persuaded the director of the Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) at Berkeley to offer her students a place with those from more academically advanced schools. That first summer, 17 kids, four parents, and Nancy lived in a fraternity house (thus, the Coalinga-Huron-Avenal "House") at Berkeley. "The experience showed the students how intellect, rather than social station, can be used to get someplace," Nancy recalls. Now, 20 years later and a superintendent in a neighboring school district, she still exudes the robust humor and firmness that distinguishes great teachers.
And each summer, 30-some students spend six weeks at ATDP, experiencing the rigors of an advanced curriculum and the vibrance of Bay Area culture. Of the 300 who have gone through the program, most graduate from college, and many go into helping professions. Like Nancy, they see what needs to be done, do it—and pass it on.
Text: Akiko Busch