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Classic Woman Awards 2009

Written by Rebecca Christian
  • George Lange

    Those who can, do. Those who can do more, volunteer.
    In this, the fifth year of our annual Classic Woman Awards, the recession finds America's volunteers--many of them our readers--doing more. Much more. The quandary of having to serve more people in deeper need with fewer resources merely strengthens their resolve to work harder, smarter, longer, and more creatively. As the Chinese proverb puts it, "Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."

    It is our privilege to introduce to you the six phenomenal classic women we're honoring this year. They are making a tremendous difference in their communities by creating safe and beautiful spaces for the disadvantaged, keeping foster siblings together, providing fashionable clothes and school supplies for needy children, renovating a performing arts hall in a transitional neighborhood and sharing with disabled children the joy of dance, and comforting the grief-stricken.

    Our honorees would be the first to tell you that they accept their awards on behalf of a legion of like-minded women throughout our country who don't care if their contributions are tax-deductible, for what they give is their heart.

    Photography: George Lange

    The Classic Woman Awards are produced by Executive Editor Marsha Raisch.

  • George Lange

    Debra Jenkins
    Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center
    Huntsville, Alabama

    Debra Jenkins admires volunteers who balance home, job, family, and charity, always making it look easy. She is not one of them. "I sweat a lot, and everybody knows it," Debra laughs.

    Her motto? "Just do it." Three years ago when she and husband Alan wanted to give to their community, they didn't meet with city officials or get a focus group together. Instead, they bought a dilapidated old building and completely renovated it into a performing arts center, not knowing at first that it had once been a company store and hub for Huntsville's textile industry.

    Today Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center is again the heart of the neighborhood. Since opening in 2007 after a $3 million renovation, its events have drawn 60,000 people. It is also home to Dance Your Dreams, which Debra started in consultation with physical therapists for children with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities--some with feeding tubes and walkers or wheelchairs, some terminally ill. So far it has served 90, each child paired with a trained teen volunteer. Debra's admiration for the children's parents deepened when she and a friend spent 30 minutes helping a little girl in leg braces change out of her ballet shoes. Brandy Grapperhaus, mother of 6-year-old Amelia, says, "As soon as I pull out her tights, she starts swaying back and forth. She is really excited. That means everything in the world to me."

    Meanwhile, the performing arts center has triggered the neighborhood's reclamation by families, who have formed a homeowners association. Property values have gone up, zoning has changed to single-family, and absentee landlords are vanishing. Debra says, "We hope to leave a lasting legacy so that 30 years from now, people are still coming to Merrimack Hall."

  • George Lange

    Susan Fredman
    Designs for Dignity
    Chicago, Illinois

    Interior designer Susan Fredman believes that "all human beings deserve to live and work within creative environments." She had been long troubled by excess in the design industry of lovely items rejected or discontinued when she was asked to give design help to a center for abuse victims. So she enlisted vendors to help furnish the 11,000-square-foot facility. "Everything was donated," she recalls. "This was a critical a-ha moment."

    Susan, who works full-time at her own design firm, founded Designs for Dignity in 2000. It provides recycled items and pro bono design services to Chicago-area nonprofits serving those who suffer from poverty, violence, addiction, and discrimination. "At nonprofits there is sometimes an idea that you're doing your job better if you're working in ugly surroundings," she chuckles.

    Over the past decade, Designs for Dignity has completed 75 projects, transforming spaces through sweat equity, vendor solicitations, and donations. In 2008, more than $205,000 worth of donated goods--flooring, furniture, and accessories--were re-used on project sites.

    Susan was one of 30 designers on a project helping people move out of government housing into affordable housing of their own. She collaborated with a single mom, a city bus driver who mused that she was thinking of wainscoting. "This taught me about preconceptions," Susan says. "How did she learn about wainscoting? It was so interesting and rewarding to help enhance her life with details she wanted in her home."

  • George Lange

    Bess Wilfong
    Angels' Arms
    St. Louis, Missouri

    Like a scene from a haunting film, etched in Bess Wilfong's memory is opening the door in 1995 for the first foster siblings she and husband Larry took in. A 9-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister stood wide-eyed on her porch with nothing in the world but each other. "They had no toys, no books, no pets, no home--only the clothes on their backs," Bess recalls. That moment inspired Angels' Arms, which she founded in 2000 to provide loving homes for foster children by keeping siblings together until a forever home is found. If it isn't ever found--generally because the children are too old or there are too many of them--they still stay together. A lively quartet of teenagers has been with the same foster parents for six years, living in one of five Angels' Arms homes that collectively accommodate 36 children.

    The youngest is a bubbly 16-year-old. "When new kids come into her home so lost and confused," Bess says, "it's neat to hear her say, 'You're going to like it here.'"

    T here would be no Angels' Arms if the Wilfongs had not experienced the sorrow of infertility. First an adoption effort went painfully awry. Then a child they had fostered and planned to adopt was claimed by his biological father. "I decided we weren't meant to be parents and handed it over to God. That's when coffee started smelling bad to me, and I love coffee! I was pregnant," Bess smiles.

    Today Bess and Larry have two sons, 7 and 12. And that 9-year-old boy who turned up on her doorstep all those years ago? He's a fine young man who is now a police officer.

  • George Lange

    Carol Wells-Reed
    Lions 4 Kids House
    Bonney Lake, Washington

    Carol Wells-Reed identifies with parents she meets at Lions 4 Kids House, a clothing bank whose mission is to "provide the tools children living in poverty need to be nicely attired, clean, and groomed, with the supplies necessary to be successful in school." As a single mom 26 years ago, Carol was living in Illinois and working--more than one job--but still finding it hard to make the rent. "Everything just caught up with me," she recalls. "It was nobody's fault. Life happens, and kids are innocent bystanders."

    But things changed when she moved back home to Washington for a fresh start. Fast-forward two decades during which she became a banker and a community volunteer. When her local Lions Club found out about a need for supplies for kids, Carol enthusiastically collected a mountain of items. But when women working with the homeless came to collect them, their faces fell. "Tell me what you really need," Carol urged them. They replied that because they had nowhere to store such items, what they needed was a clothing bank--in just one school district in an outwardly affluent area, 300 children were homeless and 2,000 were on free and reduced-cost lunch programs.

    In 2006 Carol founded Lions 4 Kids House, which today serves five school districts. It's located in a former drug house that has been transformed into a bright, clean facility. Since the program's inception, it has served 2,000 students and both the grades and school attendance of area at-risk children have improved. The program also brightens smiles. Once at Halloween time, Carol watched a little boy's eyes light up when he spotted a Spiderman costume. When it fit and she told him it was now his, Carol says, "He walked out the door six feet off the ground. Spiderman really does fly."

  • George Lange

    Susan Cox
    For the Love of Christi
    Austin, Texas

    Susan Cox, who calls herself the "Good Grief" woman, has an open heart, a sympathetic ear, and a knack for providing the practical support that people grieving for their loved ones need. "We will never leave you alone," are words she lives by.

    In 1987 Susan and husband Don opened For the Love of Christi (FTLOC) two years after Susan's vivacious 20-year-old daughter, Christi, was killed by a hit-and-run drunken driver as she and friends walked in downtown Austin. "In the beginning, I wanted to die," Susan recalls. "My faith was shattered and my marriage was in trouble. The divorce rate for couples who lose a child is high. Don learned the best thing to do was to hold me and let me cry. Today in his work with grieving men, the first thing he tells them is, 'Throw your John Wayne manual away.'"

    They decided that if they could not recover for themselves, they would do it for Christi. Today at the Christi Center in Austin programs include: support groups; help for people navigating the criminal justice system as they grieve; a telephone support line; retreats; community outreach; annual tree plantings; and holiday remembrance services.

    In 22 years, FTLOC has served 70,000 people with a volunteer force of about 80 a year, many of whom were first served by the organization themselves. A low point for Susan is when a person comes in brokenhearted and a high point is "when that person finds a safe place to shed their tears and learns to love and laugh again." She's there with a world-class hug every step of the way.

  • George Lange

    Peggy LaPorte
    Federal Way, Washington

    Eight years ago, single mom Marlene Davidson was forced to leave a good job to flee an abusive husband. Homeless after arriving in Federal Way, Washington, she was given a fresh start by FUSION (Friends United to Shelter the Indigent, Oppressed & Needy). Easing her transition was the organization's founder, Peggy LaPorte.

    Soft-spoken Peggy--mother, designer, arts supporter, fashion consultant, former Pan Am stewardess, model, and bed and breakfast proprietor--never expected to add founder of a nonprofit to her résumé. But in 1993 when she toured a homeless shelter that was about to close, "it became evident to me that something had to be done," Peggy recalls. "I called my friends, and we organized a fund-raiser around my kitchen table." Soon she founded FUSION to provide transitional housing to women and children until they could acquire the skills and income to move into their own permanent homes.

    FUSION now owns 10 condos, four houses, and an apartment that provide beautifully furnished and well-equipped housing. It also raises funds so that children can participate in camps, athletics, and the arts. So far 85 percent of the 157 women and 225 children it has helped have moved into their own permanent housing.

    One reason for its success is that FUSION contracts to provide case management for each woman, including weekly meetings to assist with job training, child and medical care, financial planning, counseling, and anything else needed for self-sufficiency. A shining example is Marlene Davidson, the single mom who now has her own home, a good job, and daughters thriving in college. "FUSION was my lifeline," she says. Her next goal is to buy a house to give to FUSION, thus passing it on.