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Classic Woman Awards 2011

Meet five incredible women who represent the best in American caring and giving.

Written by Rebecca Christian
  • Colleen Duffley

    With deep thanks and profound admiration, we salute the phenomenal honorees of our seventh annual Classic Woman Awards. Making a better future by giving themselves to the present, they run organizations that provide comfort items to children in homeless shelters; encourage young people’s appreciation of music by giving them new musical instruments; help poor women in Latin America support their families; give girls at risk for abuse self-confidence through athletics; and extend financial, educational, and emotional support to people undergoing bone marrow transplants.

    Our honorees represent dozens of nominees across America who give heart and soul to causes like suicide prevention, animal adoption, and elder care. One is Jean Van Horn Cavanaugh of Great Bend, Kansas—87 years old and still giving. Piling disadvantaged students in her car to go to games, concerts, or the Kansas State Fair, she provides the guidance that helps them prepare for college education. Orlando Garcia credits Jean for helping him graduate from medical school last May: “She listened. She understood my desire to excel. She was always there for me.”

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

    Thank you to our sponsors Century Furniture and Silver Promotion Service for their support of the 2011 Classic Woman Awards.

    Photography: Colleen Duffley

  • Colleen Duffley

    Lynne Patterson
    Pro Mujer
    New York, New York

  • Colleen Duffley

    Liz Ferro
    Girls with Sole 
    Cleveland, Ohio

    Former foster child Liz Ferro is not just a marathoner but a triathlete—and not just a triathlete, but an ironman triathlete (that’s swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles).

    Such perseverance takes the kind of indomitable spirit Liz needed to triumph over her childhood abuse and to channel her pain into helping at-risk adolescent girls through the power of sports.

    Today, Liz lights up a room with energy and enthusiasm, explaining, “I credit athletics with getting me through the dark times and empowering my mind, body, and soul. Because I did not receive any help or support when I was abused as a child, I found an outlet and a healing strength through sports.”

    Since founding Girls with Sole in 2009, she has helped 400 girls in the foster or juvenile justice systems focus on exercise, nutrition, and overall healthy living. The organization offers sports, yoga, dance, and nutritional advice plus free running shoes, jog bras, and fitness journals.

    One 15-year-old came to her first meeting moody and prone to self-harm, determined not to participate. Within a month, she had become a leader, encouraging new girls to give the program a chance. Recently she is being considered for foster home placement, meaning she can leave residential treatment.

    “I’m so proud of my girls for their resiliency and good hearts,” Liz says.

    A personal thrill this past summer was crossing the finish line during a triathlon in Switzerland as the announcer reported she represented Girls With Sole.

    Liz, who believes strength builds with every run, says of her quickly growing program, “I started running with this idea—and I haven’t stopped.

  • Colleen Duffley

    Christina Merrill
    The Bone Marrow Foundation 
    New York, New York

    “At first,” Christina Merrill says, “I couldn't believe it was possible.” As a hospital social worker in the early ’90s at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Mount Sinai Medical Center, she was shocked that in 20th-century America, patients who might have survived with bone marrow transplants were sent home to die because they couldn’t afford it.

    That’s when this soft-spoken woman found her voice as an advocate for her patients—and then there was no silencing her. First she turned to family. Her late father, jazz pianist Joe Bushkin, who had toured with Bing Crosby, called on his musician friends to put on a rousing fund-raiser.

    Since she founded The Bone Marrow Foundation in 1992, it has helped 45,000 children and adult bone marrow/stem cell transplant patients with financial assistance, education, and free support services—everything from help with paperwork that can be overwhelming for the desperately ill to searching for donors and paying for procedures and child care. Impressively, private donations provide 100 percent of these services. It’s heartbreaking to Christina—who does “everything from licking stamps to counseling patients on the phone”—that her organization can only afford to fund about half of those who seek its help. For inspiration, she turns to her patients. “They have unbelievable strength and endurance,” she says.

    Christina particularly treasures this simple, heartfelt letter from a patient: I want to thank you for the $500. The day it came we were the most depressed since all this illness began. We didn’t even have money to put gas in our cars. When I went to the mail and opened that letter, my wife and I couldn’t believe it. I can’t tell you how relieved it made us feel.

  • Colleen Duffley

    Kendra Stitt Robins
    Project Night Night 
    San Francisco, California

    Simply put, Kendra Stitt Robins helps homeless children have sweeter dreams. A former corporate attorney, Kendra “got bitten by the giving bug” while helping clients form nonprofit organizations. When she and her husband took an extensive trip with their then-18-month-old son, Cole, she noticed that he could fall asleep peacefully anywhere and wake up to a great day if he had consistent reminders of home: blanket, book, and stuffed animal.

    On their return home, Kendra took spare comfort items for children out of her own household to a homeless shelter. She was promptly asked if she could provide more. Soon her neighbors pitched in, and Kendra realized, “Victims of domestic violence are lucky to be able to escape with their children, let alone their children’s favorite teddy bears. Adults need a roof over their heads and food on the table to feel safe; children need to know there’s nothing scary under the bed. A book, a blanket, and a stuffed animal make them feel secure.”

    Founded in 2005, Project Night Night has provided those items, tucked in a canvas tote, to 125,000 children through the efforts of some 10,000 volunteers a year in every state.

    Among the ways to get involved are by donating items or money, by hosting events, or by sponsoring a night-night package. Donors may ask that shelters in their own communities be served. Children, especially Girl Scouts, are among the organization’s most zealous volunteers, making no-sew blankets and fund-raising. One troop even made Project Night Night badges for their uniforms!

    Kendra’s heart was warmed by a shelter worker’s story about a little boy who declined an offer to have the tag cut from his blanket—it was the first time he had ever received anything new.

  • Colleen Duffley

    Mary von Kurnatowski
    Tipitina'’s Foundation 
    Instruments A Comin’'
    New Orleans, Louisiana

    “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music,” composer Sergei Rachmaninoff once wrote. For Mary von Kurnatowski, music has accidentally become her life’s work.

    Like many a grand adventure, hers started without a map. She and husband Roland, both real estate entrepreneurs, had never expected to own a jazz club in New Orleans. “That was never on our radar!” Mary recalls. But when they found themselves in possession of N’awlins’ iconic Tipitina’s, they soon felt the beat. Believing that music is both an integral part of culture and a healthy outlet for youth, Mary founded Tipitina’s Foundation in 1999. Since then, its Instruments A Comin’ program has provided new band instruments for more than 50,000 children in the greater New Orleans area. (It also sent money for instruments to school bands in Japan after the tsunami; the grateful kids recorded “When the Saints Come Marching In” as a sort of musical thank-you note that went viral on YouTube.)

    The foundation runs an internship program for young musicians—one alum is Troy Andrews, aka the jazz sensation Trombone Shorty. “He was offered a full scholarship but turned it down to go on tour with Lenny Kravitz,” the effervescent Mary exclaims.

    During Sunday Music Workshops at Tipitina’s, professional musicians come to play and talk about their careers, then invite young people onto the stage to jam with them. “In certain circles of music aficionados, Tipitina’s is a world-class shrine,” says Mary. “Mothers have told me their kids now won’t wear any other shoes than the ones they wore when they walked on that stage.”