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Classic Woman Awards 2014
Meet five amazing women who represent the best in American caring and giving.
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With deep gratitude and profound admiration, we salute the outstanding honorees of our 10th annual Classic Woman Awards. These five women are making a better future by giving themselves to the present. Their causes vary: mentoring at-risk children, organizing an army of teen volunteers, feeding the children of Haiti, using the power of dance to transform lives, and enhancing the lives of adults living with autism. The common denominator is their extraordinary combination of love and compassion, undergirded by pragmatism and unshakable resolve.
Photography: Kathryn Gamble
If you don’t ask, people can’t say yes. Kathy Witkowicki, founder and executive director of Sonoma Valley’s “Stand By Me” Mentoring Alliance, lives by this motto—and it shows. She founded the program in 1996 as a single mother of four and emergency room nurse who saw that many children at her kids’ school were struggling. Since then, her organization and its caring adult mentors have helped more than 1,500 vulnerable children through eight Mentor Centers and many activities. The program’s mentees demonstrate improved self-confidence and academic performance and are more likely to stay in school.
Kathy started Stand By Me as an academic program with a state grant, but, she says, “Within the first year of operation, I quickly realized that academics was only a small part of what these at-risk children needed if they were going to have a chance to be successful. If they stayed in school and did not drop out, if they did not have or create a teen pregnancy, if they did not use drugs or alcohol to numb their pain, and if they did not join a gang so they could feel like they had a family, then we would be doing our job.”
The program now has 450 long-term volunteers matched with 450 disadvantaged youths. Mentors are asked to spend at least one hour a week with their child—many spend more—and to make a long-term commitment, which Kathy hopes will last a lifetime. The program provides support by offering fun classes, group trips to museums, concerts, and sporting events, and involvement in community service projects. The mentor retention rate is high; they stay involved with Stand By Me an average of eight years.
Katy, who was matched with her mentor, Carol, in third grade and is now college-bound, says Carol taught her “it’s OK to ask for help; it’s important to talk about tough situations; that everyone deserves respect; and that people reach out to comfort you because they care.”
Kathy herself was the child of a mother who was sick and a father who worked three jobs, she says, and her neighbor Pat took her on family vacations and helped her with homework after school. Today, Kathy is passing it on, not only through her work with the organization but also by filling her now-empty nest with a mentee of her own, Jackie. Kathy says, “She has become a part of our family, and will be in my life forever.”
Margaret Trost didn’t choose her cause. It chose her. In 1999, she was asked to volunteer in a Haitian orphanage and hospice. It wasn’t a good time. She had been recently widowed, had a young son, and ran a business from her home. Nonetheless, she recalls, “My heart spoke before my mind had time to catch up.” She almost canceled the trip, but something told her not to.
What she saw in Haiti—hunger and poverty “spread out for miles and miles in all directions”—became her life’s mission. Afterward, “I could not go back to my life. The world is a mosaic, and each of us is called by a little piece of it.” In Haiti, she met Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest and passionate advocate for the poor. He dreamed of a food program for children in Ti Plas Kazo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. She wondered: What if I could help his vision become a reality? Within weeks of her return, Margaret raised $5,000. Soon 500 children were being served meals once a week.
Since it was founded in 2000, What If? has helped raise more than $4.5 million to fund more than 6,000 meals each week, nearly 200 scholarships a year, an after-school program, summer camps, and the eventual building of a new school. Margaret tells the story of the Haitians’ plight stateside, working with members of the Haitian community who run the programs. “They know best what they need,” she says. (For some children, the meal they are given is their only one of the day.) “It’s an extraordinary partnership, built on trust, faith, commitment, and a shared vision.”
If the organization’s story was a movie, it would be dramatic. Margaret says, “The programs we support have survived a coup d’état in 2004, Father Jean-Juste’s arrests as a political prisoner for speaking out against the coup, hurricanes, a rice price crisis in 2008, Father Jean-Juste’s death in 2009, an earthquake in 2010, cholera, more hurricanes, and having to build new buildings.”
Margaret had no experience in international relations, nonprofit development, or public health when she set out to feed Haiti’s children. She was simply a mother who saw a desperate, unmet need—and took to heart a Haitian proverb: “Little by little, we will arrive.”
St. Louis, Missouri
Only 22, Simone Bernstein is our youngest-ever Classic Woman Awards honoree—and one of our most unstoppable. When her father was deployed overseas with the military in 2003, she was 12. Inspired by his service and the community’s outpouring of support for her family (her working mom had three children 12 and younger), she wanted to give back. Nine organizations rejected her application to volunteer because she was too young. So Simone set up a lemonade stand with five sliced lemons, a brightly colored poster, and a glass jug of lemonade. “I collected money to send cards and care packages to deployed soldiers,” she recalls. “While my total sales of $125 did not make a tremendous impact, it consoled me to realize that even a young person could offer comfort to soldiers.”
The rejection experience nagged at her, so in 2009 she and younger brother Jake co-founded VolunTEEN, a regional, paperless, youth-run, all-volunteer, online organization. The now-national clearinghouse has since connected 78,500 young people with volunteer opportunities. “Teens don’t have money,” Simone notes, “but they do have time.” The first week, she and her brother fielded 1,000 applications. They developed the only database of its kind, searchable by volunteer opportunities, interests, location, and age restrictions. VolunTEEN Nation has funded more than 500 grants and leads service projects—holding inner-city sports clinics for disadvantaged and special-needs youths, helping seniors acquire technical skills, and working on community projects. “You can start a park cleanup project with $5,” Simone notes. “All you need is bags and gloves.”
When Simone was 17, she was invited to a meeting of civic-minded people, where she was asked if she was the child of an attendee. That was a turning point. “I realized that many people fail to understand that youth can make a difference. The millennial generation is skilled and driven, and they are not afraid to adapt to new scenarios. They have a great familiarity with communication and digital technologies, which are strengthening relationships and allowing communities to grow and develop.”
Today, Simone is a Fulbright scholar at the University of Toronto who plans to take VolunTEEN Nation worldwide next year. She will also begin medical studies at George Washington University in 2015. Convinced that having her organization run for youth and by youth is key to its success, she vows to bow out in three years: “I want it always to be run by someone younger than 25.” We can’t wait to see what she does next!
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I love movement, I love people, and I love putting the two together,” Shira Greenberg says of her arduous but joyful work as artistic director of Keshet Dance Company, which she founded in 1996. “Keshet” is the Hebrew word for rainbow. Shira—who had just returned from Israel when she founded the company—chose the name because it “resonated with bringing pieces and colors of my life together to make something beautiful.”
Keshet, which recently opened its permanent home, the Keshet Center for the Arts, unites professional dancers with programs, institutions, and people throughout Albuquerque to change lives. Participants in the programs include troubled teens, wheelchair users, and the homeless. “Movement is our common language,” Shira says. A popular annual event is “Nutcracker on the Rocks,” a rock version of a holiday classic.
Keshet Dance Company, which has touched more than 100,000 lives and relies on 300 volunteers annually, was honored in 2009 at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. It was recognized for its M3 program with incarcerated juveniles (Movement + Mentorship = Metamorphosis) and its PID program (Physically Integrated Dance). In PID, Shira explains, “All bodies dance together—some from wheelchairs, some with walkers, some with no sight or hearing, but all with joy and passion.”
One dancer is Tonya, born with cerebral palsy, who uses a wheelchair but feels “free and beautiful” when onstage dancing. Thanks to Keshet, she now teaches dance and has started a program, Every Ability Plays, to make playgrounds accessible for all children—with and without disabilities.
Keshet partners with the local Title I Homeless Project to bring children in from hotels, shelters, and schools to improve self-esteem through dance. “It also gives them an opportunity just to be kids,” Shira says. The company woos middle-schoolers with breakdancing and hip-hop, and helps high school students rely on yoga for quiet and grounding.
Shira’s aha! moment came on a long road trip in her early 20s, when she pondered her life’s work. It had to include her renewed passion for dance (she had aspired to be a dancer as a young girl but had abandoned that dream due to an injury), her call to service, and her love of people. “I decided to make my own company.” Eighteen years later, she says, “There is nothing else in the world I would rather do.”
Linda J. Walder
Ridgewood, New Jersey
From Linda J. Walder’s biggest fear and deepest grief comes her greatest achievement. As the mother of a son, Daniel Jordan Fiddle, who was born into the first generation of children widely diagnosed with autism, she worried greatly about his future. There were few—if any—programs that would be available to him as an adult. So when he died unexpectedly in 2000 at age 9, she channeled her sorrow into an organization (formally launched in 2002) that helps adults living with autism. It funds and develops practical, deeply needed programs—such as peer support groups for autistic adults 50 and older and respite for families—that can be adapted nationwide.
Highlights of Linda’s work include seeing adults with autism “create art, learn to train the family dog, get job training, live and work on a farmstead, learn life skills through horseback riding, attend camping weekends, attend college with more confidence—and the list goes on.”
Trained as an attorney, Linda has been dubbed a “social entrepreneur” because she sees needs and finds collaborative and creative ways to fill them. An example is that of Paul, a 37-year-old man living with autism who loved theater but didn’t fit into his local theater scene. Linda helped develop a program where a diverse mix of adults occupying various places on the autism spectrum worked on creating scenes, improvising, and writing, culminating in a heartwarming performance. Paul told her afterward that the experience changed his life by giving him a place to express himself and share his dreams.
Linda—who is grateful for donations and contributions of any size—quotes Mother Teresa: “Every drop of rain matters to the ocean.” Her all-volunteer foundation has raised more than $1.5 million—100% of which goes toward programs, resource development, and advocacy efforts. The latest? Two programs established this year. The first is The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Adult Autism Research Fund at Yale, the first research fund in the U.S. dedicated solely to adults with autism. The second is The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Programs at the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, geared toward developing model programs.
Linda herself is a model of focus and optimism. “I don’t believe in giving up. I believe in getting up.” It’s apt, then, that her advice to anyone beginning a nonprofit is this: “Determine your vision and mission, and stick to it.”