You are here
Classic Woman Awards 2015
Meet five amazing women who represent the best in American caring and giving.
- « prev
- next »
- 1 of 7
Life-changing. That sums up the recipients of our 11th annual Classic Woman Awards. Each was confronted with someone else’s need, and each decided to commit a huge piece of her own life to fill it. Meet these incredible women who are giving it their all—hope to cancer patients, meaningful employment opportunities to people with disabilities, and a chance at a better future to kids in their neighborhood and on the other side of the world.
Photography: Kathryn Gamble
Sometimes life gives you flying monkeys. But you don’t have to let them knock you off your yellow brick road.
Valerie Jensen had her share of can-I-just-hide-under-the-bed encounters before she was even Dorothy’s age. The first came right after the birth of her younger sister Hope in 1979. “Because Hope has Down syndrome, the doctors told my parents to leave her at the hospital,” Valerie says. “My parents said absolutely not.” They made Hope a part of the family from Day One. The rest of society, however, did not.
“I was very bitter toward everyone who excluded people with disabilities,” Valerie says. “I felt fire when people used the word retard.”
She didn’t just sit around and smolder, though. First, Valerie took the helm at Sphere, a Ridgefield, Connecticut, nonprofit that provides opportunity for disabled people, especially through the performing arts. It helped. But not enough. “They needed more challenge,” Valerie says. “What they really needed was full-time employment.”
The problem, though, is this: Employers aren’t clamoring to hire the disabled. More than 68 percent of people without disabilities participate in the labor force, compared with 17 percent of people with disabilities. “I knew there needed to be a business with a wide range of job types for all abilities,” Valerie says.
The solution to providing those jobs came one day as she was stopped at a red light in the heart of historic Ridgefield. She glanced at the town’s former movie theater, which was about to be torn down. “Lightning struck,” she says. “There it is. The answer.” Valerie set about raising the nearly $30 million needed to refurbish the old building and turn it into a state-of-the-art movie house, the Prospector Theater, a nonprofit that would provide educational and employment opportunities for adults with disabilities.
“It so needed to get built that it was almost like it built itself,” Valerie says. Donors stepped up to pay for the building. Job applications poured in. And on opening night, in November 2014, Valerie and the gang rolled out the pink carpet (it’s her “passion color”—thus the pink hair), ushers put on their pink top hats, and the show was on.
“People were amazed,” Valerie says. “They’re saying, ‘The door was opened for me. Someone greeted me.’ ” And even better than the star treatment, Valerie says, those audience members interacted with people with disabilities—“people who are usually invisible, people who are usually excluded from the workforce.”
And those people shattered expectations. “I heard audience members saying, ‘I never thought this person could do this,’ ” Valerie says. “Family members were in tears. All at once someone believed in the person they love.”
The really amazing thing is this now happens every day at the Prospector. It’s kind of like Valerie’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. “I love the idea of people watching the movie back in 1939 and seeing the screen come alive in Technicolor,” she says. “My hope is that when people walk into the Prospector Theater today, they have the same experience when they see our integrated workforce. Seeing them and the theater flourish is more than I ever dreamed—it’s magical.”
The day she found a lump in her breast, Maimah Karmo says, “I felt the world turn a couple of shades darker. I thought, Are you kidding me? ” She was only 31. After fleeing war-torn Liberia at age 15 with just a suitcase, Maimah had just reached solid ground—she had a good job, some money, a house. But now this.
She went to one doctor, then others. “They said I was too young to have breast cancer,” Maimah says. “I knew they were wrong. I knew my body didn’t feel right.”
When a biopsy was finally done, the news was grim: Maimah did have breast cancer—and it was aggressive. She went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. “I watched everything I had built over the past 16 years fall apart,” she says. “I lost faith in God. I lost faith in everything.”
For three months, she became more and more depressed, tired, and hopeless. “One day I fell to my knees in the shower. I was bald, skinny, exhausted from the treatment. I just cried and cried and cried,” Maimah says. “That night, I said to God: Why is this happening? Please show yourself to me.”
The next morning she felt a new sense of purpose—to make people realize that women under age 40 can get breast cancer, and to help young women going through that ordeal. She began telling her story, reaching out to other cancer patients, and raising money to help them. In 2007, her grassroots efforts grew into the Tigerlily Foundation, named after a flower that loses its petals then blooms again. The nonprofit, which now boasts 300 volunteers, educates young women around the world about breast health, supports them through treatment and recovery, and empowers them to be their own best advocates.
Learning programs include peer education, live Twitter chats moderated by the Tigerlily Foundation, webinars where doctors and survivors can connect, and Pink Power Alerts—weekly texts that provide information on healthy living. The foundation also works with health care providers to help them incorporate information about young women’s breast health into their practices.
Support efforts include Hope Bags for young women diagnosed with breast cancer and financial assistance to patients and their families. Additionally, empowerment programs promote fitness and help young survivors navigate life after breast cancer.
Maimah is a tireless advocate, taking on various speaking engagements and lobbying on Capitol Hill for women’s health initiatives. “I love supporting these women,” she says. “The experience of breast cancer taught me to be a fearless warrior. It gave me the gift of my ‘soul purpose.’ I now appreciate every moment of life.”
Warwick, New York
Standing alongside a broken-down Land Rover in the bush of Kenya, Jane Newman felt fear creeping up her spine. It was 1999, and Jane was a New York advertising executive who had come to Africa on a lark. She was riding with a friend who was temporarily working in Nairobi and wanted to get his car to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“We were not supposed to be out there—we were told it was too dangerous,” Jane says. “The road was unbelievably bad. We hadn’t seen anyone for two hours. Then an entire wheel comes off the Land Rover. We’re stranded out in the bush. I thought, This is it.”
Instead of being the end, though, it turned out to be the beginning—of an amazing global friendship. “Two kids walk up to us, then a mother, then more kids, and finally an elder,” Jane says. “They didn’t speak English, but we figured out that they were telling us that we were only one kilometer from their village. So we limped on in.”
Later, Jane’s friend was able to hitch a ride on a passing truck to get parts while she waited in the village. “I was queen for a day—actually for the two days until the Land Rover was fixed,” Jane says.
She was so touched by the Samburu people’s kindness that when she retired and planned a trip to Africa in 2001, she decided to visit them again. As her stay stretched to four weeks, she learned how the nomadic Samburu lifestyle and poverty prevented most kids from attending school. “Their one wish was that more children get an education,” Jane says. “So I thought I’d help.” She and some friends pooled their cash, and in 2002, the first “mobile preschool” class was held under an acacia tree—and The Thorn Tree Project was born.
Previously, there were no preschools for nomadic children. Today there are 15 preschools that move with the Samburu people. Then, there were only 130 children attending grade school. Now there are 1,500. Then, no one graduated from high school, technical school, or college. Now 160 students are in the Thorn Tree scholarship program, and 32 students who were the charity’s first kindergartners have earned degrees. Some are getting jobs and sending money home. Others have returned to work as nurses and teachers.
“The community is delighted. It’s been so successful,” Jane says. “But it’s a huge responsibility. We’re doing something that affects their culture. We have to get it right.”
That means Jane, whose plan for retirement had been “Do nothing the rest of my life,” is working seven days a week for the charity, half the time in New York and half in Kenya. She’s OK with that, though. “We’re talking about people’s lives,” she says. “The children are adorable and want to learn. I love them so much.”
Mary K. Hoodhood
Grand Rapids, Michigan
When a little girl from your neighborhood school is found digging through the garbage for food to take home for supper, the problem of childhood hunger in America gets real—really fast.
“I had to do something,” Mary K. Hoodhood says.
She met with the principal at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, elementary school—and got some more bad news: Melony, the girl digging in the trash, wasn’t alone. Dozens of her schoolmates also could not count on having an evening meal.
Mary K. immediately went to the head of the local soup kitchen where she worked and pitched a plan for a kids’ sack supper program. “They said no. There was no money. They couldn’t support it,” Mary K. says. “But I couldn’t sleep thinking about those hungry kids.”
She went back the next day. “Just let me try it,” she insisted. “I know I can raise the money.”
They did, and during Thanksgiving week of 2001, Mary K. and her little band of quickly recruited volunteers sent 125 kids at Straight Elementary home with food for supper. “By the end of the year, we were feeding 180 kids,” Mary K. says. She left the soup kitchen to devote all her time to growing the sack supper program.
Grow it she did. Kids’ Food Basket, the state’s largest childhood anti-hunger program, now provides an evening meal to 7,000 kids from more than 35 schools in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland, Michigan. Since its inception, about one million sack suppers have been served.
“So my lesson is don’t ever take no for an answer when it can make a difference in someone’s life,” Mary K. says
It’s hard to say no to Mary K. This dynamo has been all about helping others since she was a kid. Her first good deed was going with her dad to deliver sleds to girls at a reformatory at Christmastime. As an adult, she spent more than 20 years with God’s Kitchen. And since 1980, she has done it all from a wheelchair. Mary K. sustained neck and spinal cord injuries in a car crash that left her a quadriplegic at age 27. “After I was injured, I had a lot of time to think,” she says. “I decided that I would not let my disability deter me or define me.”
A month after she was released from the hospital, she was volunteering—and convincing others to help too. She’s recruited an army of volunteers—250 community members give of their time each day to raise funds, pack meals, and deliver suppers to pickup points.
“The thing that makes me most proud is that 33 percent of the work is done by people under the age of 18. And 78 percent of kids at the schools we serve have had a chance to volunteer,” she says. “They’re helping themselves and their community.”
They’re also following the example of a leader who isn’t about to just lament the world’s problems. “This isn’t rocket science,” Mary K. says. “We can talk about the problem of childhood hunger or we can make a sandwich and feed a kid.”
Changing the world is hard. And that used to be really frustrating for Michele Stumpe. “I didn’t have a ton of money. I had a career. I had a family. I had all these obligations that I couldn’t walk away from,” Michele says. “I felt helpless.”
Then she got a change in perspective, courtesy of Dad. “He told me, ‘Honey, quit hoping to change the world and focus on changing one person’s life,’ ” Michele says. “Maybe I was only throwing one pebble, but the ripple effect from that pebble can create a tidal wave of impact.”
Michele’s tsunami of change is a charity she founded in 2009 called Children of Conservation, which both educates African children and helps wildlife. Animals have always been her soft spot. An opportunity to help at the zoo first drew her to volunteer work when she was just 13. As she gave of her time, she also gave her heart—to the great apes.
Through the years, that love hasn’t waned. Michele and husband Kerry spent their honeymoon volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Cameroon, a trip they repeated again and again. “At first it was all about the animals,” Michele says. “Then we got to know the workers at the sanctuary. We wondered why their kids weren’t in school. We learned that there’s no public education. It would take a year’s salary for a sanctuary worker to send a child to private school—$300 to $500. They couldn’t afford it. But Kerry and I could.”
The Stumpes paid for three kids to go to school that year. Now, through Children of Conservation, about 120 kids in five African countries are going to school. All of them will have their education paid for through high school and college as long as they continue to get good grades and their parents continue to work for wildlife.
“The kids are my heroes,” Michele says. “Kids like Michael Tangue, who was part of the first group we sent to school. He was just a little boy who volunteered at the sanctuary; now he’s at university studying accounting and is in the top 10 percent of his class.”
Children of Conservation is so important to Michael that he traveled four hours to be at the sanctuary for the scholarship announcements this year. “He gave a speech to the kids about responsibility,” Michele says. “About how people on the other side of the world who don’t know them believe in them, and how they have an obligation to study and an obligation to promote the value of conservation.”
Working with animals, you see, used to be looked down on in Cameroon. “Cleaning up gorilla poop was not considered a noble profession,” Michele says. “But now they see kids going to school because their fathers are animal keepers. And no one goes to school unless their father has a noble profession. We’re changing the social norms in regard to conservation.”
By helping animals, Michele is also helping people. “It’s so empowering,” she says. “All I’ve done is paid $300 for this kid to go to school, but his life is changed, his parents’ lives are changed, the whole village is changed. And this is pretty doable for almost anyone, no matter how busy they are. We all can make an impact. We all can change one person’s world.”