It is our privilege to introduce the honorees of our sixth annual Classic Woman Awards. What struck us about these phenomenal women is that they didn't set out to become philanthropists. Instead, life threw down a gauntlet they couldn't ignore.
These champions put body and soul into their causes: pediatric cancer research, prevention of sudden death from hidden heart disease, care for terminally ill children, safe recreational trails, education in Cambodia, and medical care for the uninsured. The bell rang. Here's how they answered the challenge.
Photography: George Lange
The Classic Woman Awards are produced by Executive Editor Marsha Raisch.
Caring For Cambodia
It was supposed to be a Girls' Weekend when Jamie Amelio and friends--then expatriates living in Singapore--took a jaunt to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2003. She expected to be dazzled by the temples. Instead, she was struck by a different sight--a little girl with soulful eyes who asked for a dollar.
Jamie was used to seeing children beg, but this one stopped her heart. "I asked what she needed it for and she said to go to school. I knew my life wouldn't ever be the same. She wasn't asking for money, she was asking for hope."
Jamie jettisoned her itinerary and looked into local schools, where she found a half-dozen children sharing a pencil and a termite-infested desk on a dirt floor. "I started thinking about how many pencils I've thrown away," she remembers.
Within a week she had established Caring For Cambodia, and within a month she had committed funds for an elementary school. The organization now serves 5,800 students from preschool to high school, providing meals, uniforms, bicycles, basic health and hygiene care, and well-equipped classrooms with local teachers trained by CFC. A long-term plan is to mentor parents in nutrition to break the cycle of malnutrition. Jamie recently moved to Austin, Texas, taking along two Cambodian foster daughters in addition to her and husband Bill's four children. She returns often to Cambodia, however, determined to help make every child in the CFC schools a productive member of society--"not by giving a handout but a hand up."
Gretchen Holt Witt
Cookies for Kids' Cancer
Califon, New Jersey
Gretchen Holt Witt is one smart cookie. In February of 2007, when her 2-year-old son, Liam Witt, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer, Gretchen was outraged to learn how little money is spent on research for pediatric cancer. She wanted a cure for Liam and others like him, and she wanted it fast. "The topic of children's cancer is such a monster in the closet that nobody wants to talk about it. I had to come up with something nobody could resist. And who can resist a cookie?" asks Gretchen, who loves to bake. "It's so innocent and pure."
So in 2008, as she juggled her job in public relations with rounds of chemo, surgery, and tests for valiant "Prince Liam"--while trying to keep life normal for him and his little sister, Ella--she masterminded a plan to bake 96,000 cookies over the holidays. She rented a commercial kitchen in New York City, sent out calls for volunteers, and watched in amazement as they trooped in, including an entire shift of firefighters from a nearby station. Cookies for Kids' Cancer has raised $2 million from what has become a 365-day online national project, with bake sales also held all over the country. Start-to-finish steps for hosting a local bake sale--from planning and staffing to downloadable signs, brochures, and press releases--are available on the Web site of the organization.
As for 6-year-old Liam, he loves his namesake "Liam's Lemon Sugar Cookies" and doesn't know he has cancer--just ouchies. "It's our job to worry," Gretchen says of herself and husband Larry. "It's Liam's job to be a little boy."
Lynn Halloran Reecer
Aboite New Trails
Fort Wayne, Indiana
"Do not follow where the path may lead but go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." Cofounder and president of her organization's board, Lynn Halloran Reecer takes that adage literally. The trails she began blazing in 2001 have resulted in raising $12 million to build 16.5 miles of free multiuse trails in Allen County, Indiana.
Several events prompted Lynn's undertaking. First was when her suburban family of five had to pack up their bicycles to ride a scenic trail in downtown Fort Wayne. "It was such a production, we never did it again," Lynn recalls. The second was when her children could not safely ride their bikes to a new playground in her community.
The third was tragic. A friend of Lynn and her husband, Mark, avid cyclist and family man Ron Repka, 40, was hit and killed by an impaired driver while bicycling on a rural county road one fall afternoon. "I knew something was wrong when you couldn't go out and get some exercise or ride your bike without getting killed. It then became a matter of life and death," Lynn recalls.
Instead of creating trails in scenic out-of-the-way places, her organization put them alongside main roads, thus connecting neighborhoods and providing both safe recreation and transportation."Do you know that 42 percent of all trips people take in their car are a walkable two-mile distance?" she asks.
Using skills honed as a saleswoman for Xerox, Lynn orchestrated the cooperation of other local trail networks and then persuaded local governments to take over maintenance of the trails once they were built. "I approached it like a job," she remembers. Today, with connectivity of a whopping 50 miles of networked trails nearly completed, Lynn finally has time to enjoy them herself. Better yet, she says, "It is a great way to show your children the value of giving back to your community."
Mary Beth Schewitz
The Max Schewitz Foundation
Lake Bluff, Illinois
Mary Beth Schewitz would love to be out of a job. As executive director of The Max Schewitz Foundation, her goal is to make EKG testing standard care for young adults in the United States. If that had been the case on September 29, 2005, her son might still be alive.
Max, a healthy, fun-loving 20-year-old, had spent the morning helping his mom move furniture for a garage sale. He then headed to work at a wildlife discovery center. Minutes later, Mary Beth's husband, David, called to say Max had collapsed at work and was en route to the hospital. By the time she arrived there moments later, Max had died of sudden cardiac death.
"When I learned that an EKG test--which is not expensive or invasive--might have identified a hidden cardiac condition in my son, it was too late for Max, but I knew there were other young adults out there who, like him, had no idea they harbored a potentially life-threatening condition," Mary Beth says.
Since 2006, her organization's Screens for Teens has provided free EKGs to 12,200 area high school students. It also supports education about wildlife, a passion of Max's. A highlight for Mary Beth was when an at-risk student at one of the schools told her he wanted to become a cardiologist.
When EKG testing for teens becomes standard, Mary Beth--an equestrian and children's writer--will return to the activities she loves. Until that happens, she will not lose heart.
Philippine Cultural and Civic Center
Foundation Free Medical Clinic
Violeta Singson, M.D., believes that if you want a thing done well, you should do it yourself. Do it she does, as medical director of a free clinic for the uninsured and underinsured, held two Saturdays a month in the offices where she has her regular pediatric practice.
The petite 67-year-old breast cancer survivor's eyes sparkle when she does double duty as an admitting clerk. "Standing in front of the registration desk gives me the chance to interact personally with all the patients who sign in. I find it very satisfying when I can greet them by their full names and later see their glow of joy as they bid good-bye with their bags of free medicines," she says.
She started the clinic in 2000 for patients of all ages after noticing that many parents had stopped bringing their children for well-baby exams because they had no insurance. "This was the time to give back to my community," she says.
In the 10 years since, the clinic's doctors have treated many Filipinos among the 2,200 patients seen in some 5,300 visits (Violeta and husband Juanito immigrated to Wisconsin in 1967 after finishing medical school in the Philippines, where she has returned to conduct medical missions.) Yet the clinic also serves many other nationalities. Recently, Violeta admitted a family of five missionaries who were in town and heard about the clinic. "You're in the right place," she told them.
Although Violeta loves to sleep in on Saturdays, seeing the deep need of people lined up in sub-zero weather with coffee and blankets an hour before the clinic opens makes her sacrifice worthwhile.
George Mark Children's House
San Leandro, California
"That sounds so sad," people murmur when they learn that Kathy Hull cofounded a home for children who are seriously or terminally ill. "Yet when they come to visit, often with trepidation, they are surprised to discover how life-affirming it is," says Kathy, a clinical psychologist who saw a need when working at a hospital that sent children home when nothing more could be done medically. "They see healthy sibs running around, pets in the rooms, and Cassie, our therapy camel, marching right down the hall if a child is too sick to go outside.".
With eight bedrooms for kids, two family suites, an aquatic center, and a sanctuary, George Mark Children's House offers medical care, pain relief, transitional care between hospital and home, respite for parents, end-of-life services, and more. The only freestanding respite and end-of-life facility for children in the country, it opened in 2004 and has provided services free to 300 families. The house is named for Kathy's brothers, George and Mark, who died young. "We allow kids to be kids, and parents to be mom and dad," Kathy says. "It's not so much about holding a vigil at the bedside of a dying child as it is about celebrating life."
As staff psychologist and vice president of the board (not to mention cookie baker and garden weeder), Kathy says, "To be right where you need to be with a skill set that lets you be helpful is the most heartwarming work you can imagine."