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Classic Woman Awards 2008

Written by Rebecca Christian
  • Michael Weschler

    35yaoxiao salutes the modern woman who believes that while charity begins at home, it doesn’t end there. No matter how elegant her blouse, she is willing to roll up her sleeves and help.

    This marks the fourth year that we have had the pleasure of introducing you to the five national recipients of our annual 35yaoxiao Classic Woman Awards. Every year we wonder how the next year’s crop can possibly equal the extraordinary nominees who have gone before. And every year we are humbled and impressed by the stories you send to us about women—from a volunteer who went from bagging groceries on Thursdays to directing a community food bank to the founder of an ambitious global center for education and collaboration in science and technology.

    Once more it was almost impossible to choose. What struck us most about the five women we ultimately selected was their refusal to see a problem and remain indifferent. Forged by the fire, each one of them suffered from problems that prompted them to seek solutions: separation from loved ones, illness, troubled children, suicide, the loss of a beloved neighborhood to crime. On the following pages you will meet our five recipients, who will be honored at a ceremony in New York City on November 10. We think you will be as impressed as we are with their stories, their energy, their insights, their humanity, and their service. Like us, we think you’re going to be touched by the ideals they share: Love is not onlysomething you feel, but something you do. 

    Photography: Michael Weschler
    Produced by Marsha Raisch and Jo Ann McVicker

  • Michael Weschler

    Sharon Adams
    Walnut Way Conservation Corp.
    Milwaukee, Wisconsin

    When Sharon Adams was growing up in Milwaukee’s Walnut Way, a neighborhood of sturdy old homes sheltered by canopies of trees, gardens thrived as well as extended families. There was connectedness and what Sharon calls a sense of "greening."

    As a young idealist in 1968, her schooling and career pointed her east, for a time, to Detroit. There, she says, "I saw the contrast between communities that were barren and torn apart by race riots and the very affluent communities. That was a defining moment for me; I learned to be a bridge." Eventually she took what she had learned -- "a peaceful but confident and spirit-driven way of finding equality" -- to a job directing the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York. When she moved back to Milwaukee in 1997, however, the years had not been kind to her old neighborhood. Prostitution, gangs, and drug activity resulted in ugly, sometimes fatal scenarios against a backdrop of trash-filled lots and boarded-up houses. Fear ruled the streets like an unseen emperor.

    In 1998, Sharon, husband Larry, and others founded Walnut Way, turning the neighborhood from one that was preyed on to one that was prayed for -- and fought for. They were guided by the example of a gentle neighbor, Emma James, who built a new home in the then-dangerous old neighborhood and refused to move -- literally -- when she was shot at in the street. Sharon says in a tone of wonder, "She stood her ground!" So has Walnut Way. Today it serves more than 1,000 people by facilitating the rehab of old houses and building new ones (100 so far); converting a drug house into the Walnut Way Neighborhood Center; and cultivating gardens. Walnut Way has also established a nursery of trees to extend the urban canopy that once sheltered a little girl with big ideals, ideals that have taken root where she, too, stands her ground.

  • Michael Weschler

    Becky Douglas
    Rising Star Outreach
    Norcross, Georgia

    A mystery of life is that every beginning foretells an ending. For Becky Douglas, a tragic ending -- her beloved daughter Amber’s death by suicide at age 24 -- was the beginning of a mission that would take this housewife and mother of nine not only to the ends of the earth but also into uncharted territory in her own heart.

    While going through Amber’s things after her death in 2000, Becky discovered that this lifelong champion of the underdog had been sending money to an orphanage in India. Becky asked that memorials go to the orphanage, and the response was so generous she was invited to join its board. When she traveled to India for the first time in 2001, droves of leprosy-affected beggars -- some without limbs or eyes -- swarmed her cab.

    "Their suffering was so palpable it hurt to look at them," Becky recalls. On a 120-degree day, her cab was at a stoplight when a woman who had no legs crawled up. The driver directed Becky to tell her to move. She remembers, "I rolled the window down and our eyes connected. She asked me to help her children. I realized she was a mom like me. When I came home, I was haunted by that mother’s eyes. I was just one person -- not a doctor, not someone who had ever run an organization -- but I could do something. I invited three friends to meet at my kitchen table."

    Thus began Rising Star, which now works with 44 colonies of leprosy-affected Indians and attracts passionate volunteers. It opened and operates a school and two homes for children, easing them into the mainstream through education. It also operates a traveling medical clinic and a micro-loan program so adults can forsake begging to start their own businesses. (One woman gained independence via a five-dollar iron.) What about that mother without whom Becky -- who has now traveled to India 26 times -- might have forgotten a problem that seemed too big to tackle? "I look for her every time I go back."

  • Michael Weschler

    Betty J. Mohlenbrock
    United Through Reading  
    San Diego, California

    When Betty J. Mohlenbrock was 3, her father left to serve in the Navy in World War II, a proud but difficult time for her family. History repeated itself in the Vietnam era when she was a young wife and mother, and her husband, a flight surgeon for the Navy, was gone so long that their 2-year-old daughter didn’t recognize him on his return.

    Those experiences led Betty, a reading specialist from a long line of teachers, to found United Through Reading in 1989. Today its simple but powerful mission is: Film parents on duty for the military reading books to their children, and send DVDs home so the kids can read along with their own copy of the book, thus fostering both familial bonds and essential reading skills. Many young children talk back to the on-screen image and take the DVDs to bed with them; one DVD prompted a communication breakthrough with an autistic son. Because children thrive on repetition, seeing and hearing their parents over and over helps ease the pain of separation.

    "I believe very strongly that reading, and particularly reading together, is the glue of our culture, starting in the family," Betty says. "It establishes the joy of reading in children’s hearts." The organization (with First Lady Laura Bush as honorary chair of its Military Program) has served 460,000, expanding to children with parents in prison and to children whose grandparents live far away. In one instance, a mother who would not permit between her son and his incarcerated father relented because of the program. Today the father and son are rebuilding a relationship through DVDs and phone calls.

    United Through Reading’s goal is to expand nationally into all armed service branches, says Betty, whose slogan is "Onward and Upward!" What does this visionary do in her down time? Read the Harry Potter and Narnia books to her grandchildren, of course.

  • Michael Weschler

    Beverly Circone
    Kids n Kamp
    Columbus, Ohio

    Beverly Circone is the first person people call when they have good news, and also the first person they call when they have bad news, say those who benefit from Kids ’n Kamp, the organization that she founded in 1982 to support the families of children with cancer.

    For Beverly, circumstances conspired in a way that did not seem coincidental when she and her husband, Nick -- who was then recuperating from cancer he was not expected to survive -- watched  the CBS show Sunday Morning, in which Charles Kuralt visited a camp for children with cancer. "Nick and I knew immediately this was what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives."

    Twenty-six years after their first weekend summer camp, Nick is thriving -- and so is Kids ’n Kamp. With 200 volunteers (most are parents of sick children), it serves 370 families and has grown to include tutoring for children, quilting weekends for moms, respite weekends for parents, mom’s and dad’s dinners out, counseling, family activities, a partnership with a children’s hospital, scholarships, support for bereaved families, and financial help for families who are torn between paying for treatments or utility bills. "We are the first organization to focus on the families of children with cancer," Beverly says proudly, adding that siblings, particularly, need support because they can feel "lonely, afraid, neglected, and even guilty, because Mom and Dad must focus so intently on the patient-child." Brothers and sisters are welcome at family activities and at camp -- the one place, a child confided to Beverly, where they are treated as specially as their sick sibs.

    These days the ever-practical, ever-compassionate Beverly is learning Spanish in order to reach out to Hispanic people in her community. But in any language, her most eloquent volunteers are former child cancer patients who are now grown up: All they have to say to families with a sick child is, "Here I am."

  • Michael Weschler

    Marta Schneider
    Children’s Home Society of Florida  
    Vero Beach, Florida

    "Happy birthday! You’re 18, and now you’re homeless." That’s the bleak message that children in Florida who "age out" of the foster care system receive, says Marta Schneider of Vero Beach, who for 10 years has served on the Indian River Advisory Board of Florida’s Children’s Home Society (CHS), headquartered in Winter Park.

    "Many of these children have been abused or neglected," she says, "have one or both parents in jail or dead, or don’t know where their parents are. In many cases, they have been in and out of foster homes, have understandably chosen wrong paths, and don’t have GEDs, let alone high school diplomas. Their chances of making it on their own are one in a million, if that. Growing up is hard enough, even if you have two caring parents."

    Marta knows about that firsthand. She and her husband had challenges raising their own three children, all of whom had serious problems but are now thriving adults. That experience drew her to CHS, where she was instrumental in opening a Girls’ Group Home for girls ages 12 to 18 who have fallen through the cracks of the foster care and adoption systems. Marta also used her interior design skills to guide the decorating and furnishing of its bedrooms with fun, youthful themes like Jungle Boogie and Magical Mermaid.

    Now she’s cajoling donors for $5 million to establsh a transitional home for young adults 18 - 23. (She’s already halfway there!) Residents will be required to go to school, work, participate in a mentoring program, and pay graduated rent. "I don’t really like asking people for money," she admits. But when she sees a former girls’ home resident graduate and plan a career in sports therapy for overweight teens, it’s worth the effort. "If we care about where our country is going," Marta says determinedly, "we have to break this cycle."