Local women honored for their charitable ‘spirit’

Ten of the town’s most altruistic women were honored last week for the time and effort they have spent on improving the community, at the YWCA’s 2012 Spirit of Greenwich Awards ceremony.

Established in 1994, the awards honor women volunteers whose dedication and accomplishments have significantly enriched the lives of their fellow residents. The ceremony took place at the Greenwich Country Club and honored Kathy Barba, Patricia Burns, Suzanne Frank, Elizabeth Ellen Champlin, Robbie Kestnbaum, Rachel McAree, Sally Michler, Barbara Netter, Nancy Margolis Risman and Alease Fisher Tallamn.

The Spirit of Greenwich Awards represents the YWCA’s mission to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, explained Catherine Seasonwein, chair of the YWCA’s board of directors.

“Tonight we are recognizing 10 women for their generous gifts of time, talent and energy to the many organizations that make Greenwich such a very special place to live,” she said.

The criteria for earning a Spirit Award, she added, include “service with a broad range of organizations, emphasis on breadth and depth of service” and the impact made on the community, and more than 70 local organizations benefited from the combined effort of this year’s honorees.

In attendance at the ceremony, along with honorees’ loved ones and many past award recipients, were State Rep. Livvy Floren (R-149) and State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36), who briefly addressed the 10 women being honored.

“I know the incredible work that all of you do and it really is making a big difference both within this community. I know some of you work beyond the borders of this community and I can tell you from my perspective, the government has not been doing what it has set out to do to the degree that it wants to do for people and therefore you’re filling in the void and you’re picking up the slack there,” Mr. Frantz said.

In recognition of their work, the honorees received citations from Mr. Frantz, Gov. Dannel Malloy, Attorney General George Jepsen, Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4) and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Ms. Barba, was introduced by event co-chair Courtney Combe, who noted her kindness and ability to recognize when others need a hug or “pat on the back.” Ms. Combe also discussed Ms. Barba’s work with Pathways Inc., a mental health facility where she has exercised “provocative, decisive leadership” as president of the organization.

Ms. Barba told fellow honorees that she was “humbled” to be amongst them. And although several organizations benefit from her volunteerism, she focused on describing her work with Pathways, the organization she spends the majority of her “time, energy and passion” on, which currently serves more than 100 Greenwich residents.

Ms. Michler was honored for creating Heart Care International, a foundation that brings a team of doctors and nurses to developing countries to teach lifesaving heart operations on children who have no alternative care. This is a joint effort for her and her husband, Robert, a heart surgeon.

“Sally is not a doctor. She is an organizer, a quiet persuader. She has compassion not only for the patient but for the parents as well who are facing the hardest task of their lives,” Ms. Combe explained.

Ms. Michler told attendees that the organization had thus far saved the lives of more than 2,000 children and said she was grateful to be a volunteer in Greenwich.

“What is so unique about our town is that when you stay home to raise children, you can volunteer to work with exceptionally bright and well-educated women,” she said, adding that she hopes her daughters will follow in her footsteps to “make a difference in their own special way.”

Ms. Combe described Ms. Kestnbaum as a woman who is “not your average volunteer” and who “brings drama and fun to her work,” which is not a surprise given her background in acting. Ms. Kestnbaum called Greenwich a “community where every aspect of the life cycle is addressed by many non-profit and religious organizations,” including the YWCA and the United Way, the two groups to which she has dedicated most of her time.

Ms. Burns was introduced by event co-chair Lynne Wheat and recognized for her volunteer work with the Junior League, Friends of Nathaniel Witherell, Red Cross, United Way and Breast Cancer Alliance. Ms. Wheat said Ms. Burns was someone whose “kind heart and inability to say no to a good cause is her most valuable asset.”

Event co-chair Sabrina Forsythe introduced honoree Suzanne Frank, who began volunteering at a young age and has since dedicated much time to the town’s Historical Society as well as the YWCA. Ms. Forsythe said felt she had to use a Barbara Bush quote, Ms. Frank’s favorite, to describe the honoree: “Volunteer yourself and you will get back so much more.”

Tracy Holton, another Spirit of Greenwich co-chair, spoke about honoree Ellen Champlin, who could not attend the event, but has been an “avid patron” of Audubon Connecticut and has also volunteered for the Bruce Museum, Riverside School, Eastern Middle School and Christ Church.

Award recipient Rachel McAree, who began volunteering as a little girl with her grandmother for Meals on Wheels, was recognized by Ms. Forsythe as a “driving force” in the Junior League.

Ms. McAree spoke of the importance of exposing children to volunteerism, saying the community needs to demonstrate to them that “we are just one piece of a puzzle and it’s our responsibility to help give back and to improve our community and help our fellow neighbors.”

Honoree Barbara Netter was commended for her work with many organizations, including the School of American Ballet, Connecticut Ballet, Bruce Museum, Greenwich Symphony and Den for Grieving Kids of Family Centers, where she was a volunteer therapist.

She was also recognized for the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (AGCT), which she founded with her late husband Edward. The foundation is the only public charity in the country dedicated to exclusively funding cell and cancer gene therapy research and for which 100% of funds go directly to research.

Ms. Netter said she has always taken to heart the saying “to save one life is as though to save the world,” and said her volunteer work has kept her fulfilled and given back to her more than she could have expected.

Nancy Risman, an honoree who serves as the secretary for the Red Ribbon Foundation, a local organization that supports the fight against AIDS by awarding grants for prevention education, was recognized for her “how can I help” attitude with several organizations.

Ms. Risman spoke of the “enormous returns” she has received from her volunteer efforts and the gratitude she has for having formed many “valued friendships” as result of a common interest in volunteerism through organizations such as the Bruce Museum and Greenwich Hospital.

Alease Fisher Tallman, the final recipient of the evening, was recognized for helping 49 children receive cleft palate repairs through proceeds donated by her fashion design firm.

Ms. Fisher Tallman explained that charity began at home for her thanks to her parents who taught her to be a good citizen of the community “by being good examples themselves.”

She also spoke of the value of gratitude, saying, “The best way to repay kindness is by being kind.”

Many of the night’s honorees spoke of their appreciation for the town because it is one of very few that formally recognizes the community’s volunteers, but the theme of each woman’s message was clear — the rewards of volunteerism are far greater than the effort it requires.

Perhaps Ms. Kestnbaum said it best: “Wherever your volunteer heart takes you, you are always learning from others and making life-long friends whose creativity, energy and commitment continue to inspire.”

 

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