Nancy Coleman-Zacharias Age: 75 Hometown: DeSoto, Texas Married with one daughter and two grandchildren
At first the signs were subtle. Nancy noticed that Claude, her husband of 44 years, couldn’t sign his name. He forgot certain words. Then, suddenly, his symptoms became unmistakable. He inexplicably bought two cell phones. A doting family man, he wouldn’t play with their grandson. In the spring of 1997, doctors confirmed that the 70-year-old had Alzheimer’s. “It happened so fast that it floored me,” says Nancy. “Overnight the disease took over his brain.”
Soon Claude couldn’t comb his hair or brush his teeth. Nancy became his caregiver, and she gave up her daily walks, trips to the library, and even Sunday church services to stay with him. “I felt so alone,” she says. In 1999 Nancy called the Dallas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association (AA), a national nonprofit that finances research into the disease and provides support for families struggling with it. There Nancy found a group with whom she could share her feelings. “The others knew what was happening in my life,” says Nancy. “And they stood by me when I needed it most.”
Claude passed away in 2000, but Nancy’s dedication to AA didn’t wane. She raised funds and spoke about her experience at health fairs and nursing homes. “I’m a very private person,” she says, “but I wanted to get the word out about the way Alzheimer’s impacts a family.”
In 2002 Nancy started her own AA-sponsored support group. Every month since then, in three-hour sessions, she has met with a group of up to 30 caregivers. Over tea cakes and chicken-salad sandwiches that Nancy makes, she covers the gamut―from legal and financial issues to dealing with grief and loss. “Nothing in life prepares you for this disease,” says Sharon Everett-Washington, an attendee and a middle-school counselor, who grappled with her mother’s diagnosis. “Nancy took my hand and was with me every step.” In another group, Nancy befriended Paul Zacharias, who was coping with his wife’s Alzheimer’s (she later died in 2006). Their caretaking experiences bonded them, and they married in 2008 (the two are shown here).
Nancy’s energies remain focused on AA. When AA advertises the group in local newspapers, Nancy insists that her home phone number and e-mail address be included so people can reach her directly. Many days she is on the phone for hours, offering an ear as total strangers pour their hearts out.
“Some days I’m so emotionally drained, I have to go to bed,” says Nancy. “But I keep doing it because caregivers need to be heard and understood. As long as I am physically able, that is what I will do.”
2 of 5 Catherine Ledner
Helping Women in Need
Matt Shipman Age: 34 Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina Married with two daughters
About two years ago, Matt started feeling unsettled. Every morning, he would pore over the (depressing) news of the day and feel despondent about the world his children would inherit. “What made matters worse was that I wasn’t doing anything to make a difference,” Matt says. “I realized that if I thought ‘doing unto others’ was an important lesson to teach my kids, I needed to act on it.”
Philanthropy was out; Matt makes only a modest salary at his job as a PR specialist at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and his wife, Julia, stays home with Nora, 3, and Fiona, 1. “I knew a food bank or a shelter could use assistance,” he says, “but I wanted to do more than walk in holding one can of soup.”
Then, rocking Fiona to sleep one night, Matt hit on an idea. Instead of making a tiny donation by himself (see “can of soup”), he could organize a group of people to each donate a small number of goods to one charity. He named his fledgling organization the First Step Project.
“The first step is doing something,” Matt says. “[Tennis great] Arthur Ashe once said, ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ I took that as good advice.”
Matt soon learned about Interact of Wake County, North Carolina, a nonprofit agency that gives shelter to victims of domestic violence and rape. “The people I love most are women―my wife, my mom, my daughters,” he says. “I wanted to make the world safer for them.”
In January 2009, Matt asked Interact for a list of items the women were lacking. He e-mailed it to 40 colleagues on his campus, asking people to contact him when they had something to give. Soon he was inundated with responses.
Over the next few weeks, Matt drove around and picked up donations. Individually, some of the offerings―11 pencils, seven disposable razors―might have seemed insignificant; together, they added up to $350 worth of goods. Every month since, Matt has collected as much as $400 worth of supplies and hand delivered them to the shelter.
“The first trip to Interact, I got a polite thank-you,” Matt says. “The second trip raised eyebrows. The third time in, someone applauded me. And as I brought in the fourth armload of boxes, one woman started crying. This isn’t stuff these women want. It’s stuff they need.”
“Many people will drop off items around the holidays,” says Mandy Rucker, a crisis counselor at Interact. “That’s wonderful. But when Matt continues to bring gifts every month―and of such essential items, like tampons and toilet paper―we know it’s from the heart.”
Matt says, "I hope from watching me my girls will learn how rewarding it is to give back. That is, once they're old enough to think about anything besides dinosaurs."
3 of 5Catherine Ledner
Saving Young Lives
Mary Beth Schewitz Age: 56 Hometown: Lake Bluff, Illinois Married with two children
On the morning of September 29, 2005, Mary Beth intercepted her 20-year-old son, Max, on his way to work as an instructor at the nearby Wildlife Discovery Center. She needed help moving furniture into the garage for an upcoming yard sale. When she thanked him, the mother of three got more than the usual “See you later.” “I love you, Mom,” Max said tenderly and hugged her good-bye.
An hour later, Mary Beth’s husband, David, called. Max had fainted at work and been taken to the hospital. Initially Mary Beth wasn’t concerned. An intrepid adventurer and skydiver, Max had always been in excellent health. But when Mary Beth got to the emergency room 10 minutes later, Max no longer had a heartbeat. “The doctors called the time of death and left us with him,” she says. “I cried like a wounded animal, trying to reconcile the fact that I would have to leave my son behind in the same hospital where he was born.”
Max had died of sudden cardiac death (SCD), due to an irregular heartbeat. In the following days, Mary Beth was shocked to learn that the condition has no warning signs. Each year, 4,000 people under the age of 35 die of SCD.
In 2006 Mary Beth channeled her horror and grief into starting the Max Schewitz Foundation, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation―a lifelong passion of Max’s―and to supporting prevention of and research into SCD in youths. The group’s core program is Screens for Teens, which provides free EKG testing to high school students. (EKG testing doesn’t provide a conclusive diagnosis for cardiac disease, but it may indicate an underlying condition that can be clarified by further tests.)
Since Screens for Teens began, more than 10,000 students in the Chicago area have received a free EKG. To date, 142 teenagers have learned that they are at risk for SCD, including 16-year-old Konrad Mueller, who is now being treated for a rare congenital heart disorder. “We feel so lucky that Konrad had the test,” says his mother, Monica, who got a defibrillator for their house. “We wouldn’t have known there was a problem until it was too late.”
In 2007 Mary Beth, who has two other children, Sarah, 27, and Adam, 23, quit her job as a geriatric social worker to focus on the foundation. She spends 40 hours a week fundraising, planning events, securing volunteers, requesting donations of supplies, and coordinating each day of testing, which entails hauling EKG machines around in her station wagon. She also recruited three cardiologists to supervise the testing and interpret each EKG result.
The work is exhausting and emotional, but Mary Beth can't imagine a more meaningful use of her time. She says, "I will work as many hours as it takes to make Max proud and spare another family from our grief."
4 of 5Catherine Ledner
Jocelyn Allen Age: 40 Hometown: Farmington Hills, Michigan Single mother of one son
Whether she’s attending a Detroit Pistons game, strolling through a museum, or playing golf, Jocelyn is hard to miss, what with the 30 tween and teen girls she has in tow. Jocelyn, the vice president of public affairs for OnStar, heads up Divas4Life, an organization for girls between the ages of 8 and 18 that encourages them to become, in her words, “determined, inspired, victorious, and adventurous.”
The idea came to Jocelyn in 2002, while she was volunteering as youth director at St. John Evangelist Temple of Truth, in Detroit’s beleaguered Northend community. A longtime member of the congregation, Jocelyn had witnessed parents struggling to provide the basics for their families. “Detroit’s youth are the ones hardest hit by the problems that plague this city,” she notes. “I have been tremendously blessed, and I felt I could be a good role model for young girls.”
In 2003 Jocelyn started Divas4Life to provide her students with “access to mentors who look like them, have overcome the odds, and are giving back to their communities,” she says. Word spread through the neighborhood, and soon Jocelyn had dozens of girls eager to join.
From that point on, Jocelyn, with the help of her all-volunteer board, has arranged weekly field trips for her girls. One week they might go horseback riding; the next, they might attend a performance of La Bohème. Occasional etiquette lessons and money-management and college-prep courses are offered, as are lunches with successful African-American women. (The costs of Divas events are funded by board members or by donations from local companies.) “With everything we do, I want the girls to learn a lesson,” Jocelyn says. “I don’t want them to sense any limits.”
Since Divas began, more than 75 girls have participated in the program (pictured here, six current members). Many become high achievers; this year’s group boasts honor students, violinists, and sports stars. Shyniece Hardwick, who joined Divas when she was 12, is one such success story. “After my mother left, I had no female to guide me,” says Shyniece, now 21, who was raised by her father. “Divas taught me what’s right, what’s wrong―and it’s why I’m in college today.” Shyniece considers Divas a lifeline, so much so that she now works for Jocelyn as the group’s first intern while completing her senior year at Eastern Michigan University.
No matter how busy Jocelyn is at work or with her son, Michael Davis Jr., 17, she says she never tires of running the organization. “It’s rewarding to be there when the girls need someone to listen to them, to tell them they are worthy,” Jocelyn says. “I may not be able to save the whole world, but I can make an impact on these young women’s lives.”
5 of 5 Catherine Ledner
Aiding Haitian Earthquake Victims
Carol Ritter Age: 53 Hometown: Ruxson, Maryland Married with three children
On January 12, 2010, Carol was sitting in a board meeting at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center when she received a text from her husband, Tom: “7.5 quake in Haiti really bad no contact CNN cant even get in.”
Carol was stunned. Since 2003 she had served on seven medical-aid missions to Haiti through the International Medical Alliance of Tennessee (IMA) and Friends of Haiti (FOH). For the rest of the meeting, Carol, who is the mother of three children, ages 23, 20, and 15, hunched over her phone, trying to reach friends in Haiti. “It was very scary,” she says. “Everything felt so uncertain.”
Forty-eight hours later, Carol learned IMA had received a plea for help from a Haitian doctor, and just days later she and Tom, a dentist, along with six other IMA team members, set up seven makeshift operating rooms in a clinic in Jimani, a town about 30 miles from Port-au-Prince.
Working 12-hour shifts, Carol performed about 900 surgeries over the next nine days and treated countless other victims, many with crushed limbs. “We went well beyond our comfort zones,” she says. “I’m a gynecologist, but I was surgically removing dead tissue from limbs to avoid the need for amputation.”
Carol also worked as a nurse, putting in IVs and offering comfort when she could. “Performing surgery is one thing, but taking care of the patients is almost harder,” she says. “You look into their eyes and see their fear.” Carol says she will never forget sitting with one woman as her husband took his last breath. “Her wails were just chilling,” she says. Another case devastated her as well―that of a pregnant woman who had lost her baby and was paralyzed from the waist down by the time she arrived at the clinic. No translator was on hand (most Haitians speak Creole) as the woman awaited transport to the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship for intensive medical care, but Carol pulled off a silver ring she was wearing and slid it onto the woman’s finger. “I wanted her to know I was thinking of her,” she says.
Fortunately, there were a few bright moments: Carol delivered two healthy babies (one grateful mother named her new daughter Carol), and she succeeded in obtaining a U.S. visa for her friend Nadia Amedee-Louisjean, 37, a Haitian translator for FOH in her last trimester of a high-risk pregnancy. (Shown here, Carol with Nadia and her baby boy, Gaetan; they are temporarily staying with the Ritters.)
When Carol returns to Haiti, she knows the devastation from the earthquake won't have disappeared. "The Haitians have lost everything," says Carol. "But I'll never stop doing what I can to help. I always remember 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"