For Weiland, Hammen, Bergendoff and Kay, heart is the common denominator.
The task of choosing the Pilot-Tribune Citizen of the Year award recipients is seldom an easy one. There are many in the course of every year who touch us, achieve great things, and help to make our community a better place to be.
This year, let me admit - it wasn't really all that hard.
Our choices for 2002 aren't famous, especially wealthy, or powerful in the conventional sense. They all speak softly from the shadows, and none are particularly comfortable in the spotlight. Our honorees bridge generations - from grandmother to mother to teenager.
So what do they have in common that so warrants the admiration of their entire community?
In a word, heart.
Hearts so exceptional that they have given to others in unexpected and wonderful ways this season. Hearts that inspire those around them, and speak to the humanity of this special village by the lake.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to our Pilot-Tribune Citizens of the Year for 2002:
Kim Weiland - The first two-time winner of the honors, Kim is a longtime sparkplug in community and child health care and the current leader of the landmark Women's Health Center development at the local medical center. But it is her courage that earns this nod - as she endures breast cancer, double mastectomy and chemotherapy, she had met her crisis as a positive opportunity to reach out to others in need, and to educate others to be tested and treated. She has touched countless people, healing as much with her heart as her hands. I know she would want to share the honors with all those in our community who have faced cancer or other serious crises, and in it found the strength to share, inform and support others. For her spirit and courage, she deserves Citizen of the Year honors.
Linda Kay and Gwen Bergendoff - This duo brought a magical Storm Lake landmark back to life this holiday season, and in the process, showed us a special charm of their own. Santa's Castle in Storm Lake was down and out, its priceless antique animations falling to pieces and its historic home shabby and dusty. Barring a minor miracle, the generations-old tradition seemed bound to disappear. Enter Linda and Gwen, who volunteered and gave months of intense labor to restoring, painting, creating new scenes and bringing the Christmas spirit back to life. They dedicated their own homes, much of their own money, and practically all of their waking hours to ensure that a new generation of children would share in the tradition of The Christmas City. For their backbreaking efforts, they too earn Citizen of the Year recognition.
Ashley Hammen - If the tragedy of September 11 was the vast moment of change in our national consciousness and the story of the generation, this Storm Lake teenage student is an embodiment of all the strength and goodness that emerged from the ashes and the rubble. Feeling the need to give something back on a very personal level, she created and sold over 900 red, white and blue ribbons as memorials to those lost in the terrorist attacks, collecting a total of $4,600 and traveling to New York recently to present her gift in person to the firefighters of Park Slope Squad 1. That unit was the first into the World Trade Center after the strike, losing 12 of its 30 men and leaving 30 children fatherless. For her caring and enthusiasm, Ashley rounds out our slate of honorees in high style.
It's all about hearts, isn't it?
But why don't I let them tell it?
Shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer, just the kind of issue her Women's Health Center project is being designed to address, Kim Weiland had this to say:
"I'm a firm believer that nothing happens by chance, there's always a plan... As scary as this is, I think this is where I'm supposed to be. It's a journey, and oddly enough, it is kind of exciting to be along for the ride.
"Here I am with breast cancer, and what an opportunity to get this out to other women," she said. "This is one of my passions, to educate women."
Weiland is also using the opportunity to call for continued improvements in prevention and care for those that may follow her. In particular, she reminds people not to forget the support than husbands and children need when a woman faces a health crisis, and is using her unusual position as both a caregiver and suddenly a patient to urge women to use a three-prong prevention technique including yearly mammograms, monthly self breast exams and regular clinical examinations with their doctors.
"Women don't need to be afraid... but they need to know how they are feeling and when it is different," she says.
Gwen Bergendoff and Linda Kay described the state of the Santa's Castle archive they volunteered to take over as a "Christmas graveyard" last September, with hundreds of broken pieces of holiday Americana, some up to 80 years old. They took on the job anyway, with the help of a handful of other helpers.
"Something that is such a part of Storm Lake's history - it would be a shame to let it rot away," Kay said. "In talking to people who were part of the Castle's earlier history, we hear of how it was something very magical, how it amazed the flocks of children who came. At one time, 20,000 people a year came to this place. Our goal is to get back to the grand Christmas this was once such a part of."
By all reviews, especially the sparkling eyes of the children, consider the goal surpassed, although they say they have work yet to do. With its comeback, there is talk of making the Castle a year around attraction for visitors to The City Beautiful, and there's a possibility of Better Homes and Gardens making the project a top feature in a 2002 issue.
But why did they do it? The women remember a small girl who was brought to visit the shabby Castle during RAGBRAI last summer. "One little girl came up to one of the characters with her eyes so wide. She said, 'Oh no, the lady lost her hand!' That was cute, but it was sad that our characters should be falling apart in front of the children's eyes," said Kay.
It seems some had even suggested that the one-time Carnegie Library that houses the Castle should perhaps be torn down to make way for a parking lot. "It would be tragic to ever lose this - look at the towering windows and this magnificent woodwork, this is part of Storm Lake," Bergendoff countered.
And while Kim Weiland was continuing her work toward the Women's Health Center as she headed into chemotherapy, and our two elves were busy working countless hours saving Christmas tradition, a Storm Lake teenager was taking on an ambitious project of her own across town - discovering for herself that caring is contagious.
Ashley Hammen watched the drama of September 11 unfold with her St. Mary's classmates, but as the story emerged, she realized that prayers might not be enough.
"I started to feel that I needed to do something," she said.
So Ashley, with a little advise from her grandmother and a little donated seed money for materials, set about tying red, white and blue memorial ribbons to sell in the classrooms around school. She found such support that she went on to sell them at the St. Mary's bazaar, and started to collect funds from local businesses.
"The moral is that if you start something small and put all of your work into whatever it is, it can become something big," she reflected. "At first this was a very little project that was big only to me. But as so many people were so wonderful and gave toward it, it became something bigger than I could have dreamed."
More than 900 handmade ribbons later, and with an unexpectedly generous boost from the chamber of commerce, Ashley was asked to come to New York in mid-December to present her gift to firefighters in person.
She chose to give to Park Slope Squad 1, a small Brooklyn fire department that was the first on the scene of the World Trade Center tragedy. Twelve of its 30 men ran into the blazing tower and never came out; 30 children were left fatherless. "That's when it really hit me - that would be like my entire class at St. Mary's suddenly losing their fathers. I decided to try to use the ribbons to help them," Ashley said.
"It is so good to know that the people in Storm Lake, Iowa, care that much about what happens to people all the way across the country."
The experience of visiting the station, and handing her check for $4,600 to a firefighter who had been inside Ground Zero on September 11, was bittersweet.
"My emotions were really mixed - I was so happy to be there and to be helping, but at the same time, they had just finished a Christmas party for 30 children who now have no dads. You could just feel in the air that they had lost all those men, and there were vigil candles all around. There were flags and patriotism everywhere, but the tension and sorrow were strong."
And so there is heart to spare in our Citizens of the Year for 2002, ignoring the odds, flowing out of the confines of Storm Lake and touching many, for the sheer joy of giving. Won't you join me in giving a hand to these special people, who make us all a little better in the reflected glow of their caring.