December 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Making A Difference America’s Awards Honor Our ‘Unsung Heroes’

Ben Dobbin Associated Press
 

Dr. Bill Thomas believes there’s too much emphasis on nursing in nursing homes, too little on creating a homey atmosphere: the smell of an herb garden, the laughter of children, the kinship of community.

In seven ears, his educational foundation has helped transform 300 of them into congenial places humming with activity and purpose. He was one of six “unsung heroes” honored Friday by the 1997 America’s Awards.

Among the recipients were a retired Virginia postal worker who has managed to give away almost $100,000 and a millionaire in Nebraska who has embarrassed corporations into lowering the fat content of their food products.

The awards, created in 1990 by the late minister and author Norman Vincent Peale, annually cite unappreciated Americans who personify the country’s character and spirit. Each winner receives $1,000.

When Thomas took his first job as a medical director in a nursing home, “I realized something really big was missing,” he said. “I could give the residents all the right medicines and they could still die of loneliness.”

With a $200,000 state grant, Thomas helped transform the Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin near Binghamton into a vibrant habitat. He piped in ragtime jazz, brought in cats and parakeets, put up indoor trellises and set aside curving gardens of flowers, herbs and vegetables.

Children are part of daily life, with after-school programs, a day-care center and a colorful playground and picnic area for families.

Thus began his crusade, through his Eden Alternative Foundation, to get rid of the orderly, hospital-like environment in many of America’s 17,000 nursing homes. The foundation spreads its mission through periodic workshops around the country.

“We spend literally billions of dollars on medications and treatment and yet neglect people’s needs for companionship. Loneliness and boredom are 100 percent preventable,” Thomas said.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MORE HEROES Associated Press Recipients of 1997 America’s Awards: Bill Thomas, 39, of Sherburne, N.Y., who runs the Eden Alternative Foundation, which is dedicated to making nursing homes more vibrant and homey. Linda Bremner, 50, of Chicago, who worked through the devastation of her 11-year-old son’s death from cancer by writing cheerful notes to other terminally ill children. Her nonprofit agency, Love Letters, uses 65 volunteers to correspond with more than 1,000 children every week. Thomas Cannon, 72, of Richmond, Va. Born into poverty, the retired postal worker never earned more than $32,000 a year but has given away at least $96,000 to people he considers to be needy or heroic. Eugene Helm, 28, of Chicago, dropped out of college to care for five nephews and nieces ages 4 to 12 who were left without a guardian. Phil Sokolof, 75, of Omaha, Neb., a self-made millionaire who spent $9 million to create the National Heart Savers Association. The nonprofit group uses newspaper ads to educate the public about health issues and pressure major corporations into lowering the fat content of their foods. David Allen, of Charlotte, N.C. In May 1996, doctors told the 68-year-old dry cleaner his cancer would kill him in a year. He continues to fill each day with quiet acts of kindness: donating pianos to children, helping strangers with their rent, shipping Bibles to Hong Kong. The panel that chose the winners included religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and basketball coach Pat Riley. There were 540 people nominated for the award.

Those wishing to nominate a candidate for the 1998 awards should send a story - preferably an article clipped from a newspaper or magazine - to America’s Awards, 66 E. Main St., Pawling, NY 12564.

This sidebar appeared with the story: MORE HEROES Associated Press Recipients of 1997 America’s Awards: Bill Thomas, 39, of Sherburne, N.Y., who runs the Eden Alternative Foundation, which is dedicated to making nursing homes more vibrant and homey. Linda Bremner, 50, of Chicago, who worked through the devastation of her 11-year-old son’s death from cancer by writing cheerful notes to other terminally ill children. Her nonprofit agency, Love Letters, uses 65 volunteers to correspond with more than 1,000 children every week. Thomas Cannon, 72, of Richmond, Va. Born into poverty, the retired postal worker never earned more than $32,000 a year but has given away at least $96,000 to people he considers to be needy or heroic. Eugene Helm, 28, of Chicago, dropped out of college to care for five nephews and nieces ages 4 to 12 who were left without a guardian. Phil Sokolof, 75, of Omaha, Neb., a self-made millionaire who spent $9 million to create the National Heart Savers Association. The nonprofit group uses newspaper ads to educate the public about health issues and pressure major corporations into lowering the fat content of their foods. David Allen, of Charlotte, N.C. In May 1996, doctors told the 68-year-old dry cleaner his cancer would kill him in a year. He continues to fill each day with quiet acts of kindness: donating pianos to children, helping strangers with their rent, shipping Bibles to Hong Kong. The panel that chose the winners included religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and basketball coach Pat Riley. There were 540 people nominated for the award.

Those wishing to nominate a candidate for the 1998 awards should send a story - preferably an article clipped from a newspaper or magazine - to America’s Awards, 66 E. Main St., Pawling, NY 12564.


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