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Thanks and Giving

Read the full feature in the November/December 2012 issue of Evansville Living.

It’s simple, American, and everyone saves room for it this time of year. Pie — it’s the national icon of thanks and giving. Indiana has its own state pie — sugar cream — though when we asked local chef and caterer Cheryl Mochau of Cheryl Really Cooks! to help us present pies to illustrate an attitude of gratitude, we turned to the rustic and traditional favorites you see on the cover.

Here, we share six inspirational stories of local citizens who have created unique brands of giving. We also take a look back at remarkable stories of thankfulness we’ve written about in previous issues. And, to help you foster the spirit of graciousness, we offer tips to make paying it forward as easy as pie.

Project Giveaway

It was a long day ahead of her, but Carissa Montgomery was prepared. With a month of crafty ideating, a carefully thought-out plan of action, and a moral compass 30 years strong, she fired up her car and headed into town. It was Montgomery’s 30th birthday — Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012 — and receiving gifts wasn’t on the agenda.

Dubbed “The Birthday Project,” Montgomery devised 30 ways she could make a difference in someone else’s day. “I knew I didn’t want a big blowout party,” she says. “I get leery about attention so I figured this would be a good way to get the attention off of me.”
From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., she drove around Evansville showering friends, family, and strangers with acts of kindness. Sporting a pink shirt that said, “Today is my 30th Birthday,” she took balloons to children at the Dunigan Family YMCA, donated blood and bone marrow, left inspirational notes on cars parked at Eastland Mall, hid Barnes & Noble gift cards inside random books at the store, sent her mother flowers at work, surprised her best friend with an edible arrangement, and left a card and fresh-baked cookies in her mailbox for the mail carrier.

An avid runner, No. 12 on her list was to hand out ice cold water bottles to runners along the Pigeon Creek Greenway Passage Downtown. Proving to take more time than she thought, Montgomery left the water in a cooler on the path with a sign that read, “Take one. It’s Cold and it’s Free!” She mailed letters to deployed soldiers and started a virtual lemonade stand for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer. “I wanted as many people as possible that day to feel special,” she says, even if she couldn’t see the reactions of most. “It lit a fire under me; I’ve been trying since then to do one volunteer task at least once a month.” Because of the positive feedback she received from friends and family who have vowed to follow suit, Montgomery is planning another similar project for Christmas.

Quilted Picker Upper

Avid quilters Brenda Rusche, Kate Rusche, Diana Dannheiser, Margaret Myers, Tina Erwin, and Susie Love always have had a passion for sewing. Last year, they decided to put their skills to use in the community by forming Pillow Pals, Inc., a group dedicated to making fun and colorful patterned pillowcases for children in local hospitals. And with kid-friendly designs of everything from “Scooby-Doo” and “Transformers” to ballet and football, Pillow Pals can put a smile on the face of any child.

Originally making pillowcases for their grandkids (“Everybody’s a grandma except one,” Dannheiser points out), the group became a nonprofit and began donating their creations to St. Mary’s Pediatrics, Pediatric Same Day Surgery, and Deaconess Pediatrics. The children, of course, are very appreciative, but the doctors note the effect of the pillowcases, too. “The anesthesiologist is talking to them about the pillowcase, and they don’t even know they’re going out,” says Brenda.

The soft pillow covers are made from two different pieces of fabric — one for the header and one for the base. And with a wholesale value of $7, the pillowcases are sewn well and created from sturdy, quality fabric.

Since its inception, Pillow Pals has produced more than 2,000 pillowcases — 1,200 so far this year. Before the end of the year, they hope to produce another 300. “It just makes you feel good to do something,” Myers says.

Though they certainly enjoy the work, it doesn’t hurt that they’re in such good company. “It’s fun, it’s very rewarding, and we all get along perfectly,” Brenda says. Laughter and playful quips about “getting along” follow. “We can pop off to each other and keep on going,” Dannheiser says. “Keep on sewing."

For more information on Pillow Pals, Inc., call 812-853-8241 or email pillowpalsinc@yahoo.com.

The Human Factor

Seven years ago, Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Whitler Jr. took on his first assignment as a casualty assistant officer. His boots were heavier than usual as he approached the front door of this small-town home. His body was shaking underneath his U.S. Army service uniform. An Evansville native, Whitler has been in the Army for 25 years, with the Indiana Army National Guard for the past 17, and has deployed two times for both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Still, there is nothing quite as terrifying to him as meeting the family of a fallen soldier.

Whitler’s appointed duty as a casualty assistant is to act as a liaison between the Army and an assigned family, whose son, daughter, husband, or sibling was killed in battle. “This community supported us as soldiers, so we feel we should give back as well,”
he says.

A day after being notified of their loved one’s loss, Whitler meets the family to help with funeral arrangements, explains military insurance and benefit options, and gives them a strong shoulder for grieving. “You’re the glue that keeps the family together,” he says. “We’re there as long as they need us.”
Receiving orders from Fort Knox in Radcliff, Ky., Whitler has reached out to families from as far as Vincennes, Ind., and as close as 10 minutes from Evansville’s National Guard building on Division Street. A devout husband and a father of two, Whitler’s sympathy is instinctual. “You have to have compassion,” he says. “My children know what it’s like to have their dad leave for almost a year — but their dad came back.”

Taking care of each other is what it comes down to, he adds. “The Army is a family. We treat each other as our own. What has touched me the most is how the families are so concerned about me and my feelings. Generally, they are thanking us for being so compassionate.”

Instead of the structured, almost robotic-persona the military often carries like a badge, these casualty assistance officer cases allow soldiers — particularly sergeants — to show a more humanistic, emotional side. “This is a great service to a fallen soldier. We are showing that every human life is important in this war,” says Whitler. “We have a lot to give other than just defending the nation. We’re more than just soldiers in uniform.”

A Walking Miracle

The principle broker of Wasson Pioneer Realty and the mother of a 5-year-old, Laura Wasson-Ortiz, 34, is a busy woman. Adding more to her schedule, she is in the midst of developing a new charity, which would not exist had she not gone through a great deal of pain.

On Feb. 20, 2009, Wasson-Ortiz parked her SUV on a hill in Newburgh, Ind., and stepped out to take a picture of a beautiful, snowy scene. While she was distracted, her car kicked out of gear and began rolling toward her. Caught off guard, she was knocked over. When the vehicle stopped after ramming against a mailbox, she found herself pinned underneath her car — which was still running. She was trapped for an hour. By the time someone finally found her, the hot underside of the running vehicle had burned through much of the skin and nerves across her body. Wasson-Ortiz was rushed to St. Mary’s Medical Center, but because of the severity of her injuries she was taken to a specialized burn unit in Cincinnati, with just a 5 percent chance of survival.
After suffering through gangrene and three separate skin grafts, Wasson-Ortiz not only survived, but triumphed. Her doctors said her recovery would never be absolute. She took it as a challenge. “Basically, I can do everything but run,” she says.

At the Cincinnati burn unit, the doctors and nurses who worked with her refer to her as “The Walking Miracle.” Her doctor would ask, “How did you do that?” Her answer: “You told me I couldn’t.”

This determination led Wasson-Ortiz to start her charity, Let’s Make Miracles. Her neighbors originally inspired the idea. Wishing for them to remain anonymous, Wasson-Ortiz will only say they have fallen on hard times; one of them has lung cancer, and because of the medical bills and insufficient income, they may lose their house. Wasson-Ortiz wants to help. “My whole purpose is to give back to people who can never repay me,” she says. “That’s the ultimate way to give.”

With Let’s Make Miracles, Wasson-Ortiz wants to make completely anonymous local donations to people who need help most. She intends to create a dedicated committee to help her find those individuals. “To see other people go through tough times and not help — that’s not an option for me anymore,” she says. Wasson-Ortiz understands that when a person severely suffers like she did, it affects family, friends, and a community.

For more information on Let’s Make Miracles, call 812-629-8418 or visit www.letsmakemiracles.com.

Fight of a Lifetime

It’s been 10 years since Darrell Ragland was given a death sentence. He was a seemingly healthy 46-year-old loving husband, father of three sons and a daughter, hunting enthusiast, and a technical advisor at Alcoa. On Feb. 19, 2002, he added cancer patient to his list of titles.

Ragland went into the hospital complaining of leg pain — which was attributed to a blood clot that started in his left calf — and came out with the diagnosis with neuroendocrine pancreatic tumors, the same pancreatic cancer that killed the late Steve Jobs. “It was a day before my birthday when the doctors told me to get my paperwork in order,” he says, meaning any legal documents such as a will. To his kids (all in their 30s) and his wife, Karen, the news was devastating, as most people with pancreatic cancer don’t survive more than three to six months after diagnosis. To Ragland, it was just one of life’s challenges. “Maybe I was too ignorant to know better,” he says.

About a month after the diagnosis, Ragland had surgery to remove his spleen, gallbladder, and two-thirds of his pancreas, making him a surgical diabetic. He was in the hospital 55 days, undergoing two surgeries, a blood transfusion, and the insertion of both a feeding tube and a peripherally inserted central catheter line. During his stay, Ragland experienced several complications, including infections, congestive heart failure, and a medication error that swelled his body by more than 20 pounds. By the time he went home, the nearly 6-foot Ragland had lost all of it and more.

Five years later, Ragland was still alive. Bad news came again in 2007, when the cancer metastasized to his liver, which was inhabited by 13 active tumors. He has spent the last four years as a human test tube, undergoing two clinical trials and two interventional radiology procedures. The treatments, he says, hurt worse than the disease. But they’re helping. Today, only two of the 13 tumors in his liver are alive and active.

Through it all, Ragland has stayed positive. Since retiring in 2005 from Alcoa, where he worked for 27 years, he has spent his time encouraging others with life-threatening diseases, volunteering at local organizations including Leadership Evansville, and currently is working on a book, “Dying to Live,” which will chronicle his cancer battle and describe how exercise and proper dieting can make a big difference.

“The greatest thing that ever happened to me was being diagnosed with cancer. I started enjoying life more, and my wife and children,” says Ragland. “I truly believe that my footsteps have been ordered by the Lord. I have to give him credit.”

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most underfunded cancers in existence. Help fight this devastating disease at www.pancan.org.

Hands of Clay

Inside the University of Southern Indiana’s new Ceramic Center, assistant professor of ceramics Alisa Holen has been overseeing the wheeling, blazing, and firing of hundreds of ceramic bowls in between her daily class schedule. A Minnesota native who came to USI last year for the teaching job, Holen wanted to show her students the importance of community service. After writing a grant to the Indiana Campus Compact, Holen received $2,000 this past summer to conduct a three-credit hour service-learning course open to all USI students. The objective: to wheel 1,000-plus pounds of clay into more than 500 beautiful ceramic bowls for purchase; then donate the money to Tri-State Food Bank and United Caring Shelters of Evansville.

For the past three months, the Ceramics Center has served as a meeting ground for students, business staffs, professors, and faculty who wanted to help Holen and her students with the cause. On a recent day, Harrison High School’s art students sat at the studio’s 20 wheels; another day members of the Deaconess Hospital staff made bowls; and then came employees from Heritage Federal Credit Union. Along with other area schools — Central, North, and Bosse high schools — Holen also opened the studio to USI faculty and students. “We had ceramic students teaching their professors how to throw,” says Holen. “It was absolutely endearing.” Oakland City University also donated 40 bowls.

Called Empty Bowls, Holen’s goal for the fundraiser, held at Adams Art Gallery (56 Adams Ave.) in the Haynie’s Corner Arts District on Nov. 10, was to sell the more than 500 handmade, ceramic bowls, priced at $10 each and offered with soup from the Twilight Bistro. The soup — in flavors of butternut squash, country potato, pumpkin pie, and other vegetable options — came complemented with fresh-baked French bread. “We’re hoping to make this an annual event,” says Holen, “and we’ll be looking for more groups to get involved in the future.”

New to the Evansville area, Holen isn’t new to Empty Bowls. As an art professor at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Miss., she organized two past events — the first one selling out of the 500 bowls within the first hour and a half. “If we sell out at this event, we’ll definitely up the number of bowls we make next year,” says Holen. “But quality will always be the No. 1 goal.”

A grassroots movement to help end hunger, Empty Bowls is a national nonprofit organization that lends its name to any school, organization, or individual raising funds for the hungry with a ceramic bowl sale. To get involved with next year’s USI event, email Alisa Holen at aiholen@usi.edu.

Read more from our Thanks and Giving feature:

•  Paying it Forward — Suggestions on how to give back this holiday season and year-round.

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