AGH Awards Extraordinary Women in the Community at Girls’ Night Out

10/10/2016

During its Girls’ Night Out event on Thursday, October 6, Allegan General Hospital (AGH) and the AGH Foundation recognized Barb Armstrong, Heidi Gilder and Nancy Heilig with its 6th Annual Spirit of Women Awards.

Barb Armstrong
Barb Armstrong of Otsego was nominated by the women of the Just Ours Breast Cancer Support Group.

Barb is a breast cancer survivor. When she was first diagnosed in 1997, she did not know anyone who had breast cancer and had no known family history. She was devastated, terrified, and lonely. She had so many questions. Was she going to lose her hair? Was she going to be sick? What was her chest going to look like? She was unable to find answers, resources, or support. One day, she made a promise to herself and to God that if she survived, she would make it her mission in life to help women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

A special, notable woman in Barb’s life was Michelle Kiddo. She was a surgical nurse who cared for Barb during her first bout with cancer. Michelle saw the agony that Barb was experiencing, and recognized the need for a support group. Michelle founded Just Ours, which was dedicated to women whose lives were affected by breast cancer. Shortly after founding the group, she moved out of town, and without hesitancy, Barb stepped up to be the leader.

For the past 19 years, Barb has led this group, which supports women of all ages, ranging from 30-80, and has over 30 members. She describes Just Ours as a welcoming, positive, and uplifting group where women are able to vent, listen, and share their own experiences. The group holds fundraisers to raise money to help women buy wigs and/or prosthetics, as well as gas money, and to cover transportation costs for treatments, doctor appointments, etc. The group meets monthly, and talks about issues such as what to expect regarding treatment, surgery and post-surgery.

Barb was diagnosed with breast cancer again in 2008, and felt very angry. The Just Ours group helped her cope with her feelings and emotions. Barb is currently in remission and cancer free. Barb is so passionate about Just Ours. She said that inspiring, giving, and the happiness that comes from this group nourishes her soul.
Barb has also touched the community by volunteering countless hours for the American Cancer Society, the West Michigan Cancer Center, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation. She worked with these organizations to provide education, coaching, and support for women during their illness and recovery.

Heidi Gilder
Our second 2016 Spirit of Women Award winner is 17 year old Heidi Gilder of Hopkins. Heidi is leading change and educating West Michigan communities on the importance of recycling plastics, keeping our soil clean and our communities a greener place to live.

Just over a year ago, Heidi set off on a journey to fulfill her Girl Scout Gold Award. The Gold Award is the highest achievement within the Girl Scouts of the USA, earned by Senior and Ambassador Girl Scouts. Only 5.4% of eligible Girl Scouts successfully earn the Gold Award. Heidi’s project “Caps for a Cause” focused on environmental awareness and plastics recycling, something she felt passionate about as she set forth to fulfill the Girl Scout promise to “…make the world a better place.”

Heidi’s ultimate goal for her plastics recycling project was to educate her community and surrounding communities on the importance of plastics recycling and the impact they can make on the environment. Driven with a focus to collect, conquer and educate, Heidi began her Caps for a Cause project in her town of Hopkins and quickly expanded her project to the neighboring communities of Wayland and Dorr.

Heidi’s project agenda included speaking to community groups including a seniors luncheon, student classrooms, township boards, and holding community events at the local libraries. She shared her message on posters, collection bins throughout the community, in newspaper articles, and through a website and Facebook page (Caps for a Cause). All of these activities – totaling around 120 hours of volunteer time – helped to spread Heidi’s message that we should be mindful of what we put into the trash and what we can easily recycle.

During her nine month project, Heidi collected 476 pounds of plastic caps of all shapes and sizes, from container tops to hairspray caps to milk jug tops. This is equivalent to 85 five-gallon buckets of plastic.

The plastic she collected was transported to Evansville, Indiana to be melted down into a functional plastic bench that was then donated to the students at Hopkins Elementary School. Through her drive and determination, Heidi worked closely with the Allegan County Recycling Coordinator to measure the curbside recycling percentage for the townships of Hopkins, Wayland, and Dorr and what she found was that the percentage increased during the time frame where she was collecting and educating her community.

Her project was no small feat, but Heidi stated that “the opportunity to educate my community, while it was hard work, was definitely worth it in the end.” When asked what words of inspiration Heidi had for anyone following in her footsteps she said to “do hard things” to push yourself past your boundaries in order to make a lasting impact on our planet. Heidi was nominated for the Spirit of Women Award by her mother, Lisa Gilder.

Nancy Heilig
The third 2016 Spirit of Women Award Winner is Nancy Heilig from Plainwell. Nancy was nominated for this award by Pat Vance and Diane Barton.

“When Nancy sees a need, she takes action and owns it,” said Barton. “She believes there is no excuse for not fixing problems she sees in our society.”

When Nancy retired in 2010, she started looking for things to keep her busy with all of her new found free time. While attending an event through the Allegan County Community Foundation, she learned about a backpack program the Allegan Congregational Church had. After learning more about this program, Nancy did some research and learned 50% of the elementary school children in Plainwell received free lunch. Armed with the knowledge there were so many hungry children in Plainwell, Nancy started the non-profit Good Hands Plainwell to make sure no child in Plainwell went hungry.

Good Hands Plainwell works with the three elementary schools in Plainwell, as well as Alternative Education to make sure children do not go hungry over the weekend. Good Hands Plainwell assembles over 200 food bags a week that are then distributed to kids through these schools. The bags are put in their lockers before the end of the school day, so the kids don’t have to be embarrassed about receiving the donation. Each bag includes two lunches, two breakfasts, juice and fresh fruit. Last school year, 5,518 bags of food were assembled and 22,072 meals were provided through the organization, which is now entering its sixth year.

In 2014, with the hope of helping to lift people out of poverty, Nancy helped start the non-profit Bridges of Hope Allegan County. Its mission is to foster relationships by providing tools, support, education and connections to available community resources to individuals desiring to move out of poverty. One of the programs Bridges of Hope offers is a 16-week workshop called Getting Ahead.

“We talk to the students about where they are in life, where they want to be and help show them what they need to do to get there,” said Heilig. “Our goal is to help families in or on the edge of poverty to reclaim self-sufficiency, stability and security in their lives. Sometimes people just need a little support and need to know there are people out there who care.”

Since its inception two years ago, the program has graduated 30 individuals. Seven of whom have since received their high school diplomas with six more who will earn their GEDs by the end of the year, as well as two students who are currently attending Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

“Spirit of Women Awards were designed to celebrate the accomplishments, achievements, and “spirit” of girls and women in our region,” said Jennifer Dentler, AGH Spirit of Women Coordinator. “It’s an awards program for the unsung heroine of everyday life, someone who has made a significant difference in the life of an individual or the community. We received many amazing nominations and it was not an easy decision for our selection committee to make. We sure have a lot of exceptional ladies in the area.”

Allegan General Hospital is a community hospital that focuses on providing exceptional, compassionate and personalized healthcare to the community it serves. Allegan General provides a wide range of healthcare services, including bariatrics, surgery, sleep center, emergency, physical rehabilitation and mental health. For more information about the hospital and its Spirit of Women program, visit www.allegangeneral.org.

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