Forty Years of Honoring Local Volunteers
By Thomas Pack
Jerry Stith of Shepherdsville founded the Opal’s Dream Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves nursing home residents who depend on Medicaid as their only means of support. The organization has provided motorized wheelchairs, dentures and even popcorn makers and jukeboxes.
Prospect resident Surekha Kulkarni has launched entrepreneurial ventures that teach refugees how to make their own jewelry and reach financial independence. The nonprofit Beaded Treasures Project has helped more than 100 refugee women.
Louisvillian Helen Schmitt has been head seamstress for St. Joseph Children’s Home for more than five decades. She led the Sewing Society to create crib linens, bibs, pillowcases, quilts and clothing for the children.
Schmitt, Kulkarni and Stith are just three of several people recognized during last year’s WLKY Bell Awards, the annual celebration of Louisville-area residents who donate their time and talents to enhance our community.
WLKY is now gearing up for this year’s awards, which will be the 40th anniversary of the honors. Nominations were accepted through June 30, the winners will be announced by the end of August and the 2017 Bell Awards will be presented during a gala on October 20.
The ceremony will again be our community’s premier recognition of outstanding local citizens who never seek a spotlight for themselves — Kentuckiana residents who might otherwise remain unsung heroes even though they form the backbone of our community.
“I’m thrilled to live in a community that truly realizes the importance and the impact of volunteerism. I do think we are a compassionate city,” said Jill Bell, Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Passport Health Plan — as well as the chair of this year’s Bell Awards.
“I think it’s wonderful that a TV station recognizes these heroes,” she said. “Most of them go about their work and volunteer time not for any recognition at all but just to make our community a special place. I cry every year because some of the stories these people tell and the differences they’ve made in other people’s lives are just phenomenal.”
Who’s Eligible for a Bell Award?
The awards were established in 1978 when WLKY founded the Spirit of Louisville Foundation, which is comprised of a range of community and business leaders who donate their time. During the past four decades, the award has been presented to more than 390 citizens.
Any unpaid individual volunteer living in the Kentuckiana area can be nominated. It doesn’t matter how the individual has given their time and talent or whom the nominee serves. It could be a charity, school, community agency or faith-based organization. The program gets about 60 to 85 nominations every year. This year there are nearly 70, and ten Bell Award winners will be chosen.
The WLKY Spirit of Louisville Foundation Board of Trustees selects the honorees based on the following:
• The average number of hours volunteered
• The diversity of the nominee’s volunteer activities
• What defines the nominee as an “outstanding” volunteer
Winners of the award receive a trophy, and Jill Bell emphasizes, “this year, for the first time, Republic Bank is an overall sponsor of the program. That’s going to allow us to also give every person who receives a Bell Award a $500 gift that they can make to the charity of their choice.”
Republic Bank is also sponsoring 10-person tables for the award recipients so they can bring their family members and friends to the ceremony.
It’s Like the “Local Oscars”
Jill Bell is an outstanding volunteer herself. She has contributed her time to the award program for more than 20 years, and she previously served as chair in the 1990s. But she’s quick to give credit for the program’s success to WLKY Program & Community Affairs Coordinator Debbie Roberson, who has been with the program since its inception.
“Debbie really is the person who makes the foundation and the award program what it is,” Bell said. “She’s amazing.”
Roberson, in turn, said the credit goes to the foundation and to the WLKY team for a station-wide commitment and effort. “We have anchors Rick Van Hoose and Vicki Dortch emcee the ceremony every year, and then we have 12 other news personalities who volunteer their time to be there. They are designated to sit at each winner’s table. We feel like this provides a little extra celebrity power for the event. A winner goes to a table and there’s, say, Chief Meteorologist Jay Cardosi sitting there, eating dinner with them, and talking about their volunteer efforts.
“From the engineering and the production side, just to set up and get the room ready for the ceremony is a significant effort. We basically are doing two events in one because we have the celebration where we honor the volunteers, but then WLKY is videoing all of this so we can come back and edit it down to a one-hour special that airs in prime time the following week. From a technical standpoint, it’s an all-hands-on-deck event.”
The winners are “very humble people who help the community without expecting any recognition and they are always highly appreciative of the tremendous effort that goes into the ceremony,” Roberson added. “A few years ago, one recipient said to me, ‘I remember these awards from when I was a young child. Our family always gathered around the TV and watched it every year. And then to think that I got a letter that said I was a winner — to me this is like getting a local Oscar award.’”
Youth Service Honors
In addition to the adult volunteers, the Bell Awards recognize two young people every year. The Youth Service Honor was established in 1994 because the foundation often would get nominations for high school students “who display a passion for community service,” but “there wasn’t a fair way to judge them against somebody who was in their 40s or 50s and had been involved in volunteer efforts for two or three decades,” Roberson said.
One of the Youth Service Honor recipients last year was Simpsonville resident Noelle Thompson, who founded a community initiative called Break Through 4 a Buddy. It fosters friendships and group social activities for students and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. The other recipient was Louisvillian Holly Zoeller, who founded a chapter of Operation Smile at Assumption High School. An international nonprofit organization, Operation Smile raises funds for medical volunteers to perform surgeries that correct cleft palates on children in developing countries.
Each Youth Service Award winner receives a plaque and a $3,000 scholarship provided by SealMaster of Kentucky.
A Special Honor
Muhammad Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
During last year’s awards ceremony, the WLKY Spirit of Louisville Foundation and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer presented a special posthumous award to Ali. This Mayor’s Spirit of Louisville Award recognized the Louisville legend’s lifetime of humanitarian efforts.
“It’s a huge award for Muhammad and the family to be recognized by his hometown in this way,” Lonnie Ali said, “and it represents everything he stood for. Without Louisville, Muhammad never would have gotten his start. This was his home. This was his foundation. These were the people who supported him before he had anything. …. They were his first fans.”
She added praise for all of the Bell Award recipients: “I applaud each and every one of them because they’re living their lives in service to other people, and they set the example. They are the living example of what we should be doing.”
The foundation also surprised Lonnie Ali with her own award for all the work she’s done in the community.
The Corporate Honored Volunteer Program
Louisville has so many outstanding citizens that it would be impossible to honor them all. That’s why the foundation established the Corporate Honored Volunteer Program in 1986. This program gives companies and other organizations a way to recognize their own employees for volunteer activities. Metro United Way is sponsoring the program this year in commemoration of its 100th anniversary.
The foundation lets companies use their own criteria and selection method for the honorees, who receive a certificate and lapel pin. There is no cost to organizations for participating in the program other than the purchase of tables or seats for the awards banquet.
The ticket price for a Corporate Table (10 seats) is $1,000. For $1,250, an organization can purchase a Contributing Sponsor table, which includes 10 seats and special recognition in the printed program, a video presentation, and on the WLKY website. An individual seat is $100.
About 20 companies participate in the Corporate Honored Volunteer Program every year. For more information on how your organization can get involved, contact Roberson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 891-4811.
The 40th Annual Bell Awards will be presented in the Galt House East Grand Ballroom on October 20. To buy tickets, get more information or make a donation to the Bell Awards program and help the foundation continue to recognize volunteers throughout our community, visit www.wlkybellawards.com.