LIGHT A FIRE
Extraordinary Board Member
Awarded to a person whose services as a member of a nonprofit organization’s board enhances that organization’s operations and improves the greater community.
2014: Diane O'Connor, Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Oregon & SW Washington
At 57, after 32 years as a high school teacher and counselor, Diane O’Connor was training for Cycle Oregon and looking forward to retirement. Things didn’t go quite as planned: in 2001, doctors diagnosed her with Stage 3c ovarian cancer, with a 35 percent chance of surviving. Thirteen years later, the tireless 70-year-old has beaten the odds—and gotten back on her bike. She’s also helped others tackle the often deadly disease by launching the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Oregon & SW Washington. “She just gets people,” marvels cofounder Diane Elizondo. “This is a full-time job, plus. She’s devoted her life to helping other women.” O’Connor also serves as the president of the national OCA, splitting her time between boosting newly diagnosed women’s spirits, schooling med students, and flying across the country on her own dime to lobby for funds and better treatment options. “I didn’t need ovarian cancer to find my meaning in life,” she says. “But you take what you get and you go with it.”
I went from biking Cycle Oregon to thinking my life was over. I felt so alone. I had a complete hysterectomy, and had some lymph nodes and several tumors in my abdomen removed—and then chemo for 15 months. It was brutal. But while I was in treatment, a friend convinced me to drag myself to an Ovarian Cancer Alliance conference in DC. It was an epiphany. At that point, I still considered myself a patient, but there I met women who had made the move from patient to survivor to advocate.
MOST OF US don’t know anybody who has had ovarian cancer ... and lived. About 65 percent of us are not diagnosed until Stage 3 or 4 because it’s so hard to detect. What could really help ovarian cancer patients is screening tools—you can’t biopsy an ovary. Every year, OCA lobbies for greater federal investment in research to find an early detection test. In 2014, we helped secure $166 million for ovarian cancer research and education efforts.
WE SHARE OUR ovarian cancer stories with med students on their ob-gyn rotation. We do about 22 sessions a year, and I’m at every one. I just love it. The students ask such smart questions. It’s especially effective when I have younger survivors speaking. I always joke, “I’m just Grandma Diane, but when you have an ovarian cancer survivor who is just finishing college, that’s a wake-up call.”
THE MOST REWARDING thing is meeting a woman who’s just been diagnosed and bringing her into the fold, connecting her with a peer volunteer … then watching her complete treatment, get her hope back, and then say, “I want to be a peer volunteer for someone else—what can I do?”
Inspired by our amazing Light a Fire winners? Find out how to give back to
Portland's best nonprofits with our Guide to Giving!
2013: JULIE BALL, I HAVE A DREAM OREGON
FOR SIX YEARS, Julie Ball was a solid board member, raising money for and tutoring kids from low-income families through Oregon’s I Have a Dream (IHAD), a program devoted to helping them get through school and into college. But in 2003, the retired teacher decided to take a leap in scale: she “adopted” an entire third-grade class at Woodlawn Elementary. She committed to help guide all 52 students through their K–12 school careers, as well as to raise more than $800,000 in start-up funds to hire IHAD staff to manage the kids’ day-to-day progress.
Her “kids,” many of whom come from troubled, low-income homes, agree. “I owe her a lot—she’s helped my education over my whole life,” says Jasmine Oddie, who started classes at Portland Community College in 2013, funded through scholarships the IHAD team helped her secure. She remembers being “blown away” by an Art Camp at Willamette University that Ball encouraged her to attend in 2011. Oddie plans to major in graphic design and art histor. A decade later, after meeting with her students for regular after-school tutoring and carting kids on trips to museums and college visits, Ball’s original “Dreamers” finally achieved their goal. “I made these for all of them,” the 71-year-old says proudly as she holds up a silver key inscribed with the words: “Dreamer 2013: The key is in your hand.” “I’m amazed by their resiliency and strength.”
“Julie is a force to be reckoned with,” says IHAD’s annual giving manager, Kari Morin. “And she does this in the kindest, quietest, and most graceful way possible.”
2012: KEN THRASHER
The list of all the boards, committees, and campaigns Ken Thrasher has served on reads like a Shakespearean soliloquy: impressive, very, very long—and ultimately inspiring, many of them focused on helping young people improve their lives, graduate from college, and get good jobs to sustain their families and their futures. It’s a passion of Thrasher’s that’s also personal. The Franklin High School and OSU grad grew up in a family with two divorces, and spent much of his youth being raised by a single stepfather. “We didn’t have much,” he says. But in high school he went to work for the Portland businessman Bill Naito, who was struck by Thrasher’s work ethic and became not just a boss but a mentor and friend. Naito impressed upon Thrasher the importance of volunteerism, a lesson he has since taken to the nth degree. What he brings to the table is invaluable for nonprofits: he gets them to focus on strategic planning, hitting fundraising benchmarks, and using those strong strategic plans to track progress. That’s exactly what he did for Friends of the Children. Under Thrasher’s leadership, the nonprofit increased revenue by 12 percent over a two-year period—allowing it to serve an additional 50 kids. And he does all of this without a hint of ego. Receiving awards? Not his thing. “I don’t care who gets the credit,” he says. “I just want to help kids.”
2011: Linda Wright
In 1990, Linda Wright heard about a little-known nonprofit dedicated to the simple proposition that at-risk, urban youth needed helping hands beyond their families and schools. To move beyond summer and after-school programs to 24-7 counseling and support, the organization, Self-Enhancement Inc, needed its own building—and millions to buy it. It took more than six months, but Wright, then vice president of community relations for US Bank, convinced the bank’s board to fill the gap by making what, at the time, had been the largest corporate donation in Oregon history: $1 million. Today, students who go through SEI programs graduate high school at a rate of nearly 100 percent (by comparison, the average four-year graduation rate in a PPS high school is 55 percent), and 85 percent of SEI students go on to higher education. Such success couldn’t have been possible without Wright’s decades of fundraising efforts. She has cajoled corporations; helped with Art+Soul, SEI’s highest-earning annual fundraiser; and one year even served as the group’s interim development director for six months. She calls herself an adviser, supporter, encourager, and confidante to president, founder, and CEO Tony Hopson Sr. “SEI would not be SEI were it not for Linda Wright,” says Hopson. “For every graduate of our program, and every success we have at SEI, Linda’s handprint is there.”
2010: GUN DENHART
What motivated me to dedicate so much time and money to the Stand for Children Leadership Center?” muses Gun Denhart, who’s been a board member for the organization since its Oregon inception. “Well, I didn’t know I was going to do it when I first joined,” she answers, laughing. Nevertheless, after she’d spent years donating clothes from her children’s clothing company, Hanna Andersson, to local shelters, Denhart longed to create a more comprehensive solution for alleviating poverty. So when she met Stand’s CEO, Jonah Edelman, in New York, in 1998, Denhart convinced him to relocate the nonprofit’s office to Portland, where he could field-test his new grassroots organizing model. Twelve years later, Stand boasts 2,400 members in 14 Oregon communities—countless citizens united to help leverage $1.9 billion for education policy reforms to benefit more than 980,000 Oregon schoolchildren. In addition to providing her own financial support, enlisting other philanthropists through the Oregon Business Association, and hosting occasional fundraisers in her living room, Denhart has spent incalculable hours lobbying, training, and heading conferences and rallies. “I wanted systemic change,” says Denhart, “and it’s amazing how much better things can get when you really chew on them with people from other walks of life.”
2009: Kreeg Peeples
Kreeg Peeples is ashamed to admit that years ago, when his son was collecting canned food for needy families, he wondered why the recipients didn’t just go get a job. “I didn’t understand then that they were getting the bad breaks that you and I didn’t,” he says. Spending three years as a board member for Potluck in the Park has helped change his mind. In addition to volunteering for organizations such as Street Roots and the Blanchet House, among others, Peeples devotes at least three days a week to visiting food centers, planning meals, and then, on Sundays, preparing and serving healthy meals to the more than 400 people (and growing) who arrive at O’Bryant Square every week. “We’re not just filling empty tummies,” Peeples ays. “There is a community here. The emotional paycheck I get is that people come back because they feel like they were cared about.”
2008: Julie McMurchie
Julie McMurchie still gets choked up when she talks about the day, in 2001, when her mother died, even though she has been telling the story of that sunny January afternoon to people across the country for years. “We played music and read poetry … Then she took the medicine and fell asleep in five minutes, with all her children around her. Who wouldn’t want that?” McMurchie’s mother, bedridden with lung cancer, was a client of Compassion & Choices of Oregon, an organization aimed at helping terminally ill Oregonians with end-of-life decisions—including physician-assisted death, which is legal only in Oregon. McMurchie serves on the Compassion & Choices board of directors in hopes of leading a small revolution in the way Americans think about dying. ‘My goal is for every Oregonian … to know there is a place they can ask questions.’ Although physician-assisted death is legal here under the state’s 1997 Death With Dignity Act, McMurchie feels we have a long way to go in terms of public information and physician acceptance. Many doctors are uncomfortable with the idea of helping patients die, so Compassion & Choices reaches out to them with seminars; the organization also is raising money to expand its public outreach programs. “When someone gets a terminal diagnosis, they are scared and want to know what their options are at the end of life,” McMurchie says. “My goal is for every Oregonian who gets a scary diagnosis to know there is a place they can ask questions, where people will be nonjudgmental.” McMurchie has helped bolster the organization’s annual budget by nearly one-third, and she managed to bring in $77,000 in donations at the last fundraiser (up by $30,000). “This is one of the hardest organizations to raise money for,” says George Eighmey, executive director. “It’s an issue people don’t want to talk about, but having Julie as a public face for this issue in the community has really brought us to the next level of mainstream recognition.”