To the Unsung Heroes

Today I attended the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ annual conference, and I got to see four people receive Unsung Heroes awards for work they have done to improve their communities. As you would guess, these individuals go about their volunteering quietly, but their dedication and concern has inspired others.

I love the idea of unsung hero awards, because so much recognition goes to people who are already well known, or whose work is plain for all to see. With few exceptions, Nobel prizes, academy awards, and many other awards go to well-known individuals, while few “everyday people” are recognized or rewarded for what they do. I think that’s a shame, because so many people work so hard to maintain sanity and stability for themselves and those around them, without the advantages that the big names have. Yes, it would be fabulous if a scientist found the cure for cancer, but they would do that only if they had a well-funded laboratory and a quiet space to think for years at a time. Single parents who keep their kids in school, fed, clothed, and safe from drugs and gangs would usually love to have just one evening of peace and quiet to think.

I can think of several people who I would nominate to receive an unsung hero award.

At the last Ventura Village Neighborhood Association meeting, one of the Board members ended the meeting by thanking all the volunteers for doing “the most thankless volunteer duty you will ever do”. That sounded about right. Ventura Village/the Phillips neighborhood is at the top of the list for crime and at the bottom for wealth in Minneapolis, but many who live here are determined to stay, to make things better for their neighbors, and to keep plugging away, whether they get properly recognized or not.

A few years ago, I met a single mother who suffered from schizophrenia, and who was raising a son who had fairly severe autism. I only spoke with her for about half an hour, but in that time, I realized the woman had more courage and determination to give her son a decent life than I have ever mustered for anything. That woman should not just receive an award; she should have a national park named after her.

Peace House Community’s founder, Rose Tillemans, spent years teaching elementary aged kids. In her autobiography, she wrote openly about the hospitalizations that resulted from the mental health crises she suffered from having a job that overwhelmed her. After her teaching career ended, she founded Peace House Community, and the woman who couldn’t face a classroom of elementary aged students gladly welcomed many who were considered the dregs of society with open arms. She created a safe place for those who were rejected or ignored by society. Rose never looked for recognition, but 37 years later (and 20 years after her death), her work is still comforting hundreds of people a week.

I could list more people, but there’s only so many words I can fit into this article. So, for all the unsung heroes, I echo the sentiment, “Thank-you for doing all the thankless things you do.” You’re awesome.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.