published Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Gerber: Newspaper, TV station celebrate volunteers

A man with a major learning disability focuses on helping people with muscular dystrophy rather than himself.

A 69-year-old woman travels to Nicaragua to provide food, medical care and shelter for children who have nothing.

An oral cancer survivor suffers through 92 radiation treatments over a decade and can only eat smoothies and soup but starts a support group for people with oral, head and neck cancer.

These are the stories of Jon Peri Coppinger, Judith Ragon and Jeanna Richelson.

They are among 10 local recipients of the prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service.

The award, known as the “Nobel Prize for public service,” is given monthly on a local level. Once a year, one of the local winners is chosen to go to Washington, D.C. to represent Chattanooga in the national competition. The local winner has a shot at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Community Service Benefiting Local Communities.

The list of national Jefferson Award recipients includes names such as Thurgood Marshall, Walter Cronkite, Peyton Manning, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey.

But you don’t have to be named Peyton or Oprah to be a hero. The awards also honor many ordinary people, unsung heroes who do extraordinary things in their communities — people like Coppinger, Ragon and Richelson.

They were honored at a luncheon in Chattanooga Thursday, and Richelson was selected as the local recipient who will travel to Washington.

The Times Free Press and WRCB Channel 3 sponsor the Jefferson Awards. We do so to praise people who volunteer their time and spend a lot of sweat, energy and emotion on projects that better someone else’s life or improve a community. We do so to praise people who not only see the possibility for change, but figure out how to make it happen.

This year’s honorees also include:

• A woman who worked hours on end to help people recover from the wreckage of the April 2011 tornadoes.

• A nurse who goes above and beyond to help her cancer patients.

• A Little League basketball coach who mentors kids both on and off the court.

• A woman who works tirelessly to help prevent youth offenders from repeating crimes.

• A man who spent years driving veterans to medical appointments in Atlanta, Nashville and Murfreesboro.

• A doctor who sees many special-needs children, has never turned away a patient and takes calls on weekends and at night.

• A man who has spent a quarter century volunteering in youth league sports.

Each one of these people has a powerful story that we’ve shared with our readers over the past few months. Go to timesfreepress.com/jeffersonawards to see the stories and videos from WRCB.

None of these people volunteer their time because they want to be recognized. They do it because they see someone else who needs help. And then, no matter the odds, they find a way to help.

“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I’m gonna win a Jefferson Award,’ ” said Keith Landecker, the 2011 local recipient and founder of an inner-city baseball league. “You just go out and do what you do.”

For an industry that’s sometimes accused of focusing on nothing but the bad news, the Jefferson Awards give the newspaper a chance to highlight the good that we all know exists in our community but sometimes gets overlooked.

It’s a privilege for the newspaper to do so.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfree press.com.

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