Each year, the Idaho Mountain Express is inundated with nominations from Blaine County residents who want to recognize the women in their lives.
The Idaho Mountain Express Woman of the Year Award was started in 2010 as a way to recognize women in the valley who make a difference to the community. Jennifer Tuohy, editor in chief of the Sun Valley Guide magazine, said the Woman of the Year Award gives readers of the Idaho Mountain Express a chance to tell the editors about a woman who has made Blaine County a better place, through her actions, contributions and positive outlook on life.
“Four years ago, when we decided to publish a new special section focusing on the women of the Wood River Valley, I realized it might be tough to decide which of the many great women of the valley to write about,” she said. “So we decided to let our readers tell us who they thought was worthy of recognition by letting them nominate and then vote on the Idaho Mountain Express Woman of the Year.”
The fourth annual Woman of the Year survey saw 58 readers nominate 18 women for their contributions. After narrowing the field of nominations (and honoring the wishes of the worthy women who were nominated, but chose not to participate), the Express was left with three very different women who all contribute to making the Wood River Valley an amazing place to be.
(Girls on the Run)
When Shari Kunz began training for the Portland Marathon in 2001, she didn’t know that her running would one day change the lives of hundreds of young girls in the Wood River Valley.
At the time, she was more focused on her brother, Paul, who had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. Kunz ran the marathon to raise money for cancer research, but after completing the marathon, she knew distance running was something she would continue doing. She subscribed to Runner’s World, the magazine where she first heard about Girls on the Run.
Girls on the Run is a national organization that helps elementary-age girls learn self-esteem and confidence through running and other physical activity. The girls meet twice a week with volunteer coaches and do service projects, do self-esteem exercises and, of course, run. At the end of the season, the girls run a 5k race.
Once Kunz read about the organization, she knew she had to start a branch of the program in the Wood River Valley.
“I have always really been drawn to [improving] self-esteem in girls,” she said. “It’s just so important for girls to have a sense of identity, to be able to look in the mirror and like who they see.”
Kunz started in 2002 with 14 young girls at Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum. Now, she works as a volunteer with about 150 students a year at Hailey, Woodside, Bellevue and Hemingway elementary schools.
Kunz said girls get so many messages from the media—television, magazines and the Internet—to look, dress and act a certain way that she fears girls are losing their sense of identity, the thing that tells them it’s OK to be who they want to be. Girls on the Run can help, she said.
“When girls can believe in themselves and shut down the rest of the world and get within their skin, they can like who they are,” she said. “When they like who they are, they can have the confidence to become who they want to become.”
Kunz, 54, served as the branch’s executive director from 2002 to 2007, then on the board of directors from 2007 to 2009. Now, she said, she’s a volunteer and a member of the advisory board. The feeling she gets when she sees “her girls” cross the finish line of their first 5k is incomparable to any other feeling of accomplishment, she said.
“There is nothing like standing at the finish lines of these races and holding out your hands and giving these girls high fives,” she said. “You just see them light up—you’ve given them strength. When you see these girls come across the finish line, their life changes. To be a part of that, it’s pretty touching.”
(Wood River Women’s Charitable Foundation)
Marcia Liebich is quick to point out that she’s not one of the founders of the Wood River Women’s Charitable Foundation, even though her work with that organization is what many of her nominators cited as the reason she should be given the award. The 71-year-old Hailey resident has been heavily involved in the foundation since its inception in 2009, and is now the foundation’s president.
The foundation, formed in 2009, is a group of 160 women that uses the giving power of individual members’ smaller donations to make a larger impact on local organizations such as the Hunger Coalition and the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“Our family has always been philanthropic, and the idea of collective giving appealed to me,” she said.
Liebich said her main goal with the foundation is to do what she calls “capacity-building” with local nonprofit organizations, giving staff of those organizations the professional training they need to make their organizations more successful.
As a result, the Wood River Women’s Charitable Foundation now supports the Nonprofit Education Initiative at the Community Campus in Hailey, a series of classes meant to help nonprofit organizations recruit boards of directors, manage conflict among staff and develop strategic plans.
Despite her work in the community, Liebich said her proudest accomplishment was helping to build a hospital outside of Arusha, Tanzania. The village lacked proper medical care and therefore had a very high rate of both infant mortality and women dying in childbirth. The village had found doctors willing to work in the remote location, but they were in desperate need of a hospital building. Liebich and her husband donated the $5,000 needed for a building and found friends willing to donate money for medical equipment.
“We’re told they are now seeing about 150 people a day,” she said. “Women now have services for childbirth and the health of the people is so much better. It’s interesting, because it was such a small contribution, but it made a huge difference.”
Kat Vanden Heuvel
(The Hunger Coalition, The Rosies)
Kat Vanden Heuvel, the 36-year-old client resource and education manager for the Hunger Coalition, joked this week that if she’s voted Woman of the Year, she’s going to have to be on her best behavior.
“I feel like, if I get this title, I really have to be good!” she said with a laugh. “It’s a very humbling thing to be nominated for something like this, much less make it to the finalist stage.”
Vanden Heuvel moved to the Wood River Valley with her husband in 2008 and started working at the Wood River Y. She’d worked for YMCA branches across the country, she said, but decided to leave the organization when her son, Tripp—now 1 year old—was born.
“I was ready to step away from the Y a little bit,” she said. “The joke at the Y is that we’re really good at building other people’s families and lives, but a lot of Y execs, they’re so committed to the job that their own lives don’t get the attention.”
Vanden Heuvel now works to identify needs in the valley, such as a need for résumé building or nutritional education, then develops programs to fill those needs. In between that and raising Tripp and Seneca (Vanden Heuvel’s 3-year-old daughter), she directs a loose coalition of volunteer-minded women known as The Rosies.
The Rosies formed almost a year ago, and the group now boasts a membership of 35, according to its Facebook page. Vanden Heuvel said the group has a solid core of 10 to 15 women who volunteer their time and effort—rather than their dollars—to organizations such as the Advocates, Swiftsure Ranch and Higher Ground.
“We’re a bunch of girls who work for nonprofits, so we’re not raking in the bucks,” Vanden Heuvel said with a laugh. “But we have time and we don’t mind getting our hands dirty.”
Vote for Woman of the Year
To vote on which of these women should be Woman of the Year, please visit www.mtexpress.com and click on the “Valley Woman Vote Here” button. Voting will be open until noon on Wednesday, Feb. 27, and the winner will be featured in the Idaho Mountain Express Valley Woman special section on March 20.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org