The giving spirit of the Wood River Valley is evident in the number of nonprofit organizations whose work benefits people, animals and the land around us. Many of the organizations are directed by women. Below, meet four of the valley’s women who work diligently to make a difference in the world.
Feeding the Hungry
Back in 2003, then-valley resident Tom Iselin brought to light the disturbing fact that even in upscale Blaine County many families could not afford the food they needed to thrive.
Kansas City native Jeanne Liston was at the first meeting of the Blaine County Hunger Coalition, which was formed to gather groceries and donations to fill food boxes for a collection of county agencies charged with feeding the hungry.
Today, Liston serves as executive director of the organization, overseeing a team of 150 volunteers dedicated to making sure that no one in the county goes a single day without proper nutrition.
“This is a fulfilling job because I am making a difference in peoples’ lives,” Liston said. “We are all here for the right reasons.”
Liston studied French and art history at Benedictine College before working and traveling in Europe, Africa and Asia. While motorcycling through the Lybian desert, she encountered a group of people that would change her life and set her on a career that would involve social justice.
The motorcycle broke down near an oasis, and before she and her partner hitch-hiked back to the city, she got to know the locals.
Jeanne Liston sorts through food at the Hunger Coalition headquarters.
Express photo by Roland Lane
“These were people who had so little, yet they wanted to give you everything they had,” she said. “When I returned to the United States, I struggled to understand why we had people homeless and hungry on our city streets.”
Back in Kansas, Liston heard a lecture by Father Joe Langford about his time working with Mother Teresa to help the needy in the slums of India. The talk inspired Liston to join Langford’s Human Development Foundation, working in Bangkok, Thailand, to support street kids and AIDS patients.
“It was incredibly challenging, but also very rewarding work,” Liston said, while taking a short break from running the Hunger Coalition at newly expanded offices in Bellevue. She became a board member in 2005, and the first paid staff member in 2007, just in time for an explosion in the community’s need for food donations.
“By October of 2008, there were lines of people around our building. They were hungry and scared,” Liston said.
She and her board spearheaded fundraising efforts and hired staff, eventually establishing the food lockers, mobile food bank vans and the community-managed Hope Garden that the Hunger Coalition is known for today.
Hunger coalition services are entirely confidential and not affiliated with the government.
Last year the Hunger Coalition used about $680,000 in private and public donations to serve 2,303 individual clients in need. But Liston said her work is far from over.
“There were a record number of people waiting in line in Bellevue last month, about 67 families,” she said. Liston said the increase could be due to recent cuts to the federal Food Stamp program, and the decision in December to not extend unemployment benefits.
“Some people don’t come to us because they think other need help more than they do.” Said Liston. “We know that we are not meeting the need that is out there.”
Liston has served on the Idaho Food Bank board of directors, and now serves on the board of the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force. These posts have made her especially thankful for the generosity of Wood River Valley residents in facing the problem of hunger in our community.
“This community is incredibly generous. While other food banks in Idaho were cutting back on hours and resources, this community was increasingly responsive to its needs,” she said.
Caring for animals and people
Veterinarian JoAnne Dixon serves as executive director and medical director of the “no kill” Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley near Hailey, which adopts out about 400 pets each year to grateful owners.
After a firefighter helped save the shelter from a massive wildfire that swept through Croy Canyon last summer, he returned to adopt a Labrador puppy.
When a pit bull and her litter of puppies were “dumped” in Gimlet, south of Ketchum, the shelter took them in and adopted them out.
“I am proud of our organization and proud of our community,” Dixon said. “We are connecting people with animals and changing lives.”
Dixon, a native of Toronto, was completing her veterinarian studies many years ago at the Sun Valley Animal Center when her father died, leaving her mother despondent.
“She really didn’t have a reason to get out of bed anymore,” said Dixon, who found an animal shelter dog to keep her company. “All of a sudden my mother was up and doing things and seeing friends. It was quite a healing process.”
JoAnne Dixon comforts one of the dogs at the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley.
Express photo by Roland Lane
Dixon worked in a private veterinary practice for 10 years, often with pampered pets, before taking on the responsibility of running the Wood River Valley shelter in 2006. She was pregnant with twins at the time and thought the new position tending to homeless animals would provide a less demanding schedule.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Dixon, who now spays and neuters for free about 400 animals each year, conducts surgeries, oversees animal trainings and assessments, and provides adoption counseling for potential pet owners.
The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley became in 1997 the first one in Idaho to not euthanize homeless animals, later offering free spay and neutering clinics to get animal populations in control, while pursuing an aggressive adoption program.
Dixon and her staff and team of volunteers de-worm, vaccinate and implant microchip location devices in all the cats and dogs brought to the shelter. They also prepare them for a new life.
“We are basically animal social workers,” she said. “Every pet has a history, but we don’t always know what it is. We have to ask the question, ‘What are the barriers to adoption?’”
She said if a dog is shy, they might put treats in a can hung from the gate when they walk by, in order to draw the dog into closer contact with people. If the animal barks too much, it may be trained to keep quieter. Dogs that are “ball crazy” often make excellent service dogs.
“It’s all about learning to market one’s self better,” Dixon said. “But if a new owner does not work out we have an adoption guarantee. I call it the Nordstrom return policy.”
Dixon networks with animal shelters around the country, providing dogs to a juvenile detention center for young people to practice responsibility and compassion, and to would-be pet owners who browse the online Pet Finder site to find the right breed and temperament.
“A great Pyrenees pup left town on a private jet to California. Another woman found a labradoodle for a friend in town, after the dog got lost on a hike and they found one another,” Dixon said. “Dogs don’t care if they live in a fancy house, as long as they are with you and their basic needs are met.”
Now that the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley has become known as a successful no-kill shelter, Dixon said she and her staff are able to take dogs and cats from other areas where they would likely be euthanized, and then adopt them out to new owners.
She said the shelter’s $1 million annual budget is “almost entirely” paid by private contributions.
“Nonprofits don’t invent themselves,” Dixon said. “We fill a need that the private sector does not fill. You cannot have a compassionate community, and a shelter that kills animals.”
Helping women near and far
“Women’s rights and human rights are one and the same,” said Family of Woman Film Festival founder Peggy Goldwyn. “When there is true equality, we will be better able to face the big challenges of climate change, poverty and hunger.”
Goldwyn went to Hollywood from El Paso, Texas, in the 1960s to write documentaries, eventually writing comedy for hit shows such as “Love American Style,” “The Dean Martin Show,” “That Girl” and “Happy Days.”
“I went from serious to funny,” said Goldwyn, who found that she was the first young woman writer in television comedy.
In the midst of her successful career, Goldwyn married movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn Jr., started a family, and became involved in the sort of philanthropic duties one would expect from a matriarch in a Hollywood dynasty.
Goldwyn’s father-in-law, Samuel Goldwyn Sr., was a producer during the silent-movie era, and friends with Averell Harriman, founder of Sun Valley Resort.
“When I had a family of my own, I became interested in issues facing women and children,” she said.
As vice president of the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation, she helped to rebuild the Hollywood Library after a fire, founded a model daycare center in Los Angeles, and supported after-school programs for under-privileged kids. She also served as president of the Beverley Hills Board of Education.
Peggy Goldwyn is the founder of the annual Family of Woman Film Festival.
Express photo by Roland Lane
“My parents grew up during the Depression, so for me it was a privilege to have an education,” said Goldwyn, who also volunteers with charitable organizations in the Wood River Valley.
Goldwyn was eventually invited to join the American board of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an organization geared toward providing maternal health care, family planning and educational services at points across the globe. Thus began her many years of involvement in global women’s rights issues.
“The U.N. is not just a group of leaders making resolutions that are then vetoed,” Goldwyn said. “There are fantastic people on the ground doing many wonderful things.”
In 2001, she was introduced to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who asked her to produce a documentary film about the plight of international refugees. She soon took on the role of promoting the UNFPA’s mission through film.
“After all, it is the family business,” she said.
The Family of Woman Film Festival has brought 36 feature-length films to Sun Valley dealing with the status of women throughout the world. Speakers are brought each year by the United Nations to participate. They have included Liberian women who organized to overthrow a dictator, Iraqi girls who play basketball, and an American teacher and astronaut.
No awards are given at the festival, but a great deal of networking and education takes place. This year, the Family of Woman Film Festival collaborated with Boise State University, bringing its speakers and films to a broader audience. The festival’s films are now screening elsewhere in the country, in communities that share Goldwyn’s passion for women’s rights.
“Education is the key,” said Goldwyn. “When women and girls become educated, they often delay marriage, have less children and earn money to support their families.”
Tending to the dying
“Death is the last taboo in America,” said Carolyn Nystrom, executive director of the Hospice & Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley in Ketchum. “But talking about it can make it less scary. I have seen how fragile life can be, so I try to live fully each day, to not put things off until tomorrow.”
Nystrom and 85 volunteers and three paid staff members provide free end-of-life support for anyone in the county, including pain management services, bereavement support and emotional support for families and caregivers—in short, anything that would allow families to provide for dying loved ones at home.
“This is what most people want,” said Nystrom. “The caring presence of family members is extremely comforting to a person who is dying. We work to give families the confidence to be that caring presence.”
Carolyn Nystrom takes a break from her work at the Hospice & Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley in Ketchum.
Express photo by Roland Lane
Nystrom said 92 percent of the people who die in the Wood River Valley avail themselves of hospice services, compared with 47 percent nationally. The organization serves, on average, 42 people each day.
One of her clients just needed someone to feed their horses. Another wants to play cribbage.
“We have one client who wanted to learn to play ‘Amazing Grace’ on the ukulele, and then have a recording of her performance played at her funeral service,” Nystrom said. “So we had to look around to find someone who could teach the ukulele.”
Nystrom worked as an emergency-room and intensive-care nurse before taking time off from her profession to raise a family. She has also worked on the national board of the Girl Scouts of America. About 35 years ago, she answered a newspaper advertisement calling for a volunteer coordinator position at a hospice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thus began her second career, which would land her in a graduate school teaching position in end-of-life care, and a few years later at the reins of the Hospice & Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley.
Last year, Nystrom received a $50,000 Sojourns Award from Cambia Health for her exemplary service to the Wood River Valley. The money will be used to support the many services that Nystrom oversees in the valley, including the Legacy Project, which brings junior high school students into the homes of hospice patients to interview elders in order to write the stories they would like to pass on to future generations.
“They love to tell their stories and the kids love writing about them,” said Nystrom.
Each year for 25 years, Nystrom has organized a Hospice Memorial Tree lighting ceremony during the holidays to honor and remember loved ones.
“We now have about 500 names,” Nystrom said.
Nystrom said since she came to the valley she has seen the community come together to engage in end-of-life-care issues.
“This is a grassroots, community-based hospice. It is a community caring for people, instead of a government agency,” Nystrom said. “Our good work couldn’t happen everywhere. We are very fortunate for the partnerships and collaborative efforts of everyone.
“I love my work. The hardest thing will be my move to retire.”