People whose contributions make Altoona a better place to live were honored Thursday night at the Altoona Area Christian Coaltion's Remarkable Signs of Hope banquet held at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center.
It is the third year for the awards that recognize people and organizations who embody the ideals of the coalition in tangible ways. Those ideals include "working for a community that is welcoming and hospitable, kind and compassionate and advocating for justice and mercy."
The Rev. Rebecca Zeek, a member of the coalition and pastor of Twenty-eighth Street Church of the Brethren, said "lots and lots of good things happen in the community that never get recognized. Day in and day out, people are doing remarkable things to help our city. We seek out the unsung people and recognize their efforts."
She said it is easy to get pulled down by negativity, but the Remarkable Signs of Hope are one of the ways the coalition lifts up the good news.
The honorees are:
n Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, an organization that works to supply physical needs of people throughout the community regardless of religious affiliation. Director is Jean Johnstone.
n Susan Estep, former executive director of the Center for Independent Living of South Central Pennsylvania.
n Harriet Gaston, coordinator of minority programs at Penn State Altoona.
n Ron Hoover, team leader for Volunteers in Mission for the Altoona District of the United Methodist Church.
n Ethel Vallei, a foster grandparent from the Foster Grandparent Program, operated by Blair Senior Services. Vallei works at Altoona Central Catholic School.
For the first time, the coalition has honored an organization.
Jean Johnstone, executive director for Catholic Charities, said it's a real honor to receive the award.
"We are proud and humbled," she said. "it is nice to be recognized for the things we do by people of different faiths."
(The coalition is made up of Catholic and Protestant churches.)
Catholic Charities serves the residents of the city and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown by providing emergency financial assistance, counseling and adoption services.
Although it is Catholic-based, the nonprofit organization helps people of all faiths and no faith.
"Most of the people we care for are not Catholics," she said. "We are here to do God's work. Our doors are open to everyone. We try to help people where they are at."
The organization helps people who are on the brink of having utilities shut off or need help paying fuel oil bills.
Others ways Catholic Charities helps are by providing a discharged hospital patient with needed medication or transportation for someone who has no way to to attend a loved one's out-of-town funeral.
Counseling is available and charges are on a sliding scale.
Catholic Charities also helps with adoptions of infants, and Johnstone said two babies were adopted in 2010.
Estep was nominated by the Rev. Betty Landis, former pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church.
In her nomination submission, Landis said: "She truly believes that all persons regardless of physical abilities can live as independent valuable members of their communities. Susan has lived an active, engaged and community-focused life prior to and during her 43 years of paralysis."
Estep retired as executive director of the Center for Independent Living in September after serving in the post for 20 years and having worked at the center since its inception in 1988. Estep is paralyzed from the neck down, the result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
She said she was surprised and pleased to receive the Signs of Hope honor.
Through the years, she has seen many changes that have led to more independent lives for people with disabilities, including curb cuts, buses that accommodate wheelchairs and ramps for businesses and homes. She said people with disabilities were once kept out of sight - living in nursing homes or with their families, but now can live independently
Estep said she is proud that the center was among the first to offer services to the deaf. It also helps people and works with the families of people who have disabilities.
Gaston chairs a community organization that documents African-American history in Central Pennsylvania.
She said she "was very humbled" to receive the honor and "to think that what I am doing is having that type of impact on the community."
She was nominated by the Rev. Paul Johnson, pastor of Eighteenth Street Community Church.
Johnson wrote: "Harriet has totally embraced the black history culture of central Pennsylvania. She has been a leader in establishing the African- American Heritage Project of Blair County and her knowledge and active support of this project has been invaluable. She is a firebrand of inspiration to all who know her."
Gaston's contribution is two-fold. She has organized the African- American Heritage Festival for about 13 years and speaks to groups about black history in Blair County.
She makes her audiences aware that African- Americans lived in the county before it was even established. She said that tax records archived at the Blair County Genealogical Society show that several families who lived in Sinking Valley had slaves.
"For me, it was an eye-opener," said Gaston, who continues to do research on African-Americans from the area and is working on a book.
She said more than 40 African-Americans from the county were soldiers in the Civil War Colored Troops and the African American who performed the first open heart surgery was from Hollidaysburg.
Although she did not grow up here, she said she is proud to be from Blair County and believes it is important for younger people, like her son, to know the area's past.
The festival, observed in July, was birthed to celebrate music, dance and other arts that are part of the culture and history.
Hoover has been helping people whose homes have been damaged by disasters since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
The first missions team went to Mississippi in March of 2006, and he has organized 20 trips in the past five years to places such as Greensburg, Kan.; Atlanta; Monticello, Ind.; Towanda, N.Y.; and Nashville, Tenn. The teams put homes ravaged by floods, hurricanes and tornadoes back together.
Locally, workers spend a week each summer fixing up homes as part of Altoona Mission Week under the umbrella of Second United Methodist Church.
"When disaster strikes a lot of folks write a check, but it is not quite enough for me," said Hoover, who is retired from the Air Force and has experience as a logistics planner.
He said the volunteers, deserve the credit for a lot of the work.
Judy Russ of Altoona nominated Hoover. She said: "He is a tireless worker who gives hundreds of hours of his time to the mission teams and has helped many families."
Vallei, who has been a Foster Grandparent for about five years, said she felt very honored to be selected for the award. She assists third-grade students with their subjects and is someone the children respect and turn to with problems.
Vallei said elementary students today face challenges that they did not encounter in the past.
"It's hard for kids. They don't know if they are going right or left," she said.
Nominating her for the honor was Marcia E. Hammond, third-grade teacher at ACCS.
"My students love her," Hammond wrote. "Every day she comes in with a smile on her face and a kind word to say to the students and me. "
"When it comes to advocating justice and mercy, her faith in God shines every moment of her life."