When Christina Keys first attended the Senior Hero Awards in 2018, she had a revelation. Hearing stories about caregivers going above and beyond for Clark County’s seniors moved her to action.
“It inspired me to do more,” she said.
Keys had become a caregiver for her mother seven years earlier, and she was struggling to find local resources that could help her provide quality care. Keys noticed other caregivers in a similar situation, and in 2019, she started the nonprofit Loving Them Forward to help local caregivers find resources and community.
Sine then, the organization has grown substantially, and it has become known for its “Caregivers Christmas,” an event that provides holiday gifts for local caregivers.
This year, Keys was honored as a community hero for her work with Loving Them Forward at the sixth annual Senior Hero Awards, which was held at Pearson Air Museum on Wednesday afternoon.
The Senior Hero Awards is an event held annually by multiple individuals and organizations in Clark County to honor the work of caregivers who work with seniors. This year was the first large in-person Senior Hero Awards event held since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly 170 people attended the event, including business, nonprofit and civic leaders such as state Sen. Ann Rivers, state Rep. Vicki Kraft and Vancouver Mayor Pro Tem Ty Stober.
“Caregivers experience pain that others don’t,” said Julie Williams, committee chair for the Senior Hero Awards. “Their work is often done behind doors, and they do it with such grace and such care that they amaze me every day. We’re here to recognize a special people that have a genetic difference, I think, that makes their hearts bigger. Not everybody can do the work that they do.”
The event was hosted by Benjamin Surmi, head of gerontology and director of education and culture at Koelsch Communities.
“It takes so many different people to make it work for us to be able to care for seniors in this city, and to make it possible to bring good lives for people who care for seniors in this city,” Surmi said. “We have to pay attention, at least once a year, to the people who are working really hard to do that.”
Multiple awards and grants were presented at the event. Awardees are nominated by community members and selected by a panel of judges, who are usually older adults and leaders in the community. Grants are made possible by a variety of sponsors, according to Surmi.
“Something that’s unique about Senior Heroes is we don’t just raise money to pay for the event, we also raise money to give directly to organizations that are serving seniors,” Surmi said.
This year, a total of $5,650 was provided to individuals and organizations. One $1,500 grant was provided to a local student preparing for a career as a certified nursing assistant. Loving Them Forward received a $1,000 grant. And three $750 Fred Meyer gas gift cards were given to three local organizations: A Caring Closet, HOPE Dementia Support and Friends of Hospice.
“We selected three nonprofits that have direct relationships with the people who care for seniors,” Surmi said. “We’re going to give these gift cards to these organizations so that, at their discretion, when they’re working with a family member or professional who is caring for seniors and really struggling to pay for travel, they can hand them one of these gift cards.”
Three individuals were honored as Caregiver of the Year: Olivia Donaldson with The Doctor’s Inn, Cheryl Nuzum with Elfin Services and Carol Byers, a family caregiver. As each awardee accepted their certificate and $300 check, Surmi shared details about how they went above and beyond in supporting seniors.
“As you hear these words, know that there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into this work,” he said.
Other awards included the Healthcare Professional Award, the Senior Champion Award and the Community Hero Award.
The Michael R. Wilson Caring Heart Award, a new award created in honor of the late Michael R. Wilson, a well-known Clark County community member who passed away on July 12, 2021, was presented to Westby Associates Inc., where Wilson was a longtime employee, for its support of local nonprofits.
Eric Erickson, the executive director of CDM Caregiving Services, was awarded the Pat Jollota Leadership Award. On top of his work with CDM Caregiving Services over the past 20 years, Erickson also helped establish the Senior Hero Awards six years ago.
“I used to work as a work-study student at Western Washington University, and my boss there made me love serving seniors,” Erickson said. “If you know a young person just getting into this line of service, make them love it. They might stick around for 30 years.”
To learn more about the Senior Hero Awards, visit www.seniorawards.org.