COLUMBIA CITY — Gratitude filled the room Thursday night as the Community Foundation of Whitley County recognized and awarded the 59 recipients of this year’s Heart of Gold award.

Heart of Gold is an award program established by the foundation 20 years ago to bring attention and recognition to people throughout the community who do good for the sake of doing what’s right.

As the foundation website says, recipients are, “those people who give themselves unselfishly to serve others, collectively or individually, with volunteer acts of service and/or kindness beyond the call of duty.”

At the end of the ceremony, the foundation typically chooses three overall winners for the year, who donate $1,000 from the foundation to a charity of their choosing.

“Some years this is really difficult,” said September McConnell, CEO of the Community Foundation. “Some years, it’s impossible. This was one of those years.”

Instead of choosing winners, all 59 of this year’s nominees received $100 to donate to their choice charity.

Nominees included 14-year-old Landon Reimer and retired Churubusco resident Joan Shanabarger-Keller, as well as the local Korean War Honor Guard, which travels to the burials of veterans to honor them.

Reimer, nominated by Bobbie Nix, stayed by his friend’s side when he broke his back in an ATV accident in October, telling him not to move and reassuring him that he would be okay.

“Landon has gone to Fort Wayne almost every day to see his friend at the hospital,” Nix wrote in her nomination letter. “I don’t know many 14-year-olds who would think to calm their friend and make sure they kept still during a crisis situation.”

South Whitley resident and commander of the AMVET post in town Jim Howard was proud of his nomination and the influence he hopes it will have on their charity.

“As an AMVET post, our biggest goal is to donate money to anybody, whether it’s a veteran or a community member or anybody, that is in need,” Howard said.

“For 2017, we are closing in on $30,000 in donations from our post. We’re excited about that because it’s the most we’ve ever done any time in our history. This is a really good thing for us as far as being nominated and put out there to the community. The more we do, the more we want to do, so I’m very happy to be recognized but I’m more excited for the future.”

Shelby Lamm has been a force or advocacy with TROY Center in recent years, and this year was nominated by Shelby VonHoldt, a student at the school.

“I remember the school struggling to get us lunch,” VonHoldt wrote in her letter. “Shelby brings us food and she brings us clothes. That means a lot to the kids here whose parents don’t buy food and clothes for them.”

Lamm was awestruck by her nomination, and gives much credit to TROY.

“I think that what it means is that these students work so hard,” she said. “Look how grateful they are for the little things people do for them. Their lives aren’t easy, and yet they show so much gratitude for helping them out. That’s the biggest honor you can get.”

At the meeting

The Heart of Gold awards also doubles as the foundation’s annual meeting, during which an update is provided on the year’s activities.

“I’ve told my board that if there’s been a single mantra that has echoed through the halls of the foundation this past year, it is change is good,” McConnell said. “Throughout the community there has been wonderful change going on.”

She pointed out the new Columbia City High School, Fahl Aquatics Center, and commended the good work being done in Churubusco despite missing Stellar designation.

“Our downtowns are reawakening,” she said.

The foundation received several large donations this year, one of which went to the new home for TROY Center, and successfully restructured after the retirement and passing of some of the board members and volunteers.

Also at the annual meeting, the foundation highlights one of their partner organizations, this year spotlighting The Lighthouse and parent company Interfaith Mission.

“Nearly one year ago, Interfaith Mission faced the heartbreaking reality that we had four months until we would close our doors, and the organization would no longer serve the homeless of Whitley County,” Executive Director of Interfaith Mission Shawn Ellis said. “After 17 years, it would no longer serve the littles and the middles and single moms and men. There were many days and weeks and months full of tears.”

The nonprofit went through an austere restructuring and some soul searching, but turned itself around with the help of the foundation and other volunteers.

“Throughout the past year, the CF took a journey with us through the darkest times of the organization’s history,” she said. “In November last year, we only had three part-time employees because we were in that time of crisis. Over the past year, we have increased our staff to six full-time employees, and have worked hard at developing a team of leaders who work daily to address the barriers of those we serve.”