For as long as I've known her, Jane Stephenson has focused on improving educational opportunities for women.
I first met her in 1981 when she gave me, an older student, an internship with Academic Support Services for Adult Students, a program she directed at the University of Kentucky.
That focus led her to open the New Opportunity School for Women Inc. in 1987 after moving to Berea with her husband, who became the seventh president of Berea College in 1984.
The New Opportunity School is going strong and opened another site in 2005 at Stephenson's alma mater, Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C. A third center might open in another state in the coming months, Stephenson said.
So when word came recently that she had won $5,000 from AARP's Win & Do Good Contest and Sweepstakes for the program she founded, Stephenson was probably the only one surprised.
"Last summer when I was reading the AARP Magazine, I saw an article asking people to write about their favorite charity in 250 words or less," Stephenson said. "I said, 'I can do that.' "
She wrote about her work with New Opportunity School for Women, mailed the entry and forgot about it, she said. A couple of weeks ago she received a phone call saying she was one of seven regional winners. As such, she and six others are now competing for the grand prize of an additional $10,000 for their charities.
To win, Stephenson needs each of us to go online and vote at Createthegood.org/sweepstakes.
"The whole idea is to tell stories about volunteering and to inspire others," said Linda Barbarotta of AARP's office of volunteer & civic engagement. She also mentioned that the Web site Createthegood.org has a zip code data base so people throughout the country can find volunteer opportunities where they live.
Stephenson won for Kentucky's region, which also includes Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
On the contest Web site, all seven winners have a small blurb discussing their passion for the charities where they volunteer, and people may sign in and vote once a day through Nov. 18.
New Opportunity School for Women is a three-week residential program that helps improve the circumstances of low- income women 30 to 60 years old who live in Kentucky, specifically in south-central Appalachia. The women must have high school diplomas or GEDs or be actively working on their GEDs.
Lori Sliwa, executive director, said sessions are offered each year in February and June, with a focus on self-esteem and job preparation, as well as an appreciation of Appalachian culture.
Sliwa said 79 percent of the graduates from the Berea and Lees-McRae program — a total of 664 women — are employed and in school. Eighty percent of those, she said, have earned associate's, bachelor's or master's degrees.
"The metric that is so exciting is that 25 percent of the children or grandchildren of our graduates now have college degrees. Two percent have masters," she said, adding, "$10,000 is like $10 million to us."
The money would pay for books, meals, lodging, field trips and the like, Sliwa said.
Each participant gets an internship with a local business and receives a small stipend paid by the program. The program also pays for child care, and it offers scholarships for graduates.
This is not the first time New Opportunity School for Women has received national attention. In 2003, the program and Stephenson were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the talk show host donated $100,000.
To help spread the program's success, all we have to do is vote for Stephenson. And while on the voting site, you may play a match game that gives a $25 gift card to each winner and a $25 gift card to the winner's favorite charity.
"It is just AARP's way of getting people to volunteer," Barbarotta said.