Foundation presents community awards at Keweenaw Gold dinner

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Terry Kinzel, left, presented the Heart & Hands Society Award to Karena Schmidt at the Keweenaw Gold dinner held this week. At right is Keweenaw Community Foundation Executive Director Jim Vivian Jr.

HOUGHTON — Several people who had improved the community, whether through volunteer work or philanthropy, were recognized at the Keweenaw Community Foundation’s Keweenaw Gold dinner.

Volunteer of the year was Leah Polzien, executive director of Main Street Calumet. Jim Vivian, executive director of the KCF, called Polzien a “community dynamo” who has put in full-time work at the part-time position, for which she has foregone pay.

“Leah stepped forward to take the reins of this organization that has an amazing amount of potential in a community that has few resources,” Vivian said. “This has not been an easy task, but it’s one Leah rises to meet, over and over.”

Polzien said afterward she was thrilled to win.

“It’s fantastic to be recognized for something that I’m passionate about and just really enjoy doing,” she said. “It comes easy in that sense because it’s something i like to do.”

It was also nice to win from the KCF due to Main Street Calumet’s prior history with the organization, she said. Main Street Calumet received a historical preservation grant from KCF in 2016 for a building in Calumet. The building is now stabilized and ready for resale.

The Community Impact Award went to Alex Aho and Mary Jane Lowney for organizing the effort for the Houghton Skate Park, which will be located near the East Houghton Waterfront Park. Vivian said they had put “an unmeasurable amount of time and energy into the project to lead it to where it is today.”

The award is an honor, Aho said.

“We’ve had community support the whole way through for this project, so it’s not surprising the community continues to support it. It’s very much appreciated.”

The Skate Park has reached its $200,000 goal, but is still raising money for improvements to the final design. It will host its last skate deck art auction from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Keweenaw Brewing Co.

Terry Kinzel presented the Heart & Hands Society Award to Karena Schmidt, ecologist with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s Natural Resources Department. Kinzel was a founder of the Heart & Hands Society, which since 1999 has recognized “people who do wonderful things in the community that fly under the radar” in the areas of peace, justice and the environment.

Its endowment with the KCF generates about $1,500 a year, which the awardee can direct to a non-profit of their choice.

“Since our first encounter over 10 years ago, she continually amazes me with her capacity to connect to new people and share her excitement for arts, nature and gardening,” said the nomination.

Schmidt is giving her endowment to the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, where it will be dedicated to the Baraga Area Schools for science programs. Working with the KBIC, she said, they do many programs to get children excited about nature, such as remediating lands covered with stamp sands.

“They’re seeing success in their work, so they’re taking pride in themselves and it’s really making a difference in lives that might otherwise go in a drifting or harmful direction.”

The Herman “Winks” Gundlach Award recognizes the largest contribution to the KCF. This year it went to Elvis J. Scott. A longtime contributor to the KCF, Scott set up a charitable gift annuity. After her husband died, Scott used the proceeds from the sale of her house to establish a charitable trust that supported her and her sons. The trust was transferred to the KCF in January. After Scott’s sons lives end, the remainder of the trust will support six local organizations