Sunday, March 30, 2008

What's a woman to do?

Just about anything she sets her mind to, from what I can see.

Last week I had the most amazing opportunity. I spent a few days in Toronto with the five winners of Harlequin's More Than Words awards. Trust me when I tell you that these are women of action, women who saw a need in their communities and stepped up to fill it. As I chatted with them, I was in awe. I think you will be, too.

Each year Harlequin Enterprises solicits nominations from the U.S. and Canada of women who are making a difference in their communities. Five are chosen to receive a $10,000 award for their charity. In addition, five authors are selected to write fictional stories inspired by these women and their great organizations. This year's More Than Words anthology is being published in hardcover for the first time with stories written by Linda Lael Miller, Curtiss Ann Matlock, Jennifer Archer, Kathleen O'Brien and me. It should be in stores any day now and all proceeds go back into Harlequin's charitable foundation to honor future recipients and causes that are important to women.

The winner to whom I was assigned was the energetic, enthusiastic founder of Inside the Dream, based in the Peel region of Canada just outside of Toronto. Ruth Renwick, a native of Peru and a social worker by profession, was asked a few years ago to help a teenager who literally would have been unable to participate in her senior year prom or graduation without the proper clothes to wear. Ruth found her one dress. When that didn't fit, she went home, opened her own closet and that of her daughter, and took more dresses over until the perfect dress was found to give this young girl her Cinderella moment.

From that single incident, Ruth saw the impact that such an act of kindness could have on a young person's self-esteem and ability to have important memories from high school. With the help of her daughter, colleagues and her husband, she founded Inside the Dream. In just a few short years more than 350 teens -- girls and boys -- have benefitted from this program, winding up high school standing a little taller, going out into the world with a little more hope.

Though I had spoken to Ruth before writing my story -- "Black Tie and Promises" -- meeting her proved everything I'd felt when speaking to her and reading the material that had been submitted by her husband when she was nominated for the award. Every teenager could use a fairy godmother like Ruth. This is someone who simply doesn't take no for an answer, who has boundless energy and commitment . . . to say nothing of eyelid tattoos so she'll never need eye make-up again. Those of us who are constitutionally incapable of putting eyeliner on straight were in awe. I'm still trying to convince Harlequin to fly any author who wants to go to see Ruth's plastic surgeon who accomplished this magical feat.

The other four winners were equally remarkable -- a single mom who'd struggled to put food on the table for her own kids then launched a program for others in similar situations; a charming, soft-spoken woman who founded a theraputic riding academy to honor her daughter, who suffered from Down's Syndrome and died at 15; a doctor dedicated to autism research and programs; and a woman who used the occasion of her wedding reception to launch Bears Without Borders by asking friends and relatives to donate a teddy bear. Those bears -- and many more -- have made their way into the hands of children around the world.

So, despite temperatures in Toronto in the 20s and ice on Lake Ontario, I came home with my heart warm. Meeting these women lifted my spirits and inspired me to look beyond my own routines to see what I, too, can accomplish in my community. Find a copy of More Than Words, whether the edition in which my story appears, or one of the earlier volumes. I hope you, too, will be inspired to make a difference. It's amazing what one woman with determination and a dream can do!

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