In 2005, inspired by a longtime friend who died after an 11-year fight with breast cancer, Sharon Simmons and a handful of friends started a nonprofit dedicated to helping women get life-saving mammograms.
Their late friend's name was Francine Schubert, so naturally, they called the charity “Francine's Friends.” Seven years, 18,000 women and one $350,000 motor coach later, Francine's Friends is still going strong, taking mobile cancer screenings wherever it goes.
For that work, Simmons on Wednesday became the second founding member of the charity to be honored with the Athena Leadership Award, an honor bestowed each year by the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce.
The Athena, awarded locally since 2005, recognizes women in community service and leadership roles. Simmons said winning the award validates the charity's work.
“I think it just gives us the energy and enthusiasm to continue to do what we're doing in the community,” she said. “(Schubert) was such a driving force in our lives and in the community, we wanted to keep her spirit alive in the community.”
Francine's Friends partners with Parkview Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Breast Diagnostic Center to offer on-site mammograms at various locations around Allen County. The program is meant to make screenings less intimidating and more convenient and affordable, Simmons said.
Past recipients of the Athena award include Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools; Sister Elise Kriss, president of the University of Saint Francis; and Dottie Davis, deputy chief of the Fort Wayne Police Department.
Irene Walters, a co-founder of Francine's Friends and director of university relations with IPFW, won the award in 2010, largely because of her role with the charity.
Each year, a bevy of strong nominees makes it hard to pick one winner, but few people doubted that Simmons earned the award, chamber President Mike Landram said.
“All the nominees were exceptional. It was a hard choice, but (Simmons) was a person everyone could agree on,” he said.
After the Athena award luncheon Wednesday at Ceruti's Summit Park, it seemed Simmons could hardly turn around without bumping into another friend or colleague congratulating her on the honor.
“Talk about a role model for women,” said Walters, the Francine's Friends co-founder, after giving Simmons a hug.
Young professional leadership
Also Wednesday, the chamber honored Julia Fiechter, founder of Lendingahand.net, with the Athena Young Professional Leadership Development award.
The website allows area businesses and their customers to partner with charities by automatically donating a percentage of each purchase.
The site provides key tags that can be scanned at participating stores and restaurants, automatically contributing a percentage of sales to each retailer's nonprofit of choice.