Thrive Awards salute 25 over 55 who make a difference

They donate, doctor, volunteer, fly, garden, promote, perform, teach and much more. They are the winners of The Active Age’s Thrive Awards, putting experience and enthusiasm to work to acheive excellence.This month, The Active Age recognizes 25 people over 55 who are making a positive difference in Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey counties. Collectively, these people exemplify thousands of area residents who contribute to their communities at every age.

About the Fran Kentling Award

Fran Bio PicThe late Fran Kentling embodied what the Thrive Awards represent. Kentling, who died in 2019, was a vibrant, outspoken newspaperwoman who had a long journalism career before helping keep The Active Age afloat during a difficult time. That’s why the publication established the Fran Kentling Award for special recognition of one of the 25 Thrive Awards honorees.

This year, physician Donna Sweet is the recipient.

Donna Sweet, MD 
Fran Kentling Award winner

Dr. Sweet is a longtime KU School of Medicine-Wichita physician and professor best known for her work with HIV patients.

Growing up poor on a family farm north of Wichita, Sweet said she knew she wanted to be “something other than dependent on farming.” A scholarship helped her get into Wichita State University, and at KU, she became an internal medicine specialist around the time the HIV pandemic was starting. Sweet said taking care of those patients “was not the popular thing to do, but it turned out to be extremely rewarding.”

Sweet, who also started a fund to help those patients with drugs, housing and other needs, has seen HIV go from being a death sentence to a manageable condition.

“It’s really interesting right now to compare that pandemic to this pandemic,” Sweet said of COVID-19.

“The similarity is the fear and the lack of science that sometimes goes into understanding this.”

Sweet, 71, whose husband, George, died in 2017, has aged with a lot of her patients. Her advice to them is “make sure you keep the mind active because that’s the way to keep the synapses moving forward.” Exercise is key, too, she said. “Sometimes it hurts to get up and walk,” she said. But you have to “or you will soon not be able to walk at all.” And, of course, have some fun, even if it means a few calories. “I love to cook,” Sweet said. “I do pasta pretty well.”

Smith has no plans to retire. She wants to continue working with HIV patients and her patients from the general population.
“I love all of them.”

Marilyn and Dean Wasser

After long careers in their respective fields, the Wassers now stay nearly as busy as volunteers. 

They’ve both been active with Senior Services of Wichita and its Meals on Wheels program. They help at the Lord’s Diner and volunteer at hospitals. Dean Wasser has been a longtime Wesley Medical Center volunteer, and Marilyn Wasser helps at Ascension Via Christi St. Teresa. “I choose to volunteer where I am working and busy,” Marilyn said. “If I am going to volunteer for anything and anyone, I want to be productive.” She’s also been involved with Dress For Success Wichita and the Assistance League, among other nonprofits.
The Wassers also find time for bridge, watching sports, playing golf and traveling. The Panama Canal was Marilyn Wasser’s favorite spot. Dean said there’s still plenty of time left to help others, and it’s clear they have a lot of fun staying active together.

“I just go where my wife tells me most generally,” Dean joked. 

U.L. “Rip” Gooch

At 97, Gooch not only is still driving, he’s flying. The aviation enthusiast built his first career around flight, though he didn’t get to be a commercial pilot because the field was not open to black people at the time. So instead, he ran a fixed-base operation where he taught people to fly and rented and sold planes. He also became a licensed FAA examiner and certified a lot of Wichitans to fly. Gooch then became what his family believes to be the first black car salesman in the area. He went on to a political career on the Wichita City Council and then spent more than a decade in the Kansas Senate.

Gooch volunteered in myriad ways, such as helping start the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas. Gooch has written a book about his life: “Black Horizons: One Aviator’s Experience in the Post-Tuskegee Era,” which was made into a documentary.

“My philosophy is keep living a life of enjoyment for yourself and spreading help to others,” Gooch said. “Do the most you can for this world as you pass through because you’re only passing through one time.”

Kathleen Webb

When Webb married and moved to the North Riverside neighborhood, she began noticing low-income families in need. She decided to take action by helping one family, but she said she immediately “realized I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, ‘I need to hire a social worker.’ ” As a longtime grant writer, Webb had worked with Children First, which provides social workers to neighborhoods where they’re needed. She revived the organization in 2017 and became its executive director. “I had a vision for what I wanted to do. . . I  think we’ve made a huge difference.”

She’s still a grant writer as well, and Webb makes time for gardening. “I love flowers,” she said. “Every second I can get away from that computer, I run outside.”

As a person of faith, Webb said she believes God is with her on her endeavors and “that if I am on the right path that it will happen whatever the project is.”

“I’m like a surfer on God’s wave.”

Nancy Anderson

When she’s not feeding people, Anderson is teaching them about nature or animals. She’s spent a lifetime teaching and helping others, starting with her career as a school nurse for almost two decades in Valley Center. That’s also the community where she raised five children and was a 4-H leader. “I’m still a community leader for 4-H if you can believe that,” Anderson said. That’s because she does it with her grandchildren now. She and her son, Ben, a caterer, also cook for senior center meals a couple of days a week and both deliver for Meals on Wheels once a month.

In her free time, Anderson likes to play pickleball or do line dancing, but her love of animals and nature occupy much of her time. In fact, she couldn’t take a phone call about being a Thrive Award winner until she’d washed some sticky milkweed off her hands after cutting it in order to save a Monarch caterpillar. Anderson likes insects and collecting them. She volunteers for the Great Plains Nature Center by teaching the Little Nature Lovers preschoolers. “When you teach somebody, you have to learn more yourself,” she said. “I love to learn, and I love to go to school.” She also enjoys the arts in the form of theater, music and museums. Anderson’s advice to anyone is to “just enjoy life and keep learning.”

Tuong “Thomas” Tran, MD

Dr. Tran endured more in 1975 than some people do in a lifetime. He had been a physician in his native Vietnam’s marine corps when his side lost the Vietnam War. “I escaped by fishing boat,” Tran said. “I cannot imagine if I stayed in Vietnam what would have happened.” He went to a refugee camp and then to Augusta where a church sponsored him, but Tran faced an especially tough first year not knowing much English. “I could say, ‘How are you?’ ” Now, he speaks English well and is a grateful U.S. citizen. At 81, Tran treats other people from southeast Asia and many native Kansans, too. Part of the reason he keeps working is his patients still want to see him, Tran said. Also, he said it’s “boring at home. There’s nothing to do.”

Tran used to practice with other physicians but now is a one-man shop. Though he’s slowing down some, Tran said he sees the value in continuing to work, both for himself and his patients, who often ask him if they should retire. He said if your job is difficult or you don’t like it, then go ahead and retire. Otherwise, consider continuing to work, he said. If you go home and get bored, “Then you become more depressed.”

Yolanda Camarena

Camarena is part of the first generation of her family to go to college, and she said she decided, “If I make it and can do well, I want to make sure I can help other students.” Camarena graduated from Wichita State University with an education degree and had a career in higher education, including at Newman University, before getting a master’s of public policy with an emphasis in education administration at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

As she raised her family, Camarena began getting more and more involved with nonprofits and serving on boards, and not only in Wichita. She chairs the schools and scholarship committee for Harvard and interviews students who apply there each year. Locally, the Kansas Hispanic Education & Development Foundation is a special cause for Camarena since it’s a college readiness program. “My goal is always to help other Latino students,” Camarena said. “That really kind of has been my career.” She said she believes strongly in that because, “There was always somebody there who helped me.”

Mentoring has been a calling both for Camarena and her husband, Gene, who also offer financial support. They recently gave $1 million to WSU to help students of color. “We came from really pretty modest beginnings, both my husband and I,” Camarena said. Camarena said she and her husband have learned much through the years. “It would be a waste for us not to share that with somebody younger.”

DeAnn Triboulet

Around Augusta, Triboulet is known for a couple of things. A big one is her decade at the Augusta Historical Theater, which she and the then-board helped restore and save. “It’s been around a long time.” Now, she’s particularly involved in the Augusta Senior Center. As its director, Triboulet has doubled membership to more than 400 people and has added more activities than ever. “We’re even taking day trips.” Triboulet also plans evening activities, games and arts and crafts. “I just want people to get out of the house. Come to a safe place. Everybody likes something different.”

Triboulet likes flowers and gardening, which she does by taking care of someone else’s yard. “I’m not one to set at home.” She’s met a lot of new friends by being so active, and that’s what Triboulet recommends to others.

“Life’s short. You don’t know how long you’ve got. Enjoy people.”

Garold Minns, MD

Some people’s careers are winding down or are even over by age 69, but Minns is having one of the busiest years of his career. It’s not because of his day job as dean of the KU School of Medicine-Wichita. It’s because he’s also the Sedgwick County public health officer and has spent much of the year grappling over how to protect the public from COVID-19. “Nothing compares to this in my lifetime,” Minns said. He regularly does media interviews to disseminate information. “It’s a little disconcerting actually to be as widely known as I am” Minns said.

The quiet-mannered self-described introvert has struggled with “a very delicate balance” of keeping the public healthy and not hurting businesses. He knows he has not made everyone happy, which makes him a little sad “when it’s really my message they dislike, and it’s a message that’s based on science and not politics or what I want to do.” However, Minns said, “I think society is going to tough it through, and I’m going to tough it through.”

For fun, Minns likes to “tinker a little bit in woodworking” and leather crafting, such as stamping leather and making purses and belts.

Minns said he believes everyone can make a contribution to humankind. “I feel like we were put here on purpose, and we should figure out what that purpose is and try to fulfill it.”

Laurel Alkire

Alkire has been at Senior Services of Wichita for so long, she’s now technically a senior herself at age 59. “I always tell people I was 5 when I came here,” Alkire joked. Senior Services serves almost 9,000 people a year through Meals on Wheels, its four senior centers and other programs. “Our mission is to keep them independent and connected for as long as possible,” Alkire said. “I feel privileged that I work in this field, and I can take some of the things I’ve learned and apply them to my own life.” 

Alkire discovered what she called her affinity for working with older people through a special relationship with her grandmother. Alkire’s first job with Senior Services was working in the employment division in 1987. 

The senior centers offer educational programs, socialization, pickleball and many more “things that keep people connected, moving and learning,” Alkire said. “The three things that help people age gracefully.”

Alkire loves going to the gym herself but has switched to walking outdoors during the pandemic.” I’ve been doing a lot of walking … I try to practice what I preach.” 

Lana Wyckoff

Wyckoff’s title may be activity director at Via Christi Village Georgetown, but after almost 30 years of planning activities for seniors there, a better title might be cruise director.
“We have close to 200 residents, so I like to think of it as we live on a cruise ship,” she said. “We do big parties. We take them on day trips. We call them tiny town tours.” She picks places no farther than two hours away for lunch, tours, museums or nature adventures, such as feeding buffalo in fields. “Anything that’s educational or that piques their interest.” she said“I love that they get excited about seeing something they’ve never seen before or learning something new.” She said “seniors truly love learning, and they are easier than kids in that they ask great questions and pay attention.” Wyckoff paused before adding with a laugh, “For the most part.”

When Wyckoff’s children were little, she was a homeroom mom and a Girl Scouts leader. Now, she’s involved in her church. “I love to cook, so I do a lot of the big dinners at church and that kind of thing.”

The lake is Wyckoff’s favorite place to be, including “surfing” behind a boat.

Much as she engages seniors to always learn new things, that’s Wyckoff’s philosophy, too. “Try something new. Meet new people. Anything that can challenge you and helps you stay active keeps you young.”

Paul Blythe

At 82, Blythe still hasn’t given up his career as an investment advisor. “It keeps my mind sharp,” he said. Blythe also stays active in a variety of ways throughout the Newton community where he lives. Around 2005, he and some others founded the New Hope Shelter for the homeless. “We originally thought it would be the occasional transient . . . and that we’d be down there two or three nights a week.” Instead, Blythe said, they found “that most of our people were local people that, you know, had just come on hard times.” He said there are “things that happen that throw people into a situation where they’re homeless.”

Blythe hires the homeless to help with yard work and gardening. “It gives me a chance to . . . get a little more involved with them and see what’s going on with their lives.” He has a huge garden that he shares with others, including those who stop by and help themselves. Blythe also takes his array of vegetables to share at the Salem United Methodist Church where he’s an occasional liturgist. During nonpandemic times, Blythe takes communion to nursing homes.

While he enjoys fishing, the busy Blythe doesn’t often get the chance. Not that he’s complaining about staying busy. “It helps keep you youthful. It helps keep you involved in the community and helps with self esteem.”

Irma Luna

As a teacher for three decades, Luna knew the power of education. That’s why she then went into a career as a scholarship and operations manager for the Kansas Hispanic Education & Development Foundation. “That was just part of my passion,” Luna said of helping Hispanic students win scholarships to go to school at various places around Kansas and at schools such as Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University. “I knew that education was good for them . . . to get ahead, and I wanted them to be educated.”

Luna,71 just retired this month. She said her job was a combination of a career and volunteering as she often worked in the evenings or whenever students called or texted her. “I would just dedicate myself 24-7,” Luna said. “I didn’t stop at 5 o’clock.” Now, she said, “I want to just relax.” She said she’d like to travel once the pandemic is over.

Luna said she won’t forget about students, though. “I’m going to challenge them to continue their education, even if it’s one class at a time.”

Pat Winton

Winton, who has lived in the Oaklawn area since about 1955, is quick to tell you that she doesn’t do anything anyone else doesn’t do. “I just do what I feel like . . . the community needs help with.” That could be turning a derelict property into a playground or making fundraising breakfasts at the local senior center. It’s Oaklawn Senior Center director Andrea Icenhour who nominated Winton for a Thrive Award.

“Our community, as a whole, smiles when we hear the name Pat Winton,” Icenhour said. “Each person has their own reason for that, such as being a neighbor of hers whom she cares for by getting lunches and checking on daily, even offering rides. Maybe it’s from some of the local firefighters who she always surprises with tasty treats while on duty.” Winton is particularly known for her chocolate sheet cakes “that I’m sick of making.” She enjoys most every other volunteer activity, though. “If they need me, they know they can call me.”

Winton said she also loves “to mow my own grass and piddle with my own flowers.”

Icenhour said Winton helps all ages of people and said her work will have a lasting impact. “The smiles shared on behalf of Pat are genuine expressions of joy.”

Father Dan Spexarth

In addition to what you might say is his day calling as pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church, Spexarth has offered spiritual support at Ascension Living Via Christi Village on Ridge for the two decades it’s been open. “Father Dan has a gentle spirit and an incredibly kind heart,” wrote executive director Jarrod Hayes in his nomination of Spexarth for the Thrive Awards. Hayes said Spexarth’s special ability is to connect with each resident and “bring them peace and comfort in times of distress. He has an incredible bedside manner not only with our residents, but with their loved ones as well. He emulates Christ’s love and compassion to everyone he meets and touches each soul he encounters.”

Spexarth was involved with the construction of Ascension Via Christi’s chapel and picked the stained glass windows. He also allowed his home parish to donate time and resources for the chapel.

Hayes said residents and families rely on Spexarth in myriad ways.

“Not only is he a calming and spiritual presence here, but we can call on him at any time for special needs. This is truly a gift.”

Susan Armstrong

As one of the co-founders of the agency now known as Armstrong Chamberlin Strategic Marketing, Armstrong is well aware that she’s in an industry that values youth and youthful energy.

“I do think that this industry is made for young people, but I think it keeps you young as well. You are always learning something new. You are never bored.”

In addition to her job, Armstrong has gravitated to a lot of children’s causes through the years, such as volunteering for the Wichita Children’s Home and Heartspring and serving on the Haysville school board. Much of her volunteering ends up being related to marketing.

“It’s all about storytelling for me for those nonprofits,” she said. “If I can help them tell their stories in a way that touches someone . . . and encourages them to support that organization, then I’ve done something that extends beyond me. . . . I want to give back and make the world a little bit better than if I hadn’t been here.”

Armstrong loves to travel, and she’s now writing novels, too. “I’m having so much fun because no one has to approve of them but me.”

Karla Burns

How does someone who has been on Broadway, sang at the Metropolitan Opera and been an actress on the big and small screens then perform for free in her hometown to benefit journalists in their annual Gridiron show? “I try to enter every experience with the joy of being grateful that I can perform and that I’ve been asked to perform,” Burns said. “I don’t take any of it for granted.” She said she’s still in awe at the privilege of her career (and that she has a Wikipedia page) and that she might make people laugh. Burns said she’s pleased to do it from here to the moon. “I haven’t quite been to the moon yet.”

Another passion for her is teaching anyone of any age, though especially children, as she’s done throughout her life. “That is probably something that I’m most proud of.”

Burns said she believes everyone has a purpose. “You need to find your purpose. . . . Reach out and dream. . . . Whatever we attempt, we should go at it with all the gusto we’ve got, and sometimes our gifts find us.”

Paul Babich

There are more groups with which Babich has been and still is involved than there is space to name, including numerous education-related unions and boards on which the former Wichita social studies teacher has served. There are community groups such as the state board for AARP Kansas and the United Way of the Plains board and executive committee. Then there are the many volunteer roles he plays at his church, such as giving tours of the renovated St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Wichita.

However, there’s one particular standout for Babich. And that’s his work with the League of Women Voters, which regularly celebrates new United States citizens. “It’s a really neat program that the League has to go to the citizenship ceremonies and just speak to these people that are all very excited about achieving their dream, and then they want to get to vote, too,” Babich said. It’s personal for him. “My dad was an immigrant from Croatia, and he always was so, so happy and proud to be here and to have the new life that he started here and just considered himself blessed, and he always impressed us with the importance of patriotism and citizenship and pride.” There are other immigrants in his family, too, so when Babich attends the ceremonies, he said, “It just kind of always tugs at my heartstrings.”

In his family, for whom he plays Santa each Christmas, Babich is known for making a mean martini. His secret? “No vermouth.”

Whatever your passion, Babich recommends pursuing it for volunteer work. “Find a group that you want to be involved with. Once you volunteer for one thing, then your name is out there, and people see that you like to volunteer. . . . The next thing you know, you’ve got plenty of volunteer activities.”

Annette Graham

As a first-year college student, Graham took a job doing in-home care for seniors through the state of Kansas. “It was a job I got to get through college,” she said. Instead of simply making her money for school, the job ended up shaping her career path. Graham received dual degrees in social work and gerontology. “My passion was always aging,” she said. “My entire working career has really been around aging services.” For the last 21 years, Graham has been executive director of the Central Plains Area Agency on Aging and the Sedgwick County Department on Aging.

Graham also worked in adult protective services, got a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker. “I learned so much from working with older adults and really admired the resilience . . . and at the same time saw how society often views older adults,” she said. “They’re role models for all of us if we take the time to learn.”

At 62, Graham is technically a senior herself now. She said it’s interesting “to be one of the people I’ve constantly been advocating for.”

“I guess I see our purpose in life as to love and learn, and we can always keep doing that,” Graham said.

“I tell people we should celebrate our birthdays because not everybody gets honored to be an older adult.”

Janice Thacker

Art has been a central focus of Thacker’s life, first as a teacher and then through nonprofits, such as her Art That Touches Your Heart program where she instills a love of art in children in part by bringing artists from across the country to Wichita “so students know what good is.” Helping young people also is something Thacker has done through getting students involved with the Upward Bound program at Wichita State University.

Thacker also is working to open Ruby’s Cultural Campus, named for her mother, which will be a shipping container development at 13th and Green where students and others can establish storefronts that help them identify their talents. “Art will be a central part,” she said. Much of Ruby’s Cultural Campus will focus on “anything cultural related to African Americans,” Thacker said. Decades ago, she was involved in the civil rights movement, and Thacker continues the fight today. Thacker thinks her campus can help “bridge that gap of cultural misunderstanding.” If you don’t know someone, Thacker said it’s easy to not think highly of them. “When they know who we really are, we will become more valuable.”

That’s key to Thacker’s philosophy on life. “When you realize that we all have to work together in order to survive, then that’s the key to understanding why you’re important.”

Gaylord Sanneman

After going into the Air Force following high school, Sanneman went back to his family’s Clay County farm for a couple of years with plans to eventually farm his own land. The agricultural economy wasn’t doing well, so Sanneman instead went to school and became an accountant who worked with farmers’ cooperatives. He retired in 2011, moved to Newton and started becoming involved in the community. Sanneman has always been involved with the American Legion on the local, state and national levels.

In Newton, Sanneman is the office manager for the Harvey County Historical Society and is on the board for the local senior center. He’s also very involved in his church, including with the choir, filling in as a pianist and organist and serving on the parish committee. “I stay out of trouble this way,” he joked.

In 2018, Sanneman became a Master Gardener. “I just thought it’d be interesting since I worked with farmers and crops and worked just a little bit in agronomy.” A favorite pastime for Sanneman and his wife is to watch birds at a feeder outside a picture window in their home. “I enjoy the little things in life, you know?” he said. That could be watching flowers bloom or admiring trees and how they grow. “You just need to appreciate the beauty that’s around you and the nature that’s around you, because those are gifts to us.”

Jean Plummer

Everyone gets only one life, but Plummer seems to have lived several already. She was a radio broadcast journalist, talk show host and newspaper columnist. She managed the convention center in El Dorado and was the former public information officer for Butler Community College. I’m a builder,” Plummer said. “I like to go make something work and then go on to something else.”

As a board member of El Dorado Main Street, Plummer has worked to preserve downtown. “Seeing the downtown change is really exciting, and it’s really important to continue to do that.” She said she’s proud of El Dorado as a whole “and what has happened here. I’ve just enjoyed being part of a lot of that.”

Plummer also is a founder of the Central Kansas Prison Ministry and has been its secretary since it started. She also helped start the Court Appointed Special Advocate program in El Dorado and has been an advocate for abused women and children. Plummer played organ at her church for more than four decades and now plays piano there. She’s also a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts and a past leader and board member.

“I’m known as a volunteer,” Plummer said. “The model for my life comes from the Book of Proverbs: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ That means we have to continually have a vision.”

Lisa Hambelton

Hambelton has become adept at handling difficulty through her handling of people. The Mel Hambelton Ford dealer principal stepped in to fully manage the dealership in 2008 after some challenging transition years. She reinvented the company by getting the right people in the right jobs to move the business forward.

The dealership now employs over 250 people and is currently adding a second Quick Lane building which will be one of the largest Quick Lanes in the country. 

The dealership is home to community events, including fundraisers. Hambelton and the dealership also donated a car to a woman in need through the Raise My Head Foundation, which helps survivors of sex trafficking.

“Lisa Hambelton is a champion for women who need a fresh start,” said Pat Jones, the foundation’s executive director. “I met Lisa when I was executive director for Dress for Success Wichita where she supported our efforts to help women become employed and succeed in the workplace.”

Hambelton has made other donations and regularly assists other nonprofits as well. As she once told the Wichita Business Journal: “We believe it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s important to give back to the community.”

Iris Worthington

Coming from a poor background taught Worthington a lesson early in life. “You know, being raised poor was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “If you wanted something, you earned it. It wasn’t given to you on a magic stick.” Worthington was a soda jerk for her first job and became a babysitter after that. Then what she calls a well-to-do couple took pity on her and hired her for various jobs. “They kept me in school books and clothes.” That also helped her form an attitude for life. “I want to give to others.”

Worthington was the city administrator for her home of Towanda for 16 years. During that time, she helped start the local senior center. She later became a volunteer there and then agreed to serve as director for a year. “Well, I’m still there.” Director may be her official title, but as her Thrive Award nominator said, she’s also “leader, friend, counselor and many times serves as the kitchen chef.” Worthington admits to not being very good at retirement. “That’s just not in my vocabulary.” She has managed low-income housing in southeast Kansas. “As I saw disadvantaged people, older people, I wanted to help.”

Among her other adventures, Worthington wrote for the local paper and, for a time, took up motorcycle riding. “In my younger days, motorcycle riding was the top priority. That kept me young.” Worthington became a widow many years ago, but she said she was determined to keep going and find purpose. She now dates someone who deals in antique watches. He encouraged her to use some of his leftover watch pieces for art. “I began making pictures out of watch parts,” she said. Now, she sells them at watch shows. In her quest to stay active, Worthington also rides a bike — as in a bicycle, not a motorcycle — every night when the weather is nice. “I love life.”

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