Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gina Nicholas, Maria Sliva win Heart and Hands awards

HANCOCK -- The Heart and Hands of the Keweenaw Award went to two winners this year: Gina Nicholas received the adult award, and Maria Sliva won the youth award.

Gina Nicholas, right, and Maria Sliva display the Heart and Hands sculpture after their awards were announced at the Churning Rapids Horsetail Scramble July 4, 2012, event. At left is host Terry Kinzel, whose late parents' estate funds the annual award through the Heart and Hands Society, founded in 1998. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

The intent of the award is to provide recognition to a person who has given of her or his heart and hands in the service of peace, justice, or the environment -- a person who might otherwise not be recognized. The cash awards, thanks to a small endowment from the estate of Martha and Floyd Kinzel, are given to a local non-profit organization chosen by each winner.

Gina Nicholas: her gift of environmental stewardship

Gina Nicholas has had a significant impact on environmental stewardship in the Copper Country through both innovation and leadership of key area environmental organizations, including the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, the Gratiot Lake Conservancy, Stewards of Bete Grise, and the management boards for both the Eagle River and the Pilgrim River watersheds.

After earning a degree in mathematics from the University of Denver and an MBA from Boston College (1980), Nicholas worked with business consulting firms in Chicago. In 1991 she founded her own business consulting firm -- Wildland Company, Inc. Beginning in 1997, she concurrently entered the field of land management with the Nicholas North Company that held orchards, cash grain, timber and vacant land in the Midwest.

Since migrating to her hereditary Lizzadro family roots in the Keweenaw, Nicholas has applied her valuable business consultant skills to local environmental needs on a pro bono basis.

Gina Nicholas and Chuck Brumleve, both residents of Bete Grise, pull invasive spotted knapweed plants along the Gay-Lac LaBelle Road at the Bete Grise Preserve in September 2011. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

In 1997 she helped to found the Gratiot Lake Conservancy that she served as secretary-treasurer and as a volunteer manager for forestry, natural science and historic preservation projects near Gratiot Lake. From 2003 until present she has been a board member of the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, serving as its chairperson since 2008, working with other local environmental groups to help create the 1,800-acre Bete Grise Preserve, the Brockway Mountain overlook, the Pilgrim River Watershed Management Plan, stamp sand stabilization projects at the former Central and Cliff Mine sites, monitoring of the emerald ash borer, and removal of invasive species. She worked with her family to establish the Lizzadro Preserves in Keweenaw County.

Also in 2003, Nicholas founded the non-profit Keweenaw Community Forest Company (KCFC) that she serves as CEO and President. KCFC conducts sustainable forestry management and research, sponsors graduate and undergraduate research projects with Michigan Tech, and manages more than 4,000 acres of forestlands for timber, conservation and recreation. These efforts were honored by the MTU School of Forestry and Environmental Science with its 2010 Honor Academy.

Maria Sliva: Making a difference in the lives of others

Maria Sliva, winner of the Heart and Hands of the Keweenaw Youth Award, is a student at Houghton High School. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Maria Sliva will be senior at Houghton High School next year, but she has been working since she was a young girl on a project of her own invention to help women and families lift themselves from unimaginable poverty and deprivation. Maria began visiting Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas when she was in 4th grade, on mission trips with her parents, Dennis and Mikki Sliva and older brother Tim. The Sliva's went to one of Reynosa's extremely poor colonias (neighborhoods) to help Copper Country residents Alice and Eldon Kinnunen with their Friends of Christ mission to build houses and donate food, furniture, clothing and bicycles to the residents.

When Maria was in 6th grade, she made friends with Mexican girls by showing them how to weave friendship bracelets. The next year, Maria talked to Alice and together they made plans to bring more supplies for bracelets and teach high school girls to make them. Maria taught the girls while using the little Spanish she knew, and soon they were busy making hundreds of bracelets. Maria brought them back to Houghton and sold them to friends and at her family's stores. She sent all the money with Alice and Eldon back to help families in the Colonia.

But Maria decided of her own accord that what these families needed most was self-reliance and skills that could help them provide for their children. So Maria brought more materials each year for bracelets, and taught more women to make paper beads cut from rolled up newspaper that could be fashioned into necklaces and sold in the States. More than $3,000 has gone from Maria to the women of the colonia over the past few years, with some women making several hundred dollars a year. One of Maria's Mexican friends was able to complete high school by paying the tuition with her earnings from the crafts and now aspires to be the first person from the colonia to attend college.

Maria has not been able to visit Reynosa for two years due to the violence of narco-trafficking along the Texas-Mexico border; but, as she sells the handmade items in the Keweenaw, she tells the story of the poverty of Mexico through her words, photos and videos and explains how a few dollars from this country can have a big impact on people living in such hardship. 

Maria has also taken initiative here at home to help others. Since she was 11 years old, Maria has been presenting story-time programs to young children at the Portage Lake District Library -- selecting the books, themes and crafts, planning everything by herself. Maria is a special young person who looks beyond herself and thinks about how she can make a difference for others.

Editor's Note: Visit the Heart and Hands Web site to learn more about winners of the award and other nominees.

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