Alaska's first lady honors volunteers

Juneau's Erin Heywood among 7 statewide winners

It’s been a whirlwind for Juneau’s Erin “Rinny” Heywood since she helped a mentally handicapped Safeway worker replace a stolen bike last year.


Heywood’s campaign on the radio for Juneauites to help one of their own grew into a “Pay it Forward” Facebook page in Alaska’s capital that has helped nearly 1,000 in need.

It didn’t take long for the idea to spread statewide with similar groups popping up in Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and other places — all with the guiding help of Heywood.

Her efforts, which have been chronicled by the Empire in past reports, were recognized Wednesday when First Lady Sandy Parnell opened the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Juneau to Heywood and six other “First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Award” winners.

“The thing I love doing most as First Lady is recognizing and honoring our volunteers across our state,” Sandy Parnell told the volunteers and family members on hand, shortly before awards were handed out.

“Volunteerism is alive and well in Alaska,” she added, noting that Alaskans log more volunteer hours, per-capita, than “almost every other state.”

“That is invaluable to our state,” she said.

The six other award winners were Donene Amodo of Akhiok, Phillip Ball of Eagle River, Robert “Beau” Bassett of Anchorage, Darrel Hess of Anchorage, Cynthia Erickson of Tanana, and Bellanira “Deya” Imdieke of Dillingham.

“These folks embody relationships in love, and they demonstrate daily the inestimable value of Alaskans,” Gov. Sean Parnell said. “Not only demonstrating (that value) through their actions, but they’re also inspiring others to volunteer in service as well.”

Amodo’s work is with the children of her Kodiak Island village. She provides them shelter and food when their home environment isn’t safe. Bassett is also working with children through the Alaska Points of Light Youth Leadership Institute.

Meanwhile, Ball is a wish-granting volunteer for the national Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses. Just last year, Ball granted 10 wishes. In an average year, that equates to approximately a third of the total number granted by the Make-A-Wish Alaska organization.

Hess has been instrumental in countless facets of the “revolutionizing” of Anchorage’s Fairview community in recent years, Sandy Parnell said.

Erickson, one of two award winners who was not in Juneau Wednesday, volunteers with suicide prevention in rural Alaska. She missed the award ceremony to be in her community of Tanana as it grieves the of two Alaska State Troopers who were shot and killed there last week.

Lastly, Imdieke is a member of the board of directors for SAFE (Safe and Fear-free Environment), which helps and protects victims of domestic violence. She has volunteered at least 1,000 hours to the organization each of the last 10 years.

After the ceremony, Juneau’s award winner was quick to point out each member of her family in attendance and identify how they’ve helped along the way.

“(Heywood has) always been a person to stop and help people in the Fred Meyer parking lot, or if something drops out of a car she stops to pick it up,” said Kit Sundsten, Heywood’s fiance. The duo have known each other since their teenage years.

“What happened here is that there was a need to be filled, and she had an avenue to do it,” Sundsten said.

Heywood said that’s just who she is.

“Our mom always taught us to do good deeds,” Heywood said, quickly adding, “It’s very much a family effort.”

As for how she felt about the award: “I’m shocked, and I’m humbled,” Heywood said with a smile.

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at Follow him on Twitter at


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