2023 James E. MacLennan Everyday Heroes

October 6, 2023
UWPIAA Honorees

Jill Finnerty Ricardo – ’93E

What is an Everyday Hero? Meet Jill Finnerty Ricardo, who embodies the spirit of Up with People in all that she does and is an inspiration on how to live a life dedicated to the service of others.

For 30 years, Jill has served tirelessly as the cast representative for Cast E 1993, supporting and connecting our cast through life’s many highs and lows. But as a “hero, her contributions go beyond this. A busy homeschooling mom, Jill will always be the first to organize clothing drives for the latest hurricane victim, seek donations for local families in need, manage Meal Trains for new mothers, or rally around a cast member with a cancer diagnosis. 

“I like to serve where needed,” said Jill. ”I just try to meet needs as they arise,” she said. One of her most successful projects was raising over $60,000 for a friend who unexpectedly lost her husband to cancer.

But when it comes to projects, nothing tops the one that began when Jill befriended a Tanzanian priest studying in the United States. She learned about the challenges young Tanzania children, particularly girls, faced accessing education. While children in Tanzania receive an elementary education in their village, secondary schools are located only in the larger cities, so students must walk 2 to 2.5 hours one way to reach the school, a journey that is long and, at times, dangerous. They must pay for tuition, uniforms, books & supplies; many families cannot afford this.

Jill, a homeschooling mother of eight, realized how she was able to educate her children because she, herself, was educated. Her heart was touched when she considered the sorrow of African moms who cannot help their children reach their educational goals. She thought, “If we can educate girls, even if in the future they cannot send their children to school, they can educate them because, like a homeschooling mom, they are educated.” Generations could be lifted out of poverty by simply educating the girls of a region.

Out of that one conversation, Jill created The Uhuru Watoto Project (“Freedom for the Children”) in June 2015 and got to work eliciting sponsorships for funding. Jill was determined to spread love by providing an education, clothing, food, and shelter for girls in the Dodoma region of Tanzania. The Uhuru Watoto Project does not strive to bring western processes or values to them; rather, simply provide them an opportunity to learn within the school system and then inspire them to help solve the problems of their communities using the knowledge of their own land, culture, villages, and people.

By 2019, Jill had sponsored 30 girls attending school at St. Clara’s Catholic School in Mlali, Tanzania as well as four boys who attend the Boy’s Seminary in Bihawana. The program continues to flourish today. To date, the Uhuru Watoto Project has raised over $150,000 to send girls in the Dodoma region to school.

Jill has made two trips to Africa, bringing her older children, to walk the streets, visit the schools, and meet the children whose lives are being forever changed. When Jill isn’t busy devoting herself to her husband and children (from college age to infant), in her “spare time” she is active in many local projects. She is a founding member of Habitat for Humanity Pasco, VP of Production (6 years) and currently VP for Planning and Development at Arts in Motion Youth Community Theater, serves at CapIt Tampa, A Community for Homeschoolers, and serves as a Catechist and Eucharistic Minister at St. Leo Abbey.

Penny Ronning’83E

Penny Ronning (’83E) is a kind, deeply compassionate woman committed to helping those in need.

The story begins in 2014, when Penny Ronning started volunteering as a children’s court appointed special advocate (CASA) in Yellowstone County, Montana. During her time as a special advocate, she saw evidence of several disturbing episodes in the lives of some of the children she represented. They were trafficked for sex work while they were within the state’s foster care system.

“I struggled to find law enforcement or agencies that were meant to protect children to properly respond. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, they just didn’t have any training for it …”

-Penny Ronning

Actually, the story begins in 1983. Penny, doing PR, was separated from her cast for half of the year. She reflects that despite the isolation and loneliness, she established skills, confidence and “. . . within me a “Can Do” attitude that set me on the course for public service. UWP taught me that building bridges of communication and understanding is a choice within each one of us and by providing me with the opportunity to travel, and be in a host family, it gave me the tools to exercise that choice in times of national and global joy and in times of national and global hardship.”

And so, Penny decided to act. In 2016, she enlisted the help of a friend, attorney Stephanie Baucus, and the two women put their experience and expertise together to create the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force (YCAHTTF or the “Task Force”). Penny has co-authored laws in Montana that make human trafficking a Crime of Violence, effectively shut down the largest number of illicit massage businesses in the state, and appropriated funding for the first full-time Montana Department of Justice Agents to investigate crimes of human trafficking.

Since its inception, the Task Force in Montana, led to 12 federal convictions of human traffickers and more than 30 state convictions of traffickers and buyers within the past 7 years. 

It isn’t finished. Penny’s work continues. She trains civil servants and private community groups on the subject of human trafficking, community organization, and leadership; creates and hosts conferences and events to educate the public and government agencies on issues of human trafficking;

works with national and international organizations and governments on policies to protect victims of human trafficking and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and the prosecution buyers and traffickers; works to develop partner task forces throughout the state of Montana; works with the Montana Department of Justice, FBI, and the United States Attorney’s Office on statewide anti-human trafficking education and policy; and works with Montana’s U.S. Congressional Members to address human trafficking

Today, the Task Force she and Stephanie created has expanded to include a diverse group, from nonprofits and advocacy groups to healthcare providers, teachers, state and local law enforcement officers, truck drivers, prosecutors, hotel managers and community leaders. All told, more than 600 individuals from some 80 organizations are now tied to the Task Force. It works in concert with other task forces around the state, helping to establish new ones wherever needed. Thanks to Penny’s dedication and commitment to her community, human trafficking task forces have now been established in almost every major Montana city. Penny’s hope is that eventually, the entire state will take a stand against human trafficking to the degree that it’s impossible for traffickers to do business there any longer.

Penny’s advocacy led to being nationally recognized in 2022 with the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award (personally selected by FBI Director Christopher Wray). She is a national representative to the White House Summit on Human Trafficking, a national policy advocate working with United States Senators Richard Blumenthal and Lindsay Graham to criminalize websites for hosting and profiting from Child Sexual Abuse Material (child pornography) and is a nationally recognized speaker on the fight against human trafficking. To date, she has trained more than 20,000 people in the United States on how to identify, report, and fight human trafficking.

Penny is also involved in other community activities. She is a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, Montana Rescue Mission, Vital Ground Foundation and is a member of Amnesty International USA. She is a Native American Star Quilt honoree and recipient and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Montana International Film Festival.

Stacy Sacco – ’73A

Supporting and helping others was always a natural instinct for Stacy Sacco (73A). Even during his high school years, he volunteered to tutor others in math. But it was his travel in Up with People that solidified his deep desire and commitment for community involvement and support to individuals. He often states that touring in Up with People set him on a profound course of giving back more and better than he’s received. Stacy is best noted for his passionate and dedicated life-long volunteering in many aspects of his community. In the years since he traveled, he has created so many networking opportunities for career professionals that he is a major powerhouse in connecting the citizens of Albuquerque, New Mexico and beyond, constantly working to improve their lives and bring people closer together in his community. As one of his colleagues in Albuquerque stated, “Seemingly, Stacy’s whole purpose in life to make others and our community better.”

This spring, Stacy received the Mayor’s Award for Community Service in Albuquerque. Among his many other awards are recognition by Albuquerque Magazine, annually since 2013, and by the magazine Albuquerque Business as “Most Connected Business Person.”

With an MBA in Business Marketing, Stacy has, for decades, used his skills to help others achieve their goals in the Albuquerque area. For over four years he has mentored 3 to 5 entrepreneurs every week to help them start or grow their small businesses, including applying for micro-loans of up to $50,000. At the University of New Mexico, he meets with and counsels six small business clients every month. Since 2005, he has hosted a free informational website that has links to over 3400 local jobs, events, and resources to over 3900 subscribers and 7400 Linked-In followers. This website has become a tremendous resource for the entire Albuquerque community. He frequently gets calls from people, new to New Mexico and/or already there, asking for help finding a job, and without hesitation, works with them one-on- one to connect to the right people and find the right opportunity.

As a professor, Stacy has always gone beyond the call. For example, beyond coaching a group of Japanese students for a “Pitch Competition”, Stacy also toured the Japanese students around Albuquerque, took them to events, treated them to lunch or dinner, spent extra time with anyone who wanted to rehearse their pitch, etc. – basically he dedicated his time to the students during their entire stay. Stacy encourages his students to go to events with him (at his expense), where he coaches them on how to network as he introduces them to “power people” in the room. An associate said, “He is many students’ first connection to business men and women through the community. He works hard to provide opportunities and valuable resources for both students and colleagues alike and without his contributions, Albuquerque would be at a sore loss for the support he provides.”

Another thing Stacy does like clockwork throughout the year is nominate others, especially his students, for awards like “40 Under 40,” “Women of Influence,” and other leadership awards. He puts a lot of time and thought into the nominations, and often the person wins. He’s written countless references for students, always tailoring the recommendation to the student’s strengths and the job for which they are applying.

Stacy’s life mission is about using his knowledge and connections to help others. It brings him tremendous joy and has made his community a better place because of his generous efforts.

As the Key Contact for the 150+ UWP alumni based in New Mexico, I was inspired by the alumni I met at the reunion to begin the arduous task of reviewing our list of local alumni to update everyone’s contact information. Plus, I posted an inquiry on our New Mexico alumni Facebook page asking if they would like to meet for an informal networking mixer at a local food court, and the answer was a resounding “yes.” My next steps will be to organize a small committee of volunteers to make this happen (contact the food court, make up name tags, print out a description of UWP’s new VOICES program, etc.). Some local alumni are also active supporters of several non-profit community service groups, so we already discussed organizing some kind of fundraiser to serve the needs of our local community, especially our challenges related to our growing homeless community and illiteracy issues.    

– Post-reunion update from Stacy Sacco

Carla Worst Smolek ’73A, ’74A

The hope, the dream, the message, the spirit of Up with People was conveyed in the songs we sang. Like many in the early years Carla (Worst) Smolek (73A), an Indiana native, was drawn to Up with People, by the local chapter of UWP, “Sing Out Crown Point.” She joined because she was excited with the idea of singing a message to the world. The songs she sang became the spirit of her life continuing long beyond her years on the road . . . “A lifetime full of compassion and accomplishment for the benefit of thousands of people,” said fellow castmate, Jan Sturges.

Carla has devoted her life to helping others, from the homeless camps on the mean streets of Chicago, to the victims of natural disasters across the Midwest, to the residents of a landfill in Roatan, Honduras. She does this without fanfare, without titles, without recognition or personal financial resources, giving endlessly of her own time and talents. 

Much of Carla’s work is for her less-fortunate neighbors in Northwest Indiana. At Hammond House, a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence, Carla helps provide gifts, food, and supplies, as well as much-needed babysitting for desperate moms. In Lake Village, she works in a food pantry, collecting food and hygiene products for needy families. In Crown Point, she prepares and delivers meals to dozens of people in need each month, including local police officers and firemen. “She (also) has a dinner for older adults at her church and instead of charging them money, they bring a can of food or a hygiene product to donate to the pantry,” says her daughter Colett Follmer. She regularly visits homebound elders, takes them out on field trips and provides rides to church for those who otherwise couldn’t go.

Through her church, Carla runs a group called Crafty Grannies who use their sewing, knitting, and crafting skills to make mats and bedding for homeless people; caps and blankets for people undergoing chemo; and many other projects for those in need. “She is an earthly angel,” said Barbie Daniels Bauman, ’73A.

“I don’t know anyone who has done more good work than Carla in her endless volunteering.”

– Pam Wogrin Kennedy, ’73A

Carla has worked construction with organizations providing homes for her neighbors, through organizations like Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity. 

Last but certainly not least, Carla travels to Roatan, Honduras once or twice a year on mission trips, to provide aid to a community built on a landfill there. Over the years, Carla has helped repair and build homes; paint and fix an orphanage; provide food, soccer balls and other supplies for the kids. “They built a very small home for a family of 5 who were living in a shelter made of tin and tarps,” Colett says. “She had 15 or 20 bikes shipped over for the orphanage. The kids were so excited.”

It began at Cast ’73A’s “staging” where Carla’s natural talents put her in charge of costumes. “She took care of everybody, both costumes and otherwise, just like your mother would,” says Steve Turpen, ’73A. “As she mended clothes, including civilian clothes, she would be a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on.” “[This is how] Carla earned the nickname “Mama Worst,” which stuck for the rest of her Up with People career; all the more remarkable, since she was the same age as we all were at the time,” said her award nominator Ann (Inskeep) Serafin.

In the midst of all of this, “Carla Mama” makes time for civic and community activities. She serves as Director of Older Adult programs at First United Methodist Church, is a member of the Crown Point Lions Club, the Eastern Star Lake Chapter 408, and supports Meals on Wheels, Honor Flights – Mission Never Forgot, the Little Help Food Pantry, and sponsors exchange students in International Cultural Exchange Services. 

Since returning from the reunion I haven’t taken a break. Working on taking my mission team to Roatan Honduras in January. Blessed by adding a medical team joining us. So from building a small bridge to optical and medical clinics. Just sent funding to feed 100 families and the elderly. Feeling blessed to have met so many amazing people in our World with a heart of gold at the reunion. Blessings to all!

– Post-reunion update from Mama Worst Smolek

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