Gerri Neylon

Gerri Neylon

To understand why Gerri Neylon was named a “Peggy A. Montes Unsung Heroine” is to know why the award was created 23 years ago.

Unsung heroines shun praise, continue their crusade and finish the job they set out to do. Unsung heroines focus on others and eschew acclaim.

Neylon attended the 23rd annual Peggy A. Montes Unsung Heroine Award ceremony on March 5 at the Chicago Cultural Center surrounded by friends, all intimately familiar with Christmas Without Cancer, the organization Neylon founded by herself at her kitchen table in 2003.

The retired oncology nurse was nominated and represented in the 11th District by Cook County Commissioner John Daley and Cook County Commission on Women’s Issues Commissioner Virginia Rugai, former 19th Ward alderman.

One of 18 recipients from around the county, Neylon found herself in awe of the other “unsung” women who stepped to the podium, modest in their award recognition but proud of their accomplishments, especially during Women’s History Month.

“These women are amazing,” said Neylon after the event. “I kept wondering what I was doing there.”

Neylon and the other recipients are the modern-day versions of Montes, who served as chairperson of the Cook County Commission on Women’s Issues.

An educator, fundraiser, leader and champion of women’s issues and rights, Montes ushered in the first Unsung Heroine Award to recognize women of Cook County. Some years later the “unsung” name of Montes was aptly added to the award title to fully recognize her triumphs on behalf of women and girls.

Neylon and the others were chosen because their “contributions to their communities, families and professional endeavors have been so vital, but seldom recognized.”

Renee Copeland, the new vice president of Christmas Without Cancer, said the women are deserving of the award.

“It was very inspiring listening to the different missions of 18 incredible women,” said Copeland. “Gerri shares so much with these other deserving women because their kindness generates kindness in others.

“There were a lot of incredible women in one room.”

These women’s accomplishments are usually the makings and blessings of the unsung heroine’s mothers and their mothers before them. All the women had a story prompted by empathy and a “go get ’em” attitude.

Neylon thought she might “tap the brakes” a tad after she retired last year from a career at Advocate Christ Medical Center, but the phone calls and referrals to help those in need kept coming—because cancer never sleeps.

Copeland’s arrival helped streamline operations, untangle confusing internet challenges and serve as a sounding board—one women to another, one mother to another.

At the ceremony, Copeland sensed a common thread among the award recipients, especially between Neylon and Montes because of their passionate pursuit to help others.

She also noted a common thread.

It was the Village of Evergreen Park that spurred inspiration for both visionaries. They both initiated concepts impacting thousands and offering a challenge to as many.

Neylon’s desire to help one family fighting cancer in 2003 created a culture of local families in Evergreen Park and surrounding communities to support other local families at Christmas to lessen the financial burden that cancer brings.

Montes, on Aug. 20, 1993, led a group of dedicated business, civic, cultural and educational leaders in founding the Bronzeville Children’s Museum in Evergreen Park.

The first and only African-American children’s museum in the country, its mission was—and is—to educate and expose children to the rich contributions, culture and heritage of African-Americans and the people of Africa.

In 2008, the museum moved to the Pill Hill neighborhood of Chicago at 9301 S. Stony Island Ave. It is testament to one women’s vision shared with others who were ready to embrace a dream.

Christmas Without Cancer is testament to an inspiration embraced by a nurse helping one family and now joined by a growing number of volunteers, families and people who Neylon often says “pay it forward” after drawing from the kindness of others.

For more information about the (501(c)(3) organization, visit the website for Christmas Without Cancer.