Four Minnesotans Honored as Unsung Heroes for Life-Changing Work

Tom Johnson of St. Paul and Wilbur Neushwander-Frink of Mankato have been selected to receive the 2015 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Awards. Presented by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN), in partnership with The McKnight Foundation, the Unsung Hero Awards honor individuals doing life-changing work in communities across Minnesota who have not been widely recognized.

Johnson and Neushwander-Frink will be honored for their generous contributions to their communities at the 2015 MCN Annual Conference on Thursday, Oct. 1 at the Saint Paul RiverCentre. Each will be presented with a cash prize of $10,000. Additionally, a video will be created to highlight the work for which they are being recognized. 

Notable mention honorees Robianne Shultz of Perham and Mary Powell of Shoreview will each receive $1,000 to donate to an organization of their choice.

All four individuals have proven to be tireless advocates in their commkjes and have made a significant impact on those around them through their professional and/or volunteer activities.

“We’re fortunate to live in a state with so many generous individuals,” said Jon Pratt, Minnesota Council of Nonprofit’s executive director. “The Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Awards honor people who contributed their time and passion with no expectation of credit, just the drive to help their community. It’s truly a testament to the extraordinary difference a person can make.”

Since 1985, The McKnight Foundation has recognized Minnesotans who have improved the quality of life for individuals and the community around them through the Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service. The award is named in honor of Virginia McKnight Binger, who served for nearly 50 years as a McKnight board member, as president from 1974 through 1987 and then as honorary chair until her death in 2002. Although her parents, William and Maude McKnight, established the Foundation, it was Mrs. Binger’s personal compassion and generosity that set the standard for the Foundation’s work.

In 2015, MCN partnered with McKnight to coordinate and present the first-ever Unsung Hero Awards.

About the 2015 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award recipients:

Tom Johnson of St. Paul is a client advocate at Mental Health Minnesota, where he helps individuals with mental illnesses advocate for themselves and maintain independence. His passion for advocacy began at the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota in the 1990s. Additionally, Johnson serves on the State Mental Health Advisory Council and has worked on legislative proposals to require those studying law enforcement to be trained in mental health crises.

Wilbur Neushwander-Frink of Mankato is a community organizer at The Arc of Minnesota Southwest, where she advocates for the disability community, and also works for Pathstone Living as a volunteer coordinator. She leads two theater groups for individuals with disabilities and has served with a number of organizations in various capacities, including Feeding Our Communities Partners’ BackPack Food Program, the Good Thunder Reading Series and the Kiwanis Miracle League.

Robianne Schultz of Perham is the state’s American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network lead volunteer, a position she became passionate about after being diagnosed with cancer in 2001. Through this role, Schultz guides advocates at the local and national level to work with elected officials to develop policies to fight cancer and increase funding for cancer research. Additionally, she serves in a leadership role for Relay for Life in East Otter Tail County, where she helps to raise funds for the event.

Mary Powell of Shoreview is the president of the board of directors at the Center for Engaging Autism and served as the executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota for 18 years, where she developed programs for individuals and families with autism. Under Powell’s leadership, the Center for Engaging Autism has become an invaluable resource for parents and families. Additionally, Powell started Outcomes, Inc., a residential service provider for individuals with autism; developed a summer camp for individuals with autism; launched the State Autism Conference; and advocated for teacher licensure in autism spectrum disorders.


About Minnesota Council of Nonprofits
The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits works to inform, promote, connect and strengthen individual nonprofits and the nonprofit sector. Founded in 1987 to meet the increasing information needs of nonprofits and to convene nonprofits to address issues facing the sector, MCN is the largest state association of nonprofits in the U.S. with over 2,000 member organizations. 

About The McKnight Foundation
The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation, seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations. Founded in 1953, the Foundation’s program interests include regional economic and community development, Minnesota’s arts and artists, early literacy, youth development, Midwest climate and energy, Mississippi River water quality, neuroscience research, international crop research, and rural livelihoods.

*Correction: This article previously referred to Tom Johnson's organization as the Mental Health Association of Minnesota. The organization is now called Mental Health Minnesota.

2 out of 2 users found this page helpful.

Was this page helpful?


Only current members of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits may post comments to this page.

Login To Comment

Individual Login

You are signed in as:

View My Account divider Logout