As a young mother with her hands full raising two children in 1986, Carolyn Sprawka of Batavia said she somehow became aware of -- and interested in -- the plight of homeless people.
"One week, I had time to read the paper and read a story about a group in Chicago collecting coats for people on Lower Wacker Drive," Sprawka said.
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That same week, her church pastor mentioned he was going to the Hesed House homeless shelter in Aurora and he was looking for a volunteer for an overnight shift. Sprawka figured her kids were asleep between 1 and 3 a.m., so she volunteered.
"I knew that first night that this was something I wanted to go back and do," Sprawka added.
And she did, spending 25 years as a Hesed House volunteer, 20 years as a Hesed board member and 17 years as president of that board.
That type of dedication, along with her many other charitable efforts for the Fox Valley area, did not go unnoticed.
Sprawka was honored with the 28th annual William D. Barth Award, the most prestigious honor bestowed upon a volunteer by TriCity Family Services, during a ceremony Thursday at Riverside Receptions in Geneva.
"You pulled off the surprise of the century," Sprawka told attendees at the ceremony, which traditionally is kept secret from the winner until they arrive at the event.
An emotional Sprawka spoke about the inspiration she receives from fellow Hesed House volunteers and staff members, saying it has been an honor to watch "the work they do, and the miracles they perform."
Friend Nancie Lillie, who nominated Sprawka for the honor, provided an example of how Sprawka goes above and beyond while volunteering her time at Hesed House or at Lazarus House in St. Charles.
"She has actually hunted under viaducts to find homeless people in need of shelter," Lillie said.
Because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a census of homeless people every two years and encourages Hesed staff to seek homeless people who are not in shelters, Sprawka would join staff members and Aurora police to find the people who need help.
"We don't just drive around," Sprawka said. "We go into the woods, look in abandoned buildings and go under the viaducts -- wherever people might eventually be."
When her family moved to the Tri-Cities area, she joined the United Methodist Church of Geneva and immediately discovered a group from the church volunteered at Hesed House.
"I figured, been there, done that, so I was really happy to hear that," Sprawka said.
She volunteered as a shift coordinator at both Hesed House and Lazarus House, organizing teams from the church to make meals and supervise overnight work at the shelters.
In addition, Sprawka recently became involved in Fox Valley United, a new coalition of churches, corporations and nonprofits addressing social issues in the Fox Valley area.
Sprawka is also a member of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness, and she has been able to handle all of her volunteer efforts while working full-time for Rempe-Sharpe and Associates, an engineering firm in Geneva.
"I have recognized her exceptional life for 25 years and felt it was time for others in the community to know who she is," Lillie said.
Sprawka has worked tirelessly to make her community better by "looking out for those who have no voice," Lillie added.
Sprawka thanked those from Hesed House and various other charitable organizations represented in the audience, saying they provided her the inspiration to help others.
In turn, she asked that everyone continue to "be inspired" by reaching out to those in need.
"Get out there and come face-to-face with people, and you'll make a difference in their lives," she said.