If you commit to something, do it. And, do it right. That's Susan Helm's mantra – both at work and while volunteering. Her family, professional colleagues and the many people with whom she volunteers see the results firsthand.
Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy environment, healthy community. Helm's career, extensive volunteer service and personal life demonstrate her commitment to these. Her career involved public relations, marketing and event planning. She was director of marketing for the SIU School of Medicine Department of Surgery for many years. Helm volunteered in numerous capacities while working. This has only intensified since she retired five years ago.
Retired is a misnomer for Helm. She gets more done by 8 a.m. than many people accomplish in a week. You might see her schlepping jugs of water around downtown to nourish native plants, digging in the soil to plant a pollinator garden, helping a group of people with dementia enjoy a program or leading a hike at Lincoln Memorial Garden.
Creating the Men's Night Out program was a highlight of Helm's career at SIU School of Medicine. The fun event featured a high-profile sports figure as keynote speaker. Stars such as Lou Brock and Gale Sayers helped attract upwards of 1,000 men to the events, which also included messages about men's health issues and free health screenings.
She also played a key role with Denim and Diamonds, SIU School of Medicine's most prominent fundraiser for cancer research. For years Helm directed the marketing in her position at SIU. Since retiring she has continued to volunteer. She co-chaired the 2019 event which raised $320,000, the most in its long history. Patsy Wappel, development officer at SIU School of Medicine, says Helm has tremendous energy and is a huge cheerleader for the SIU Cancer Institute.
Helm is known for having big ideas and the ability to bring them to fruition. Through her diverse interests, she has a network of people with a wide range of expertise. She draws on them to make things happen. She's funny and enthusiastic, and finds creative ways to get others involved and have fun in the process.
Helm's daughter, Jenna Sawicki, says her mother is proof that you can reinvent yourself when you want to. Her mother's actions show that if you are interested in something you can learn and master it. Running and becoming a Master Naturalist are two examples.
Helm started running at age 49. She went on to run half-marathons, helped to pace others running a half-marathon and was a race director for eight years. Now 65, she still runs four to six miles regularly. For 15 years Helm has been a Master Gardener, which requires extensive training and community service. Always wanting to learn more, she also became a Master Naturalist and took time off from work to complete the training. Maintaining these certifications requires 30 volunteer hours annually and 10 hours of continuing education for each. She far exceeds these requirements.
Helm's father died in his 50s. That was a motivation to take up running. She joined Abe's Army, a training program for the Illinois State Fair Abe's Amble 10K race. Participating in Abe's Army made her feel like she could do anything. Through Abe's Army she met Jan Wilson, who was also the Women's Distance Festival race director. Helm helped secure some sponsorships through SIU. A couple years later Helm agreed to direct the race. She decided to "take a cool event and make it better." Using her many connections, she added a huge women's health fair and a kids' fun run. It was the largest in the history of this race, with 600 women and 200 children participating.
Helm is a driving force behind the many pollinator gardens throughout the city and the native plants downtown. She worked with Michael Higgins on his rooftop garden above Maldaner's, which is now a Pollinator Pocket and Monarch Waystation. Higgins says that when Helm gets something in mind, she dedicates herself to the project and inspires others to see the vision. She worked with Higgins to get city support for 14 planters along Sixth Street and environmentally friendly bumpouts. She secured a grant to pay for the plants and made sure they survived by lugging jugs of water all over downtown during the growing season.
Native plants are thriving in areas throughout Springfield, thanks to Helm and a cadre of devoted volunteers. One example is the native plant restoration near the fishing pier in Washington Park. Helm and Francy Cobern worked with the Springfield Park District and other volunteers to turn a weedy area into a pollinator garden with 1,000 plants. They've helped add five more pollinator gardens in the last year – at Stuart, Kennedy, Vredenburg, Comer Cox and Bunn parks.
"When she gets involved, she gets involved!" says Joel Horwedel, director of Lincoln Memorial Garden. Helm is passionate about the garden, serving on the board for two terms, leading nature hikes for kids, helping with native plant sales and flipping pancakes at the annual pancake breakfast. It was her idea to sponsor an 8K trail run at Lincoln Memorial Garden as a new fundraiser. Susan drew on her connections within the running community to make this happen. "Susan is such a pro and so organized," says Horwedel. She secured sponsors, created nature-themed medals, brought in a whole new group of people to expose to the garden and handed over a check.
Minds in Motion, a program to help people with dementia and their caregivers, is also dear to Helm's heart. SIU started the program, which Helm led. Twice a month Helm organized multisensory-themed programs involving crafts, food, storytelling, music and more. Every time was different. Fellow volunteer Barbara Rogers says it was like throwing a big party twice per month. This was personal for Helm, since she had previously cared for her mother who had Alzheimer's. Helm directed this program in a part-time paid capacity after retiring, and now continues as a volunteer.
Wilson describes Helm as a workhorse who is good at organizing. Rogers, fellow Lincoln Memorial Garden board member and Master Gardener, says Helm is never short on ideas. Helm intermixes her interests and effectively draws on her many connections who have knowledge and resources. Her friends and colleagues have similar things to say about her. She believes in what she does. Once she gets involved, she's all in. She is quick to credit others. She's funny. And, she's fun.
Helm is determined to stay as healthy as possible. She has no intention of slowing down. She has two grandchildren and a third on the way. Helm wants to be able to crawl on the ground with her grandchildren. She intends to be well-read so her grandchildren will find her interesting. She is devoted to her family and committed to being there for them. However, "I may be the kind of grandma you have to make an appointment with," she quips with a laugh.
Karen Ackerman Witter has long admired Susan Helm. She met Susan through running and her many volunteer activities and continues to be impressed by all that Susan accomplishes.