By Mella McEwen
After 18-month-old Jessica McClure was pulled from an abandoned water well 10 years ago, communities across the country and around the world marveled at the volunteers who spent long hours digging, or who donated expensive drilling equipment or food and drinks.
Carroll Thomas, who was mayor of Midland at the time of the rescue, said he and other community officials realized that "what had happened to us was a very unique thing in the history of our community, but that probably similar things have happened to a lot of communities who weren't appropriately recognized."
When city officials received a $5,000 gift from a Rio Grande Valley resident, Thomas said "we asked ourselves what more fitting thing could we do with the money than to recognize in the future other communities that, in one way or another, had similar things happen to them, had similar accomplishments.
"We decided we would make the award qualification broad. The event primarily had to be a significant event in the community where the whole community rallied to a common cause and accomplished that cause."
Winners would be communities that pulled together the way the Midland community pulled together to rescue Jessica, Thomas said.
"It's amazing, so many people watched that event, it's imprinted in their minds," he said. "You start talking about it and they remember it so well. I've learned that a lot of other countries were so amazed and impressed that we would make such an effort to save one child."
Thomas said Jessica's family was very helpful and cooperative as the award was organized.
But, "from the very first, this was not to be an award about the rescue, but rather to be an award about citizens working together. To this day, we're still clarifying that point, that it's a community-to-community award."
Alice Freidline, chairman of this year's Community Spirit Award committee, said that she thinks the award "is a wonderful way to recognize the positive things that are happening in America. It sounds like a real cliche to say that all we see is the bad news, but there are so many ways that people come together and work together and combine their talents and energies to work toward a common goal and that's rarely recognized or certainly not recognized outside the community in which it happens."
She said she believes the award has started a national trend.
"When the Community Spirit Award was created, there were very few awards like this that were nationwide. I think it's significant that in the 10 years since the conception of this award, lots of other kinds of recognitions have come into being. I really want to believe that we were a part of that, a part of beginning to recognize how important it is to encourage volunteerism. It seems like the Points of Light, all the special volunteer days have really come about in the last 10 years."
Thomas said that a portion of the $5,000 donation was spent creating a bronze bas-relief sculpture, depicting the rescue, which was mounted on the side of Midland Center. The award that is presented to the winning community is a smaller version of that sculpture.
A letter from Thomas to "Dear Abby" kicked off the award in 1989 and drew a number of nominations. The first winner was Sioux City, Iowa, the site of a United Airlines crash that killed 112 passengers. Volunteers came together to aid the 184 passengers who survived the crash. The award was presented to the mayor and city officials at the White House by then-President Bush.
"The award started off with tremendous interest because the first recipient was Sioux City, site of a horrible plane crash," Thomas said. "And President Bush had agreed to make the presentation and that got tremendous publicity."
It was sponsored at the time by Sears, which flew city representatives and Jessica and her parents to Washington for the presentation.
Sears also sponsored the next presentation, when the award was given to Yakima, Wash., for its efforts to rid the city of drugs.
Bangor, Maine, received the award in 1991 for the warm welcome residents gave armed forces personnel returning from the Persian Gulf War.
In October 1992, Midland Mayor J.D. Faircloth and the City Council decided to discontinue the award in order to give Jessica's family some privacy and avoid any benefit to the city at the family's expense.
The following June, the Leadership Midland Alumni Association revived the award, which is now presented every other year.
Subsequent awards have been presented to Warren and Southern Wells, Ind., in 1993, honoring volunteers who spent the Christmas holidays outfitting a Warren community building as an elementary school, to replace the Southern Wells school that had burned down.
Petaluma, Calif., received the award in 1995 in recognition of the efforts volunteers put into searching for Polly Klaas, 12, who had been kidnapped from her home during a slumber party.
After she was found slain, volunteers formed two foundations - one that seeks to identify convicted molesters and educate children on how to prevent attacks, and another that provides data bases on missing children to law enforcement agencies.
This year's winner is the Tri-Cities area of Washington - the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, Richmond and West Richmond, where volunteers spent 24,000 hours building a 9,000-square-foot Hospice House.
Mrs. Freidline said that receiving the award has already had a major impact on Tri-Cities.
"They've had inquiries about not only the building of their Hospice House and the reason for winning the award, but also about their Hospice program. They're getting the opportunity to share what they are doing there because they got national recognition and we're excited we were a part of that."