WYOMING — There are several excuses Don Cushman of Thayne could use to avoid volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. He is nearly 60 miles away from a build site, he is 77 years old, and his knee doesn’t work quite like it used to.
Despite all that, Don has not shied away from helping others, having volunteered over 2,000 hours (the equivalent of 83 days) over the last 15 years with Habitat for Humanity in Teton County. During that time, he has taken part in 45 home builds for 51 families. Those homes would go on to house over 150 children.
Because of his hard work and willingness to lend a hand, Cushman has been named AARP Wyoming’s Andrus Award Winner for 2020. Cushman edged out the other finalist, Wyoming First Lady Jennie Gordon, in an online vote for the award, and will be presented with the state’s premier community service award for those age 50 and over.
“I am quite honored, actually,” Cushman says of his win. “I found out there was a round of voting going on online and I was one of the finalists. Then, it became fun because I saw people voting for me and I wondered how different people found out about this. It was people voting for me that I had not talked to in a long time. It has been a wonderful reunion.”
For the last three years, AARP Wyoming has named two or three finalists for the state award, then asked the public to vote for their favorite by “liking,” and “sharing,” a post featuring each finalist. This year, Cushman’s video received 197 likes, 79 shares and 15 comments, and was viewed nearly 6,000 times. Gordon’s video was also a powerhouse, receiving 48 likes, another 40 shares and was viewed nearly 8,000 times.
About the Award
The Andrus Award, named after AARP founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, recognizes individuals who are sharing their experience, talent, and skills to enrich their communities in ways that are consistent with AARP’s mission, vision, and commitment to volunteer service.
Only one volunteer per state (or couple performing service together) can receive the award each year and the recipient must live in the awarding state. The award winner is required to be at least 50 years old, and the achievements, accomplishments, or service on which the nomination is based must reflect AARP’s vision and mission. This is not a posthumous award.
From Tubas to Tetons
Cushman is a native of the cornfields of West Central Indiana, who attended Indiana University and earned two degrees in music education. After teaching music in the suburbs of Chicago for three years, he completed a doctorate in instructional technology in 1971 and started working at Indiana Central University (now the University of Indianapolis). After working at ICU for seven years, in 1983 he took a sabbatical to study schools that were using computers in the classroom. His studies took him to Oregon, Alaska, and Jackson, Wyoming.
He returned to Wyoming in the winter of 1983-84 and became a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park, a job he enjoyed for 10 years before becoming a park ranger at the National Elk Refuge for the final 10 years of his career. He also engaged in the community by starting and conducting the Jackson Hole Community Band for 17 years (he still plays), conducting church choirs in Jackson, leading community fundraisers for the Rotary Club in Jackson to combat polio, and teaching for Central Wyoming College at its Jackson campus for 11 years.
“It’s been a rich life,” Cushman says.
A Commitment To Volunteer
After retiring 15 years ago, Cushman took a trip to Mississippi with the Presbytery of Wyoming to help repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. That experience led Cushman to make a commitment to work more consistently with Habitat for Humanity in Teton County. Cushman began driving the 55 miles each way, often twice-a-week (4,500 miles) to build sites in Teton County, which has culminated in its current effort, a five-year, six-building expansion called The Grove, which will provide affordable housing for 24 families concluding next spring.
“It has been a real trip to meet the people who will be the future homeowners for the work we are doing,” Cushman says. “They work their tails off and getting to know these people, who are real human beings with a real need to support themselves and their families, has been amazing. These are people trying to get themselves out of absolute dumps of homes and it is good to see them literally get a new lease on life.”
No Signs of Slowing Down
Since starting with Teton Habitat, Cushman has let very little get in the way of his volunteering. A knee surgery last year resulted in five weeks off the jobsite, but he is back and the knee is better than ever.
“I once heard a pastor say, ‘Now, let’s put some muscle behind our prayers,’ and that is how I perceive this award now,” Cushman says. “A lot of people can throw $5 into the pot and we need to have those dollars to make this program and Jennie Gordon’s programs go. But what is impressive to the future homeowners we work with is to see the volunteers come in and help.”
The Andrus Award is not the first time Cushman has been honored for his work with Teton Habitat. He has been named the Turnkey Award – given to the volunteer with the highest number of volunteer hours on a project – numerous times and was named Habitat’s Lee Kuntz Volunteer of The Year Award winner for the Rocky Mountain Region in 2016.
Despite being 77 years old, he says he refuses to slow down.
“Last year tennis player Roger Federer was interviewed after winning a tournament at age 38 and someone asked him how he regarded his success at his advanced age. He said, ‘I don’t look at what’s left, I look at what’s next,” and that is how I look at it.”
The other finalist was Wyoming First Lady Jennie Gordon who was nominated by Laramie County resident Sharon Fain. In her nomination, Fain lifted up Gordon’s work on The Wyoming Hunger Initiative, which created a framework to support existing non-profits who are working to eliminate hunger in Wyoming, and during COVID-19 developed a website that let citizens know of free food resources in each Wyoming County.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Initiative started a COVID-19 Task Force, before taking in private funds and turned those dollars into action. The Initiative allocated $50,000 for infrastructure grants to anti-hunger efforts in March, then another $40,000 per month from April through August to ensure every county received funding to replenish food pantries. The group then worked with Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies to financially support mobile food pantries that reached all 23 counties.
“First Lady Gordon is a force and knew the success of the Wyoming Hunger Initiative would be based on a set of extraordinary volunteers and organizations across our great state,” Fain says. “She is a true leader and her mission to end hunger in the state of Wyoming has engaged new partners and supporters who share her vision.”
In addition to the work of the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, Gordon partnered with the Wyoming Department of Health’s Aging Division to solicit, collect, and distribute hand-written cards for the state’s older adults who were homebound. That drive resulted in around 6,000 cards.
“Don is the definition of a dedicated volunteer. His positivity and commitment to Teton Habitat is contagious!” Elizabeth Ferguson, Community Engagement Manager for Teton Habitat for Humanity.