By Keith Lanigan
Individuals who truly deserve recognition and praise are often times the same people who shy away from the spotlight of public acclaim.
Instead of reaping the rewards of a job well done, the unselfish of Chautauqua County are found far from the headlines, moving forward to their next challenge.
Carmella “Carm” Wheeler of Ashville is no different.
Ms. Wheeler is the recipient of the ninth annual Axel W. Carlson Award given to her Friday by the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation.
The award honors Chautauqua County residents who go out of their way to help their neighbors without the expectation of honor or financial gain.
“Carm has given tirelessly and unselfishly to the community,” said Greg Peterson, foundation president.
Ms. Wheeler’s story is one where had she not become involved with the plight of a local family, it would have meant another group of souls would have been lost in the bureaucratic oblivion of “the system.”
It was three years ago when Ms. Wheeler was touched by this family. With a child in need of expensive medical care, the family was thrown into a desperate financial situation once the father lost his job.
There they stood, fighting a losing battle with the paper shufflers of Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, the criminal justice system and the Health Department.
Stepping away from a society usually fearful of “the system,” Ms. Wheeler helped the family with their medical bills for the child, employment for the father, housing for the family and enrolling the child in a special school.
Once Ms. Wheeler solved the family’s medical and emotional difficulties, she approached the foundation for funds to help with the family’s legal and medical bills, said County Executive Andrew Goodell.
Goodell was on hand to issue a proclamation making April 29, 1994, Carmella Wheeler Volunteer Service Day in Chautauqua County.
With the battle now over, Ms. Wheeler still prefers the anonymity of working behind the scenes.
Pointing to the audience and family members who filled the Sheldon House in her honor Friday, she said, “I’d rather be sitting out there.”
“It became a monumental project,” but “I would do it again in a minute. I just felt it was my obligation to help someone who couldn’t help themselves,” Ms. Wheeler said.
“The dad really needed help,” she said.
The loss of his job and his son’s difficulties in school were a tough situation for the family to climb out from under.
The son would have ended up a product of the criminal justice system had he not received any help.
“There was a big injustice being done to him,” Ms. Wheeler said.
“I felt he deserved better,” she said.
Greg Edwards, a local attorney and Ms. Wheeler’s employer, read congratulatory letters from U.S. Rep. Amo Houghton of Corning and New York’s Gov. Mario Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine.
Ms. Wheeler also was awarded a plaque, and her name will be placed on a plaque in City Hall honoring the nine Carlson award recipients.
Recipients of the award are picked for demonstrating some of the same characteristics espoused by Axel W. Carlson, an early 20th century Swedish immigrant to the Jamestown area.
Carlson, a carpenter by trade, was known for going out of his way to help neighbors, yet he expected no reward or recognition in return.
In 1981 Carlson died and left a substantial portion of his estate to assist people in the community. The foundation set up the award in 1985 to use Carlson’s money to honor those who followed his unselfish conduct.