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News Release: Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service honor six outstanding Minnesotans

August 24, 2012 - McKnight names 2012 Human Service award recipients, working to improve the lives of others.

Six Minnesotans with long histories of service to their communities will receive the 2012 Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service. The McKnight Foundation will present the awards on Friday, August 24, at a private ceremony in Minneapolis.

The $10,000 awards honor Minnesota residents who give their time to improve the lives of people in their communities. This year’s recipients include community activists, youth mentors, healers, and advocates for the immigrant population. (Awardee names and descriptions of work available below.)

A committee of six people working in human service fields across the state selected the finalists from more than 70 nominations.

“We are proud to recognize the compassionate efforts of these six Minnesotans,” says McKnight's board chair Ted Staryk.  “The generous and uplifting work to which they dedicate themselves every day is an inspiring example for us all.”

Since 1985, The McKnight Foundation has given the awards each year to recognize Minnesotans who demonstrate the difference one person can make in helping others. The awards are named for the Foundation’s former chair and president, Virginia McKnight Binger. Mrs. Binger served the Foundation for nearly 50 years as a board member, as president from 1974 through 1987, and then as honorary chair until her death in 2002. Although her parents, William and Maude McKnight, established the Foundation, it was Mrs. Binger’s personal compassion and generosity that set the standard for the Foundation’s work.
Candidates for the awards are nominated confidentially by someone familiar with their work. No one may apply for them directly. Counting this year’s recipients, 271 individuals, including nine pairs, have received the awards.


The McKnight Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations through grantmaking, collaboration, and encouragement of strategic policy reform. Founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, the Minnesota-based family Foundation had assets of approximately $1.9 billion and granted about $91 million in 2011. Learn more at, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

2012 Awards in Human Service recipient profiles

Mary Farley of Crookston has spent her life ministering to convicts, reintegrating homeless adults into community life, finding treatment for individuals with mental illness, and advocating for immigrants and children who can’t advocate for themselves. Also, Mary can often be found in her kitchen making jams and jellies that she sells to earn extra cash to care for the adopted animals on her farm. Her history of comprehensive community engagement has had a transformative effect on the many lives that have been touched by her work. 

Ibrahim Hussein of Owatonna immigrated to the United States from Kenya in 2007. Fluent in English and Swahili, he eventually landed a job as a Somali liaison at McKinley Elementary School, tutoring students for two hours a day. This led to a full-time position at McKinley, and to a flood of requests for more tutoring and other forms of assistance. His experience inspired him to found the Somali Americans Cultural Society of Owatonna, empowering Somali Americans to play active community roles as neighbors, business leaders, and educators.

Diane Kinney of St. Paul is the founder of Base Camp Hope, an organization that helps U.S. veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), related health issues, or physical rehabilitation. Base Camp Hope offers one-on-one counseling sessions supported with group and family counseling, as well as innovative art, music, and writing therapy. A veteran herself, Kinney has dedicated her life to helping vets acknowledge and overcome PTSD, a health issue that is often the root cause of unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse after combat.

For 18 years, Cheryl Meld of McGregor has directed Kids Plus, a program working to improve the well-being of children and youth in northeastern Minnesota. Serving children in extreme poverty, Kids Plus facilitates a variety of experiences and assistance for participating youth: volunteer opportunities, homework help, employment experience, recreational activities, and intergenerational connections. Cheryl welcomes everyone into the program with open arms, taking pride in the organization’s policy of “accepting kids where they are.”

Gino Nelson of Lakeville is a community activist, direct service provider, and mentor. He has spent 26 years at Catholic Charities and St. Stephen’s Human Services helping homeless individuals and ex-offenders find housing, employment, and meaningful ways to connect with their community. In some cases, Gino simply helps people avoid the drugs and gang life that many have come to feel represent the only way out. He often meets clients after hours to go to a movie or coffee house to show them there are options other than hanging on the street corner.

Gada Roba of Minneapolis came to the U.S. from war-torn Oromia as a teenager in 1998. He was living in a homeless shelter in Minneapolis when he was taken in by a family who supported him at no cost, asking only that he take the opportunity to pursue his education. In 2009, he graduated from college. Since then, he has devoted himself to building systems to support the Twin Cities immigrant Oromo population, in various roles at American Oromo Community of Minnesota, Wellstone International, and Roosevelt High School.