LIBBY — Almost everyone in Libby has a family member or knows someone who has been helped by Wings.
Connie Wood, 72, and two friends came up with the idea for Wings during a luncheon in 1995 when they were in Kalispell for radiation treatment.
“We were sitting in the White Knight Pub for lunch,” Wood recalled. “I was with Kathy Rowland, a respiratory therapist, and Jennifer Schaffner, a social worker, and we were talking about how expensive it was for people to travel to get the help they needed.”
Wood said they had a list of people receiving treatment and their hometowns as they traveled to Kalispell.
“We put dots on the map and drew lines leading into Kalispell. When we connected the dots, they looked like wings, so that’s how we came up with the name. It was wings into Kalispell,” Wood recalled.
What resulted from the sketch on a crinkled map grew into an organization that, in its inaugural year in 1997, assisted 72 cancer victims and distributed $25,960 in contributions.
In the years since, Wings has helped 2,380 people and raised $1.579 million.
“After a while it just took on a life of its own,” Wood said. “It’s really been an incredible journey.”
Reflecting on those early years, Wood was saddened by the loss of co-founder Rowland, who succumbed to cancer.
“She was so amazing. She would have done anything for you,” she said of Rowland.
Now, Wood is battling for her own health as she has been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. In 1988, she survived breast cancer.
“I was cancer-free for 20 years,” Wood said proudly as her son Joe looked on.
“I’ve already told them I may not be around to help during Wings Week this year,” Wood said, explaining she is traveling to Kalispell for cancer treatment three of four weeks a month.
“I just might not be able to help out as much as I have. I have good and bad days,” Wood said.
“Wings has always been a family thing for us,” Wood said. “I’ve always gotten my whole family involved — my children, spouses and my grandchildren. Everyone helps. My grandchildren even helped in the kitchen last year with the Cinco de Mayo event.”
Wings Week in Libby began Saturday.
Today is Bowling Tuesday night at Libby and Troy lanes; Wednesday is Dollar Day in both Libby and Troy and on Saturday, May 11, at the Yaak River Tavern there is a Wings for Wings night that includes the sale of chicken wings to benefit Wings.
“That’s pretty clever, Wings for Wings,” Wood said. “Troy has always been such a big supporter of Wings.”
Wood, who is an accomplished businesswoman, who, with the help of sons Gary and Joe ran Topper Wood Trucking after her husband’s death at age 42.
“After Topper died, I got the boys together and we decided we would make a go of the trucking business,” Wood said.
In time, Wood sold the trucking business, which she proudly admits “for a profit,” and later owned and operated both a Hallmark greeting card shop and an insurance agency.
“In time, all the bending of the card shop took its toll, and I was looking for something else,” Wood said. “I really liked the insurance business. I really enjoyed that.”
It was Wood’s business sense that helped Wings succeed.
“We are so proud of the fact that every penny — every cent — goes to help those who need it,” Wood said. “There are no administrative costs. None whatsoever.”
Wood said during the years, people have come to trust her and Wings.
“I remember one time, a man came in to see me and make a contribution of $200, two $100 bills. I told him to wait and I would write him a receipt. He told me, ‘No, that’s OK. I trust you and Wings.’ Now, that’s trust,” Wood said. “That’s the kind of organization Wings is.”
As she battles cancer for a second time, Wood admits she is slowing down.
“Maybe God’s telling me I should take things a little slower. I probably should have been gone a long time ago,” Wood said.
However, to hear others say it, Wood has been something of an inspiration.
“She’s our Mother Superior,” volunteer clown Peggy Craver said.
As Wood makes weekly trips to Kalispell for chemotherapy, she prides herself in not using Wings money.
“I’m in the Pilot [W.R. Grace] Program, so I’m not using Wings money right now,” Wood said. “However, I did use Wings money once to help me with lodging. My volunteers tell me if I don’t use it, they’re going to quit raising money. I am so grateful for all these volunteers. They do so much to make to make me look good. Some of them have been with me for 20 years.”
Gerstenecker is the editor of The Western News in Libby.