Houlton woman wins big tribute; McDonald’s honors adoption pioneer

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A Houlton woman who has worked 25 years to enrich the lives of abandoned children throughout the world will be honored by Ronald McDonald Charities at its annual Awards of Excellence Gala on Saturday night in Chicago.

Dawn Degenhardt, recognized nationally as a pioneer in the field of international adoptions and founder of Maine Adoption Placement Services, will be awarded the Gerry Newman McTLC Award at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place.

The award honors restaurant owners, suppliers and employees for their efforts on behalf of children and includes a $25,000 grant. Degenhardt and her husband, Edwin “Hunk” Degenhardt, own the McDonald’s restaurants in Houlton, Calais, Lincoln and Millinocket.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime award,” she said earlier this week. “It’s given after careful thought to a McDonald’s operator who’s done outstanding charity work for children. Ronald McDonald House is huge. People think of them [as] just the houses, which are wonderful places, but it’s not the only charity they support. Our programs have received at least five grants ranging from $15,000 to $80,000. They’re well aware of all the work that MAPS has done and how we’ve grown.”

Initially, MAPS was a demonstration project to show that there were children in need of adoptive families and families that wanted to adopt them. Degenhardt and co-founder Judy Bielecki worked without pay, and everything, including space, was donated. The local Rotary Club awarded the organization a $500 grant to get started and a local insurance man let the group use his photocopier.

Today, the organization is licensed in six states and works in 13 countries, said Degenhardt. The primary focus of MAPS’ first 10 years was placing children in foster care in adoptive homes in Maine.

The Degenhardts have nine adopted children, three of whom were in the foster care system. Only two of them were adopted as babies and the rest were older, she said. While five of them live in Houlton, the rest are scattered throughout the world. Two live in Sanford, two reside in Rhode Island and two live in Vietnam, where daughter Joy runs MAPS’ Vietnam program.

“Eight of my kids are going to be at the awards ceremony,” said an excited Degenhardt. “The bonus of winning the award is that we get to have a family reunion in Chicago for three days. They’ve never invited a recipient’s entire family. My kids are all races, so I think they wanted to see them grown up. They sent three [production] teams out to make a three-minute video about our family that will be shown Saturday night.”

She said that the agency will use the money that goes along with the honor for existing programs and possibly to start a new program. Some of the award also will be used to build a new orphanage in Vietnam.

Degenhardt has received numerous awards over the years, including the local Jefferson Award in 1986, the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Award in 1997 and the Jefferson Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. She has been recognized by the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame and awarded the Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International. Earlier this year, she was selected to receive the “Angel in Adoption” award and the Fredrick Douglas Caring Award from the Caring Institute.

“I’m being given the honor but MAPS isn’t just me,” said a modest Degenhardt. “It has been friends, volunteers and an incredibly dedicated staff that caught my vision and carried our mission of helping one child at a time to the world.”

Fellow recipients of the award are Dr. Judah Folkman, a professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School, who is being honored for his cancer research, and Queen Noor of Jordan, for her work on behalf of children in Jordan and the Middle East.

The black-tie event will feature a silent auction reception and performances by Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias, David Foster, Josh Groban, Nita Whitaker, and Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, among others.

The Awards of Excellence concert will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, on WVII-TV, Channel 7.

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