Flathead Valley Community College President Jane Karas honored Dr. Van Kirke and Helen Nelson with her eighth annual Montana Mentor Award during the 18th annual President’s Donor Dinner May 16. The award was created in 2006 to honor a community leader who exemplifies the meaning of mentor.
Kirke became one of the first medical specialists in obstetrics and gynecology in Kalispell, opening his own practice in 1962. During his 40-year career, he delivered over 4,000 babies, serving as the largest provider for the pregnant Medicaid population in the Flathead Valley and never turning away any patients in need of his service. Throughout his career, he mentored scores of young physicians, leaving a lasting impact on Northwest Montana’s medical community. Kalispell’s medical facilities have been attributed to Kirke’s endless commitment to improving health care and building the facilities and technical equipment to meet modern needs.
Outside of his work, Kirke is noted for serving as a founding member of A.L.E.R.T. and the Flathead Outpatient Surgical Center and on the board of directors for A.L.E.R.T. as a charter member for his 37 years of service as well as for the C.M. Russell Museum and Glacier Bank boards. He worked with the Montana Medicaid Division, lobbying for improvements in women’s and children’s health care. In addition, he has been acknowledged for his supportive role in the improvements at Legends Stadium.
In addition to mentoring Kirke and Helen’s five children and 15 grandchildren, Helen has offered her time and talents as an active community volunteer in numerous capacities. Her service has included teaching Sunday School for more than 20 years, serving as camp director for Vacation Bible School, serving as state resident for the Montana Medical Society and chairing the fundraising efforts for medical education and research, serving on the Parent Teacher Association, and serving on various boards including the Kalispell District #5 School Board, Kalispell Ski Club Board and Alpinglow Inn Board. She is best known for dedicating approximately 25 years of service on the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts Foundation and for playing an instrumental grant writing role to secure the funds to construct the new playhouse and to pay for the facility’s recent upgrades.
Beyond her community involvement, Helen has opened her and Kirke’s home to various groups, serving as host family and providing them with warm hospitality and a safe place to retreat. Visitors have included the Missoula Children’s Theatre, African Children’s Choir, Up with People, and participants in local music festivals, sporting events and nondenominational Bible studies, among others. In addition, for more than 40 years, Helen has invited 350 elementary school students for a field trip into their home to view Kirke’s American Indian artifact collection, providing “buffalo chip cookies and moose milk” each year to the children.
During her presentation, Karas praised Kirke and Helen for using their gifts of vision, leadership and passion to make a difference in the community.
“These individuals are unmatched in character, kindness, generosity and family values,” she said. “They are role models for all of us.”
Kirke and Helen were recognized for their unselfish participation on committees, organizations and nonprofits to help others. As active supporters of the arts, they established the Glacier Gallery in Kalispell to showcase the works of unknown local artists, are Hockaday Museum of Art donors and are engaged in the Kalispell Education Foundation’s Fine Arts Night which partners with the FVCC Art Department to raise money for scholarships and grants. Most recently, they served in a leadership role on the FVCC Foundation’s capital campaign to raise funds to complete the college’s new Rebecca Chaney Broussard Center for Nursing and Health Science.
“Throughout their generous contributions of time, talent and treasure, they have continued to focus on caring for others and making this community a better place,” said Karas. “Over a lifetime, Kirke and Helen have set a standard for all of us to follow.”
For more information, contact Monica Settles at 756-3801.