Stories of Triumph

Each year, Excelsior Youth Center throws a big bash to honor three Triumphant Women who have overcome hurdles to achieve their dreams—and help others do the same. This year, the Passport Party welcomed hundreds of guests to salute Rebecca Bell, Cindy Acree and Ryta Sondergard and to raise funds and awareness for one of the nation’s premier residential treatment facilities for troubled young women.

REBECCA BELL, Excelsior Alumna

Case Manager working with disabled people

CH&L: What role did Excelsior play in your current success?
Rebecca Bell: When I graduated from Excelsior in 2000, I left with a foundation and focus that truly helped me succeed in college. It’s an honor to be chosen as one of their ‘Triumphant Women,’ especially since at 28, I feel like I’m still in the process of ‘triumphing.’ I hope I can continue to give back and live up to the amazing standard set by my fellow Triumphant Women.

What are you up to now?
At the moment, I work to help people with disabilities find placement in jobs or homes. It’s incredibly rewarding to see people who have had such difficulties find a place in life. I’m also in the process of getting my Masters in Public Administration, which will hopefully propel me even further into the field.

What accomplishment are you most proud of, and who helped you get there?

I’m incredibly proud of my independence. I went to Excelsior as a rebel, and I’m proud that I was able to take such a defiant and destructive personality and funnel it into becoming a much more productive person. These days, I’m a free thinker and I’m incredibly ambitious. I have a strong concept of what would be a good life for myself, and I really work toward it every day!

More about Rebecca: Fluent in American Sign Language  |  Once a competitive swimmer and diver  |  Graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in Human and Social Service Administration from Bellevue University


Colorado State Representative

CH&L: Tell us a little bit about your background: where you came from, and how it shaped you.
Cindy Acree: I grew up in Arkansas on a farm. At 21, in the middle of my college career, I developed adult-onset epilepsy. I traveled to hospitals all over the country, and I ended up being the first epilepsy surgery patient here at Swedish Medical Center. Although my seizures were cured, the surgery caused a stroke that paralyzed my left side. All of that background is part of a story that’s driven by perseverance—by realizing I could go beyond where everyone else said I’d be.

What issues are nearest and dearest to your heart?
As a result of working through my own personal health issues, I’ve been driven to work toward advancing health care issues, and I can look at it from a patient perspective. I believe we need to get back to the patients and their doctors deciding what’s best.

More about Cindy: After eight years of difficult stroke recovery, completed the 437-mile Ride the Rockies bike ride  |  An expert on the American Disabilities Act


Philanthropist and Community Volunteer

CH&L: You had a trying childhood. Who inspired you to break free from that environment?
Ryta Sondergard: My mother was a huge inspiration. In the face of extreme need and abuse at the hand of my father, she always managed to hold her dignity and never lost respect for other people. One of my heroes growing up was Bessie Delaney of the Delaney Sisters, who said, ‘Education. Education. Education is the key.’ I am the only college graduate in the family, and I think it’s incredibly important to never stop learning.

Without having children of your own, you’ve managed to change the lives of thousands of children around the world.

After helping start the Colorado branch of Operation Christmas Child, my husband and I traveled to Honduras to distribute boxes. We saw thousands of children who waited for hours in the brutal sun. We couldn’t bring them all home, so in a way, we adopted them all.

More about Ryta: Youngest of six children  |  Planning an African safari  |  The Colorado branch of Operation Christmas Child, which she helped start, delivered 300,000 boxes this holiday season