Thankful Hearts—Fueled by Gratitude, These Community Members Are Reaching Out to Others

November 2014 View more


The season of gratitude is upon us. From the family gathered around the dining table at Thanksgiving, to the red Salvation Army buckets outside stores, to evergreen trees dotted with donated mittens and hats, now is the time many people open their hearts and wallets to those in need. Many of us recognize the bounty we possess, and out of the gratitude for the gifts we have, we give back to others.

For some, however, their life’s devotion is fueled by gratitude on a daily basis. These thankful hearts find inspiration and courage from the people in their lives, the places they go, and their life experiences, both good and bad. Meet three individuals who are taking their gratitude into the community, their business, and even across the globe.

nm jacqueline camacho-ruiz 2_800pxJackie Camacho-Ruiz

Thankful for Life

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz has so much to be thankful for. Born against all odds in Mexico, she witnessed her childhood home burn and endured domestic instability before arriving in the United States at age 14. When she was 21 years old, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and told she would never bear children, yet she went on to have a healthy son and daughter. Two years later, the fateful ingestion of a cardamom seed led to a life-saving diagnosis of her Extrahepatic Choledocal Cyst Type II, an extremely rare and difficult to detect fatal cancer, which required a complicated surgery to reconstruct her digestive system. Through it all, her attitude of gratitude, coupled with her resilience, ambition, and creative drive, led her to launch the award-winning marketing and public relations agency, JJR Marketing, and embrace a call to inspire others through her work.

“I’ve always been able to find the ray of sunshine in every situation. Even in the midst of turmoil, nobody can take away the essence of happiness, joy, and love that you have for other people,” said Jackie Camacho-Ruiz.

Camacho-Ruiz has also authored five books, including her personal memoir, “The Fig Factor,” which chronicles her emotional and personal journey. She reaches hundreds of people every year with her dynamic public speaking and distribution of personalized boxes that contain inspirational items of special meaning for the recipient. For her efforts in the community and business world, she has received numerous entrepreneurial and service awards and helped launch Hispanic day at the 2014 Ribfest. Recently, she recognized a way she could use her connections and influence to fulfill one teen’s wish for what turned out to be a life-changing Quinceañera. The experience inspired her to launch The Fig Factor Foundation, which is dedicated to unleashing the potential of young Latinas.

 “I used to be afraid of success, but now I’m grateful for it because I can use my influence to make wonderful things happen for others,” she said. “I feel like it is what I’m meant to do.”


nm jillie johnston 2_800pxJillie Johnston

Thankful for Self-Love

When Jillian Johnston, 25, of Naperville, posted a YouTube challenge for women to write a love letter to themselves, she never dreamed it would lead to her life’s calling. “People began to ask me, ‘how do I write a letter to myself if I don’t love myself’?” she said.

Johnston’s organization called Love Letters to Yourself has since snowballed into an international women’s empowerment movement. By sharing her personal journey to self-love after surviving sexual assault, her parent’s divorce, eating disorders, and self-harm of those around her, Johnston now helps others find their true self-love using love letters, exercise, and gratitude journals as guides. 

 “Writing the letter is a small part of the process,” she said. “The greater part is the journey, so I started doing workshops to help people start on their journey.” 

After sharing her message locally in workshops, spiritual centers and empowerment events, Johnston volunteered last year in the rural, low-income town of Huanchaco, Peru, for the nonprofit organization, Otra Cosa. The experience inspired her to establish the Malayeka Community Center in Peru to empower women and children through education and self-love. The Center’s mission is to create a sustainable community for the women and their families by teaching jewelry making, knitting, and crocheting skills. Johnston says the language and cultural barriers can be challenging, but her perseverance is rewarded when she sees women gaining self-confidence, showing pride in their achievements, or expressing opinions for the first time. 

“It’s all within us,” she said. “I say I’m not here to tell people something they don’t know. I’m here to help them rediscover their worth, value, and power.”

Johnston plans to impact the younger generation by taking the message to a place where self-love can be quite elusive in junior high schools. “Whether they want to listen now or not, the message will be in the back of their minds when they need it most.”

nm matt schnell 2_800pxMatt Schnell

Thankful for Healthy Children

What do turkey and chili have in common? For Naperville resident Matt Schnell, his wife Judy, and their family, they are both foods that represent true thanksgiving and gratitude.

Schnell is the founder of the football-themed “Chili Kickoff Cookoff ” to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the nonprofit organization that provides once-in-a-lifetime experiences for children with life threatening illnesses. While many fundraisers become involved with a cause out of personal experience with it, Schnell is motivated to help Make-A-Wish out of pure gratitude for his own healthy children.

“As a parent of four, I can’t imagine being in a circumstance like that where you can’t help your child,” Schnell said. “It touches the entire family. I do it for the kids, but I also do it for the family so they all can get a vacation from their reality.” 

Schnell has been fundraising for Make-A-Wish since 2008, originally through a golf outing, then an ambitious block party in his Naperville neighborhood dubbed “SchnelltemberFest.” Last July, Schnell was having dinner with fellow Make-A-Wish fundraisers at Nevin’s Brewing Company when he was inspired to hold a chili cookoff. The committee went to work and the inaugural event kicked off last September at Nevin’s Brewing Company in Plainfield, where it was also held this year. The $20 ticket price helps pack the house. And why chili? “I love it,” laughed Schnell, revealing that he is a local chili competitor himself, so he knew just what to do to plan the event.

Last September, Schnell watched in gratitude as nearly 375 people flocked to Nevin’ to support the cause and enjoy live music, multiple football games, silent auctions, and raffles. The event raised $21,000, which was enough to fund four wishes, including trips to Disney World and Hawaii. 

Schnell set the 2014 goal at $40,000 for six wishes, which at press time, appears to be a perfectly realistic goal judging from the pre-event ticket sales and sponsorship support. “You can’t do this without the support of a great committee and businesses who sponsor us and community members who attend,” he said. “I’m grateful to them all.” 

See a wrap-up of the 2014 Chili Kickoff Cookoff at