MacArthur Genius Spends Her $500K on Others

Heather McHugh creates nonprofit for people who need a break
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 25, 2014 5:14 PM CST
Updated Nov 25, 2014 5:40 PM CST
Poet Spends $500K on Longterm Caregivers
Heather McHugh.   (Wikimedia Commons)

What would you do with $500,000? For Seattle poet Heather McHugh, it took some figuring out. "Nobody deserves that kind of money, and I think something in me was chastened by being awarded such a big amount of money," McHugh tells KPLU. After receiving the money with a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 2009, she saw her godson and wife start raising a severely disabled baby, and realized the stress they were under. "It was obvious to me when that baby was born that in 10 years, they were going to need a break," she says. So she created a nonprofit that gives a vacation to people who take care of their own family members for a decade. So far, nearly 30 have gone on such trips to Napa Valley, Maine, or Victoria, BC, often 66-year-old McHugh along for the ride.

"They ask for the simplest things on vacation," says McHugh. "They want to go for a walk when they want to. They want to read a book." One recipient was Tricia Elsner of Eastport, Maine, who has two out of three kids with autism. Getting away from the daily stress of temper tantrums and kids peeing on the floor was a tremendous relief: "After I got home, I realized that there had been a feeling in my chest like a big stone or rock that never went away," she says—and that rock-feeling hasn't returned since getting away. But McHugh doesn't sound like she'll boast about her achievement: "If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it’s harder to think of yourself as being so important," she tells PBS about her life lived on waterfronts. "That seems useful to me, spiritually." (Read about a woman unsatisfied with a $1 billion divorce settlement.)

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