updated 9/25/2006 12:41:51 PM ET 2006-09-25T16:41:51

When former emergency room doctor Bill Thomas took a part-time job at a nursing home, he didn’t know he was taking the first step toward creating an international nonprofit organization that could revolutionize eldercare.

But while he was treating an elderly woman for a minor skin rash, he said, “She just took a hold of my hand and looked at me and said, ‘I’m so lonely.”’

Such experiences prompted Thomas to start the Eden Alternative, which transforms nursing homes and assisted-living facilities from sterile, hospital environments to vibrant, active communities for both residents and caregivers.

Thomas, 46, was one of six people named Monday to receive a Heinz Award, an annual $250,000 prize given to people for making notable contributions to bettering the human condition (the category in which Thomas was honored); the arts and humanities; the environment; public policy; and technology, the economy and employment.

The Heinz Family Foundation of Pittsburgh has presented the awards since 1994 in memory of Sen. John Heinz III, heir to the Heinz food fortune who died in a 1991 plane crash. His widow, Teresa Heinz Kerry, now wife of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is chairwoman of the foundation.

Paul Anastas was named a Heinz winner in the environment category because of his pioneering work in “green chemistry,” which seeks to reduce chemical waste by using new, environmentally friendly compounds in everyday products and chemical processes.

A former Environmental Protection Agency official and founder of the Green Chemistry Institute, Anastas persuaded the Clinton administration in 1996 to sponsor the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards program, which encourages companies and researchers to embrace green technologies.

“Basically all we have is material and energy,” Anastas said. “And (green chemistry) is a fundamental redesign of the materials.”

For example, common food containers can be made from a chemical based on plant sugars instead of a petroleum-based plastic, he said. Unlike the petroleum-based container, the plant-based one is biodegradable.

Here are the other recipients of this year’s Heinz Awards, with excerpts from their award citations:

  • Arts and humanities: New York-based photographer James Nachtwey. "A seven-time winner of the Magazine Photographer of the Year award, Mr. Nachtwey has covered wars and international strife all over the globe. His photographs conveyed the human drama of the IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland in 1981 and have since chronicled in poignant fashion conflicts and social issues in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the West Bank and Gaza, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Rwanda and the war in Iraq, among many other locations. On September 11, 2001, he encountered destruction and chaos in his own backyard, emerging from a collapsed building to capture the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan."
  • Public policy: Bruce Katz, founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "Recognizing that there was an enormous void in the public policy arena concerning America’s cities and their future, Mr. Katz went to the Brookings Institution in 1996 where he founded the Metropolitan Policy Program, formerly the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. The MPP has become the premier research institution in the United States on city and suburban issues and is working to improve the vitality and livability of these places in close partnership with elected officials, business and civic leaders, environmentalists, planners and urban experts."
  • Technology, the economy and employment: Leroy Hood, owner of 14 biomedical patents, including the DNA sequencer that laid the foundation for the Human Genome Project. "The groundbreaking work in Dr. Hood’s laboratory led to the onset of a new field called systems biology, which soon spawned an array of commercial applications. ... In 1992, Dr. Hood founded the first cross-disciplinary biology department, Molecular Biotechnology, at the University of Washington. Eight years later, he created a nonprofit research center, the Institute for Systems Biology, gathering experts in the sciences and engineering to work together to integrate new technologies with data acquisition."
  • Chairman's Medal: Elma Holder, an advocate for the elderly and the founder of the National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. Holder began her activism in the 1970s with Ralph Nader and Maggie Kuhn of the Gray Panthers. She retired in 2002 to care for her own elderly mother. "Ms. Holder helped grow NCCNHR into the nation’s pre-eminent advocacy group for the rights of nearly two million nursing home residents. Her 1977 book, 'Nursing Homes: A Citizens’ Action Guide – How to Organize, Plan and Achieve Nursing Home Reform in Your Community,' helped to kick start a national reform movement, and her Campaign for Quality Care, a coalition of over 50 national organizations, helped bring about a series of nationally legislated reforms, including those in the landmark Nursing Home Reform Law."

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