In many local circles, simply mentioning the name “Samira” invites nods of recognition, as well as words of adoration. That person would be Samira Beckwith, the highly respected president and CEO of Hope HealthCare Services and community beacon. But when she used to introduce herself as Samira—Samira Kanaan– during her Midwestern childhood in the 1950s, the reaction was different.

“Back then, kids were called Mary or Jane or Bob. We had a different name and look,” says Beckwith. “I didn’t know English. It was all very challenging.” Her family moved to Columbus, Ohio, from Lebanon after the U.S. government granted her Palestinian father refugee status.

The Kanaans, which included her Lebanese mother and sister, settled in a working-class neighborhood.

Her parents strongly emphasized education, whether it was traditional school work or learning about culture or the arts. “When I think about it now, I think about how brave my mother and father were” when they immigrated, she says. “We came with the American dream in mind.” Beckwith embraced her mother and father’s strong work ethic (he always worked two jobs) and educational values and enrolled at The Ohio State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s of social work.

It was about that time that she was faced with a chilling and life-altering challenge. At 22, Beckwith was diagnosed with Hodgkin ’s disease, which had a much lower survival rate in the mid-1970s. Determined, Beckwith fought the tough battle, enduring chemotherapy and surgeries, and won. As one who beat cancer and whose academics focused on helping others, it’s no surprise that in 1982, Beckwith began working in hospice care.

Nearly a decade later, Beckwith took over the helm of Hope Hospice (now called Hope HealthCare Services). Since then, it has grown from serving fewer than 100 patients a day to more than 2,200 in Lee, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties. Samira is a frequent participant in national health policy forums and has provided expert testimony before Congress. She has twice served on the board of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, focusing on policy, education, diversity, cultural issues and improved access to care.

Samira credits her heritage with giving her a special understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity and the ability to see the world through another’s eyes. “Never let those differences become a barrier. I learned early that everybody has a story and it’s an opportunity to gain understanding. Look for common ground,” she says. Last spring, Beckwith received the 2010 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which is presented to those who “have greatly contributed to our national identity while preserving the distinct values and heritage of their ancestors.” It’s a distinction she shares with one of her staunchest supporters, Fred Pezeshkan, a 2006 recipient of the award and president and CEO of Manhattan Kraft Construction Inc. in Naples. “The thing about her and others, when you are first generation and see opportunities, you work much harder than maybe the average people,” he says, “and I think that’s a big part of her success.”