Revealed! The Winners of Our First-Ever Inspiring Girlfriend Awards
It's so nice to shine a light on something positive!
Launched five years ago, The Girlfriend, an award-winning free digital newsletter publishing every Thursday, celebrates all women over age 40 and trumpets the importance of female friendship. As girlfriends ourselves, we are fully aware of how vital our connections are, especially as we age. The Girlfriend also offers readers the best in health, beauty, sex, career, self-care, lifestyle and relationship coverage.
To mark our fifth anniversary, The Girlfriend is celebrating, well, our girlfriends. We want to honor and recognize extraordinary women who lead by example and inspire others to be more and do more. With that in mind, we recently asked for nominations of role models in five different categories: the arts, caregiving, health care, volunteerism, and career leadership. These are women who have made sacrifices and given their all to excel, whether it involves making a ripple impact across her community — or across the world — in a manner that is truly incredible to watch. By nominating so many fabulous women, you not only validated their hard work but will inspire hundreds of thousands of Girlfriend readers. Let’s continue to champion one another. Let’s continue to cheer one another on. Let’s always build one another up and never tear one another down.
Without further ado, here are the top winners (each will receive a $250 Visa gift card as well as a Relax & Radiate Crate) in the five categories. I’ve also included ALL the winners (a total of 50), each described in the impactful words of her nominator. The runners-up each will receive a free Relax & Radiate Crate valued at $200. Congrats! You all are truly, truly inspiring!
Career Leadership — Grand Prize Winner
Mautra Staley Jones, 43, Oklahoma City
(nominated by Charifa Smith)
Mautra Staley Jones is a role model and powerhouse who truly inspires me in all that she does! She is the epitome of a leader because at every stage of her career she has been of greater and greater service for the benefit of children, youth, teens and young adults. Her impact and reach have changed the trajectories of countless lives and broken generational cycles at many levels. She has been a tireless advocate of her state’s most valuable asset, and I’m in constant awe of the energy, enthusiasm and passion she continues to display. Jones is president of Oklahoma City Community College, the fourth largest institution of higher education in the state of Oklahoma. She is also a board director for BancFirst and has been appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt and former Gov. Mary Fallin as a board director for the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs. Jones is a dedicated, devoted mother of three who overcame many obstacles in her life to be where she is today, including caring her entire life for a mother who suffered from mental illness before losing her suddenly to cancer five years ago. Indeed, she is a committed board member for eight community organizations. As someone who came from humble beginnings, she has basically made it her life’s work to ensure others don’t have the same challenges she had to overcome. What I love most about her is that she is so humble. Jones was named Oklahoma’s 2021 Mother of the Year, and later the National Mother of the Year during the American Mothers, Inc. 2021 virtual conference.
The Arts — Grand Prize Winner
Barbara Jane Ele, 56, Los Angeles
(nominated by Melissa Veluz-Abraham)
Barbara Jane Ele, affectionately known as Barbs, has been a force in the Philippine dance scene for over 40 years. In the Philippines, she joined the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company at the age of 14, becoming one of its principal dancers and touring with the group to share the beauty of Filipino folk dance with the world. In 1990, she cofounded Kayamanan Ng Lahi Philippine Folk Arts (KNL) in Los Angeles, an organization that strives to transform and empower the individuals and communities it serves through cultural understanding and artistic expression. Ele has served as the artistic director of KNL for over 30 years, with her choreography renowned for its meaningful intentions, grace and ability to bring exquisite beauty to movement in honor of the people and regions these dances represent. The group has performed on every major stage in Los Angeles and has traveled across the country and around the world to showcase Ele’s work in its presentation of Philippine dance and culture. Her passion for lifelong learning is embodied in her role as a teacher, shaping hundreds of adult and youth dancers for over three decades, preparing them for the stage of life with love for Filipino culture in their hearts. Even as she battled cancer several years ago, she continued to teach and create beautiful pieces that portrayed the Filipino community’s life and experience in America. One dance that she performed as a solo was inspired by Pangalay movements of the Southern Philippines and told the story of her journey with her illness and her ultimate triumph. The moving performance brought many in the audience to tears. Ele remains an inspiration through her commitment to her community and culture, her artistry and leadership, her inner strength, and love for others.
Health Care — Grand Prize Winner
Jennifer Cheng, M.D., 41, Rockville, Maryland
(nominated by Lily Liu)
I am nominating Jennifer Cheng, a staff clinician at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Board certified in hospice and palliative care and internal medicine, her specialty is pain and palliative care. She serves as the program director for the NIH Hospice and Palliative Medicine Fellowship Program. Cheng is a thought leader in educating the Chinese-American community about issues related to end-of-life care as well as the importance of advance care planning. Leveraging her bilingual skills, Cheng makes Chinese-language presentations in community-outreach events to help Chinese Americans and their families better understand palliative care, hospice and end-of-life care. Her presentations help turn complex topics into more easily understood concepts, and she thoughtfully and thoroughly addresses questions and concerns. Cheng aspires to have a positive impact on people’s lives, especially among the immigrant population with limited English proficiency. She brings to her volunteer community-outreach work not only her vast clinical knowledge but also her awareness of and sensitivity to cultural norms and traditions. She acknowledges that illness and death are often taboo topics in many families of Chinese heritage and finds ways to help patients and their families navigate between unfamiliar medical information and honoring their wishes and needs. Cheng comes from a family of physicians, and having grown up in a three-generation home she carries on strong family values of service in the community and giving back. She is now raising her own children in the same neighborhood and in the same Chinese faith community she grew up in. Cheng represents the best of the West and East and is having a substantive impact in educational outreach about hospice and palliative care through her volunteer community service.
Volunteerism — Grand Prize Winner
Elizabeth Austin, 53, Harwinton, Connecticut
(nominated by Suzanne Hayes)
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. This 12th Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) step calls on sober alcoholics to share the message and principles of AA with other alcoholics, helping them to attain emotional sobriety. It requires selflessness and a commitment to service and also to carrying the message of AA wherever you go. Elizabeth Austin makes it look easy. It is not. Austin is my sponsor, friend and one of the main reasons I am sober today. She teaches me every day what Step 12 looks like. She teaches me what sobriety looks like. She has done so for the past eight-and-a-half years of my life, sometimes just by living hers. At any given time, Austin sponsors several or more women. We call at all hours of the day. She picks up the phone for each and every one of us. I think I called her three times a day for the first four years I was sober. She picked up every single time or called back within the hour. I never felt like a burden to her, and one by one, through these calls, she taught me how to fully rely on God and love myself. In other words, she taught me how to be sober. She saved my life. Austin has a full-time job and three daughters of her own, but she is never too busy for another alcoholic. I am inspired every day by the gravity of her commitment and willingness to serve others. She will celebrate 18 years of sobriety this year. Without her example, I wouldn’t be sober. Without her service, I wouldn’t be here at all. Thank you, Liz.
Caregiving — Grand Prize Winner
Elizabeth Emberton, 45, Columbus, Ohio
(nominated by Marie Diks)
I am writing to you in nomination of my sister — Elizabeth Emberton. I would like to nominate her for recognition in the caregiving category for her outstanding contribution to her family and community. We had a challenging childhood; not always with the best example of parenting or caregiving. As the eldest of the three of us, parenting responsibilities often fell on her shoulders. She took that and translated it to creating a family unit she could write a book about; a marriage that others should be modeled around; a leader other women should follow. Elizabeth is the mother of four amazing individuals. There are two years between each of these outstanding humans, and she suffered the same number of miscarriages. She moved from Canada to the United States to support her husband’s career — knowing full well she would be raising these children in a different country, without the support system of aunts, grandparents, etc.. to lend a hand. And without the ability to work with limitations on her visa — she would raise these kids with one income and give them a home and life others would dream about. She couponed, she thrift-shopped, she joined moms’ groups — she did everything she needed to give them everything and herself nothing. When she finally was eligible to work, she opted to do so in a school. She loved children, and children trusted her. This met so many needs of hers — she was still able to be there for her own kids and contribute to the household. She raised these kids to be amazing examples to their own peers. All four are recognized continuously for their kindness and selflessness, hard work, attitudes with peers, giving natures — and it doesn’t stop there. Supporting multiple altruistic organizations, participating in support groups for parenting and loss, lending her support to her friends and community where needed — all while losing her father and stepfather, supporting her mother through cancer and family members through addiction, pregnancy loss, grief and turmoil. If you met her, you would never know that happened. You would hear about her kids, who are her world; the community that she loves; her positivity. Elizabeth recently was asked to deliver a diploma to a student graduating high school, one whose life she impacted so much as an elementary administrator in her local school that they selected her for the honor. She has always given more of herself than anyone I know and is the best example of a caregiver that I could think of in this world.
Career Leadership — Runners-Up
Kim Callan, 55
(nominated by Kim Armstrong)
Kim Callan, math teacher extraordinaire, puts students first. And when friends need help, she always shows up. Kim has taught Algebra II at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California, for 17 years. Without fanfare, she works diligently to meet the needs of her students — especially those who struggle academically or at home — to make sure they can succeed. Living with type 1 diabetes, Kim also serves as a positive role model for students with the disease, showing them how to live a full, productive life. Despite being immunocompromised, Kim was one of only four teachers at her large, suburban high school who insisted on teaching in person after pandemic stay-at-home restrictions eased only slightly in 2021. Many of her students live in crowded conditions where it can be hard to study, especially remotely, so she returned to the classroom to help those eager to catch up, and to connect. Kim also pushes her students to excel following graduation. In Silicon Valley, where college and tech careers dominate, Kim reinforces that there are multiple ways to succeed, suggesting respectable alternate career paths like public service and the trades.
(nominated by LaDonna Green)
I am fortunate enough to have one of the best girlfriends a woman can ever ask for — my sister. She has made strides to dedicate herself to being the best version of herself in everything she does, especially in her professional life. My sister, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got her degree in communications and took the road of gradual growth in that field. She has worked in corporate communications and as a diversity and inclusion practitioner for the last 15 years. She attributes her success to the various mentorships and growth-minded relationships she has had with people in related industries. Those people saw her potential, and along with her can-do attitude, she began her journey of learning and developing through certifications, community involvement, and civic organization memberships. In the spirit of paying things forward, my sister helps other people with their career paths as a mentor! She is currently gaining executive coaching certifications and has aspirations of starting her consulting firm that will focus on personal and professional development for people within communities of color and other marginalized groups.
Sallie Greenberg, 57, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
(nominated by Joy Frank-Collins)
Last year, I started a new role doing outreach for a complex government project aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change. My initial work with the team went well, but everyone kept saying, “We have to introduce you to Sallie and make sure she’s on board.” Sallie is Sallie Greenberg, and while the words I should use to describe her are inspiring, courageous, bold and brilliant — she is all of those things — the word that truly comes to mind is badass. She is a principal research scientist of energy and minerals at the Illinois State Geological Survey, and as a geologist she has successfully led government and private/government projects worth billions of dollars that are bringing us closer to deploying carbon capture and storage, the only technology to scale that can help stem the rapid warming of our planet. That is amazing. But also, she got into the field at 28 after realizing she wanted to do something that mattered and so walked away from a life she’d built to pursue it. And that she chose geology, the most male-dominated field of science, is amazing. And that, even though she’s considered an expert in her field, she still pushes herself and others (myself included) to learn more and understand how the science she leads intersects with the lives of the people it impacts. That’s badass. On a recent business trip I watched as Sallie, negroni in hand, used her dry wit and experiential knowledge to passionately and compassionately mentor a female colleague of mine, a rising star in geology in her own right. There was no ego, no competition, no pretense. “Sometimes I think I push too much,” Sallie told me recently about that interaction. “No,” I told her. “This is how you change the world.”
Nancy Press, 75, Portland, Oregon
(nominated by Helen Trickey)
Nancy Press, founder and CEO of Child Aid, drinks a steaming cup of coffee in the shadow of Volcan Agua, the sputtering, puffing live volcano that stands sentry over Antigua, Guatemala. “Many people get into international nonprofit work because they are romanced by the culture,” she says. “They think they’ll understand it one day, but they never will fully. That’s why Child Aid approaches our work in Guatemala with humility, respect and strong investment in local leadership.” Press takes another sip of coffee. “And we always expect to be surprised,” she laughs. A trained anthropologist and professor emerita at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, Press cofounded Child Aid, a literacy organization, in 1988 and left academia to become CEO in 2013. Learned lessons from her work as an anthropologist inform the ethos of the organization: Talent is distributed equally across the globe, but opportunity is not. For Press, access to education is a matter of social justice, and Guatemala, a nation with one of the highest illiteracy rates and most profound income gaps in the Western Hemisphere, was a natural place to make a start. “I’m in awe of the resilience of the indigenous Maya people we work with,” says Press. “To survive a brutal 36-year civil war and genocide, and to emerge from that experience so energized and hungry for a good education for their children is humbling to me.” Under Press’s leadership, Child Aid has helped nearly 100,000 elementary-age children learn to read and write. Currently, the organization has worked in 252 Guatemalan elementary schools, trained more than 2,400 teachers and delivered 721,000 high-quality books to children. And during the pandemic, when children and their families suffered a catastrophic hunger crisis, Press led efforts to provide nearly 3 million meals to hungry families.
(nominated by Stacey Lund)
Tiffany Rosik probably saved my life. She at least should be credited with saving my career. Never mind that she’s the hardest working woman I know, possesses miles of integrity, and has worked to perfect her coaching style all while growing her company to over a million dollars in three short years. I’d work with her, regardless. In 2018 I left an underperforming tech company to start a doomed venture with some colleagues. I suddenly transitioned to caring for a mother who had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain. I spent 2019 traveling between coasts and trying to balance two families. The hits kept coming: Mom passed; handling her estate felt like dismantling my entire childhood, one piece at a time. It was all-consuming. How was I supposed to go back to corporate work? Performing at my best seemed like a faraway dream. I felt like every organization who interviewed me would see me as distracted and broken. Tiffany, a respected colleague, called in November of 2020 to offer me a consulting opportunity with a client of hers. She thought I would be a perfect fit because of my experience. I would be great, she said. I felt like I was a huge risk and told her so. She told me we would work through it together. I don’t remember much else, except how it felt to hear those words from someone with such confidence and certainty. She reminded me that I have value; that my grief would be transitory; that sometimes we don’t need to be perfect to perform, and we can bring ourselves as we are to an opportunity and still be successful. It was exactly what I needed. And three years and six clients later, she was right!
Charifa Smith, 47, Oklahoma City
(nominated by Mautra Staley Jones)
I am writing this email to nominate one of the most amazing women I know, Charifa Smith, for this distinguished honor in career leadership! She has been a trailblazer for the state of Oklahoma, New York and young women across our country. Charifa founded and has been CEO of Mother’s Reserve, an international consulting firm, since 2018. Under her leadership, Mother’s Reserve has represented major investment deals in Africa for such sports and entertainment celebrities as Steve Harvey and Ray Lewis. She is a highly skilled and sought-after senior management consultant with considerable experience across multiple industries, including energy and utilities, telecommunications, media and entertainment. For over 20 years, Charifa has been an entrepreneur and created businesses in real estate and restaurants, including Sage Gourmet Cafe and Market in downtown Oklahoma City. She is also the immediate past executive director of the Federal Judicial Learning Center and Museum located in the U.S. Federal Courthouse of the Western District of Oklahoma. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Charifa has lived and worked in many major cities throughout the world, including New York, London and Johannesburg. She has traveled throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, and has a passion for international affairs and foreign policy demonstrated through her past employment with the Council on Foreign Relations. She received her bachelor’s degree in economics from Spelman College and her Juris Doctor degree from New York Law School. She has also worked as a financial analyst at American Express. Charifa is a role model and has worked extensively in the development and implementation of programs in empowerment for women and children, entrepreneurship, and economic research. She is on the Langston University Foundation board. As a devoted mother of three daughters, Charifa embodies inspiration and enthusiasm.
Julie Smolyansky, 46, Chicago
(nominated by Leslie Goldman)
When Julie was first named CEO of Lifeway Foods (makers of kefir) in 2002, following the sudden passing of her father, she became, at 27, the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company in the U.S. Julie helped fuel the gut health revolution in this country, making probiotics a household word and speaking out far and wide in the media about their benefits in terms of immune-boosting, bone strength, mental health and more. When the pandemic hit, she kept her plants open, hopping on a forklift herself, distributing 250,000 servings of kefir to frontline workers and local food pantries. In the holiday season they donated groceries to women and kids in need. What stands out about Julie is that in addition to promoting gut health and nutrition every chance she gets, the former crisis and trauma counselor also uses her position as CEO to help raise awareness of women-centric social issues. Self-care; mental health and depression; health care access and gender inequality; immigration (her family came here from Ukraine when Julie was just a year old, and her parents brought their kefir recipe, which is how her dad originally started Lifeway) — she speaks out about all of it. She was an executive producer on The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, and when the movie’s theme song, Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You,” was nominated for the 2016 Academy Award for best original song, Julie stood on stage with Gaga and 49 other sexual assault survivors during the performance, coming out in a way she never had before. (You can see the performance here.) Julie also started Test400K, an organization dedicated to fighting the rape kit backlog (400,000 backlogged kits remain nationwide), and has worked on numerous other women’s and girls’ health campaigns. She is 46, Gen X (major Pearl Jam fan), and a mom of two girls. She lives in Chicago.
(nominated by Ronni Gordon)
Marianne Winters is executive director of Safe Passage, a Northampton, Massachusetts, organization that addresses domestic violence in Hampshire County. Her bio reads: “Marianne Winters has a proven track record of combining real-world practical strategic management with outside-of-the-box thinking and vision to lead organizations, people, businesses and communities towards safety, peace, health and strength, with a significant dose of wellness and beauty thrown in for good measure. Her goals include: Diversity and inclusion — moving beyond outreach to real and significant inclusion, leadership, and social and economic justice for communities of color, people with disabilities, poor and working poor, elders, teens and children, immigrant and refugee communities, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.”
Her past experience includes director of Everywoman’s Center at UMass Amherst and executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of Central Massachusetts, a sexual assault counseling and prevention center. Personality-wise, she seems to be always smiling.
(nominated by Amy L. Freeman)
Neuroscience says that our brains’ two hemispheres function differently: If you’re mostly analytical, you’re left-brained; if you’re creative, you’re right-brained. Vonetta Young is a brilliant balance of each, and she uses her formidable skill sets not only to improve her own life, but also to advocate and support those around her. By day, Vonetta advises people of color and women forming their first institutional-grade private equity (buyout or growth equity) funds. By night, she’s a writer and editor, with words in a wide array of publications. Oh, and she’s a mom too. Founder and CEO of Vonetta Young Advisors, Vonetta’s goal is to help women and people of color reach personal financial freedom, by helping them draw and follow roadmaps to access capital. She strives to shift the paradigm of wealth from the personal to the societal, and empower women and people of color to be the first generation of their legacy. “I want the world of private equity and venture capital to be more equitable for women and people of color,” she explains. And she’s doing all she can to make it so. Vonetta’s clear thinking shines through in her writing too. Both her personal essays and short fiction explore complex family dynamics, the messy intersection of race and class in upwardly mobile Black families, and identity and belonging. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Review, Barrelhouse, DASH, Lunch Ticket and Catapult, among others. Her fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Gargoyle, and the anthology Furious Gravity. She also serves as senior fiction editor for The Rumpus, insight (nonfiction) editor for The Offing, and assistant flash editor for Hippocampus. Whether she’s advising you on how to manage your money or how to make your writing shine, Vonetta inspires those around her to reach higher. And she’ll cheer you on, every step of the way.
Volunteerism — Runners-Up
Terese DeLuca, 70, Murraysville, Pennsylvania
(nominated by Jean Anderson)
Whenever there is a need, Terese is the first to jump into action. Not only has she initiated, organized and worked a successful $10,000 fundraiser to benefit a 10-year-old girl who suffered a debilitating brain aneurysm, but she also has been an active and enthusiastic volunteer for elementary schoolchildren by encouraging and aiding students in applying for school applications — especially for higher education, among many other projects. She also gives generously by making and donating beautiful and delicious gift baskets for many fundraisers in her community. She volunteers tirelessly for many other fundraisers — including the Allegheny County Funeral Directors or seniors in assisted living communities … lovingly helping and caring for them and also being an activist and strong advocate for elderly reform. She is always helping friends and family members, in offering time and financial aid, as well as taking nieces and nephews on vacations. Her most heartfelt and loving commitment is the ongoing support she is giving to my brother, who had a massive stroke six years ago. She has always been there daily for him, even giving up holiday plans to be with him. She established connections with the VA to help him with doctors’ appointments, physical and occupational therapies as well as providing his medicines and daily living supplies. She has done whatever it takes to correct the ongoing problems my brother faces on a daily basis while residing within an assisted living/nursing facility. She helps him endure and improve his everyday life with his many limitations, mental and physical. She has never given up on him through all his medical issues and emotional traumas, and has spent countless hours just being with him. He is truly blessed to have an advocate like Terese helping him through a difficult, life-changing situation.
Jean Grieve, 59, Shalimar, Florida
(nominated by Diane Rutledge)
I’m so proud of my friend! She is a senior engineer working at Eglin Air Force Base. Jean has been volunteering for the American Cancer Society since 2004 — and in addition, she is a 10-year cancer survivor. She became a cancer survivor in November 2012 on her mother's birthday. Her mother died in 2013. She also lost her younger brother to prostate cancer. Jean is currently a member of the National Volunteer Training Team and has been part of the Team Relay Nation since 2017. I got to know Jean in 2007 when I was the president of the Emerald Coast Parrot Head Club. I worked with her on our Annual Relay for Life events, to which our club donated proceeds. She also served as treasurer a couple of years for the club. We have been friends ever since, and many times I have photographed Relay for Life events she has headed up. Jean is so dedicated to Relay and tireless in her efforts. I have seen her lose more friends to cancer, and it tears her up every time. She was honored to be in the American Cancer Society 2022 Voice of Hope Southeast Region Calendar, with the theme of a favorite fairy-tale character. She is in the month of March (her birthday month), and she chose Glinda the Good Witch as her character. I volunteered to photograph her for the project, and she had so many wonderful ideas for the shoot. I am honored that my photo is in the calendar, and even more honored to have this wonderful woman as a friend!
Desiree Billups, 53, Chicago
(nominated by Kendra D. McBride)
Initially, I was a follower who was drawn to her inspiring Facebook posts in regard to her nonprofit organization Family and Friends of NWI, which has been in existence since 2005 and based in Hammond, Indiana. Her main three areas of concern are developmentally challenged individuals, older adults, and homeless individuals.
It’s easy to be drawn to her, because Desiree works tirelessly toward her causes — while remaining a beacon of hope for other communities. She never stops, even while tending to her ill spouse, a highly respected firefighter captain, or when sometimes stricken with seizures. Forming relationships with sponsors and mentors is of great importance to Desiree. Panera Bread is a faithful sponsor that donates goods weekly. COVID has put a damper on monthly dances that are held May to November by Family and Friends of NWI, with the latter month ending in a special-needs prom. Awards matter not to Desiree, but naturally she has received some for her sincere dedication to her organization. Meeting the Indiana mayors of Hobart and Gary is a goal she hopes to accomplish soon — which is not so far-fetched after meeting the mayor of Lake Station as well as his chief of staff. In closing, Desiree has expressed to me that she is in dire need of a forklift and monetary donations, as she raises money for gas, truck rentals and boxes to hold donated goods to give away to her community and others. This is why I wholeheartedly believe Desiree Billups should be featured as one of the inspiring women.
Jill Rivkin, 46, Deerfield, Illinois
(nominated by Tara Goldfarb)
Now more than ever we need to teach our children to be independent and kind, and to improve the world around them through selfless acts. My dear friend, Jill Rivkin, has found the perfect recipe to do just that. In 2017, Jill helped found Gratitude Generation (g2), an organization whose mission is “inspiring gratitude in future generations through education and service.” The easiest way to learn about the amazing impact of g2 is to just ask Jill. Enthusiasm and pride flow easily as she discusses its positive impact. In just 2021, 27,800-plus people have engaged in/been directly impacted by g2, with 48,900-plus meals provided to people in need and 1,280 kits of hygiene items assembled, and more. Jill had a hand in all of it. Whether participating on the temple’s parent committee, acting as a classroom parent, contributing to PTO committees or most recently planning the fifth- and eighth-grade graduation activities, Jill never stops. She excels in planning and caring — that’s why she is so effective. Her intense desire to teach gratitude and inspire our youth drives her decisions. It’s often difficult to keep children grounded and focused on others while living in a privileged community, but Jill is on a mission and is wildly succeeding.
(nominated by Danielle Braff)
Born in Chicago to Polish-speaking parents, Kenar was bullied for much of her childhood. She turned to horses and dogs for friends, as she learned from an early age that they loved unconditionally and without judgment. “Animals were my friend,” Kenar says. “I love coming from that underdog status, so underdogs have my heart.” After graduating with a psychology degree from DePaul University and opening a boutique flower and wine shop in Chicago with a couple friends for 12 years, Kenar realized it was time to go back to her roots. She needed to save the underdogs. In 2016, she founded the MCP Rescue & Outreach, which stands for Mission Compassion Paw. Her goal: To rescue the hospice dogs, the special needs dogs, the trauma dogs and the oversized dogs that are regularly overlooked or even sentenced to death at a traditional shelter. The dogs are rescued from local Chicago shelters, from shelters in the South and from Mexico. They typically have 25 dogs up for adoption at a time. To date, MCP has saved 1,500 dogs, including those who have been hit by cars and abandoned; those who have been butchered by machetes in Mexico; and those who have been starved, beaten and left for dead. “We definitely do a lot of dogs that are overlooked: bully breeds, large breeds, 60 percent of our dogs are considered harder to adopt,” Kenar says. She raises money for the medical, transport and behavioral intervention for each dog she finds via crowdsourcing. Then she works with veterinarians and specialists to help the dogs with their issues before getting them ready for adoption.
Linda Thomas, 69, Walnut, California
(nominated by Frances Massoth)
I am nominating my best friend/sister — Linda. We wake up early every morning, seven days a week, to inspire women and groups of our family and friends (along with an additional contributor, a male neighbor named Marty). We text these groups of ladies, family and friends daily with inspiration. Our goal is that first thing in the morning, when one looks at their phone, that person is inspired by something positive. We want people to start the day off in a good way. It takes me about an hour daily as I add the quotes to Instagram and Facebook along with texting other people individually as well as other groups. The receivers really love what we do for them and expect to be inspired by Linda and me each day. We also listen if someone needs support, and then we encourage them, offer advice if wanted, and provide beauty, shopping, recipes. We get together with friends and laugh and talk. We are youthful, loving and fun. Our positive inspiration touches more than 2,000 lives daily. My cousin said she was so inspired, and shared the inspirations with her niece in the hospital long-term. Her niece would wheel herself to the nurses station and to the rooms of other patients and she’d read the quotes to inspire others. I’m considering making a journal. It really lifts the spirits of people.
(nominated by Shannon Zaranek)
I am nominating my lifelong friend and soul sister, Shannon Connors. She is an inspiration to everyone she meets. I have known Shannon for 45 years. She was my babysitter. I would watch out from my living room curtain waiting for her because she’s “Shannon Connors!” My role model! She was my cooperating teacher when I was in college studying elementary education. She is fun, genuine, smart, kind. To know her is to love her. Shannon is a second grade teacher and has been teaching for 29 years. She’s a mother of five, wife, AND she owns a gym in Depew, New York (15 minutes from downtown Buffalo), called Shannon Connors Fitness-SCFIT. SCFIT has been open for seven years with 150 clients. In the past, Shannon struggled with her health and weight. Wanting to be an admirable example to her children, she worked in other gyms, becoming a certified personal trainer and a certified sports nutritionist. Shannon opened her own gym in 2015. Her dream was to educate people how to become healthy and create a healthy lifestyle while being able to “Eat the Cake!” on their birthday. Shannon has helped many of her clients — including me — feel healthy and strong, boosting mental health and self-confidence with her contagious positive energy. Shannon’s gym survived COVID-19. She held classes outside and created workouts to stream online to help people stay motivated and moving during a time when the world was scary and uncertain. She powered through and NEVER GAVE UP! Shannon Connors Fitness was voted the Best Gym in the 716 by The Buffalo News in 2021 and recently won Best Fitness Center by the Buffalo Spree. Shannon says that she’s just a “regular girl,” but she’s regular amazing. She is and forever will be my childhood idol and adult inspiration.
Kelly Lafferman, 52, Orlando, Florida
(nominated by Kelly Rogers)
When I see “ripple impact,” I think of my friend and colleague Kelly Lafferman. Let me tell you: Her ripples make waves! Kelly’s long marketing career has impacted a local “sea of change” in Central Florida. Her leadership helps companies large, small, public and private to garner awards, grow and promote inclusion. However, it is after a personal therapeutic experience that my friend’s ripple impact broadened beyond business, creating connections with the mental health community. Kelly developed a passion for counseling, prompting her to obtain a master’s degree in therapy at age 50. She works in two careers and is a wife and mother to a blended family of six. She serves as a counselor at Agape Therapy Institute, a nonprofit that provides reduced-cost mental health care. Watching Kelly balance busy CMO ad agency life with heartfelt therapist life has been “The Girlfriend” role model for me! After recently losing my father, and experiencing the nurturance of therapy myself, Kelly encouraged me to go back to school for my interior design passion. I’m just one example of how Kelly’s ripple impact touches lives around her. Our girlfriends (and boyfriends and gender-nonconforming friends, too!) enthusiastically describe Kelly as an empathetic leader. This is evident through her involvement with the onePULSE Foundation, a 501(c)3 established to create a sanctuary of hope following the tragic day on June 12, 2016, at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. As a founding board member, Kelly helps the organization develop and maintain a long-term memorial and museum strategic plan to honor Pulse’s angels and heroes.
Michelle Nusum-Smith, 50, of Frederick, Maryland
(nominated by Kenneth Smith)
I’d like to recognize Michelle Nusum-Smith as the person in my life — and those fortunate enough to speak with her — who is leading and living a life others hope to model. As a self-described “do-gooder helping do-gooders do good,” Michelle started a consultancy to support both local, national and international nonprofits with missions of improving the lives of both people and the planet. But before this professional venture, Michelle has been a light for family, friends and those we encounter daily. Her smile, warm engagement and genuine concern for all who cross her path make her memorable. As a mentor, she helps young women find their purpose and learn how to use their skills to discover and further their careers. A powerful, positive motivator, Michelle began speaking to women about their inner strengths and values, and how to project their own positive energy for others to see and model. Always looking for the positive and usually finding it. Always giving the benefit of the doubt and not rushing to judge, Michelle Nusum-Smith is the daughter, friend, neighbor, colleague, sister whose lead you’d want to follow.
The Arts — Runners-Up
(nominated by Chelsea Gaia)
Julianne Boyd, 77, cofounded the Barrington Stage Company (BSC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1995, and has served as its artistic director since then. “It is a not-for-profit professional theatre company in the Berkshires (MA) with a three-fold mission: to produce top-notch, compelling work; to develop new plays and musicals; and to engage our community with vibrant, inclusive educational outreach programs,” according to its website. She and BSC have been committed to community engagement. In its first 11 years, BSC operated from rented space at the Consolati Performing Arts Center at Mount Everett High School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. BSC used a high school auditorium as its Mainstage space, and two cafeterias as makeshift theaters, one for its Stage 2 (where The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered) and the other for the Youth Theatre. In July 2005, BSC purchased a 1912 vaudeville theater in downtown Pittsfield and presented its first season in 2006 in the partially renovated space (with only the orchestra available for seating). By June 2007, BSC opened its doors to a completely renovated 520-seat, state-of-the art theater now known as the Boyd-Quinson Stage. Following the industrywide shutdown due to COVID, BSC was the first Equity theater in the U.S. to return to live performance with its critically acclaimed production of Harry Clarke, starring BSC Associate Artist Mark H. Dold and directed by Ms. Boyd. Her recently announced retirement was widely covered.
(nominated by Julia Tagliere)
On paper, Hannah Grieco is a writer, editor and teacher in Washington, D.C. In person, and on Twitter, she’s a force of nature. Rejecting writing’s solitude, Hannah spends her non-writing, non-parenting time organizing, reading, editing and listening to thousands of writers. In a world where some artists see each other as competitors, Hannah is the opposite. She’s the first to shout praise for others’ writing, lavishing joyous “oofs” for impactful work and retweeting favorites to her nearly 20,000 Twitter followers. Turning to writing at age 41, Hannah’s second essay landed in The Washington Post. When she read that work at a D.C.-based reading series, she stepped into a literary community she hadn’t known existed. And Hannah wanted to build on that community. In-person readings are not only a tremendous way of sharing work, but also a unique moment to connect with other writers. Those writers become critique partners, editors, or simply folks who cheer each other on.
Drawing strength from those connections, Hannah founded Readings on the Pike, a monthly series showcasing a diverse roster of writers. Since November 2018 she has hosted more than 40 readings, featuring over 300 authors and poets of all ages and experience levels. The network she’s building supports any who choose to join it. “I also attend and moderate panels at book festivals and literary conferences, lead workshops for writing groups, and organize free events with independent bookstores,” Hannah says. “And I’ve edited at five lit journals.” How many writers has she connected with? Hannah never slows down enough to count. When Hannah chose her Twitter handle (@WritesLoud), she wasn’t kidding around. She lives as loud as she writes, and it’s a sonorous thrum that enriches whoever hears it.
Yen-Ju (“Yen”) Chen, Gaithersburg, Maryland
(nominated by Doris Pao)
Yen has been a longtime media pioneer in her local Chinese-American community. In the 1990s, Yen noted that the Chinese-American residents in her own Montgomery County had limited access to Chinese-language (Mandarin) multimedia content. At that time, Chinese-language daily newspapers were delivered by mail several days later. This lack of timely news and access to in-language resources resulted in social isolation for many Chinese Americans not fluent in English — particularly, the elderly. While working full time, Yen enrolled in training offered by the local public access station (Montgomery Community Media), where she learned to produce multimedia content. She started a Chinese-language half-hour show called The Info Zone (Chinese: 萬象) with culturally relevant content. Twenty-six years later, with Yen as the host, the program has covered many important, timely topics and archived nearly 200 shows. For guests who do not speak Mandarin, Yen provides interpretation in Chinese. Yen continued to innovate: In 1999 she started the English-language program Ginny’s…Where East Meets West, which highlights the Asian-American community and features Asian Americans who have successfully combined the best of the East and the West. She started Career Choices in 2012 for a target audience of students and mid-career people by discussing different career paths and advice. Yen deserves recognition for her selfless contributions to her local Chinese-American community. She identified a pressing need for in-language outreach to Chinese-American immigrants residing in Montgomery County and worked to fill that need. She continues to innovate by creating quality in-language or English multimedia content that engages multiple generations. With a full-time job and caring for aging parents, Yen contributes her time and talents to offer cultural content that fights social isolation and promotes community engagement.
(nominated by Cheryl Lodinger)
I want to nominate my cousin Brahna Yassky for being the most inspirational woman I know. In Brahna’s debut book, Slow Dancing with Fire, she chronicles how she was literally on fire, spent over a year enduring the arduous healing process, and eventually built a new life through love, art and swimming. While dealing with the trauma she leads by example, addressing the universal questions of beauty, identity, the desire to be seen and accepted but also the desire to be invisible and hidden. To quote author Jonathan Santlofer, in praise of her memoir: “A brave and compelling memoir, testimony to the human spirit brought vividly to life by the author’s artistic eye. You will feel better and stronger for having read it.” She inspires me and will inspire people to know they can get through their own crisis. As a single mom she supported herself and her son, working as a real estate agent along with carving out time for creative projects. I’m also in awe of her capabilities for “giving back,” be it as an art therapy healer or human rights activist.
Suzanne Ordas Curry, Mahwah, New Jersey
(nominated by Messalina Morley-Alton)
Suzanne Ordas Curry inspires me, and she is on a quest to inspire others. Not only did she found a PR firm, Write Ideas Public Relations, which has been in business for over 25 years, but she is also an excellent film and TV producer and a TV show host! Her current production, The LIBBY Show: Lunch with the Ladies, is a talk show specifically aimed to celebrate and inspire women over age 50. Suzanne saw that nothing on TV was covering that demographic — and women over 50 NEED to be represented. So, she did something about it! I am lucky enough to say that she has been my mentor since we met on a film set five years ago. She then asked me to be the “young voice” on the LIBBY Show to, as she jokes, “Explain TikTok!” LIBBY is an acronym that Suzanne has coined. It stands for Ladies Living in their Best Years, because she says there were no words to describe vibrant, energetic and passionate women over 45. Her focus, with all that she does, is helping women, guiding them and working to give them a voice in the arts and in life. Suzanne gives her time to nonprofits. She has served in leadership for many charities —including CASA, which advocates for kids in foster care for 13 years and has started three nonprofits. Her emphasis is on women and children and, she was elected to her local board of education for nine years. Suzanne is an incredible woman, and her goal — with all she does —is to promote women and inspire them. I cannot think of a better person for this award.
Martha Richards, 71
(nominated by Melinda Pfundstein)
Martha Richards is the founder and executive director of WomenArts, an alliance of over 10,000 women artists and allies worldwide that works for empowerment, opportunity and visibility for women artists. She is the cocreator of the international holiday SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day, which is celebrated in 36 countries around the world. Martha is a tireless mentor to women creatives around the world, including in Kenya, Prague and states scattered across the U.S. She generously gives of her time, expertise and knowledge to help women around her enjoy a smoother, supportive path to success than she experienced in her early years. The Women’s Media Center says: “Richards is widely recognized as a leading advocate for women in the arts and as an expert on the status of women in the arts, cultural policy issues, the economics of the arts and media, philanthropy and the arts, and performing arts management.” She is on the advisory board of StateraArts, an organization that “creates pathways that bring women into full and equal participation in the arts.” Richards has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California Berkeley and a J.D. from the University of California Hastings College of Law. She is a member of the California Bar, and she was one of the founding directors of California Lawyers for the Arts.
Tara Cox, 47
(nominated by Tess Clarkson)
Tara is a writer, editor and influencer leading by example. She’s devoted to her career, committed to supporting others on their path to find their own greatness, and brings needed levity to the world. As a writer and influencer, Tara shares her passion for food from “lowbrow” to “highbrow.” Her intoxicating zest comes with a retro style — think a modern-day Lucille Ball with an Elvis obsession — as she explores eateries, experiments with recipes (SPAM and caviar blini!), and gives a glimpse into a 40-something's New York City life. Tara has achieved great success in publishing, where she has worked both as executive managing editor and editor in chief for several popular magazines. She has written a book on Airstream trailers and contributed to cookbooks on SPAM and the famed luxury NYC dining spot, Delmonico’s. She’s a sought-after speaker too. Behind the scenes, Tara’s an endless advocate for others. She’s a certified life coach, a faculty member of Columbia University’s Columbia Publishing Course, and a mentor to junior staff. Her goal is to help others more confidently pursue their dreams. Tara took advantage of the pandemic’s remote work flexibility to assist her parents. She sacrificed countless hours, poring over documents to help them navigate the complexities of aging in America. Tara does all with a realness — a vulnerability and strength — that inspires those around her beyond all she has accomplished and continues to do with her career.
(nominated by Lori Wright)
Sarah Cray started Let’s Make Art several years ago to share her love of watercolor painting with others. She produced easy-to-follow videos and outlines for different paintings that provide an easy opportunity for getting started. The offerings have expanded to include different mediums and artists. Let’s Make Art also sends postcards in their packages for customers to paint/draw for someone new each month. The postcard recipients have included kids in the hospital for cancer treatment, folks who volunteered, and those that worked crazy hours during the pandemic. She is low-key and incredibly encouraging. People share their images all the time in her Instagram community and I love the positivity she exudes. https://www.letsmakeart.com/pages/who-we-are
Andi Buchanan, 51, Philadelphia
(nominated by Barbara Atkinson)
Andrea Buchanan has always been inspiring! A musical prodigy, she was playing Carnegie Hall when she was only 25. By her early 30s, Andi had already published Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It (2003), one of the first mothering books exploring the contrast between romantic mothering expectations and the often-gritty, not-so-pretty reality. A young mom herself, she colaunched Literary Mama, an online magazine bolstering the voices of a diverse group of women writers. She also cowrote The Daring Book for Girls, promoting confidence-boosting adventures and activities and profiling strong, independent women. In her early 40s, Andi developed a mysterious, debilitating medical condition; she chronicled her experience in an award-winning memoir (finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing), The Beginning of Everything. She then took her strong, tireless advocacy and support for others struggling with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks and helmed the Spinal CSF Leak Foundation. As the executive director, Andi works tirelessly to raise the profile of people struggling for the correct diagnosis and access to the right testing and treatments, and to ensuring that more patients have access to an improved quality of life. In spite of the upheaval and in the midst of her personal health challenges, she also finds time to write a wide range of essays, and now a novel about multi-generational stories exploring the complex legacies mothers and daughter share, and she offers continued, thoughtful writing and editing support to her girlfriends far and wide. That’s because Andi, my dear friend for over 20 years, is a funny, generous, dedicated champion of not just women, writers, the chronically ill and the underrepresented, but also her girlfriends. I feel so lucky to be counted among them.
Health Care — Runners-Up
LaTonya Fisher-Grace, 64, Cleveland
(nominated by Khaliah Fisher-Grace)
Advocate, healer and matriarch are the words that best describe LaTonya Fisher-Grace. The first on the dance floor and the last to leave the party, this wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend leads by example by demonstrating love and compassion to all. LaTonya instilled in her children the importance of respect, the value of an education, as well as the love of God and family. She worked full-time and part-time jobs while earning associates, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, becoming a licensed independent social worker and real estate agent. She has used her degrees to service her community and to create familial wealth by helping her children, siblings, nieces and nephews achieve the dream of home ownership. In 2018, LaTonya’s world was forever changed when she lost her 39-year-old son to sudden cardiac arrest. In the months after the death of her second oldest son, she spent time in counseling and in prayer, seeking direction on how to support her family who were suffering emotionally trying to establish their identity absent a beloved husband, father and brother. Through this loss LaTonya was determined to live each day to the fullest. She became a member of a women’s outreach organization and provided clothing, meals and emotional support to women and families in her community. This connection with girlfriends helped her handle her next challenge of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s disease and a son with chronic critical illness. If the world were to watch LaTonya they would call her a healer for the role that she played in her mother’s progress from hospice to sustained quality of life and her son’s ability to excel despite medical complications. Her actions inspire others to go just a little further in advocacy and in love for mankind!
Lisa Klein, M.D., 45, West Bloomfield, Michigan
(nominated by Jill Rivkin)
How many people could confidently, articulately and impactfully address a crowd of teens and adults and play with a stuffed uterus? Yep, it feels like a cozy lovie, but it looks like a uterus. And it has a name, of course. It’s Flo. Lisa Klein’s sparkling smile and impressive wisdom on the topic of puberty make this scene a reality often, as she’s not only a practicing pediatrician but also the cofounder of Turning Teen (an educational provider to “start the conversation” about bodies and puberty). And she’s one of my best, most treasured friends, and an inspiration to me and her community. Lisa is a mom, doc and educator, and she’s a force with Turning Teen in multiple states. Through the platform she has built original content to teach about puberty both in-person and online. She’s an author, too, having cowritten Celebrate Your Body 2.
Nancy Labov, 59, of Old Tappan, New Jersey
(nominated by Lori Van Caneghem)
Divinity within a person is reflected in their willingness to go to any lengths for the better welfare of others. My friend Nancy is a divine human being; she is the light in others’ darkness. She has devoted her life to helping others as a psychiatric nurse for more than 25 years. This combined with her recovery from addiction of more than 30 years informs her understanding of the complexities of alcohol and drug addiction and what it takes to stay clean and sober. Nancy founded a nonprofit organization, Alumni in Recovery. It is a group of young adults who are abstinent from drugs and alcohol who passionately share their message of experience, strength and hope in schools and other community settings. Alumni in Recovery also includes a Parent Program, whose members share their personal stories of loss hoping to change the perception and stigma attached to substance abuse and addiction. Through Alumni in Recovery, Nancy’s relentless commitment to recovery has helped her bring hope to thousands of people who have attended Alumni’s inspiring and emotional events. One of Nancy’s strongest qualities is her ability to meet people right where they are on their recovery journey. She has been able to accompany others on their path to sobriety with both the people in recovery and people still active in their addiction.
Rachel Braun Scherl, 57, West Orange, New Jersey
(nominated by Genny-Marie Spencer)
Rachel Braun Scherl, marketing strategist, business builder and vagipreneur, has had a successful career that has spanned over three decades and has included working in and for large companies as well as running and working with venture-backed companies. As a global thought leader in women’s sexual health, reproductive health and wellness, Rachel sits on multiple advisory boards and is a sought-after keynote speaker at industry conferences, companies and universities. As a champion, pioneer and an effective storyteller for women’s health, Rachel has been a driving force around the conversation on the business of women’s sexual and reproductive health. Women’s sexual health, reproductive health and wellness has long been neglected and plagued with complex, outdated barriers and challenges. As Rachel says, “Women’s health is an overnight sensation that has been literally centuries in the making.” Her work and voice have elevated every aspect of this industry, from advocating for more women-centric research, bringing education at every level for all ages, driving investments and — most importantly — creating, spreading, catalyzing and highlighting the need for more vocabulary and more conversations.
Tess Clarkson, 46
(nominated by Barbara Kempe)
While not a traditional health care worker, Tess Clarkson makes contributions to her community that undeniably improve the health and well-being of others. As a yoga teacher, she focuses on listening to your body, challenging yourself while also being kind to yourself. Her meditation sessions include astrological insights to help participants relax and reset as well as uplift and empower. As the head of the Midwest End-Of-Life Doula Collective, she helps her local death doula community learn, share and grow as they improve the mental and emotional health of those dealing with the dying process. “When I struggled with the end of my dance career and the start of my life as a New York lawyer, a neighbor pushed me to try yoga. What began as a way to get fit became much more than learning poses. Yoga helps me show up and be present and help others do the same.” When asked why she serves the dying, Tess explained that the deaths of both her friend and mother taught her not only about loss, but also how little room society has for death and grief. Initially, she began serving as a way to give back to her mother’s hospice team, but it soon grew into more. I personally have attended Tess’s meditation sessions and have been counseled by her on managing my feelings of loss after my husband died. Her kindness, as well as her gentle, nonjudgmental approach, have changed the way I think about loss and grieving. She has helped me see that my husband’s life was a gift that I can continue to pay forward, which has made me a better daughter, mother and friend. Knowing Tess has definitely improved my health and my life.
Dana Marlowe, 45, Silver Spring, Maryland
(nominated by Melissa Amster)
If you’re one of the 1 percent who somehow doesn’t know her (since we always joke about how she knows EVERYONE), I’d like to introduce you to Dana. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll want to know her too! We met when our kids were in preschool because they have the same first name, and we instantly became friends. I respect Dana for a whole bunch of reasons. I’ll list just a handful here or I’ll never get anything else done. *She started her own company to provide accessibility solutions for people with disabilities. She’s well-versed in all areas of accessibility and answers questions about it in a way that is understandable to those who don’t have as much experience in the field. *With all the time she puts into her work and all the traveling she does for it, she still finds time to be an invested and caring mother. She does fun and creative things for her kids and gives them her full attention when she’s with them. Most importantly: *She started I Support the Girls, a nonprofit that provides bras and feminine hygiene products to women and teenage girls, whether they’re homeless, in prison, in a shelter to protect them from domestic violence, etc. It has grown exponentially since she came up with the idea and is inspiring women all over to contribute. She has even expanded it to support people with different gender identities. You can find out more here: https://isupportthegirls.org/
Betsy McCaughey, Greenwich, Connecticut
(nominated by Andrea McCracken)
When Betsy McCaughey was lieutenant governor of New York State, many people asked her for help with their families’ health problems. Too often she heard the same tragic story of a loved one who went into the hospital and contracted a deadly infection. When she left office, Betsy decided she had to tackle that problem. In 2005, she launched a national campaign to stop hospital infections: RID, short for Reduce Infection Deaths. RID has only one goal, to save lives. RID educates patients on the precautions they can take to reduce their risk of infection. RID’s 15 Steps, based on the latest peer reviewed research, guides patients on what they can do to reduce their risk profile, whether they’re going to the hospital for major surgery, or for the happiest reason of all, to have a baby. RID also provides hospitals and nursing home decision makers with the protocols and latest research to prevent doctors and nurses from spreading bacteria via their hands and equipment, and advocates for higher cleaning standards. When RID was founded, not one state required hospitals to disclose their infection rates. But now, 37 do. RID went to the White House and convinced policymakers that Medicare should stop paying hospitals to treat infections that they caused. That has proven to be a major incentive for safer care, and most commercial insurers have followed suit, requiring hospitals to bear the cost of infections they cause. Thirty-three million people go to the hospital in the U.S. each year, and another 1.5 million spend time in a nursing home. Betsy’s goal is to reach all of them and make health care safer for everyone.
Deb Salas-Lopez, M.D., New York City
(nominated by Danielle Spitzer)
For over two decades, Debbie Salas-Lopez has been a bold advocate for community health and reducing health care disparities. As senior vice president of community and population health, professor of medicine at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, she oversees Northwell Health’s community and public health strategy. Salas-Lopez’s leadership was critical during the COVID-19 pandemic when she led our medical efforts at the Javits Center and the USNS Comfort. She also created Northwell’s Health Equity Taskforce — a coalition of community, faith and tribal nation leaders focusing on equitable distribution of the vaccine and addressing health and health care disparities including the social determinants of health. This work resulted in high vaccination rates in Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties. Salas-Lopez is also focused on building the next generation of health care professionals by launching:
- The Northwell Community Scholars program, which provides career awareness, mentorship and financial support— including support for social needs — to high school students from underserved communities so they can obtain an associate’s degree with the ultimate goal of employment at Northwell Health.
- Northwell Health’s Medical Career Day in high schools, which has reached over 8,000 students.
- Wellness on Wheels Mobile Program for elementary school students to provide onsite education on healthy eating – a program that has reached over 5,000 students.
Salas-Lopez is a nationally recognized speaker on women leaders in medicine, health care disparities and equity in care, cultural awareness, and the impact of social and economic factors on health. She is the author of The Girl from the Bronx: A True Story of Struggle, Resiliency, and Courage. Her inspirational book is a reminder that despite insurmountable obstacles, with courage and resilience one’s trials may ultimately yield personal fulfillment.
Mayra Vargas, 41, Chicago
(nominated by Alicia Sharp)
If you need a model of work/life balance, just look at Mayra’s life. To me she has just the right mix and does it with positivity and flair. Her presence is positive, friendly, welcoming and warm. I knew when I met her that she was someone I would cherish as a close friend. Also, her fashion sense and style is amazing! She shows up with just the right dress — and the hottest shoes — with undeniable professionalism. Even though she is younger than I am, she inspires me by the positive way she handles the everyday moments in her life. Her inspiration spills over to her Facebook posts, texts and joyful personality. We work together as Medicare specialists. She focused part time on her business, while working full time in early intervention. She learns by researching and asking questions, never stopping until she has the answer for her clients. Her humility motivates me. She doesn’t mind asking for advice, helping her become an expert adviser. She goes the extra mile for her clients, not only taking care of their Medicare needs, but helping with state programs and making connections for them. As a wife, she always has uplifting words when talking about her spouse. She includes him in all her work events. She makes time for her family, enjoying evenings together and traveling. Her kids are little minions of her — lively and positive. I am happy her dream of becoming a real estate professional has come to fruition, and I believe it was truly on God’s timing.
Caregiving — Runners-Up
Portia Gaddi, 60; her sister, Zeni Mallari, 79; and Zeni’s daughter, Alisa Mallari Tu, 53
(nominated by Lisa Trei)
They run Gordon Manor, a memory care facility in Redwood City, California. Faced with disaster as COVID-19 slammed into their family-owned memory care facility in spring 2020, two sisters and a daughter suited up in PPE and fought back. Gordon Manor tragically lost 14 residents, but without this power trio, the outcome would have been far more deadly. “They led from the front,” said administrator John Solano. “We were tired and understaffed, but Portia Gaddi arrived every day announcing, ‘Let’s go.’ ” Her sister, Zeni Mallari, kept writing checks for scarce, overpriced supplies, while Zeni’s daughter, Alisa Mallari Tu, tracked down every lead — including sketchy offers — to secure lifesaving gloves, masks, gowns and sanitizer. They also helped others: When staffing at a nearby facility dropped to critical levels, Gordon Manor’s cooks delivered meals to the residents. As the pandemic silenced the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, mild-mannered Alisa found her voice. She rallied Gordon Manor’s community to call officials and, at a critical juncture, pushed for action. By then, a well-known resident had died and Gordon Manor was in the news, a development that quickly turned Alisa into the facility’s articulate spokesperson. San Mateo County’s health leaders hired AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, a SWAT-like medical team that works in war zones, to move into Gordon Manor. The home finally got the professional backup it desperately needed and within four weeks the deadly rampage was brought to a halt. It has been a hard two years for residents, staff and family members. Isolation accelerates dementia and recurring waves of disease sap one’s strength to remain vigilant. All of Gordon Manor’s dedicated staff deserve recognition, but Portia, Zeni and Alisa stood up when it mattered, establishing a standard of care that’s respected across the Bay Area today. These remarkable leaders personify Gordon Manor’s motto, because they treat everyone: “Just like family.”
Lynn Peterson St. Amant, 81, Avon, Connecticut
(nominated by Leslie St. Amant)
“Have you met my mom?” That phrase is uttered countless times in my life. As a single mother, raising three girls was no easy feat, and my parents (especially my mom) were omnipresent ... in a good, sometimes loud, eye-rolling kind of way. She’s the type of person who babysat at night so I could sleep; I fully expected she’d produce mammary glands and nurse the baby, because you know ... “I needed to rest.” She is that type of empathetic, caring and compassionate woman, mother, sister, friend, aunt that you need in your life. Everyone needs a Lynn, not a Karen. My mother plays paddle, walks, plays tennis, joins friends for lunch and gatherings, and listens. Lynn has more energy than the Energizer Bunny. Her envied talent is her ability to listen — not just hear, but listen. Her friends call on her during times of need, and she doesn’t hesitate to lend an ear and a hand, bake a meal or help anyone with anything. At 36 she lost her best friend to cancer, and several others before the age of 50 and soon after, her brother. Despite that, and despite being a melanoma survivor herself (age 40) she never complained. Not once. Lynn puts everyone else first; she travels to grandchildren’s games in New Jersey and Colorado, and recently drove 18 hours to visit three grandchildren’s southern universities so she can “picture them on campus.” She continuously gives her time. Lynn sees the humor in everything, declares “life is for the living” and still doesn’t complain about obstacles, loss or anything life throws her way. She is an inspiration. She is my mom. We should all be like Lynn.
Antoinette Gordon, 60
(nominated by Jenelle Griles)
My dearest friend, Antoinette Gordon, is a 60 years young, beloved wife (widowed in 2018), mother, sister, daughter, aunt and friend. Affectionately known to us as “Ann,” we met in Germany in 1985. I’d just arrived with my 1½-year-old toddler for a three-year tour. She and her husband, along with their two toddlers, had been in the country for almost two years when I arrived. Ann worked at the childcare center at a church where I began taking my daughter. After a brief exchange about a dress or two, she saw my girl in. Finding out we lived in very close proximity to one another, we became fast friends. We spent approximately three-and-a-half years in Germany, and Ann was a source of strength that I didn’t know I needed at the time. She exuded a calm and peace unlike anything I’d ever seen. Her curiosity knows no bounds, but it isn’t intrusive. While having dealt with her own sources of trauma, trials and tribulations, Antoinette has never wavered and always stood tall. What a virtuous woman is she! Ann’s ability to listen without judgment and offer sound advice when solicited has caused all who know her to say, “She’s going to tell you what you need to hear, but always know it comes from a place of love.” [She has had to deal] with a premature child birth, the unexpected early passing of her mother, far too many heart surgeries (sister twice, daughter, husband) for anyone to bear, the near fatal car crash involving her son, and then the untimely death of her husband. Antoinette Gordon is a source of inspiration not only to her entire family and a host of friends, but also to people she helps daily as a human resource specialist. And if asked what she wants to do in her professional career, she’ll respond: “I want to work in benefits because I want help people.”
Diane Gordon, Newton, Massachusetts
(nominated by Jeff Robinson)
Diane Gordon is a consultant who has dedicated herself to building resilient nonprofits. From her website: “Diane Gordon provides strategic consulting services to nonprofit organizations, intermediaries, and foundations, building capacity to reach ambitious goals and create resilient organizations. Diane has more than 40 years of experience in nonprofit executive management, leadership and consulting. She specializes in organizational assessment and strategic planning, evaluation and outcome measurement, and leadership development. She works with a broad range of organizations, bringing the unique perspective of manager, consultant and funder. With roots in community and tenants’ rights organizing, Diane has experience in diverse community-based settings. Having led two nonprofits, Diane has a practical approach to her work, combining a deep understanding of the practices and principles of management with the day-to-day reality of running a nonprofit.” Past jobs include director of the Massachusetts Tenants Organization, a statewide tenants’ rights group: “Led tenant advocacy and organizing campaigns, developed staff and board of directors, raised and managed funds, and developed local leadership on statewide level.” As national coordinator, resilient leadership initiatives for NeighborWorks America: “Created and led national initiatives to strengthen resident participation and leadership of nonprofit housing development organizations nationwide.” When her divorced sister got a life-threatening disease (acute myeloid leukemia), she managed to do her consulting work, coordinate her sister’s care, and take care of the teenaged son still at home.
Barbara Kempe, 50, New York City
(nominated by Tara Cox)
Difficult times often bring out the compassion in others. Barbara has risen from her own difficulties and risen from them to guide her family into a new reality, also contributing to her community in a multitude of ways. And as a result, she has proven to not just be a great mom, but a great role model of what a woman should be. When Barbara lost her husband to the cancer that wasn’t supposed to kill him, her world went off course. The death of her loving partner and devoted dad of their school-age children left confusion, fear and a crater filled with sadness. Then, two weeks later, Superstorm Sandy blew into New York City, forcing Barbara and her kids to evacuate and temporarily lose their family home as well. But as the area rebuilt from the devastation, so did Barbara. She opted for a nonmanagement position at work that allowed her more time with the kids, and socialized at home so she could see friends while introducing more loving people to her children. She took care to immerse her family in the culture of their city, ensured they attended the right schools, and gave them tools to grieve in their own ways. She also prepared for the future by getting the family’s finances and home in order. As things in her life became more settled, Barbara carved out time to aid others within her community. She founded a local support group for widows, using her experience to guide others. She also mentors writers while she works on her own memoir. When the pandemic struck, she volunteered to bring groceries to the disabled and homebound.
Christine Hayes Farber, 51, Glastonbury, Connecticut
(nominated by Nanno Hayes)
When you visit her house for the weekend, she surprises you with HERSHEY’S Kisses on your pillow. She fills her kitchen with your favorite snacks and always has your favorite BAILEYS-flavored creamer in the refrigerator for the most delicious morning coffee you will ever drink. Be careful not to tell her that you have been dying to try the trendy, make-your-wrinkles-disappear serum, because before you know it it’ll pop-up in your mailbox with a note that says, “Because you deserve it.” She is the first person you call when you’re sad or happy or somewhere confusingly in the middle, and she is the one and only person who always (I mean 100 percent of the time, without fail) reacts with love, compassion and what I can only imagine is a hard-to-carry empathy. She is the oldest of five children, a retired psychologist, a wife, a sister and a friend to all. She brings love wherever she goes. She is a caretaker by nature and not because she wants to be — but because God called her to do so; because she sees the pain and suffering in everyone and can’t help but ease the burdens of others just by being beautifully Chrissy. She is the most selfless person I know. Perhaps the most amazing , overwhelming and disgustingly unfair part of all of this is that she has been living with systemic scleroderma for over 30 years. She is in constant physical pain with physical limitations from head to toe, yet she never complains. She consistently and gracefully puts others over self despite her own suffering. Some people ask themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” — in our family, we ask, “What would Chrissy do?” To know her is to love her.
Teepa Snow, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
(nominated by Rachel Bedell)
Teepa Snow is an occupational therapist who has spent the past 30-plus years working to help those living with dementia. Her Positive Approach to Care (PAC) methodology and training are amazing and helped me personally in my caregiving journey with my mother. I know Teepa’s work has benefited countless others as well. Teepa Snow and the PAC Team share about dementia so that everyone can understand why this is happening and how to support those living with brain change in a more positive and respectful way. She believes that “Rewiring our own perceptions, attitudes, communication strategies, actions and responses provides the shift that promotes change for the others around us.” Originally from West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, Teepa now lives outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a graduate of Duke University with a degree in zoology. She received her master’s of science degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She has a wealth of clinical, teaching and research experiences that have informed and influenced her philosophy, approach and practice.