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Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Sara-Moncrieff
Sara Moncrieff
Puritan Cleaners, Marketing and Community Relations Specialist

As the Marketing and Community Relations Specialist at Puritan Cleaners, Sara Moncrieff is combining her passions for service and community engagement to lead programs such as Coats for Kids, 100K Meals and more. This holiday season, we celebrate Sara's efforts to ensure no Virginia family goes without and all women who are working hard make an impact in their workplace and communities.

Puritan Cleaners maintains a strong outreach ecosystem throughout Central Virginia, giving back in various ways to communities in need. What have you found to be the most impactful aspect of your current position as the lead of community relations at Puritan Cleaners?

What an honor to have a front row seat to so many giving, so many helping hands and so many grateful neighbors indeed getting the help they deserve!

Puritan Cleaners started Coats for Kids in 1988 - it’s one of several community programs that have become the foundation of our team culture. It’s not its own program, but just what we do at Puritan Cleaners in addition to quality dry cleaning, laundry and more. We’ve seen our clients and community donate and our team clean over 500,000 coats over the years - if you laid them end to end they would wrap our Commonwealth in a warm hug. It’s a true labor of love for our entire team! What a joy it is to see so many colorful coats of all sizes donated at our stores or at school drives, make their way through our facility - spinning through washers and dryers as they go. I love seeing a large batch line up on the rails, each coat getting inspected by a caring member of our team and a special “compliments of Puritan Cleaners” tag attached on the right sleeve. Then we know it’s almost ready to take a ride to the Salvation Army Christmas Center. In one day, our customers help us load in and organize thousands of coats onto department store racks for families to “shop” at no charge when they pick up their Angel Tree gifts.

Being in the midst of that much cooperation that truly spans our community - is a true gift.

How did you get to where you are today, and are there any specific people or events that played a major role?  

I’ve worked in different environments but love the atmosphere of a small business. There is so much room to try new things and opportunities to make meaningful connections with people. At 16 years old, it was exciting for me to meet new clients at our front counters. Everyone and every garment has a story to tell. Nothing is closer to us during the day than the clothes we wear. I remember helping tie a freshly cleaned and pressed bowtie for an elderly gentleman who came into our Staples Mill Road location before heading to an award ceremony. As we talked, I learned he was one of a few survivors from a town in Germany during the Holocaust. We talked for a while and I learned so much. I value that connection and ability to help one another. These moments happen everyday in our locations.

I've been fortunate enough to be a part of the Puritan Cleaners team for about 17 years. I've witnessed our team rightfully winning awards for their dedication to quality dry cleaning and clothing care. I've observed changes in fashion and improvements in techniques to meet our clients' evolving needs. My own role has evolved as well. Beginning in Customer Service at our stores, I've taken on various responsibilities, from hiring to managing a division of our stores to assisting in our production area when hands are scarce. I've even sat in on our Alterations shops, although anything more intricate than a button is best left to our talented Tailors, in my opinion! Through the years, I’ve enjoyed helping with Coats for Kids, 100K Meals, Thank You Patriot, Pledge of Allegiance and more of our community programs. These days I love being in the center of the action, connecting good people to wonderful causes.

I'm grateful for leaders who cared enough to let me learn from various areas of our business and were there to support me when needed. Gary Glover, the Owner and CEO of Puritan Cleaners, has always been supportive, offering wisdom and sound advice when necessary. It's also an honor to work alongside my Dad, Norman Way, Vice President of Puritan Cleaners. He has been my cheerleader and coach since day one. I'm fortunate to have wonderful parents who instilled in me from an early age that people matter, and giving back is not only the right thing to do but a reward in itself. My Mom is a treasure. Bob Weirup, a friend and mentor, has also been a tremendous source of encouragement in my life. I’m thankful for so many women along the way who have led by example and look for ways to lift each other up!

What advice do you have for Virginia's Women+girls in the workforce, specifically those in the social impact sector like yourself?

You don’t have to know everything - learn all you can and surround yourself with good people - you’ll do more good together than you ever could have alone. We all can feel pressure to be the expert in any given situation, but none of us will ever know everything.

Be genuine. Lean in to what makes you, YOU. So much of our God-given nature as women translates flawlessly into making a positive impact in our community. Cultivate what gifts you have been given. If you are leaning into the social impact sector, you likely have a set of “soft skills” that are an asset to you. Maybe “kind” or “thoughtful” are words that have been used to describe you. Positivity and active listening often come from a place of great strength.

Develop a toolbox for yourself. I’ll share a silly example: The clothes don't make the man or woman, but when you feel confident it’s easier to act that way. A member of my team years ago noticed that the harder my work day, the higher my heels. They didn’t keep me from getting the work done - ask anyone: I’ve climbed ladders, worked assembly, assisted clients with their orders - they helped me feel more confident as I handled the tougher stuff behind the scenes. What’s something that makes you feel confident? Put it in your toolbox, no matter how silly it seems. Show up and keep going even when it’s hard. That being said, it’s easier to keep going when you truly believe in what you are doing. 

Find and listen to the wise men and women in your life who have gone before you. Glean from their experience, then make your own mistakes. There’s the saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” - it’s true. Things may look different, but so much remains the same. That’s where you find timeless, winning ideas.

Wife and mother are my absolute favorite titles. I’ve learned to look not for work/life balance but harmony in the things I spend my time on. All my best at work is wasted if the people I love so much are not thriving. I love being with my kids but when we’re apart, it brings me joy to know that time apart was spent in helping a neighbor have a better quality of life. Showing them videos on our Puritan Cleaners YouTube channel of kids of all ages donating coats or food for our 100K Meals program helps give them perspective and I hope one day they look for a way to help others too.

Around the holidays, many individuals and families are forced to go without. How have you seen the Central Virginia community step up and support each other this season and throughout the year?

Central Virginia is a jewel of a community. Year after year, I’ve had a front-row seat to thousands of people donating to our Coats for Kids program supporting the Salvation Army. This particular November was special.

Now that we’re 36 years into our Coats for Kids program, we’re starting to see a generational impact. More than once this season, I’ve been brought to tears as a student or client has shared that they would like to donate a coat because their coats as a child came from our program. Their parents registered for Angel Tree gifts with the Salvation Army when times were tough, and when they came to pick up gifts, they were blessed with coats for the whole family.

When I was 16 or 17, I was working at our Staples Mill location, and a mother came to pick up her dry cleaning and donated her daughter's red and black fur-trimmed wool coat. She was emotional that her baby had outgrown this special coat. I urged her that we would understand if she wanted to keep it! She left the coat with me, and I carried that sweet coat to our Production Team for it to be cleaned. Later that month, I happened to be at the Salvation Army’s Christmas Center helping unload and sort coats by gender and size onto department store racks. (We want the parents and guardians to have the full shopping experience, even though the coats are donated for them to have at no charge.) We placed that red and black coat on the front rack because it was absolutely adorable. As the doors opened and the first parents came in, a mom and her mother came through the coat center and picked up that sweet coat. The mother broke down crying on her mother’s shoulder that her baby would be able to have something warm that was beautiful. It was a gift that was more than a coat to her. Someone cared enough to share what they no longer needed in such a special way.

Our team joyfully puts in overtime cleaning and repairing roughly 16,000-17,000 coats every November. They do this on top of caring for thousands of clothes and household items for our clients because it matters. It’s truly a labor of love. We are all one major life event away from needing help, so we look out for others as we hope they would for us. So often these coats are a blessing not only to the child, but also for mom or dad. Not only do we outfit the entire family, but they have the freedom to take that $20-30 per coat that they would have spent otherwise and put it toward food or home expenses. Maybe it’s enabling a child to build a snowman in a real ski jacket instead of a sweatshirt. Most often during distribution, I hear, “Thank you, we don’t have heat in our home.” What a sobering reminder.

Since 1988, Puritan Cleaners has spearheaded the Coats for Kids campaign to ensure families in need across Central Virginia are kept warm throughout the holiday season. While the deadline to donate jackets has passed, are there still ways for people to get involved and support the mission as the winter months approach?

There’s always a need! While the deadline for this year’s distribution has passed, we encourage people to donate to the Salvation Army of Central Virginia. For years, they've been our partners for coat distribution because they know the most needs in our community and have such a wonderful network. At, we have a link on our Coats for Kids page to our virtual Red Kettle if you are looking for an easy donation option. If you are going through your closet and happen to find a coat that you’d like to donate, we happily accept them year-round. We’ll save it for when a need arises. Our local Salvation Army leads so many local programs for those neighbors who are going through hard times - meal assistance, jobs, family support, men’s, women’s, and family shelters.

What are you looking forward to in the new year?

As we approach the new year on a professional note, I'm looking forward to delving into advanced training for our team leaders. It's a chance to share some of the wonderful moments that unfold during our community programs. Working alongside such caring individuals is a true blessing; we really do make a great team. I look forward to sharing more about them on our social media. Additionally, I'm excited about our team's upcoming support for Feed More in the spring through our 100K Meals program. The impact they have in Central Virginia is significant, and I'm hopeful we can exceed our annual goal of 100,000 meals. The efficiency of the Feed More team, where $1 can provide 4 meals, is truly remarkable.

On a personal level, I'm eager for a New Year filled with opportunities to create special memories with loved ones.

About Sara Moncrieff

Over the past 17 years of her career, Sara Moncrieff has served in several roles within Puritan Cleaners - a locally owned dry cleaner dedicated to quality service and positive community impact. In that time, she has served in a variety of roles including Customer Service Representative, Restoration Insurance Liaison and Retail Division Mentor. Most recently, as a Marketing and Community Relations Specialist, she has led Puritan Cleaners’ community initiatives such as Coats for Kids, 100K Meals, and more. Through these programs, the Puritan Cleaners community of team members and clients have collected over 1.5 million meals and over 500,000 coats for local families in need.

Sara graduated with honors from Brightpoint Community College where she majored in Business Administration and served as Public Relations for their chapter of Phi Theta Kappa. Her work has garnered international recognition through numerous industry publications and has been featured in local media outlets. She also leads national marketing round tables, inspiring others to grow their business and give back to their communities.

Beyond her professional accomplishments, Sara cherishes her personal life. In her downtime, she finds solace and joy in the great outdoors alongside her loving husband Sean and their two young sons.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Shari-Berman
Shari Berman
Owner of cater613

Combining her love of art, food, family and faith, Shari Berman has made a name for herself in the Tidewater region for her Kosher catering service. For the past 8 years, cater613 has impressed kosher and non-kosher guests alike, bringing individuals and communities together in their shared love of a delicious meal. As a proud mother and active member of the Jewish community in Norfolk, Shari has mastered the art of “fusing food and service.” In this Sisterhood Spotlight, we reflect on the recent Hanukkah holiday and learn more about a homegrown Virginian doing wonderful things.

What is the story behind your business, Cater 613, and what does the number 613 signify?

I served as a volunteer for many years cooking for and chairing events and one day a friend called me to cater their 50th wedding anniversary luncheon for about 75 guests. I thought “You’re going to pay me to do something I love to do?” After that, people started contacting me for meals, events, etc. I came up with the name cater613 for 2 reasons. First, the word “cater” tells any potential client what I do. Second, there are 613 commandments Jews are supposed to follow. So, when someone who is Jewish sees the name of my business, they are clued in to know I prepare kosher food.

What challenges have you been faced with in your career, and how have you overcome them?

It was a challenge transitioning from volunteering to getting paid for my work. Because my husband Bruce and I are 3rd generation locals, I usually have a connection to anyone who hires me. One of the first things I say to a client when we meet to plan an event or meals, is that I know we are friends and it’s hard to treat a friend as an “employee,” but please remember I am working for you! Again, at the beginning of the event, I remind them of this.

In turn, what major successes have you celebrated, and what do you attribute to them?

One of the coolest parts of my job is serving people I would not normally come into contact with. From serving a private lunch to Dr. Pat Robertson, making kosher meals when business people travel to the Tidewater area, to stocking private planes with kosher meals, I have been privileged to meet some extraordinary people. I love meeting people and doing whatever I can to make sure they are happy with their meals. My mom is the consummate “Jewish mother” and she was, and still is, a great role model.

Do you have any advice for young women seeking a career in the catering or hospitality industry?

Yes! Grab every opportunity to learn from successful people in the industry. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to spend time in the kitchens of restaurants and hotels. I love being in the kitchen with the chefs. Most of them are happy to let me observe them and ask questions. Most importantly, I have a mentor who works for a large NY caterer. In addition to training me, he offers constructive criticism which is so important to hear.

How has your faith played a role in your life?

My husband and I started to live a more traditional (observant) lifestyle over 20 years ago. This meant that we started keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath and many other things. I suddenly had to start preparing all of our food with what seemed like a million restrictions! Everything happens for a reason. My first career was as an art teacher for Norfolk Public Schools. I feel that what I do combines my passion for art and my passion for making yummy, kosher food.

How can people find and support Cater 613?

I don’t advertise – all of my business is through referrals or people who attend my events. My website is for any inquiries.

About Shari Berman

Shari Berman is the owner of cater613, a kosher catering company based out of the Tidewater region of Virginia. As a former art teacher for Norfolk Public Schools, the past President of Toras Chaim, and a current board member of her Yeshiva, Shari is deeply involved in her Jewish and home communities. Shari has provided delicious kosher meals for individuals, groups and large gatherings across Virginia since cater613 was born in 2016. For the past two years, Shari has prepared the meal for the Executive Mansion Hanukkah reception in Richmond.  

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Melanie-Protti-Lawrence
Melanie Protti-Lawrence
President of Lawrence Brothers, Inc.

As a Southwest Virginia native, Melanie’s conviction to return to her roots and carry on her family business’ legacy has resulted in some of the most prosperous years to date for Lawrence Brothers, Inc. Lawrence Brothers Inc. is a champion for workforce development, spearheading programs to engage youth in the Tazewell County region and collaborate with community partners to bridge the knowledge and skillset gap between employers, K-12, and career and technical educational institutions. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Melanie Protti-Lawrence discusses her role as the president of a major manufacturing company, advice for women and girls breaking into the workforce, how to develop the skills necessary for a successful career, and her favorite holiday traditions.

You are the President of manufacturing company, Lawrence Brothers Incorporated. Can you tell us a bit about what your company does and your role as President?

I am a proud to serve as President of Lawrence Brothers and continue on the family legacy that is rooted in strong customer relationships and quality products. Incorporated in 1974 by James Mark Lawrence, my grandfather, Lawrence Brothers began by fabricating steel battery trays for underground coal mining applications by hand. As technology developed and the business grew, James brought on his son Mark Lawrence, who took the helm in 1993, propelling Lawrence Brothers into a period of transition toward a automated manufacturing. My father, my husband and I worked alongside each other for 10 years as we learned the nuances of the business, laid strategy for diversification of product, and diligently pursued my father’s vision of growth. When my father retired in 2018, Fernando and I stepped in as CEO and President and we truly enjoy working together as a team. As President, I oversee HR and Employee Health and Wellness, as well as accounting. My favorite part of my role at Lawrence Brothers is leading and mentoring our young and thriving management team. We strive to align people with their innate strengths, while also empowering them to think, operate and implement just outside of their comfort zones where they can experience greatness happen!

November is known as Career Development Month. What does Lawrence Brothers Inc. do to engage with youth and help them develop the knowledge and skillsets needed for the workforce?

Earlier this month we hosted 30 students from our local career and technical school. These youth are engaged in classroom learning of robotic welding or mechatronics, alongside studying for their high school diploma. While visiting with us, the students were able to tour our facility, including our newly operating automation center, which host 3 autonomous robots, participated in a skills session on the job application process, and view our soon to be open Welding Apprenticeship school. In my 17 years of experience working in manufacturing in Tazewell County, I have found a gap between development of knowledge and skillsets needed for the workforce when it comes to our K-12 and career and technical educational institutions and the true needs of employers working with those youth on a daily basis. While some of that can be explained by lack of effective and consistent engagement between those partners, a great deal can be attributed to failure to adequately understand the ever-evolving workforce. In a concerted and collaborative effort to address that gap, and the region-wide workforce crisis we are experiencing, our Welding Apprenticeship Program was borne. We plan to launch a pilot of this program in Q1 of 2024, with support and collaboration from our local and regional partners, other area business leaders, and Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Lisa Coons. Stay tuned for more information on this!

As someone who lives in rural Southwest Virginia, what was most helpful to you in developing your own career? Do you know of any resources that could be helpful?

Working alongside a mentor had the most positive impact on my career (and personal!) development! I encourage all of our team members here at Lawrence Brothers to seek out a mentor- and become a mentor- as I believe this is one of the keys to re-igniting a community-focused society that recognizes and serves one another with compassion, dignity and respect. We are very proud to have a Fresh Start program that works with justice-impacted individuals as they reintegrate into society and the workforce. I strongly believe that if we want peace, we must work for justice, which has become the focus for the Fresh Start program. Currently, we are honored to report that 40% of our workforce are graduates of that Fresh Start program—simply put: individuals who just needed a second chance, a measure of grace, and someone in their corner supporting and empowering them. That is a part of my daily work that inspires me to get out of bed! While there are some resources in SWVA supporting recovery from addiction, life after incarceration, and rehabilitation, what we are sorely lacking is a centralized and structured cohort of these resources where justice-impacted individuals can find that assistance and support.

Do you have any advice for Virginia’s Women+girls who might be starting off in the workforce, or hoping to rejoin the workforce after having children?

I would love to see more women+girls participate in STEM opportunities that are becoming more and more prevalent all across the Commonwealth and the Nation as a whole. STEM helps to instill such powerful insight into the world of advanced manufacturing, IT, engineering, bioscience, automation and beyond, while at the same time injecting self-esteem and confidence for so many women and girls that excel in this arena! In order for the younger generations to BELIEVE they can have meaningful careers in any industry they desire, they need to see and hear from women leaders in these industries. I sought that out at the beginning of my career in manufacturing, and let me just say: It has paid dividends! After all, I came to Lawrence Brothers from 5 years of having lived abroad, teaching English in Spain, studying for my Masters of International Law in Belgium, learning about female empowerment in Dubai, and developing Peace Education Curriculum alongside Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. What did I know? Through these connections, I found that I actually knew more than I realized about people- and manufacturing, like anywhere you land in the workforce, is about people. In fact, I believe my education and life experiences helped me to prepare even more adequately for my current role, as I’ve always been willing and able to think outside of the box and take risks. Whether you’re re-entering the workforce today, or just starting off, I believe the single most important thing you can do to prepare is to engage with a mentor. There are a number of organizations you can connect with, some which are industry-specific.  The one I use and love is WiM (Women in Manufacturing), where I have had the honor to engage with women from all walks of life- from high-level C-suite executives with multibillion dollar corporations to interns with burgeoning startups. I am serving as a mentor now through their program, and I am so grateful to be learning at least as much from my young mentor as she is from me.

What is your favorite holiday tradition?

My favorite holiday tradition is one that my family embraces every few years is to travel to Europe and spend 2 weeks with friends and family there, experiencing their culture, food, and traditions. The Christmas markets are such a unique and fun experience, while engaging with people from different countries is just one thread in the tapestry of humanity. When at home in SWVA for Christmas, my favorite tradition is sitting by the fire with my husband, our 15 year-old son and 10 year-old daughter and two ‘human’ doggies, drinking hot chocolate and watching Christmas movies.

About Melanie Protti-Lawrence 

Melanie Protti-Lawrence is the co-owner of Lawrence Brothers, Inc., a third-generation family owned and operated metal manufacturer located in Bluefield, Virginia. She and her husband, Fernando Protti, have spearheaded the company’s strategic growth and diversification over the past 15 years and have led LBI into some of the most prosperous years to date. With 50 years of excellence in manufacturing and a high standard for quality, LBI serves several industries, including motive power, energy, underground mining, ground support and warehousing. Melanie and Fernando have woven that history of excellence into their leadership philosophy, as they’ve shifted the company culture toward one of trust, inclusion, team-work and accountability. Melanie holds a dual BA in English and Spanish and a LLM in International Law and International Relations. Having lived in 5 different countries and traveled around the world, Melanie considers it an honor and challenge to have returned to her roots in Southwest Virginia and continue the family legacy. She and Fernando are continuously striving to better serve members of the LBI team, their community, and the broader Central Appalachian region. ”Our greatest fear should not be of failure…but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Olivia-Bailey
Olivia Bailey
Director of Marketing for Friends of Southwest Virginia

As the Director of Marketing for Friends of Southwest Virginia, Olivia Bailey utilizes her connections from her past career in journalism to better draw attention to the Southwest region of Virginia. She helps to increase tourism, residential interest, and business prospects to further contribute to growth in the region. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Olivia discusses changes from throughout SW Virginia, her role as Director of Marketing, and her favorite activities and holiday traditions throughout the region.

The Friends of Southwest Virginia nonprofit aims to preserve, promote, and present the assets of Southwest Virginia to encourage community growth in the area. Having grown up in Smythe County, what changes in the area have you noticed in the last decade?

I am a little biased, but Southwest Virginia is one of the most wonderful places to live, visit, and explore in the entire world. I wish I could admit that it did not take me until my adult life to realize what a gem our home is. Sometimes when you grow up in a rural community, you are almost aching to get out into the ‘real world’ of urban and suburban life. I was blessed enough to be able to travel the world throughout and after college, but I started to appreciate move after move how much I missed this region.

Southwest Virginia, Smyth County included, has invested in strong economic development that is in alignment with our regional goals and true to our cultural heritage. Over the past two decades, we have seen growth in the creative economy, embracing the natural beauty our region has, as we promote outdoor recreation. We have welcomed sharing our mountain music and generational crafts that make our culture what it is today. It is special.

For a long time, I think much of the nation, even internally in the Commonwealth, Appalachia and Southwest Virginia tended to be perceived in a negative connotation. In this role, I get to invite people to come visit us every day. What I find when people get here is that they fall in love with our region, our people, and our history. Our communities have taken an active role over the past few years to tell our own stories, rather than letting those perceptions linger. I am proud of Southwest Virginia and the resilience this region continues to show.

You have a background in broadcast journalism with some of the most recognizable outlets in the country, how has that experience helped you in your new role as Director of Marketing?

I have been lucky to work with some of the most inspiring people throughout my careers in broadcast journalism and the tourism industry. The success of any position I have ever held has always returned to a single factor: relationships. I have a natural curiosity for meeting people and learning their story. Throughout my time in the broadcast journalism industry, I always tried to take that a step further and grasp for the context of the story a person, a community, or a business had to tell.

As I have transitioned into my role in tourism and from a marketing perspective, stories are my focus. Because my previous career allowed me to deep dive into those communities and form long-lasting relationships with leaders, this adjustment felt seamless. My role as an anchor and reporter had allowed me to travel across much of the region. This quickly gave me a perspective on the assets that our partners have to offer. I feel comfortable inviting guests to our downtowns and attractions because I have spent so much time in these localities amongst friends.

While the work is a bit of a different focus, I still interact frequently with media and journalists. It trained me to pitch stories succinctly and find the depth of where the heart of an article is. Those communication styles help us to recruit and host journalists to our region, but it also allows me to develop our marketing styles tailored to visitor behavior and interest. And out of fun, the previous 2:30 a.m. wake-up calls also trained me to be ready to wake up for the early morning sunrise video shoots.

Southwest Virginia is known for its spectacular views, outdoor recreation opportunities, and vibrant cultures and traditions. What is your favorite part about living in this area?

You still know your neighbors in Southwest Virginia. While I am among those cheering for economic development and innovation in the region, our leaders still have a respect for the connections and the culture, tradition, and natural beauty our localities hold. We have been able to maintain an essence of community. Even in some of my most important conversations, the dialogue may start with checking on a loved one, a new job, or an upcoming medical procedure. It’s a family.

I admire the ability to be able to get out and about in some of the most beautiful places throughout the region. From mountains, lakes, rivers, to visiting wild ponies, elk, or bison, Southwest Virginia almost has a majestic ability to inspire when you find yourself out in the natural resources. I have to remind myself often never to take the place I live for granted. We are so blessed with the proximity to some of the world’s most incredible views and deep history. I also love music. When you look through the sheer talent that has originated from Southwest Virginia, it is quite incredible. You never have to travel far to be a part of that history. Most of our localities here host jam sessions every week where those traditions are passed down.

As we enter into the holidays, what are some of your favorite community traditions celebrated this time of year? How can others get involved?

Southwest Virginia localities have a claim to fame when it comes to growing Christmas trees, particularly on the edges of Grayson and Smyth Counties. Farms from Southwest Virginia have supplied some of the most prominent trees across the country over the years. My favorite Christmas traditions is being able to pick and cut directly from the farm, coming home, and decorating with family. I look forward to that day every year, which often for me, falls the weekend after Thanksgiving.

One of my newest traditions that I participate in with my church is our Reverse Advent Calendar. Southwest Virginia, like many communities across the Commonwealth, deals with severe food insecurity and childhood hunger. I started this with Highlands Fellowship, which provides a box to participants to fill each day with a non-perishable food item leading up to the holiday season. Those items are then donated to a local food bank and distributed to families in need. It has been a blessing to me and many of my close friends. It has been an avenue to have those important conversations with the next generation about the importance of service and giving back. Many of the children have become so passionate about being able to fill their box each day. It is a fun and easy idea to implement love for our community in a direct way for anyone looking for a new family tradition this holiday season.

About Olivia Bailey

Olivia Bailey serves as the Director of Marketing for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Olivia holds Bachelor’s degrees in Mass Communications and Public Policy & Community Service and a Master's degree in Community & Organizational Leadership from Emory & Henry College. Olivia joined the tourism industry in 2022, but previously spent a decade working in broadcast journalism. Olivia served as a well-known morning anchor at WCYB-TV in Bristol, Virginia. She also has experience working for national media outlets across the country, including CNN and CBS News.

In 2022, Olivia was appointed to serve on the Board of Trustees for the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center by Governor Glenn Youngkin. She additionally serves in a volunteer capacity as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for children in the foster care system throughout Southwest Virginia. She has previously served as a coach for Girls on the Run, a wish granter for Make-A-Wish Foundation, and a mentor for TN Achieves. Olivia is also a trained volunteer firefighter and previously served with Avoca Volunteer Fire Department just across the Tennessee state line.

Olivia enjoys reading and running in her free time. She enjoys live music of all kinds and is frequently found at bluegrass shows. She is a native of Chilhowie, but currently resides in Abingdon.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Katherine-Knoble
Katherine Knoble
Director of Community and Volunteer Engagement at Capital Caring Health

As the Director of Community and Volunteer Engagement at Capital Caring Health, Katherine Knoble works to help those in need through her career in healthcare as well as in her plethora of personal volunteer efforts. With over 35 years of experience managing life enrichment programs and volunteer gatherings, Katherine has dedicated her time and energy to improving the quality of life to all those around her. She currently oversees more than 600 volunteers at Capital Caring Health. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Katherine discusses Capital Caring Health, the caregiver industry, volunteering, and her favorite fall activities.

What is something that Virginia’s Women+girls should know about Capital Caring Health and the caregiver industry?

Capital Caring Health provides advanced illness care to patients of all ages, from pediatrics to geriatrics. Our team consists of volunteers, doctors, nurses, administrative professionals, volunteer managers, finance, social workers, human relations, chaplains and grief support counselors, certified nursing assistants, information technology professionals, nurse practitioners, and other health care professionals. We provide care to more than 1,100 patients each day throughout the DMV area, regardless of their ability to pay. Most of patients live in residential homes or nursing homes; we provide care wherever they call “home.” Capital Caring Health also provides care through two inpatient centers, located in Adler, Virginia and Washington D.C.

It’s an honor to work in the caregiving industry and I hope more will join. The industry needs dedicated and compassionate individuals who want to be part of a mission to care for others. There are so many aspects of working within this industry; there is something for everyone from direct care in clinical roles to fields like communications and even event planning. I have met the most amazing people and made the most amazing lifelong friendships being in healthcare. I encourage others to join our forces. It is a privilege to make a difference in our community while also being able grow your career.

November is Virginia Caregivers Month, what brought you into this field and how has it impacted your personal growth?

Volunteerism is at the heart of caregiving, it’s a way to help make the world a better place. Each of us play an important role. My journey started when I was 14 years old, and I was able to begin volunteering at a nursing home- they called the volunteer role a “candy striper” back then! We dressed in a red and white striped uniform with a perfectly starched white cap. Twice a week I would get my uniform on and volunteer at the nursing home where I helped aging patients with meals, games, companionship, and holding their hand. It was there that I was first exposed to the healthcare environment, and I knew I wanted to help others.  I learned that “helping others” came in many forms and all were valuable. I learned that even a 14-year-old could make a tremendous impact on someone’s life. I treasured those times when a patient was comforted by the simple gesture of holding their hand.

I continued to volunteer throughout my life, and it became a part of the fabric of my being. I attended a service minded Catholic School in Maryland, Regina High School, where the nuns encouraged active volunteerism. Students would journey on the weekends to soup kitchens in DC, travel to nursing homes and other sites in the community to help others. When my daughter joined the ranks of the United States Army, I began volunteering at the USO. It was my way of showing thanks to all those who have helped my daughter and our service members. It is an honor to call myself a “volunteer” and as I continue to volunteer in my community, I know I am making a difference. I now have the honor of overseeing a full department of over 600 service minded volunteers at Capital Caring Health who provide care for patients receiving advanced illness care. These volunteers also provide care to families who are the sole caregivers for their loved ones. I was brought into the Caregiving and Volunteer world at the age of 14 years old and I still remain an honored member of this important work.

You have been recognized for your volunteer work throughout the community, what does volunteering mean to you?

Capital Caring Health has been recognized as a leader in nonprofit advanced illness care and a leader of a powerful volunteer workforce throughout DC, Maryland and Virginia. Our volunteers and our volunteer program have received many wonderful awards for our work. It’s an honor to be recognized and we deeply appreciate the opportunity from First Lady of Virginia, Suzanne Youngkin to share our story on this Sisterhood Spotlight.

To me, volunteering means actively participating in making our community and our world better. It means finding a cause, a purpose, or a person to help and providing service.  In doing so, volunteers connect with likeminded volunteers and form deep friendships. Research shows volunteering helps lower rates of depression and anxiety. Volunteering helps promote a boost in self-confidence, self-esteem and life satisfaction.  Volunteering is a healthy lifestyle.

What impact have volunteers had on Capital Caring Health’s quality service and what would you tell others looking to get involved?

Hospice services were established in the United States in the 1970s by volunteers, and therefore, volunteers are truly “the heart of hospice” even today! Volunteers have a profound impact on Capital Caring Health’s ability to provide the highest quality advanced illness care. Although we can’t change a prognosis, it is the volunteer who truly embraces the ability to change the “moment.” A few examples of how volunteers impact the quality of service include: A loving husband was caring for his wife and wanted to celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary. Because he was the sole caregiver, he didn’t want to leave his wife alone to purchase a cake at the grocery store. Volunteers brought a beautiful anniversary cake and dinner to the couple so they could enjoy “the moment.”  Another example was when a volunteer found out that a family couldn’t afford to purchase all the school supplies needed for their children, the volunteer mobilized others and provided, not only school supplies, but incredible backpacks too. Two of our volunteers who are married, were helping their patient who wanted to continue her love of playing board games, so they all met once a week to play Yahtzee and other games. This brought incredible joy to this patient.

Our volunteers find opportunities to make “moments” special for our patients and families. This is done by finding out what is important to the patient and family, and their special needs or desires. Volunteers then expand on developing ways to provide meaningful visits and support.

What is your favorite fall activity?

I am a people person so I would say my favorite fall activity is anything that involves being around family and friends. I love a crisp walk along the Virginia Beach shoreline or a car ride along Skyline drive to see the gorgeous fall colors. Virginia is home to some of the most beautiful sights in the United States, our Commonwealth is stunning anytime of the year, but I must say, Fall is especially stunning.

About Katherine Knoble

Katherine Knoble is the Director of Community and Volunteer Engagement at Capital Caring Health. She is an avid lover of the beach and ocean, listening to Jimmy Buffet music, and enjoying family and friends. Katherine feels there is no better experience than that of the human connection, she strives to meet new people while retaining her treasured friendships.

Ms. Knoble has over 35 years of experience managing life enrichment programs for aging adults and managing volunteer programs. She also has over 15 years of experience managing volunteers in hospice and creating innovative programming for those facing advanced illness. She has a skill in connecting community groups to the nonprofit mission in an authentic and genuine manner which has earned her several volunteer & community engagement awards. Ms. Knoble would be the first to say the most meaningful award is found in the work by connecting volunteers to a patient in need, it is the “boots on the ground” approach that Ms. Knoble feels is the true award in service.

Additionally, Ms. Knoble has volunteered with the Arthritis Foundation, Alzheimer’s Association, USO, Birthday Wishes for Military, Local Churches, Soup Kitchens, SOME and many other organizations. Her service heart is what she hopes to convey to volunteers she currently manages, as she understands the value of each and every volunteer. Ms. Knoble lives in Clifton, Virginia, she has been married for 33 years, and has two children and one daughter in law -she proudly describes all as “service minded individuals.”

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Janet-Kelly
Janet Kelly
Special Advisor for Children and Families in the Governor’s Administration

As a foster turned adoption mom herself, Janet’s inspiration for creating her nonprofit, Virginia’s Kids Belong, was personal. This nonprofit aims to empower the community to improve the experiences and outcomes for children within the foster care system. Janet also serves in the Governor’s office to help further transform Virginia’s foster care system and expand the options for children’s welfare and mental health resources. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Janet Kelly discusses her inspiration for VA Kids Belong, her role within the Governor’s administration, the Safe and Sound Task Force, and important information around fostering and adopting that Virginia’s Women+girls should know.

You are the Founder of the nonprofit VA Kids Belong. What inspired you to create this organization and can you tell us a little more about it?

Yes! Virginia’s Kids Belong (VKB) dramatically improves the experience and outcomes for children in foster care because VKB believes every child deserves a safe, loving family where they belong. Its unique model empowers faith, government, and business leaders to be part of the solution. VKB’s signature program is the “I Belong Project,” which highlights kids in foster care who need a forever family. Videos of kids who are waiting to be adopted are at

Our personal “foster to adopt” story led to a healthy discontent with how kids, families, and workers fare in our child welfare system. I still serve on the board of VKB because I deeply believe in its mission, and the VKB team is more effective than ever.

You currently serve as the Special Advisor for Children and Families within the Health and Human Resources department of the governor’s administration. Can you tell us more about what you do in this role?

It’s my dream job and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to give back in this way. Currently, children’s mental health and child welfare reform are my top priorities. The Governor launched his transformational behavioral health plan, Right Help, Right Now, almost a year ago.  Virginia is 47th in access for children’s mental health services, which explains the long waiting lists to see a counselor or specialist. The increasing rates of anxiety and depression among our youth are alarm bells for action. I’m grateful for the Governor and First Lady’s leadership on this topic and excited about some very tangible things coming soon that will improve the mental health of kids in the Commonwealth.

In 2022, Governor Youngkin created the Safe and Sound Task Force to help create safe housing placements for children in foster care. How much progress has this task force seen since its establishment and what are your continued goals that you hope to reach?

Sadly, the year before Governor Youngkin came into office, over 300 kids slept in a local social services agency office, were placed in a hotel, or kept in an emergency room because our system simply didn’t have the right kinds of places for them to go. Most of these children had very high needs and were not able to live with a family until those needs had been met. When the Governor heard about it, he was determined to fix it- so he launched the Safe and Sound Task Force on his 74th day in office. We went “all in” with the best and brightest from the appropriate state agencies and within 90 days, we had reduced the number of displaced kids by 89%. We haven’t solved the problem completely, and won’t until we enact systemic changes, but many states still have hundreds of kids each year in offices.

Next, we hope to gain sustainable traction and go upstream with a renewed effort toward placing kids in extended, kinship families to keep kids out of foster care and with familiar connections when possible.

What are some things about foster care and adoption that Virginia’s Women+girls should know?

First, the main goal of foster care is the safety and wellbeing of kids, which often means reunification with their birth parents after a period of time or their extended family, called “kinship” families. When that is not possible, a child’s parental rights are terminated, and the child is eligible for adoption. Over 700 kids are legally free for adoption right now in Virginia. 

Second, Virginia is 47th in permanency meaning too many kids age out of foster care at 18 without being adopted. Can you imagine being on your own right after high school? Who walks those girls down the aisle, who shows up when they have a flat tire, or helps them prep for job interviews? You never outgrow your need for a family and yet these kids are without belonging. 

Lastly, 50% of foster families quit within the first year due to a lack of social support. Not everyone can foster or adopt but everyone can do something. Meals, gift cards, babysitting, or running errands really makes a difference. If you know of a kinship, foster or adoptive family, or a birth family who is struggling, having a bias toward action and committing to an act of kindness would mean the difference between fostering longer or closing a foster home.

What is your favorite childhood activity?

I loved to laugh, sing, practice gymnastics, be outside, and hang out with my friends and close-knit family. I knew from an early age I wanted to go into public service, and volunteered every day after school when I was 16 on a NC House of Representatives race.

About Janet Kelly

The Honorable Janet Vestal Kelly has spent over 25 years in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, specializing in leading multi-sector projects to transform lives. Her public sector roles include serving as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill, Chief of Staff in the Attorney General’s Office, and as Secretary of the Commonwealth for Governor Bob McDonnell. She is married to a veteran and fellow public servant and has 3 kids ranging in age from elementary school to college. Her kids are, without a doubt, her best work. Her weekend time is spent on neighborhood walks, enjoying time with the wisest, funniest and most loyal girlfriends around, and rotating couch cuddles between her kids and black labrador, Rhett. She is currently reading Bono's Surrender and listening to the Being Known podcast.


Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Melanie-Natoli
Melanie Natoli
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg

As Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Cana Vineyards, Melanie Natoli crafts delectable Virginia Wines for all to enjoy. As the recent winner of the 2022 Governor’s Cup Winemaking Competition, Melanie formulated the newest edition of the First Lady’s Cornus Virginicus wine which will donate all proceeds to Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom. The wine industry is a indispensable throughout Virginia and is responsible for more than 10,000 jobs and contributes $1.73 billion to Virginia’s economy. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Melanie tells us about the Virginia wine industry, how she got involved, her work on the Cornus Virginicus II, what she studied, and her success as a female in the field.

October is Virginia Wine Month. Tell us something about wine produced in Virginia that people might not know?

Growing conditions in Virginia can vary greatly from more classic wine regions, and even from year to year here in Virginia. This will always keep us growers and winemakers on our toes and working hard to create great wine. It also means that the same wines may vary significantly from vintage to vintage. When you open a bottle of Virginia wine, you can taste the year in which it was grown, adding another layer to the narrative. Every wine will tell the story of where in the state it was grown, the year in which it grew, and the winemaker that crafted it. Take the time to listen as you sip.

Although Virginia boasts more than 30 female winemakers, you are still in the minority.  Share how you got involved in the industry?

I first worked in a local tasting room on the weekends to learn more and get closer to my passion. It didn’t take long before I was sure pursuing a career in wine was my calling. In 2009, I changed my fulltime status as a physical therapist to per diem. I worked 3 days a week as physical therapist to pay my bills and interned at Fabbioli Cellars in Loudoun County for 3 days a week to learn a new craft. After two years, I transitioned to a fulltime assistant winemaker position. With the support of my mentor Doug Fabbioli, resources such as Virginia Tech Viticulture, Loudoun County Extension, the Winemaker’s Research Exchange, and a network of amazing colleagues in the industry, I’ve grown into my own winemaker, and I’ve been leading production since 2014.

Cana Vineyards & Winery won the 2022 Governor’s Cup Winemaking Competition, and as its winemaker, you recently collaborated on the First Lady’s specialty Cornus Virginicus wine.  Tell us about this wine and how people can purchase it?

It was an honor to collaborate with Frist Lady to create the second edition of Cornus Virginicus. The wine is a 2021 vintage blend of Petit Verdot and Merlot, strength and elegance. I blended wines crafted from fruit sourced from both my estate vineyard at Cana in Loudoun County as well as from Silver Creek in Nelson County. Bringing together two of our biggest growing regions creates a truly Virginian wine. The wine can be purchased directly from Cana Vineyards by visiting our tasting room or purchasing on our website. Additionally, the wine may be special ordered from ABC to pick up at your local store.

All proceeds from the sale of Cornus Virginicus support the Virginia Farm Bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” – an effort to educate the next generation on agricultural pursuits.  Did you study winemaking and if so, where?  If not, what did you study?

I was not exposed to wine when I was younger, so it couldn’t have been my first career. As a student, I always loved science and that led me to a career in healthcare. Thankfully, the background in science has been valuable as a winemaker. I don’t think careers in agriculture are always prominently presented to young students. I’m thankful that Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom is changing that, because agriculture is critical for all of us.

What is something that Virginia’s Women+girls should know about being a winemaker or the vintner industry?

If you don’t take the risk and follow your heart, you’ll never know what you could have been. Women are in the minority in the industry and that certainly presents challenges, but the challenge makes the reward even greater. If you are not freely given a seat at the table, sometimes you just need to bring your own chair and push your way in. For as long as I’m in the industry, I’ll make space for you.

About Melanie Natoli

Melanie was born and raised in New Jersey. She was first exposed to wine just as she was finishing her Master of Physical Therapy at the University of Scranton. Melanie traveled around the country working as a physical therapist until she landed in Virginia in 2006. After living in a state with such an amazing wine industry, her interest in wine was no longer a hobby, it was a passion she had to pursue. Melanie worked in a local tasting room on the weekends and fell even more in love with the industry. She quickly realized that her heart was leading her to make wine. Her journey to become a winemaker began as an intern in 2009. When not at the winery, Melanie can be found out hiking with her partner Kenny or home relaxing on the mountain with their two cats, Gus and Winston.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Tara-Daudani
Tara Daudani
Breast Cancer Survivor, Advocate, and Founder of Lend Them a Helping Hand, Inc.

As a breast cancer survivor and advocate, Tara Daudani works to raise awareness around the dangers of breast cancer and encourages women to get checked regularly as early detection is key to recovery. She also raises money for cancer research, serves on numerous boards and committees, and is the mother of two daughters. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Tara discusses how she honors Breast Cancer Awareness Month, her experience with cancer from diagnosis through recovery, her nonprofit, and resources for Virginia’s Women+girls.

You were diagnosed with stage 3 triple negative breast cancer when you were only 37 years old and had two young daughters. What was that experience like for you?

Hearing the words "you have cancer" was one of the worst moments of my life. I immediately thought of my daughters, who were six and two at the time, and my husband and what this diagnosis could mean for them. From the time of diagnosis, it took about two weeks to determine the severity of the disease and a treatment plan. I was so lucky to be surrounded by my mom, sisters, and husband while we figured out our future. It was two weeks full of tests, screens, doctors appointments, and holding our breath while we waited for more results. Of course, every scenario went through my mind. I was scared and really in disbelief. It was during those first two weeks that I started to see how I would have to say yes and accept help from those around me. I went through 8 rounds of dose-dense chemo, 7 surgeries including reconstruction and 25 rounds of radiation.

How did you and your family cope with the mental and emotional impact that your diagnosis had, and do you have any recommendations for others?

I feel very fortunate that this experience drew our family closer together. Everyone really circled the wagons and made selfless decisions to support me. Though that doesn't mean it was easy! One of the things that I've learned is that a cancer diagnosis can be a traumatic event. And treating it as such helped me process and cope with the emotional toll it took.

One of the best decisions we made was to wait until we had a prognosis before telling our children. Thankfully, the doctors advised though it would be a pretty rough 6-9 months, I would be able to move on from active treatment after that if all went as planned. With that in mind, we took our 6-year-old aside and used kid-friendly language to explain that mommy had a lump in her breast called cancer and it was going to take some pretty strong medicine to get rid of it. That meant she would be bald and not feeling well for a while. We knew that losing my hair would be the most outward sign of cancer. And that turned out to be true. I always recommend that people realize every cancer diagnosis and story is different and how people cope is different. Follow their lead, but also don't be afraid to step in with support.

During this experience, you came up with the concept for Lend Them A Helping Hand, Inc. Can you explain what this nonprofit is, how it works, and how many people you have been able to reach through it?

I was very lucky to have a lot of people who wanted to help me when I was going through treatment. But organizing that help was difficult and awkward, so we ended up just having a friend set up a meal train. It made me feel good to have their support and they felt good for being able to help, but there were other needs beyond just meals. I recognized this gap and started thinking about a way to help those in a time of need to organize help on any number of tasks and couldn't find anything like that in existence. During the pandemic I decided to make this idea a reality and Lend Them a Helping Hand, or LTAHH, was born. The platform is web-based and totally free! Anyone can create an account, then customize a help list with their specific requests. This allows their friends and supporters to view those requests and choose the most meaningful way to help. Since we launched the site in 2021, we've seen 100+ visitors a month and counting! We offer free informational cards for groups to distribute to get the word out about the site and are developing a presentation about the benefits of help during a time of need.

October is known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month as it commemorates the first organized awareness movement around Breast Cancer in the United States in 1985. What are some ways that you recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month and what should Virginia’s Women+girls understand about Breast Cancer?

During October I take the opportunity to remind my friends that early detection saves lives. Schedule your mammogram if you’re 40+ or high risk and know your body! Be aware if something changes and speak up. Advocating for yourself is one of the best things you can do. I did and it saved my life. Here's a great resource about how to properly do a self-exam courtesy of VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The simple fact is that back in 1985 talking about breast cancer was taboo and women didn’t know what the warning signs were. It’s because of the increased visibility and all those pink ribbons that we have had more research which has led to more effective treatments, screenings, and awareness about what to look for. Virginia's Women+girls should know that breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and about 7,400 Virginian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Stats courtesy of Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation.

Since your recovery, you have become a strong advocate for women’s health; actively serving on numerous boards and committees relating to Cancer and Women’s wellbeing. What are some resources that others can use to educate themselves on Breast Cancer and are there preventative measures that women can take to lower their risk of diagnosis?

The biggest thing I speak about is the importance of women using their voices and speaking up about changes in their bodies they are uncomfortable with. This starts with having providers who you have a good relationship with and trust. It is ok to change providers if yours isn't a good fit. Setting up those relationships now will help you should something be wrong. It also means putting yourself first when it comes to your health. We are so often in a caregiver role for our children, partners, and families that it's easy to put our health on the backburner, but it's important not to. There is a link between an active lifestyle and a decreased risk of cancer. Maintaining a healthy body weight reduces the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer. More on that and dietary guidelines that have been researched here. When it comes to prevention, there is a lot of misinformation. Always talk to your provider and look for research-based guidelines.

About Tara Daudani

Tara Daudani is the founder of a 501(c)3 nonprofit, a breast cancer survivor, women’s health advocate, freelance journalist, wife, and mother. 

On August 1, 2018, Tara Daudani was diagnosed with stage three triple negative breast cancer. From the moment her doctor looked her in the eyes and said she would get through this; she knew she wanted to help others live their best and healthiest life. Since then, she’s lobbied legislators, shared her story with the public, volunteered at advocacy events, and raised money for cancer research. She’s happy to say that she’s currently cancer-free!

Following her cancer treatment, Tara pivoted from her career as an Emmy award-winning TV journalist to founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit and health advocate. She currently serves as a member of VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Advisory Board and co-chairs the Women & Wellness committee where she created the “Play it Forward” ladies tennis tournament that benefits women’s cancer research at Massey. Daudani is also Vice-President of the board of directors for Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation.

She grew up in Northeast Ohio with her parents, three younger sisters, and extended family close by. After high school, she attended the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and graduated Cum Laude with a double major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology. After college she lived and worked in Albany, NY, Richmond, VA, Hartford, CT and New York City before returning to Richmond in 2012.

She, her husband, and two daughters still call Richmond, VA home, and in her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and dog, playing tennis and traveling. 

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Astrid Gámez
Founder and Executive Director of Family Services Network

As the Founder and Executive Director of the Family Services Network, Astrid Gámez provides parents and children of at-risk families with programs to help them succeed and develop healthy lives. Offering developmental playgroups, national violence prevention programs, bullying awareness workshops, and raising awareness around child abuse, Ms. Gámez focuses on finding an empowering solution before the risks effect a child’s development. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Ms. Gámez discusses her favorite ways to honor her heritage, how her heritage has helped her in her career, the struggles she has faced, the difference her nonprofit makes in the community, and how youth can get involved in the Family Services Network.

Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the different histories and cultures represented by Americans whose families emigrated from various Hispanic countries. What are some of your favorite ways to honor your cultural heritage?

Over the last 29 years, I’ve had the opportunity to share my culture through music and food with neighbors, coworkers, and friends.

I believe women and girls of Virginia should understand how diverse the cultures and traditions are throughout Latin America. Every country has their own customs, food and folklore. Even the meaning of words vary from country to country despite sharing the same language. Overall, our cultures are warm and happy, our families and values are our priorities.

As the Founder and Executive Director for the Family Services Network, how has your background and understanding of other cultures helped you succeed in your career?

Growing up as the child of two journalists has always been an advantage for me in my career. Through my parents’ work, I was exposed to the problems our communities faced. These experiences taught me how I can help others regardless of their race, religion, and socioeconomic status.

What has been the biggest struggle that you’ve faced, personally or professionally, and how did you get through it?

Working in child abuse prevention means that people come to me with very sensitive and difficult problems throughout all hours of the day. My job is to help support them the best way I can, sometimes that means accompanying them to court or finding them the proper services available. Like for many others, the Covid pandemic was a tough time. We had to adapt all our classes to work virtually so parents could continue to attend. Losing in-person classes was difficult at first, but we achieved our objective of helping parents reach a healthy and convenient balance.

You have worked with the Family Services Network for nearly 25 years. How have you seen first-hand, the difference that this organization makes in communities?

One of the main ways we’ve seen our organization's impact is through the “Developmental Playgroup” program. We followed up with the children of 15 families who have all gone on to become the first generation of their families to attend college. With the parenting classes, we’ve seen how parents have bettered communication with their kids, set rules and implemented consequences instead of punishments as their method of discipline.

How can youth get plugged in to your FSN programs and are there other things that the community can do to help those in need?

I work with families, so young people are involved in the classes and activities. It’s a joy to see children watch their parents graduate and receive a diploma at the end of the program. I would like to develop a workshop to teach the Hispanic community to volunteer more in their children's school, to be part of the PTA, to attend parent-teacher conferences, school board meetings, etc.

To learn more about Ms. Gámez’s nonprofit, visit Family Services Network, or to learn more about educational resources for parents, please see the Virginia Department of Education’s website.

About Astrid Gámez

Astrid M. Gámez was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1994, she adopted Virginia as her “home state” where she raised her two children.

Ms. Gámez, M.A. is the founder and Executive Director of Family Services Network. For the past 24 years, Ms. Gámez has been serving local communities in the Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. area. Ms. Gámez developed the “Whom Should I Tell?” curriculum program, a comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention program that teaches parents and caregivers the practical tools and techniques to prevent, recognize and report any type of sexual child abuse.

In September 2023, Ms. Gámez signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Universidad de Oriente (UNIVO) in El Salvador to make support groups with survivors of Domestic Abuse and women who have been sexually abused during their childhood.

As an ACT –RSK Master Trainer, Ms. Gámez has trained facilitators in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., the Melissa Institute in Miami, FL., and the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia and Quito, Ecuador. In addition, she has conducted training programs at the Instituto de Capacitación Los Alamos in Itagui, Colombia and the Universidad La Sabana, in Chia, Colombia. In 2021, Ms. Gámez published Whom Should I Tell? An educational coloring and activities book for 4 to 12 years old children. Ms. Gámez holds an M.A in Prevention and Treatment of Family Violence: Children, Couples and the Elderly from the Univesitat de Barcelona, Spain and a B.A. in psychology with a certification in child welfare from George Mason University.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Nanci-Hardwick
Nanci Hardwick
CEO of MELD® Manufacturing and Aeroprobe Corporation

As Chief Executive Officer of MELD® Manufacturing and Aeroprobe Corporation, Nanci Hardwick and her company have revolutionized the metal additive manufacturing business with its solid-state printing process. She also serves on numerous boards that emphasize the importance of leadership, community, and business. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Nanci discusses her role and company, her success, the importance of the S.T.E.M. fields, the future of manufacturing, and resources for women interested in manufacturing.

Tell us a little about your company MELD® and your role as CEO.

MELD® Manufacturing Corporation makes equipment to 3D print big metal parts. Many of these big parts aren’t made in America by American companies anymore. We are passionate about supporting the capability for in-country manufacturing with this technology.

As CEO, I have helped lead MELD® from a concept to commercialization with several awards, including R&D100’s most disruptive new technology worldwide.  The company holds over two dozen patents and manufactures industrial MELD® printers capable of printing large metal parts that replace traditional forgings.

Aeroprobe provides the aerospace industry with advanced pitot tubes and air data systems designed to improve safety and performance of unmanned aerial vehicles. Aeroprobe also designs, manufacturers, and calibrates multi-hole probes used by researchers around the world for design validation.

At a young age, you quickly moved up the corporate ladder — to what to you accredit your success?

I’m grateful to live in a country where anything is possible with hard work. I’ve been very lucky to be supported by the teams around me to pursue a vision for a better future. One of the core values in our company is to be inventive. Inventors are willing to try, and learn from failures. I try, and adjust as needed based on what I learn from my shortcomings.

What would you say to young girls interested in the S.T.E.M. fields and its importance in today’s workforce?

Be inventive. Try. Fail. Learn. In our current and future workforce, we need a diverse population helping to generate creative solutions and make them a reality.

How do you see the field of manufacturing developing in the next five years and how can people interested in entering this field best prepare themselves for these changes?

Our nation’s resiliency and independence depends on our ability to manufacture for ourselves. The manufacturing that additive (3D printing) allows will bring new jobs that range from machine technicians and operators to scientists and engineers designing new metal alloys and parts. Preparing to be part of innovation involves practicing trying new things and experiencing the joy of learning.

Are there resources available to women interested in educational or vocational opportunities in manufacturing?

Some great programs that I’ve seen in Virginia include the Women in Manufacturing-Virginia Chapter. They offer a mentoring program, a professional development program, and a virtual learning center for young females interested in this field. iMake Virginia offers opportunities surrounding career exploration, camps and academies, and apprenticeships. The Manufacturing Skills Institute can provide people with industry solutions and credentials as well as apprenticeships. My last recommended resource is a week-long, women in S.T.E.M. residential experience hosted by Radford. This program is available to female high school sophomores through seniors who are interested in the hard sciences.

About Nanci Hardwick

Nanci Hardwick is CEO of MELD® Manufacturing Corporation and Aeroprobe Corporation. She is an avid lover of Star Wars and science fiction because it inspires her to consider to the possibilities of the future. She now works to help create advanced realities.

Ms. Hardwick also loves learning. Most of what she knows about engineering and science she taught herself. She’s been an entrepreneur for over twenty years, and after having experienced business in a software-based engineering company, she decided that she would rather create real, tangible things. Initially, she did not have an appreciation for how much harder manufacturing is, or how much more expensive it is to establish and operate, compared to a service-based business. Navigating to successful technology development and manufacturing of commercial products has been an immense challenge, but the accomplishments have been incredibly exciting and rewarding.

Additionally, Nanci is an active volunteer in her community. She sits on the Virginia Manufacturing Association’s Board of Directors and has previously served as Founding Member and Board Chair of the AUVSI Ridge and Valley Chapter; Board Chair for Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC), Board Chair for United Way; Board Vice-Chair for OnwardNRV; Founding Board Member of Roanoke Blacksburg Innovation Network (RBIN), Virginia Tech CRC Community Impact Program, and United Way’s United in Caring Fund; Board Member of New River Community College Foundation and Lyric Theatre; and Volunteer Adult Literacy Tutor for Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA).

She has received many awards and been recognized by a previous Governor of Virginia for leadership in community and business.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Gabriela Chambers
Fourth Grade Teacher at Gilbert Linkous Elementary School

As a fourth-grade teacher, Gabriela Chambers ensures that young Virginians are being provided with a high-quality education and are on track to graduate high school. She aims to spark a love of learning early on, so the students remain engaged and interested in the topics covered in class. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Gabriela Chambers discusses teacher qualifications and how we can support them, the impact of Covid-19 on education, parent involvement, and resources that families can use to help their children grow as students.

Congratulations on your recent graduation. Tell us a little about your education in order to become a teacher.

In order to become a teacher, I completed the M.A.Ed. program with a major in Curriculum and Instruction from Virginia Tech. This program lasted 12 months and included one semester of student internship and one semester of student teaching. I was a student intern in the third grade at Prices Fork Elementary School in Blacksburg, Virginia, and I was a student teacher in the second grade at South Salem Elementary School in Salem, Virginia. The experiences I had at both schools taught me valuable lessons I will carry with me throughout my career. To summate my time in this program, I learned the importance of implementing the science of reading throughout an English and Language Arts block, I learned skills that aid me in instilling high order thinking and increasing the cognitive demand of lessons in Math, and I was taught useful strategies to incorporate Science and Social Studies into all topics throughout the school day. Overall, my year in this program gave me the tools to become an effective teacher for my students in fostering their curiosity and expanding their knowledge of the world around them.

It is clear from recently released SOL scores that students in Virginia – particularly our young learners -- are not reaching the expected benchmarks for core classes such as reading and math. As a teacher, what efforts are you taking to address the learning gap worsened by Covid-19?

It is evident that students have suffered academically as a result of Covid-19. Montgomery County, Virginia, along with several other counties within the state, are emphasizing the science of reading in order to emphasize the importance of word recognition and language comprehension. In turn, the two concepts combined allow students to effectively reach reading comprehension, and subsequently better understand all topics within the classroom. As a teacher, I hope to create meaningful learning experiences wherein all content areas are seen in various subjects throughout the day, and no specific topic stands alone. For example, within a block of English and Language Arts, the students could be learning phonics, or working on reading comprehension, meanwhile learning words that apply to relevant topics in science, or analyzing text that relates to a topic within Social Studies. In math, using the necessary differentiations and modifications to lessons, I give students the opportunity to think abstractly and discover concepts through tangible and complex learning experiences that are applicable to their everyday lives.

Supporting our high-quality teachers is crucial to ensuring success with our students. How can we better recruit young persons like you and also support teachers?

Encouragement of teacher preparation programs and higher funding for said programs provides excitement and motivation for young people like me who are interested in going into the field of education. Facilitating conversations where education is discussed in a positive light, and uplifting teachers within the community are additional ways in which more people might be further inclined to go into the field of education. So much of this job is fueled by passion. Passion and love for teaching is so critical if someone wants to become a teacher. That being said, encouraging teacher preparation programs and inspiring those who have this passion is key in the journey for boosting the educational field and supporting teachers as a whole.

Parents are the third leg of the stool for educational success. How are you ensuring that parents stay involved and maintain access to information around what students are learning?

Transparency in parent-teacher communication is significant in ensuring parents are active members of the school community and curriculum. Keeping parents updated on the curriculum taught each week (through weekly updates, digital classroom posts, letters home, etc.) is crucial because it allows parents the opportunity to understand what their student is learning in the classroom. This empowers parents to become active participants in their child's education, rather than passive observers. As teachers, it is imperative that we understand the significance of having these parents' children in our classrooms all day. We must value the trust that parents place in us and maintain clear communication to sustain the relationships we build with our students and their families.

In light of Adult Education and Family Literacy week, what activities would you recommend families engage in at home to further promote reading, writing, and communication skills? What resources are available that can help families?

To further promote reading, writing, and communication skills at home I would suggest that parents actively read with their students. By this, I mean that you are not only sitting and reading aloud with your child, but asking them questions about the text, modeling intonation, maintaining engagement, and emphasizing the importance of the text you are reading. Reading out loud to your child holds such an impact not only on their view of reading and literacy, but on the relationships you build with them as well. Check with your local schools to see what reading programs are available and recommended within your county. Aside from this, I would also recommend visiting your local library, bookstore, or even seeking different online reading resources such as Epic!, Scholastic, the International Children's Library, and iStory Books to name a few. Limit screen time and encourage and participate in active discussion with your child. So much of our world now revolves around a digital mindset, and communication has taken a toll as a result. In terms of writing, encourage your student to write pen-to-paper and keep a journal, or even write letters! The importance of writing on paper is often pushed aside, but it is a crucial skill for students to maintain as they grow and develop into more rigorous academic content.

About Gabriela Chambers

Born and raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, Gabriela lived with her father, mother, and brother in McLean. She grew up speaking Spanish and English at home, as her mother is Puerto Rican. She attended The Langley School in Mclean and went on to graduate high school from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland. She continued her education at Virginia Tech to earn a B.S. in Human Development and a minor in Classical studies.

During college she began working at a summer camp in Northern Virginia, and eventually became the assistant camp director. At the camp she worked with children from a variety of age groups and solidified her love of working with kids. In her junior year of college, she began substitute teaching at a parochial school in Silver Spring, Maryland. From then on, she knew that she wanted to become an elementary school teacher. To follow her passion, she attended graduate school to earn a Masters in the Arts of Education with a major in Curriculum and Instruction from Virginia Tech. She now gets to do what she loves- working as a fourth-grade teacher in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Evangeline "Angela" Cuyno Boers
Volunteer Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

As a Volunteer Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for the Ashburn Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, Angela is walking proof that size and gender cannot stand in the way of your dreams. Standing at only 4 feet 10 inches, she brings unique advantages to every fire scene and uses her stature to inspire incoming firefighters to push through the difficulties that they face in training. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Angela discusses what motivated her to become a firefighter, how being a female has been advantageous in her role, the rituals of her department for 9-11, prideful experiences she has had, and her thoughts to anyone considering a career as a first responder.

What inspired you to become a firefighter?

At the beginning of the pandemic a major event happened in my hometown and I had to watch more than 400 houses burn down. I felt absolutely and painstakingly helpless because I could not do anything. I was completely shocked how little the fire department in Davao could do in this tragedy. I knew at that moment I had to answer a call. As I started the training and running with the crews as a red hat, I grew to love the work, mission, and the absolute comradery of my brothers and sisters, crew, and life at the station. 

You serve on the Ashburn Volunteer Fire Department’s first all-female crew, how does that make you feel considering firefighting is often a male-dominated career? Have you found any advantages to being a woman in this field? 

I am proud to show our staff and community that what men can do, we can do too, and be an active part of this field. Sure, biological differences exist, but they can be overcome with technique and hard work. It does make me work harder but all of us still here have shown that we can achieve quite a bit when we all work together with a common mission and purpose. There are several advantages a woman has over a man. For example, people may not realize that most calls that firefighters get are medical in nature and many patients are more comfortable with a woman than a man. Faces often soften when I arrive on scene. We are equally welcomed by our community. 

What has been your most prideful experience since you became a firefighter? 

There are many experiences I have had that make me proud of what I do. One that sticks in my mind was getting a special request from my Chief to join a call I was not scheduled for because of my small size. Many would consider this a disadvantage, but because the call had to deal with rescue in a confined space, it became a direct tactical advantage. In this job there are many advantages and disadvantages with size, muscle mass, and physical and mental acuity, but these can be overcome.

The other one that sticks out was being asked at the start of fire school class to provide a motivational speech to the new recruits. Mostly because I am small, older, and a woman. Not only did I get to show that I survived the training, but I got to be an example of how you can gain the respect of those that train others with many lifetimes of experience. If I can do it, they can do it. Hopefully I was able to give the students that motivation to persevere when things get hard because they certainly will.

September 11, 2001 holds immeasurable meaning to this country, do you and your colleagues have any rituals that pay tribute to the fallen and the first responders on that day?

9-11 is a very somber day for us but also a source of pride, remembrance, and motivation. It’s a constant reminder of our mortality, our calling, our understanding that this can all be gone in a second, and a reminder that many will serve until the end. Many of us participate in events, remembrances, and activities such as the 9/11 memorial stair climb. But many remember in silence because of the depth of sorrow that we feel for our fallen brothers and sisters.

What would you say to someone considering a career as a firefighter or other first responder?

If you have the time, will, and tenacity, do it. You can do it as a career or as a volunteer so there are many options depending on your situation. Serving others builds a direct tie to your community. You get to help people on their worst day and provide meaningful value to their lives. It will not be easy, but it is extremely fulfilling, and you will build camaraderie, gaining a large extended family for life from old to young and all nationalities. Everywhere I go, we find our tribe and we all have a common story. The firehouse table where we break bread, share stories, learn, relate, and grow in many ways is like our second home.

About Angela Boers

Angela Boers was born in Davao City, Philippines with one older sister and two half-brothers. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree from the University of Cebu in 1996. Knowing that she had always wanted to come to the United States, she took an opportunity in 2001 when it presented itself. She started off working odd jobs before being hired as an Accounting Tech for the Smithsonian- a job that she still holds while also serving as a firefighter and EMT. She met her now-husband, Jacco, and they moved to Sterling, Virginia in 2003. They have been happily married for over 15 years now and have two daughters that are their pride and joy. Outside of her family, and the firehouse, she loves photography, traveling, and playing with her dogs. 


Sisterhood Spotlight

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Carrie Roth
Commissioner of the Virginia Employment Commission

As Commissioner of the Virginia Employment Commission, Carrie Roth ensures that Virginians have access and information regarding the variety of jobs available across the Commonwealth. She also works to promote economic growth and stability through policy development, temporary income support, transition and training services, and assistance in job placement for those seeking employment. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Carrie discusses what Labor Day means to her, VEC success and its impacts, challenges she has faced, and her career in public service.

Rooted in the late 19th century, Labor Day marks a celebration of the efforts of the laborers that helped develop the United States and advance its achievements. As the Commissioner of the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC), what does this day mean to you?

Labor Day is an opportunity to pause and recognize the ingenuity and hard work we see from individuals across the Commonwealth who continually strengthen the vitality of our communities. Personally, it has always been a time for family gathering, the kick-off of my favorite season (football season), and focusing on the excitement ahead for the final four months of the year. 

As of June, Virginia’s unemployment rate was down and the labor force participation rate rose to over 66%- the highest it’s been in over ten years.  How does this impact your work at the VEC?

We are hyper-focused on helping individuals move quickly from unemployment to reemployment. While we continue to see the labor force participation rate increase - demonstrating tremendous progress in individuals getting off the sidelines and back to work - there remain over 300,000 job openings in the Commonwealth. We work alongside our employers to help them with their talent needs so we can continue to strengthen Virginia's economy and the vibrancy of our communities. 

As a female who has held various senior level government positions, what have you found to be your biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?

To me challenges are opportunities for positive change. I thrive on change, but for others it is uncomfortable. One of the greatest opportunities afforded to me in these roles is to help individuals realize they have everything inside of them to reach their full potential and not let fear of change hold them back. Being a marathoner, I am comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sharing with others how to push through their fears, to be ok with being uncomfortable to achieve what they once thought was impossible and watch them realize is possible is one of the best rewards. This mindset allows us collectively as a team to address challenges, find solutions and move forward together.

Throughout your career, you have worked in three Administrations. What drew you into a career of public service?

We moved to Virginia when I was in third grade and this changed the opportunities afforded to me - in particular the education I received in Chesterfield County public schools. I was the student who took every history and government class they could - soaking up the passion of so many before us who opened the doors of individual opportunity and freedom to determine ones own destiny. This solid foundation instilled in me an incredible desire to give back to the Commonwealth that has given me so much. While at VCU, I interned on George Allen's campaign for Governor, was an intern in the first year (plus) in his Administration, until I graduated and was offered a full-time position. Since then, to be a part of so many moments of significance to the Commonwealth and our country, keeps the fire burning to continue to be a part of positive change.

About Carrie Roth

Carrie Roth was appointed to be the Commissioner of the VEC and the Advisor to the Governor for Strategic Initiatives by Governor Youngkin in January 2022. Prior to her appointment, Carrie was the founder of Rerouted, a strategic growth and communications consultancy. From 2013-2021, she served as CEO and COO of Activation Capital and the VA Bio+Tech Park. Carrie previously served as Deputy Secretary of Commerce & Trade for Governor Bob McDonnell. Prior to joining the McDonnell Administration, she was President of her company Capitol Square Communications. Carrie served as Press Secretary for U.S. Senator George Allen, whom she worked for in various roles from 1993 to 2003, and as Policy Director for the gubernatorial campaign of Attorney General Jerry Kilgore after serving in the Attorney General's office. In 2023, Carrie was named RVA Power Woman in Government; in 2019, she was named a Pioneering CEO by myTechMag; in 2018, she was recognized by Richmond NAWBO as Community Leader of the Year and RTD Person of the Year Honoree; and in 2016, she and her husband, Doug, were the JDRF Central Virginia Chapter Gala Honorees.

In her free time, Roth is a strong supporter of the non-profit ‘Sports Backers’ that encourages people to lead active lifestyles, as she is also an avid runner and 17-time marathon finisher herself.  As a UESCA-certified running coach, she and her husband have competed in multiple marathons together, including the Richmond and Boston marathons.

Although originally from Michigan, Roth moved to Virginia at a young age and has resided in Chesterfield County for most of her life. She attended Hillsdale College and is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Rebecca Holmes
Executive Director, Highlands Community Services

As Executive Director of Highlands Community Services, Rebecca Holmes ensures that residents in Bristol and Washington County receive quality and comprehensive care. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Rebecca discusses the need for care surrounding substance use, outlines recent trends in counseling and mental health support, and encourages the implementation of mental health care that is nuanced, trauma-informed, and accessible.

Why is International Overdose Awareness Day important?

Any event that can help raise awareness of the loss of life from the disease of addiction is important, especially when it comes in the form of a national or worldwide platform. Despite its prevalence, substance use and those who battle it continue to be scrutinized and largely blamed for their situations. For many, substance use continues to be seen as an issue of morality rather than the brain disease that it actually is. We have to change this.

Most individuals who battle addiction do so from a place of personal trauma history. In our area, that often comes in the form of multi-generational trauma. Loss of a loved one to an overdose seems particularly difficult because it feels so preventable. Any event that offers an opportunity for education, conversation and increased awareness is worthy of support.

In your leading role as Executive Director of Highlands Community Services, what brings you joy and what keeps you up at night?

I consider two of my primary responsibilities to be that of systemic strategy and getting roadblocks out of the way. Creating an environment where my team not only feels valued, but also empowered and allowed to focus on their jobs and areas of expertise is important to me. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when the new programs evolve, the partnerships develop and the community and individual change happens. Seeing staff take pride in not only the work they do but also in the organization they do it for — that’s my source of joy. Those are the heroes who then move mountains to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve.

What keeps me up at night is trying to figure out how to make all those things happen in a climate where our field is under duress. With a limited behavioral health workforce pipeline and an exponential expansion of need, it is a daily struggle to find the resources to remain competitive in the employment market and meet the needs of our community. There is a substantial amount of creative problem solving required and it seems to happen best in those midnight hours.

What advice do you have for Virginians to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, counseling and asking for help?

Be kind -- to others and to yourself. Give yourself permission to use the supports around you and the compassion to prioritize your own needs and well-being without judgment. We can all use additional supports from time to time. It doesn’t mean we’re broken — it just means we’re human. Others around you may be inspired by your journey, allowing you to potentially make unintended differences in the lives of others.

What mental health/substance use/counseling trends are most effective among Virginia youth today?

Our youth seem to be the first generation where stigma seems to be beginning to take a back seat and more open conversations about needs are happening. Routinely, their first outreach is to either peers or parents. Beyond that, getting connected to resources and supports quickly is the highest predictor for follow through with our youth. In our digital world, they are accustomed to having their needs addressed quickly, often via their phones. Whether through apps, virtual support groups or therapy services, or a chat function on the 988 National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, timely access and response is a substantial factor. Beyond that, it isn’t a matter of successful methodologies or interventions. It still boils down to creating a connection where that youth feels accepted, respected for who they are and that they are being heard.

What resources does Highlands Community Services (HCS) offer to Virginians in need and how do people access services?

As one of 40 Community Services Boards across Virginia, HCS is designated to serve the individuals residing in Washington County and the City of Bristol. We offer over 75 programs addressing mental health, substance use and intellectual/developmental needs of individuals and families across all stages of life from birth through geriatrics. A full listing of our service array can be found on our website at

Individuals interested in enrolling in services can likely do so that same day by calling us at 276.525.1550 and selecting option 1 from the automated menu to speak with our Service Enrollment staff. Individuals with urgent needs may qualify for our crisis services designed to be more preventative in nature and ideally address needs in the home community rather than through extended hospitalizations.

People shouldn’t have to leave home to get good care. We are here to meet them where they are and support them in achieving their goals here, at home, in rural Southwest Virginia.

About Rebecca Holmes

Rebecca Holmes has over 25 years of experience providing inpatient, in home, and outpatient services to individuals and families in Southwest Virginia struggling with the impact of addiction, trauma and mental health challenges. She has spent her later years focusing on a broader systemic impact through the development of services, programs and systems of care to address those same behavioral health needs with focuses on quality and sustainability.

As a Licensed Professional Counselor and a certified Substance Abuse Counselor in Virginia, Rebecca is an advocate for addressing the intergenerational impact that both substance use and trauma have on the full family system. Developing and implementing comprehensive and quality services for effective intervention and long-term positive outcomes is the clinical standard that serves as the guidepost of her practice.

Rebecca is currently the Executive Director for Highlands Community Services (HCS), serving Washington County and Bristol, Virginia. In this role, she is responsible for all aspects of the service delivery spectrum from the quality and type of services offered to staffing, compliance, funding, development and sustainability of the organization.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Dr. Lisa Coons
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction

Dr. Lisa Coons was appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin to be Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction in March 2023. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Dr. Coons overviews her lifelong interest in education, discusses her role as Superintendent of Public Instruction, and details her hopes for Virginia students and future educators.

What first sparked your interest in education?

I come from a family of educators; my father and my aunt are both high school math teachers who continue to teach in Oklahoma and Colorado. From my earliest memories, I remember going to my dad’s classroom and helping him set up his room for the new school year. I used to “play school” in the garage, and I formalized my teaching experiences in high school as a Math and ELA Lab tutor and a swimming instructor. As I became a high school English teacher, I saw inequities in student experiences. I became a middle school principal, curriculum supervisor and assistant superintendent to redesign school systems to better serve students. Then, I realized the opportunity state leaders have to impact all students in the state with true policy development and collaborative policy implementation. Through this model, I saw dramatic literacy gains in my work in Tennessee, and I am excited to work with all stakeholders in Virginia to see results for our students.

How has being appointed Virginia’s 27th superintendent of public instruction inspired your career?

I am humbled to serve Governor Youngkin and implement his bold and ambitious education agenda that ensures all parents are equal partners in their children’s education and that every child is ready to pursue their career goals after high school.

What’s an interesting lesson or learning experience you’d like to share with Virginians?

First, students will rise to the expectations set for them. If we believe they can achieve and provide them with high-quality, licensed teachers and a safe and healthy school, they will be successful. Research shows that we can change opportunities for students with the right combination of rigorous expectations and exceptional support.

We also have to ensure students have innovative learning experiences inside their classroom, across their school and are able to attend cutting edge regional schools that break the mold of traditional education. We will accomplish this innovation when all stakeholders collaborate to revision what school should look like for the future.

What advice do you have for Virginia’s Women+girls (W+g) who are interested in becoming educators?

As an educator, we are uniquely poised to impact the future and inspire young people to achieve their dreams. I often talk to young women in my church, in my school visits and at community events about the power of teaching. When a young woman chooses to become an educator,  she is able to build relationships with thousands (and sometimes millions) of young people, inspire children to learn and ensure that the system supports their opportunities to be successful. Educators can truly change the world, and children need supportive adults to help them grow and learn now more than ever.

As students are returning to school, what would you like to say to Virginia parents and families?

Get excited! Our future is full of possibilities. When our families are partners in their child’s education, the opportunities are endless.

About Dr. Lisa Coons

Dr. Lisa Coons comes from a family of educators and is a career educator herself. She has served in a variety of local and state roles in three different states and is proud to now call Virginia her home. As a military spouse and mom, Lisa is honored to serve the most military-connected families in the country. In addition, she is dedicated to support all 1.3 million children in the Commonwealth, especially her two grandchildren that reside in Virginia Beach.

Lisa served as chief academic officer for the Tennessee Department of Education for several years, where she led all academic programming from birth to grade 12, including K-12 teaching and learning in language arts, mathematics, science, and fine arts; early childhood education; voluntary pre-K and Head Start. Dr. Coons also served as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in Tennessee and Ohio.  She holds a doctorate in education from Lipscomb University.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Maria Reardon
Artist in the Art Experience at Virginia’s Executive Mansion

Maria Reardon has a gift for capturing Virginia’s traditions and natural beauty and currently has two paintings in Richmond’s Executive Mansion’s first-ever Art Experience — a celebratory compilation of Virginia artists’ works. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Maria shares about her experience as an artist, the inspiration behind her two Art Experience paintings “Rodeo Pair” and “At the Tractor Pull”, and finally offers advice for those wishing to improve their creative and artistic abilities.

Have you always had a knack for art and creativity?

My passion for art and creativity is deeply rooted in my soul. As a child, I loved coloring books and paint by number sets. I was especially interested in animals and I was a horse crazy little girl. I remember having a step-by-step “How to Draw Horses and Dogs” book that I read endlessly. I found great pleasure copying the drawings in the book, thus teaching myself how to draw what I see.

One of my earliest memories as a budding artist was in elementary school. I would make sketches of dogs, and some of my classmates liked them so much that I “sold” these little sketches for 10 cents each. One Christmas when I was quite young, I received my first paint set, some brushes, and small canvases. I quickly filled them all with images of horses, flowers, bunny rabbits…some I still have with me today. I smile when I look back on these experiences, remembering the mind of a child who had the freedom to make art for its own sake without any expectations. I have always had the desire to create. I would draw, paint, cross-stich, sew my own clothes…the list is endless. I found pleasure in both the processes and the finished products.

What inspired your paintings, “Rodeo Pair” and “At the Tractor Pull”?

I am particularly fond of rural life and farm activities. My family was in the retail business, so I did not grow up with a first-hand experience. However, at age 10 I started horseback riding lessons and soon afterward, my family was able to purchase a horse for me. I loved that horse and was constantly begging to be driven to the barn 30 minutes from home (it would not seem like a long drive today, but back then it was definitely a drive to the country)! I spent many hours at the barn, and to this day I still love the scent of fresh cut hay and wide-open spaces.

The paintings “Rodeo Pair” and “At the Tractor Pull” reflect this inner love. “Rodeo Pair” was born from a visit to the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, VA during a barrel racing competition. Watching the horses and riders prepare for their turn in the arena, I was attracted to one pair, a young woman and her Palomino, because of their excitement and energy combined with such confidence and control.

“At the Tractor Pull” is a scene from the annual Field Day of the Past held in Amelia, Virginia. The 3-day event features farm life activities and the tractor and truck pull competitions are a particular highlight. I find it very interesting to see the style, color, and strength of the antique tractors—in their day they were the backbone of a farm.

What was it like to participate in the first ever installment of the Art Experience at the Executive Mansion with your featured paintings?

It is truly an honor to have been invited to exhibit two of my paintings in the Art Experience. I am pleased to be able to represent the beauty of my home state of Virginia and to show viewers the bountiful landscapes and array of pursuits in our Commonwealth. The artists represented in the collection truly comprise a community of excellence with their range of talents and achievements in the art realm.

What advice would you give to less experienced artists who want to improve their skills?

Every person has a creative talent of some sort. People shouldn’t say that “they can’t draw, not even a stick figure”. We all have the means to some degree to create a beautiful expression of how we see and feel about the world around us. We just need to be shown how to cultivate our inner artist. Instructional opportunities are abundant. We are very fortunate to have many opportunities for people to engage in learning artistic skills. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has a Studio School that offers an extensive array of classes for adults, teens, and children. I am an instructor at the Studio School, where the course catalogs have year-round offerings in painting, photography, pottery, creative writing and more. There are also many other educational venues throughout the state, and each curriculum always offers a course for beginners.

Outside of structured classes, the best way to improve is through practice, practice and more practice. Constant drawing and painting, experimenting and taking chances, and developing a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them is so important for the growth of an artist.

What resources would you suggest to Virginia’s Women + Girls to experience more art?

To experience more art is to immerse oneself in it… read books, visit museums, buy art supplies and just do it! Virginia is home to the highly acclaimed Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which has several valuable collections that span the art movements throughout history, as well as world class traveling exhibits. In the museum, one can get up close to the artwork to see the brushwork and color firsthand, rather than just looking at it in books. The museum presents many educational programs and lectures as well. Virginia also boasts many art festivals and plein air events where spectators can meet and watch artists as they demonstrate their techniques. The artist community, whether locally or nationally, is a very welcoming and friendly group of individuals—we are always happy to share ideas and demonstrate techniques to others.

About Maria Reardon

Maria Reardon paints the world around her. She loves being outdoors and finds inspiration in natural and rural life. From the mountains to the shore and the countryside in between, her home state of Virginia is close to her heart. Her passion is painting on location (plein air), using vibrant and diverse colors in an impressionistic fashion to represent the light and mood of a particular location.

Maria is a Virginia native and received her formal education from Virginia Commonwealth University, earning a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in illustration. She continued her study of the portrait and the landscape with nationally known artists. Her work has been both exhibited and shown in private collections—she has also been published in art journals and received top awards during plein air events.

Maria regularly participates in plein air events, where she is represented by Cabell Gallery in Lexington and Franco’s Fine Clothier in Richmond. Maria also enjoys teaching and is an instructor for both the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Studio School and the Tuckahoe Womens’ Club in Richmond, Virginia. When not painting outdoors, she works from her studios in Rockville VA and Goshen VA. To see more of Maria’s work, visit her website.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Julie Bilodeau
CEO of CrossOver Health Care Ministry

As CEO of CrossOver Health Care Ministry, Julie Bilodeau works to improve the community as a leader and advocate for those in need. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Julie shares about her experience as a female CEO, her involvement with CrossOver, some of her best tips for practicing a healthy lifestyle, and other advice for Women+girls (W+g).

What is Crossover’s primary mission?

CrossOver’s mission is to provide high quality healthcare, promote wellness, and connect community talents and resources with people in need in the name of Jesus Christ. We know that healthcare is foundational, directly impacting a person’s ability to take care of their family, maintain employment, and lead a fulfilling life. Healthcare at CrossOver is holistic, striving to care for the whole person. It’s also collaborative and comprehensive, comprising primary and specialty care, dental, eye, OB and women’s health, HIV testing and treatment, mental health, case management, and medications.

What challenges or opportunities have you encountered being a female CEO?

When I started out at CrossOver, I was a single mom of 3 and 5-year-old sons, so work-life balance was a challenge. At the time, we had board meetings at 6:30 a.m., so on the nights before those meetings, my mother would travel to my house so she could get my boys to school the next morning after I left the house at 6 a.m. On the other hand, being at CrossOver has also given me the flexibility to care for my family, which has made my work possible—and we no longer hold our board meetings at 6:30 a.m.!

Sometimes people are surprised to find out that a CEO is a woman, and some people tend to be more dismissive of women, so it can feel like there is a smaller margin for error. Toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started meeting weekly by Zoom with five other female executives of healthcare safety net clinics. That network of support has been important during these years that have been particularly difficult for healthcare and for the safety net in particular.

Though there are exceptions, I’ve found that women generally tend to have more collaborative and consensus-building leadership styles than men, who tend to be more top-down. This can be challenging since collaboration and consensus are more time-consuming than unilateral decision-making, but in the long run, I have found that consensus and collaboration result in stronger outcomes.

What is one simple thing Virginia’s Women+girls (W+g) can do today to be healthier?

Don’t put off your health. We saw that people delayed preventative care and screenings during the pandemic, and if you haven’t caught up, please do that. Women sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to put off their health while taking care of what everyone else needs, but it’s so important to take care of yourself.

I’d encourage girls to build healthy habits now, because they will make a difference throughout your life. One of the most important healthy habits is confidence. There are so many unhealthy images of beauty in our world, and you don’t have to be limited by them. You are your own best advocate, so speak up. Cultivate self-acceptance. It will empower you—and the girls and women around you—wherever you go.

How important is faith to your daily work?

People have many “whys” for getting involved with CrossOver’s work. For me, faith is my “why.” It’s what motivates me to be at CrossOver. I believe that, as a Christian, I have a responsibility to improve the lives of the people around me. The nonprofit world and healthcare can be a tumultuous place, and it is faith that anchors me as we navigate stressful times.

How can Virginians access Crossover’s services or learn more about other health clinics like Crossover?

Our work is funded by the generosity of the philanthropic community and powered by volunteers. Visit our website or call 804-655-2794 to learn more about getting involved or about becoming a patient. You can also find a listing of all free and charitable clinics in Virginia at the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics website.

About Julie Bilodeau

Julie Bilodeau is the CEO at CrossOver Healthcare Ministry. Ms. Bilodeau joined CrossOver in 2003 after working for over ten years at Circuit City Stores. During her tenure, CrossOver has opened a clinic on Quioccasin Road in Henrico County, established an in-house licensed pharmacy, implemented electronic health records and begun participation with Virginia Medicaid. In 2022, CrossOver purchased the building where the Henrico Clinic has been housed since 2005 and is currently renovating and expanding clinic space to increase patient capacity. CrossOver serves over 6,600 patients annually. 

Ms. Bilodeau holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the College of William and Mary and an MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. She is a member of the Leadership Metro Richmond Class of 2011 and the Rotary Club of West Richmond, where she serves on the board of directors. Additionally, Ms. Bilodeau serves on the board of Henrico Doctors Hospital in Richmond and is a current member of the Virginia Taskforce on Primary Care.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Camille-Cooper
Camille Cooper
VP Anti-Human Trafficking & Child Exploitation, Tim Tebow Foundation

Camille Cooper is a passionate advocate and leader against human trafficking, especially child exploitation. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Camille shares about her experiences battling child exploitation and trafficking, her involvement with the Tim Tebow Foundation, some of the challenges in the trafficking industry and advice for Women+girls (W+g).

What sparked your interest in battling child exploitation and trafficking? 

It's less of an interest and more of a calling. Isaiah 6:8 says, "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here I am. Send me.'" This issue has touched many of the people closest to me in my life. Once you start to understand the magnitude, the depravity, and the harm, once you see the damage it's impossible to look away.

How did you get involved in the Tim Tebow Foundation and what is its mission? 

There have been moments in my life when the trajectory I was on got completely switched around. It's as if God picked me up from one place and set me down in a totally different, unexpected place. I have been at work against human trafficking and child exploitation for over 20 years and through this work I met Tim and the team. It was evident that God meant for me to do this work here, together. Our mission at TTF is to bring Faith, Hope and Love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need. As a team, we are dedicated to helping some of the most vulnerable people all over the world. People with profound medical needs, those living with special needs, children that are orphaned or abandoned, people who are trafficked or sexually exploited – these are the ones we are called to fight for.

What are the paramount challenges to combat human trafficking and child exploitation? 

One of the biggest challenges globally is government response. A core function of government is public safety, but not very many governments fund and prioritize this issue so it can be addressed at scale. Whether due to lack of awareness, restricted resources, or just apathy, the minimal response by many nations creates an environment where criminals can thrive and spread this violence across communities in every country like a disease. Law enforcement needs to be resourced at levels that will allow them to get ahead of the problem. Citizens must be made aware of the enormity and severity of the abuse taking place in their own backyards so that they will urge their legislators into action. We are so grateful that the state of Virginia is prioritizing this issue.

What advice do you have for Women+girls (W+g) who want to stay vigilant about their safety? 

First and foremost, as a society we must put the responsibility for violence against women and children squarely on the backs of those who are committing it. The least safe place for any woman or child is in their own home, so understand what grooming and "love bombing" behaviors are, that way you can spot an abuser early. For parents, if a male is giving your child special attention or they want to be alone with your child - that's a big red flag. Also, it sounds simple, but use a buddy system and have each other’s backs, especially high school and college age women when you are out. Above all, trust your gut. If you get a bad feeling about a place or a person, leave. Don't question it or think you need to be nice and stay. Feeling momentarily awkward is worth it. Your safety comes first.

How can Virginians get involved in efforts to help those trafficked or to support law enforcement? 

The best way to help law enforcement is to make sure that you communicate with your elected officials, particularly the ones in leadership roles, that funding for anti-human trafficking and combatting child exploitation are a priority for you as a voter. You can volunteer to raise funds for trafficking shelters. You can educate your family and friends about the risk and dangers. You can also join the Tim Tebow Foundation’s Rescue Team as a Prayer Warrior, Advocate, or Defender. Let's Go!

About Camille Cooper

Camille Cooper currently serves as Vice President of Anti Human Trafficking & Child Exploitation at the Tim Tebow Foundation where she brings over 20 years of experience in federal and state legislative drafting, strategizing, and advocacy on topics related to child protection, child exploitation, and anti-child trafficking. Camille has presented to dozens of high-level officials from Africa, Jordan, South Korea, and the EMEA region for the State Department, and at conferences including APSAC, the Brighthood Conference in Sweden, Europol at the Hague and the United Nations. Cooper’s work for twenty years has focused on preventing the sexual abuse of children and combatting child exploitation crimes. As Director of Government Affairs at the National Association to Protect Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation, she lead reforms that established the Department of Justice’s National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, provided over $350 million of funding for state and local internet crimes against children task forces, established the HERO Child Rescue Corps, and the Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund at the Office of Justice Programs. Cooper holds a Certificate in Strategic Leadership from the U.S. Army War College as part of the Commandant's National Security Program

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Kathryn-Thornton
Kathryn C. Thornton
Former NASA Astronaut & Teacher

Kathryn Thornton is a former NASA astronaut, civilian physicist, and professor at the University of Virginia. After decades of working in the aerospace industry, she currently serves on the boards of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and the Virginia Spaceport Authority. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her experience as an astronaut; her transition from astronaut to teacher, and advice and resources for Virginia Women+girls (W+g) who wish to pursue a career in the aerospace industry.

Did you always want to be an astronaut?

When I was growing up, being an astronaut was not an option for me. There were very few astronauts, and all were men and military test pilots. No matter how hard I worked, I was not going to make the cut. I became interested in physics in high school and continued to study it in college because I found physics to be a challenging puzzle. While I was busy doing physics problems, the country was changing around me. Thanks to the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, new opportunities were opening up women for the first time. I enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Virginia only four years after women were first admitted to the entering class. I completed my PhD only one year after women were first selected for the astronaut program as mission specialists. It took another dozen years before the first woman was selected as a shuttle pilot. I was so fortunate to have missed the “girls don’t do science” message when I was growing up, or to naturally be a contrarian who defied it. I rode the wave of positive changes for women in the United States. When I saw an announcement that NASA was selecting the next group of shuttle astronauts, I had the qualifications and was able to apply. I was selected as a mission specialist astronaut in 1984 in the third class to include women.

What advice do you have for Virginia’s Women+girls (W+g) who want to pursue a career in the aerospace industry?

All are welcome and all are needed:  scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, administrative professionals, and trades men and women. The aerospace industry encompasses a wide range of goods and services including satellites and rockets, communications, tracking, operations, medicine, law, and policy among others, as well as many other supporting industries. Choose a field that interests you and always endeavor to be the best at what you do.  Degrees in math, science, engineering and medicine are desirable for space travelers, but now that human space flight is no longer the sole purview of NASA and other governments, the paths to space are changing.   As a guide, prospective space flyers should take a look at the biographies of people who are doing what they want to do.   

Is there a reason why you left NASA to become a teacher?

I have had three distinct careers in my life so far: intelligence analyst, astronaut, and professor.  I left my first career for an incredible opportunity with NASA, and I made the choice to leave my second career to have more time with my family. During my 12 years with NASA, I had four great space flights and loved every minute.  I would probably have launched a few more times before retirement of the space shuttle, but my kids were growing up and I was missing it.  I still keep my fingers in the space business with occasional NASA committees, the Space Foundation, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and the Virginia Spaceport Authority Board of Directors. 

After I left NASA, I spent more than 22 years teaching and advising students at UVA, not quite long enough to have taught children of former students, but long enough to run across former students who are doing well in the aerospace industry.   It is a great pleasure to see how they have grown into their careers and their lives.

Which of your many accomplishments would you most like to be remembered?

Your question makes me think about the difference between being remembered and leaving a legacy.  I will most likely be remembered for my spaceflights, especially the Hubble Space Telescope service mission where I played a small part in recovering the capability of that extraordinary instrument.  But without a doubt, my most enduring legacy is my children. I am so proud of the adults they have become, and my legacy continues with my adorable grandchildren. 

I recall a handful of teachers in my early life who truly made a difference in my career.  Of the thousands of students I have touched over the years, I like to think I made that list for at least a few of them.  That is a legacy that I would like.

Is there anything that you would like Virginians to know about NASA/the future of space exploration?

The only thing certain about the future of space exploration is that it will be bigger and more exciting than we can imagine today. One of my uncles used to tell stories about traveling across Arkansas in a covered wagon when he was a kid, then he watched me launch twice on the Space Shuttle. Advances in atmospheric flight and space flight during his lifetime are astonishing and would have seemed too fantastical to be true for a kid in a horse-drawn wagon.  During my lifetime so far, we launched satellites and then soon after launched humans. We sent humans to the moon and robotic explorers throughout the solar system. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977, have left our solar system and entered interstellar space. We built and launched five space shuttles and built a space station that has been continuously occupied for more than 20 years. The evolution from only NASA and DoD space programs to private space companies with their own objectives is fascinating to watch. I’m excited to see how the commercial space industry develops and how far we as humans will venture in the next 20 or 30 years of my lifetime.   

One thing Virginians definitely should know:  We have a gateway to space right here in Virginia.  The Commonwealth, through the Virginia Spaceport Authority, owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore.  MARS is one of only four sites in the US licensed for vertical launches, and has launched a variety of NASA, DoD and commercial payloads such as resupply to the International Space Station and NASA’s LADEE mission which successfully orbited the moon gathering information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and lunar dust.

About Kathryn C. Thornton

Kathryn C. Thornton is Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Selected by NASA in May 1984, Thornton is a veteran of four space flights. She has logged over 975 hours in space, including more than 21 hours of extravehicular activity (EVA), and was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.

Thornton began her career as a civilian physicist at the U.S. Army Foreign Science and Technology Center in Charlottesville, VA. While working in Charlottesville, she saw a call for applications for the third class of astronauts that included women. She applied, was selected, and moved to Houston, TX to start her second career as an astronaut. Her missions included a classified Department of Defense mission, a satellite rescue and redeployment, the first service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and a mission dedicated to physical science experiments in microgravity. She left NASA in 1996 to start her third and longest career as a professor at UVA. After 22 years teaching and advising students, she retired from UVA to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2019.  

Dr. Thornton is the recipient of numerous awards including NASA Space Flight Medals, the Explorer Club Lowell Thomas Award, the University of Virginia Distinguished Alumna Award, the Freedom Foundation Freedom Spirit Award, and the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. She currently serves on the boards of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and the Virginia Spaceport Authority.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood spotlight Stephanie Spencer
Stephanie Spencer
Founder & Executive Director, Urban Baby Beginnings

Stephanie Spencer, from Richmond, VA, stays involved in the community dedicating her time and talents to especially maternal and newborn health causes. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Stephanie shares about her work with the Petersburg community, her role with Urban Baby Beginnings as well as her abundant efforts to continue community-based support.

What is Urban Baby Beginnings’ (UBB) mission?

Our mission is to reduce adverse outcomes and isolation experienced by families during the prenatal, postpartum and early childhood years by increasing access to maternal health hubs which provide community support, workforce development, and advocacy for birthing and postpartum families.

What can Petersburg mothers and fathers find at UBB?

At Urban Baby Beginnings (UBB), Petersburg mothers and fathers can find a comprehensive range of resources and support tailored to their needs. UBB offers prenatal care services to ensure the health and well-being of expectant mothers, while postpartum support services assist mothers in their recovery and adjustment after childbirth. Lactation support is available to help with breastfeeding challenges, while mental health services address the emotional well-being of both parents. UBB also provides parenting education programs, empowering parents with knowledge and skills for nurturing their children. The community support offered by UBB creates a network of connection, where mothers and fathers can find understanding, advice, and a sense of community. Through partnerships and referrals, UBB ensures access to additional resources, creating a comprehensive support system for Petersburg mothers and fathers on their journey into parenthood.

What inspires your work at UBB?

Founding Urban Baby Beginnings (UBB) has been an inspiring journey fueled by a deep passion for improving maternal health outcomes and addressing the disparities that exist in our communities. Witnessing the challenges faced by mothers and families, I am driven by the unwavering belief that every woman deserves access to quality care, support, and resources during their pregnancy and postpartum journey. The opportunity to make a tangible difference in the lives of mothers and their children and to empower communities motivates me every day. Seeing the positive impact we can have through UBB's comprehensive approach and collaborative partnerships fuels my inspiration to continue pushing boundaries and creating innovative solutions in the field of maternal health.

Can you talk about why you are so passionate about community-based support?

Our health and well-being starts at the community level. My passion for community-based support stems from my own experiences and the profound impact I've witnessed it can have on individuals and communities. Having grown up in a close-knit community, I understand the power of collective support and the importance of addressing the unique needs of each community. By working directly with community members, I have seen firsthand how tailored support services can make a real difference in people's lives. Seeing individuals empowered to take charge of their health, build resilience, and thrive within their communities is truly inspiring. It's the relationships built, the trust established, and the shared commitment to fostering well-being that fuel my unwavering dedication to community-based support. Witnessing the sustainable impact and positive transformations it can bring to individuals, families, and entire communities is what drives my passion and fuels my determination to continue making a meaningful difference.

How is UBB’s work impacting the Petersburg community? 

UBB's work at the Petersburg Maternal Hub is making a significant impact on the Petersburg community. Through our diligent efforts, UBB is strengthening the level of social support available to expectant families and their children. By training community health workers and doulas who are embedded in the communities they serve, UBB ensures that support is provided where it is most needed. This investment in community support is yielding positive effects as more and more families actively participate in the process of building and supporting pregnant and postpartum families. The impact goes beyond individual families, as the entire community is becoming stronger and healthier with access to a safe place for support and essential resources. Through UBB's work, the Petersburg community is thriving, fostering a nurturing environment for the well-being of expectant families and their children.

About Stephanie Spencer

Stephanie Spencer is a well-known and respected figure in the maternal and newborn health community in Central Virginia and Hampton Roads. As the Founder and Executive Director of Urban Baby Beginnings, a non-profit organization, Stephanie is dedicated to reducing adverse outcomes and isolation experienced by families during the prenatal, postpartum, and early childhood years. She works to increase access to maternal health hubs that provide community support, workforce development, and advocacy for birthing and postpartum families. Stephanie chairs the Virginia Maternal Quality Care Alliance, where she focuses on improving maternal health outcomes and advocating for high-quality maternal and newborn community support. Through her work on state and local teams and initiatives, Stephanie has been instrumental in expanding community doula certification and accessibility, doula Medicaid reimbursement, and increasing community health worker accessibility. Her program also provides a dual certification program which trains community doulas and maternal child community health workers through UBB’s workforce innovation program.  Stephanie's dedication to improving maternal and newborn health outcomes has earned her widespread recognition throughout the State of Virginia.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Amy-Sidwar-Seaver
Amy Sidwar-Seaver
Farrier and Business Owner

Amy Sidwar-Seaver is an experienced farrier who has had a distinguished career working with horses. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Amy shares about her experiences as a farrier and lover of horses and gives advice for Women+girls (W+g) who are interested in the farrier industry.

What is your earliest or fondest memory of horses?

I was tremendously lucky to be introduced to horses at a very young age. The first picture of me on a horse was at the age of three. My parents, not horse people by any means, must have seen the connection and really supported every opportunity to get me closer to this animal. One of my earliest memories was the first time I cantered at age seven. The pony’s name was Lulu, and I fell off pretty much right away! I was lucky enough to fall into a sand bank in a small indoor ring and so it never hurt. I distinctly remember thinking it was the most amazing feeling and jumped up, couldn’t wait to get back on, and cantered again – I stayed on this time and vividly recall how fast and amazing it felt. I was pretty much hooked from that day forward.  I clearly couldn't have realized it at the time, but that’s what horses teach you every day – you get on, you may fall off, and then you get back on. Horses are absolutely the most humbling creatures. They are strong and powerful and equally more fragile than you can ever imagine.  Working with them has taught me so much. I am tremendously fond of so many of the horses I see and work with every day. In many ways, I am still just a horse-crazy kid!

What does a farrier do, and please tell us about your experience as a woman working as a farrier?

There is a saying in the horse world, “No foot, no horse,” and it’s true. Their feet are the foundation of their massive size and it’s critical to understand how that foot functions and interacts with both the rest of their anatomy and the world beneath them. Farriers are trained to understand and manage all aspects of hoof care for horses. This can range from simply trimming feet and/or applying shoes all the way to working closely with veterinarians to manage complicated therapeutic cases or encourage proper development with foals. Historically, farriery has been a male-dominated profession, but it’s nice to see that starting to change. I was lucky to have an incredible mentor that never viewed my being a woman as any impediment to being a farrier; - in fact, he strongly encouraged and supported women in the field. I have certainly met up with individuals that are less than supportive of women in the industry, but they have never deterred me from this occupation, and I would encourage anyone else to ignore them as well. Being a farrier can certainly be demanding of your time, but as a woman, and a mother, this profession has allowed me the opportunity to run my own business and prioritize my family.

Horseshoeing is a very old craft. What new technologies, if any, are influencing your work?

The introduction of new technologies both within veterinary medicine and the farrier industry function together and constantly influence my work. For instance, it used to be that we mainly had to rely on x-rays to help diagnose and understand what was happening inside the hoof capsule, but today a horse in this area can easily have an MRI and more recently a PET scan which allows the vets to hand farriers an exceptional amount of information regarding what is wrong with that animal. This information is an absolute game-changer when it comes to how we can then create a shoeing package to address the exact issue with each foot. New products and farrier-specific research papers are also changing the way things are done and offering us so many more options for horses with complicated feet. New composite shoes and adhesives techniques are showing incredible promise and I am always excited to incorporate these into my practice.

Can you speak to the “Forging Ahead Internship Program”?

Paul Goodness, the lead farrier of Forging Ahead and my mentor, was always committed to helping share knowledge and promote better practices within the farrier industry. The Forging Ahead Internship Program was designed based on this idea and offered an opportunity that did not exist anywhere else both then, and now. We worked with farrier schools and other farriers around the world to identify talented and committed individuals to spend a year working alongside the busy group practice that was Forging Ahead. The group worked out of two ship-in locations (meaning people bring the horses to our shops) and on the road travelling to client farms as well. With multiple farriers working full-time, the number of horses an intern would see each week was rather impressive. It was an amazing and dynamic environment which included high level performance horses, difficult therapeutic cases, and wonderfully adorable back yard ponies. I remember farriers from the surrounding area would often stop in just to shadow the group for a day and many would say they would see more variety of hoof issues in one day than they would normally see in one year! The program helped launch the successful careers of many farriers, several of which I still stay in contact and consult with to this day.

What advice do you have for Women+girls (W+g) considering entering the farrier industry, and where might they go for training?

The first thing I will say is don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this job. Women make great farriers! You can do it! When most people think of farriers, they picture a larger- than-life man with huge muscles standing over a horse, but in reality, the horse is always going to be stronger than even the strongest person. It’s very true that being a farrier is a physically demanding profession, so you need to focus on staying fit, but it relies upon your ability to work with the horse, not overpower them. It also means you need to be smart and work with the owners, trainers, and vets to make sure the horse is safe to work with as well. The horse industry is an incredible world with endless possibilities. Women have already proven themselves to be exceptional riders, trainers, veterinarians, and more should try this profession as well.  

Proper training in this field can certainly be challenging to find, and there is no set path on how you can get to where you want to be. This can be both frustrating and equally exciting, as it allows a person to really create their own experience. It’s one of the few professions that does not require a set pattern of academic studies and therefore can allow a committed individual to succeed without the same educational costs of most other professions. That said, there are farrier schools throughout the country, but most are meant to teach the basics and then strongly encourage you to find an apprenticeship after completion. People quickly realize a 16-week course, even an intensive one, is not enough to prepare you for all the things this job may throw at you. Apprenticeships are key to learning the craft well. Finding these apprenticeships can be challenging, but they certainly exist. My best advice is to create relationships with the local veterinarians and trainers in your area. From there, work toward meeting the farriers they use and recommend. I also advise seeking out organizations and associations dedicated to this field.

Two prominent and well-established organizations include the American Farriers Association (AFA) and the International Association of Professional Farriers (IAPF), both of which offer useful memberships which can further connect you to great resources, clinics, and conferences.  I also strongly recommend business classes or reading books on running a small business.  Most farriers will eventually work for themselves. Understanding business basics will ensure that you can run that endeavor successfully.

About Amy Sidwar-Seaver

Amy Sidwar-Seaver graduated from George Mason University in 1999 with a B.A. in English and a concentration in cultural studies. She received her master in business administration (MBA) in 2022 from Longwood University. She briefly worked as a farrier's assistant in 1999, and then as a program analyst for Northrop Grumman Ship Systems in support of the U.S. Coast Guard, until she chose to begin a full-time apprenticeship and career in farriery with Paul Goodness in 2004. Soon after, she achieved certifications in Equine Sports Massage Therapy (2004) and Canine Massage Therapy (2005). In 2007, Sidwar-Seaver helped create and manage the Forging Ahead Internship Program, which was the first of its kind in the farrier industry and launched the careers of many now-accomplished farriers. Sidwar-Seaver, who takes special interest in sport horses, laminitis cases, and foal development, completed the American Association of Professional Farriers (APF-I) certification in 2019, and maintains membership with the American Farriers Association. When not working, she enjoys riding her own horses, spending time with family and friends, and acquiring new skills. She completed the Accredited Professional exam for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in 2010, making her the only LEED AP farrier she knows.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Tamisha-Love
Tamisha Love
Garrison Command Sergeant Major

Command Sergeant Major Tamisha Love has devoted nearly two decades to serving in the U.S. Army, where she has led and inspired many other Americans. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares on her time in the Army, her observations and offers advice and resources for Virginia Women+girls (W+g).

This Fourth of July, what would you like to say to Virginians?

The Fourth of July represents service, sacrifice, gratitude, and, most of all, freedom. Freedom empowers us and enables all Americans to live a life of possibilities. We have the most powerful military in the world that is committed to sustaining that freedom. Freedom alone is worth celebrating!

What inspired you to join the Army? What has inspired you to continue serving our nation for so many years?

When I was young, my uncle served in the Army. I remember observing his pride in ensuring his uniform was squared away before he put it on. The excitement on his face when he put on his uniform is a look I will never forget. I also observed how proud my family was of him for serving in our military. I wanted to experience that feeling.

Only one percent of our population will ever serve in the military. Throughout my military challenges, I have had the privilege of serving with the most amazing one percent of our population.  It's about remaining part of something much bigger than yourself, the Army family.  I love the Army!

How have you seen the Army change over the years, especially for women?

Our Army has come a long way in the last few decades. The Army has responded with many significant changes in a way that shows that it values the women in its ranks. For example, women are now allowed to serve in combat roles.  Another significant change is the opening of many professional military education schools to pregnant soldiers, preventing them from falling behind in their careers. The Army’s new changes to the grooming and appearance standards allow us to embrace our womanhood. The Army has implemented many new policies toward the advancement of women.  Our progress has been accelerating, but we still have ways to go.  For the United States to have the most lethal fighting force in the world, women must be a part of that force.

What is a piece of advice you would like to share with Women+girls who are interested in serving the country, like you?

Women are gaining ground because there are so many brave women across the world that have the determination and the unwillingness to accept anything less. There are unlimited possibilities in our armed forces for you. Be All You Can Be!

Of your many notable achievements, what is it that you would like to be remembered for most?

I want to be remembered as a trailblazer that left a legacy of inspiring others to accomplish the impossible despite the challenges. If you can see it and believe it, you will achieve it.

About Command Sergeant Major Tamisha Love

Command Sgt. Maj. Tamisha A. Love enlisted in the U.S. Army on Feb. 1, 1998 in Union Springs, Alabama. She completed Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee (now Fort Gregg-Adams), Virginia. Prior to becoming the Fort Gregg-Adams Garrison Command Sergeant Major in April 2021, she served in several key Army roles in Management, Logistics, Aviation, and Instruction in localities including Germany, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Georgia. She deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom twice: with the 1st Armored Division and 82nd Sustainment Brigade.

Command Sgt. Maj. Love earned her bachelor’s degree in human services from the Columbia College of Missouri. She attended the U.S. Army Sergeant Major’s Academy for her military schooling and has completed numerous advanced training, development, and certification courses.

Her military schooling includes: U.S. Army Sergeant Major’s Academy; First Sergeant Course; Drill Sergeant School, Master Resilience Training Course, Contracting Officer Course, Joint Logistics Course, Manpower and Force Management Course, Common Faculty Development-Developer Course, Foundation Training Developer Course, Senior Leaders Course, Advance Leaders Course, Basic Leaders Course, Action Officer Development Course, Supervisor Development course, The Force XXI Battle Command Course, Unit Victim Advocate Course, Combative Level II, Total Army Instructor Training Course and Equal Opportunity Leaders Course.

Her awards and decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal (Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster), Army Commendation Medal (Silver Oak Leaf Cluster and Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster), Army Achievement Medal (Silver Oak Leaf Cluster), Good Conduct Medal (6 Awards), National Defense Service Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal (2 Stars), Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terror Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, NCO Professional Development Ribbon (Numeral 4), Army Service Medal , Overseas Ribbon (Numeral 3), and the Drill Sergeant Identification Badge.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Tanya-Gould
Tanya Gould
Anti-Human Trafficking Director for the Attorney General of Virginia

Tanya Gould, a survivor of human trafficking, has advocated for anti-human trafficking solutions for 20 years. She currently serves as the Anti-Human Trafficking Director in the Attorney General of Virginia’s office. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Tanya shares about her work in the space, her personal testimony that led her into fighting human trafficking as well as advice and resources for Virginians.

How long have you been involved in the fight against human trafficking, and can you give us a summary of all you’ve done?

I’ve been a part of the fight to eradicate human trafficking for 20 years. I’ve served in a number of ways – most recently in the Attorney General of Virginia’s office, as well as Governor Youngkin’s Commission on Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support. I’ve also served in the U.S. government, as part of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of State. I also serve on related boards and organizations and in my own community.

Can you share about the personal experience that led to your involvement in the space?

Being a survivor of human trafficking is what led me into this space. I told my story of being prostituted to a close friend of mine while I was working at a crisis pregnancy center as a director. She shared with me that she had recently heard about trafficked persons and believed my story fit. She then proceeded to connect me with a group who was doing some awareness work on this issue. This was 20 years ago now.

I went to an event they were doing and knew immediately that this was what I was called to do. I had done advocacy work on many issues like HIV/AIDS, and pregnancy center (pro-life) work, but I knew in an instant that this was life-changing for me, to take my own life experiences and create change for the most vulnerable among us.

As a human trafficking survivor and advocate, what would you like to say to Virginians?

As much as we push identification of trafficking within our state, it is even more crucial to focus on education. There are many citizens who do not believe that human trafficking happens so close to home. Many of these same people work in our agencies, including direct service provision, and are uneducated about the crime.

We need to be diligent in our understanding of the issue and do away with mindsets we have held onto about who is selling and buying sex and cheap labor. Demand drives the issue.

Purchasing humans should never have existed, and we find ourselves where we are still allowing this. Children and adults are being forced or coerced to sell themselves or forced to work for little or no pay in our Commonwealth. Together, with the right mindset and resources, we can end slavery for good.

How can Virginians identify when someone needs help? What should a person do if they suspect someone is being abused or trafficked, and what resources are available?

If you see something suspicious and want to report a TIP (Trafficking in Persons), please call #77 Virginia State Police. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline for services at 1-888-373-7888.

About Tanya Gould:

Tanya Gould is a solutionist fighting against human trafficking, striving to impact legislative policy and raise public awareness. She is the Anti-Human Trafficking Director for the Attorney General of Virginia and served on the Governor’s Commission on Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support. Tanya recently has been appointed to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC).

In 2022, Tanya received the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking in Persons. She served two terms on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

Tanya has given lectures and training at universities and has been interviewed on an array of podcasts, articles and PSAs. She also co-produced a documentary short film titled Groomed (her daughter wrote, arranged and performed all the songs on the film).

Tanya has served as keynote speaker at anti-human trafficking conferences and worked with faith communities to raise awareness both nationally and abroad. She has served as a consultant to various anti-human trafficking organizations, as well as U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime; U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign; Global Strategic Operatives for the Eradication of Human Trafficking, Inc.; and U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) office. She also serves on boards and organizations such as Polaris, Beloved Haven and Parliamentary Intelligence-Security Forum Task Force on Human Trafficking. 

Tanya Gould also serves her community as needed. She served the city of Portsmouth as a Museum and Fine Arts Commissioner, started an after-school program and co-led the yearly Cradock Festival. Tanya also served families and their preborn at crisis pregnancy centers in Virginia. In 2021, Tanya was a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates District 21 race.

In 2023, Tanya received the Attorney General Alliance Sword and Shield Award. She also had the honor of attending, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime as an official member of the U.S. delegation.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood spotlight Tequisha Stiles
Tequisha Stiles
Region 8 English Teacher named Regional Teacher of the Year

Tequisha Stiles, who teaches at James Solomon Russell Middle School in Brunswick County, VA, was named a 2024 Virginia Regional Teacher of the Year. In addition to her career as a teacher, Tequisha practices servant leadership by volunteering at a local food pantry and offering after-school literacy support to students in need. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Tequisha shares her experiences as a mom, mentor, leader and most importantly eighth-grade teacher in her community.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

Several factors culminated in my desire to become a teacher. First, I was raised in an environment that placed a great value on pursuing and attaining a good education. Therefore, educators were highly respected in both my family and my community. My father encouraged me to teach in my hometown in Southside Virginia. Second, when I entered college, I felt adrift. I knew I needed a solid college education, but I was unsure about what career path I really wanted to pursue. Lastly, I have had such memorable experiences with so many teachers that I wanted to make a positive impact on young people.

What does it mean to you to be named Regional Teacher of the Year?

I’m extremely proud to represent Region 8. I have lived and taught in other areas of the state and country, but Region 8 is my home. I grew up in Lunenburg County. I live in Mecklenburg County, and I teach in Brunswick County. I am especially proud that this award brings attention to the middle school in Brunswick County. James Solomon Russell was a Virginian who dedicated his life to the education of people throughout Southside Virginia, so I am humbled and honored to represent the school that bears his name.

Region 8 certainly has its unique challenges. Access to an infrastructure that supports technology and employment opportunities that provide a livable wage and improved quality of life are major issues that impact the school divisions in our region. However, the teachers in the region continue to push past these obstacles to provide the highest-quality learning opportunities that are possible. I am so proud of the work that my colleagues and I have accomplished.

What is a piece of advice you would like to share with girls who are interested in becoming teachers?

Do it! I would advise young women to find a positive mentor and become a volunteer. Summer school sessions are a great time to connect with educators and observe the school environment. Despite its frustrations, education is a fulfilling career. Unfortunately, social media seems to promote the difficulties of teaching. We rarely get to see students who are engaged, parents that are involved and teachers who are working together with administrators to promote favorable learning environments. However, all these events are happening every day across the state. In the words of my colleague, “This is the best time to be a teacher.”

What are some things you hope your students take away from their 8th-grade experience?

Of course, I want my students to be exceptional writers, readers and critical thinkers. More than anything, I want my students to know that they can accomplish whatever they desire. Social media, television and video games seem to have given our young people an unrealistic definition of success. Ultimately, our kids internalize these warped standards and devalue themselves. I want my students to know that I believe in them. I’m cheering for them. I want them to look beyond the financial, social and racial obstacles that they have been imposed with to realize a better future for themselves and their communities.

Was there any reason why you decided to teach eighth-grade English?

Eighth grade is a really fun grade. It is fascinating to watch students mature from the confines of childhood and embark on their path through adolescence. Some students may take a little longer than others, but they all grow so much in their final year of middle school both physically and mentally. Of course, their emotions need a little more time to catch up with these changes, but it remains a very pivotal time in their lives, and I enjoy being a part of that growth. 

I simply love reading and writing. As a child, reading was my escape from my rural hometown. My father was a printer by trade. I can remember being asked to proofread text even when I was very young. I have a natural love for English that I love to share with my students.

How do you relax or pick yourself up at the end of a long day?

I enjoy spending time with my son, Noah. We are both superhero and comic book nerds, so we’re always scouting out the latest comic book editions and movie releases. I also enjoy reading and chatting with my close friends.

About Tequisha Stiles

Ms. Tequisha Stiles is part of a large family that has always emphasized the importance of a solid educational foundation. For many African American families in rural Virginia, education has been considered the vehicle for achieving financial independence and civic responsibility. Ms. Stiles was inspired by this reverence for education and compelled to become a classroom teacher. Her most significant contribution to the education profession is her ability to establish an environment of support and mutual respect for her student. Ms. Stiles has demonstrated an ability to transform the school culture into a community of care in which all students feel valued. As a teacher at James Solomon Russell Middle School, Ms. Stiles has served as a mentor for new teachers, chairperson of the English department and a data team leader. Over her impressive career as an educator, Ms. Stiles remains committed to her mission of ensuring that every student feels valued. She challenges her students to look beyond the sometimes-harsh realities of their present circumstances to see themselves successfully fulfilling their lifelong dreams.

Sisterhood Spotlight

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Jean Case
Chairman of National Geographic and CEO of the Case Impact Network

Jean Case leads the Case Impact Network and is a passionate businesswoman, investor and philanthropist. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Jean shares about her and her husband’s impact in tech, her involvement in Virginia’s culinary and wine industries, some of her proudest accomplishments in environmentalism and other advice for Women+girls (W+g).

You and your husband were true digital pioneers. Tell us what attracted you to the industry and how you got your start?

I started with the nation’s first consumer online service, The Source, which was headquartered near Tysons Corner in Virginia. This was pre-Internet, so the online offerings were all text-based — so no pictures or graphics, just text on a screen that included email, conferencing and content ranging from an encyclopedia to stock quotes. In those early days, network speeds were S-L-O-W. How slow? It would have taken forty hours to download the average song! And it was expensive. Still, underlying this slow, expensive service was a really powerful idea: democratizing access to information and communication.

And it was that idea—never mind the kinks—that drove many of us at the dawn of the Internet age, and it attracted followers. These services had the potential to level the playing field in a way that could change the way people lived, worked and played. But some iteration was needed.

After a few years at GE trying to build an (unsuccessful) online service for them, I got a call from a new startup in Tysons Corner that was to become AOL. I jumped at the chance to join this fledgling young company and to help build a whole new, next-generation online service offering that featured consumer-friendly pricing, appealing graphic interfaces and a “membership” approach that encouraged engagement, feedback and a sense of community. And it worked!

After early struggles, this Tysons Corner-based company hit a tipping point, and people jumped on—a lot more people. When we got started, only 3% of people were online, and they were online 1 hour a week! But we grew the service to the point where, at its peak, AOL carried 50% of the nation’s Internet traffic and was the first Internet company to go public. It was truly thrilling to bring the Internet to the masses and to do so in a place we loved — Virginia!

Today, among other things, you oversee the Case Foundation. What does it mean to follow your principal motivation to “Be Fearless”?

My husband, Steve, and I started the Case Foundation in 1997 with a fearless mission: to invest in people and ideas that can change the world. This means we’re always investigating and experimenting to find the best ideas out there, the best leaders, the best models for innovation. To help us better understand the core qualities or “secret sauce” of those that break through, we hired a team of experts that propelled those rare leaders, organizations and movements to success. They discovered five principles that are consistently present when transformational breakthroughs take place.

To spark change, you must:

  1. Make a Big Bet
  2. Be Bold, Take Risks
  3. Make Failure Matter
  4. Reach Beyond Your Bubble
  5. Let Urgency Conquer Fear

I dig deeper into what each of these principles mean to you and me and share lots of inspiring examples of these principles in action in my book, but these five principles can be summarized in the first two words of the title: Be Fearless. Taken together, they form a road map for effective changemaking for people from all walks of life, but it’s important to note that they aren’t “rules.” They don’t always work in tandem or sequentially, and none is more important than another. Think of them as a set of markers that can help identify when decisions are being made fearlessly.

It is this spirit that drives all of our decisions at the Case Foundation — and really all of the endeavors Steve and I undertake — and is a key trait we look for in the people we hire and the projects we back and fund.

Virginia’s wine industry is making a name for itself in national and international circles. Please tell us a bit about your focus on Virginia’s culinary and wine industries.

One of my greatest pleasures has been to help lead our amazing team at Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Virginia. Our vision is to create exceptional wines that can compete with the best wines around the world. We feel great about our progress to date as Early Mountain has received numerous accolades for our wines, including being nominated among only 5 American wineries for American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast, and having our Chardonnay named among the “100 Best Wines in the World” by famed wine expert James Suckling.

But making great wines is just part of what we do — we love creating unique and wonderful experiences for our guests who come to visit us in Madison. Whether enjoying the culinary delights of Chef Tim Moore or relaxing in our tasting room or outside overlooking the Shenandoah mountains, we try to reflect our focus on quality and excellence in all we do.

Although very unique for a winery, throughout this journey, we have sought to also shed a light on the wide range of quality wines that are now being produced across the Commonwealth, highlighting them through our Best of Virginia program at the winery and by introducing a wine club that includes a wide range of these wines. And we believe that great wine is also a wonderful way to highlight the impressive farm-raised produce from the region and the excellent chefs that cook around the state. I am particularly proud of EMV’s own executive chef, Tim Moore, and his team as they have developed a menu that both pairs wonderfully with our wines and stands on its own as, I think, some of the finest cuisine available in Virginia. I hope that you will visit EMV’s tasting room for both great wines and wonderful food that highlights our commitment to “Virginia through and through.”

What led you to pursue global environmental work, and what have been some of the proudest accomplishments you’ve been a part of?

As Chairman of the Board of the National Geographic Society, illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world is front and center in my life every day. The Explorers we fund and the team at Base Camp (our name for our Washington, DC headquarters) are truly committed to exploring, understanding and crafting solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges, including climate change and the impact it has on communities across the globe. But we are equally as passionate about wonder and discovery, as has been an important part of our work since National Geographic was founded in Washington, DC 135 years ago. I really couldn’t be prouder of their work and impact.

Related, I’m particularly inspired by the spirit and commitment that the next generation brings to care for our planet. I’ve been so pleased to have been able to support and back a number of younger entrepreneurs in this space through my decades long commitment to impact investing. All investing has an impact, and I have tried to be particularly focused on those young startups and entrepreneurs who want to bring both a financial AND social return to investors through their products and services and the companies they lead. It’s an exciting time for startups — both for-profit and nonprofit, who are out there every day finding new solutions to big challenges. I love the opportunity to support them both in big and small ways.

I am a woman of faith, and that faith has instilled in me a commitment and responsibility that we all do what we can to be good stewards of our world, both in our lifetime and for future generations. At my farm in Virginia, I am reminded of this everyday — whether it is the morning songs of the birds, the clean air I breathe or the humbling view of the spectacular, forested Shenandoah mountains in view – that we must protect and steward what we have been given. And while big efforts of protection and conservation really matter, so does the individual act of every person on the planet.

As a leader among Virginia’s Women+girls (W+g), what might you tell your younger self to ensure a life of meaning?

I probably would tell myself to “cut yourself a break,” since I had a very strong work ethic and sense of responsibility to do both well and good in this world, thanks to my amazing single Mom and my immigrant grandparents. But somehow I confused that message with a sense that I had to be perfect, and I was very hard on myself when I fell short. Sometimes this kept me from jumping into things where I wasn’t sure I could be “perfect.” While my faith teaches me to pursue “excellence in all things,” the truth is that can be inhibiting. At my age and stage, I now embrace the idea of being more fearless and accepting that some things we‘ll try and possibly see failure, or certainly miss the mark of perfection. Now I delight in trying things where I’m not sure I can be great, and life is much richer for it. It’s a hard thing to embrace when you are just getting started, but for what it’s worth, I wish I had embraced this way of living much earlier.

About Jean Case

Jean Case, Chairman of National Geographic and CEO of the Case Impact Network, is a businesswoman, investor, philanthropist and impact investing pioneer who believes in the power of business to do good, advocating for the embrace of a Be Fearless approach to innovate and bring about transformational breakthroughs. Her career in the private sector, including as a senior executive at AOL, spanned nearly two decades before co-founding the Case Foundation in 1997.

Jean founded the Case Impact Network in 2020 to usher in a new era of more inclusive capitalism and launched For What It’s Worth (FWIW) in 2021 creating the go-to source for new investors looking to confidently invest for both profit and purpose. Jean, who serves on the boards of National Geographic Partners and the White House Historical Association among others, authored the national bestseller Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Bre Kingsbury

Bre Kingsbury, from Virginia Beach, VA, stays involved in the community dedicating her time and talents to especially military-related causes. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Bre shares about Gold Star Families, her role with the Navy League of Hampton Roads as well as her abundant efforts with Wreaths Across America and National Wreaths Across America Day.

For those who might not know, please explain what a “Gold Star Family” is.

“Gold Star Family” refers to someone who has lost a family in defense of our country. For example, if you see the term "Gold Star Spouse," that means the person’s spouse died in the line of duty protecting our country.

Tell us more about your role with the Navy League of Hampton Roads.

I am the vice president of development. The Navy League is a nonprofit organization that works with the Sea Services – the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. We work tirelessly on behalf of our active-duty service members and their families.

Can you share about Wreaths Across America and your efforts to lay wreaths at the graves at Arlington National Cemetery?

Wreaths Across America is a nonprofit organization that places wreaths at the graves of our fallen military heroes at Arlington National Cemetery and at 3,100 other cemeteries throughout the country. I created my own volunteer sponsorship group, Team Bear, back in 2013. I am proud to say we have hundreds of volunteers across the country and have raised more than $1.1 million dollars for wreaths for our fallen heroes.

How can Virginians get involved?

This year's National Wreaths Across America Day is Saturday, December 16th, 2023. If anyone would like to volunteer, they can sign up and find their nearest location by visiting They can also follow my team, Team Bear, on social media (@teambearusa). We would be honored to have you join us at Arlington National Cemetery this December.

This Memorial Day, how would you encourage Virginians to interact with their veteran or Gold Star neighbors or friends?

Memorial Day is a special holiday to me and my friends. I have lost 50 friends to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, in training accidents and from service-connected illnesses, so Memorial Day is a humbling day to me. For anyone who is in the Hampton Roads area, I highly encourage you to join us for the Run to Remember in Virginia Beach on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29, 2023. This race was created by a group of Navy SEAL Gold Star Wives as a way to honor their late husbands. You can find out more information here: No matter what you do on Memorial Day, I encourage you to please take a moment to remember our fallen military heroes and the families they left behind. Memorial Day is one day our country sets aside to honor and remember those who gave their lives so we may be free. Please join me in remembering all of our nation's heroes who left their families so ours may know freedom. May we all live a life worthy of their sacrifice. Have a grateful Memorial Day!

About Bre Kingsbury

Bre has a diverse and extensive background in politics, spanning nearly two decades. She has worked in the U.S. Senate on Capitol Hill and has served various Members of Congress, gaining valuable experience in the political arena. Her expertise and contributions have been instrumental in numerous local, state, and federal campaigns in Kentucky, California, and Virginia.

Apart from her political pursuits, Bre has also made a significant impact in the non-profit sector, particularly in corporate fundraising. She has played a crucial role in raising funds for esteemed organizations such as VETS: Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, Navy League of Hampton Roads, the SEAL Family Foundation, and Wreaths Across America. Her dedication and commitment to these causes have earned her opportunities to appear on Fox News, where she advocates for the welfare of Gold Star Families, active-duty military personnel, and the veteran community.

Currently residing in Virginia Beach, VA, Bre devotes her time to volunteering with various community organizations and non-profits that support military-related causes. Her passion for making a positive impact continues to drive her efforts in support of the causes she deeply cares about.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Angie Grant

Angie Grant is a foster and adoptive parent and a dedicated advocate for foster kids and families. She and her husband serve in many areas, including on staff at Cloverhill Church in Midlothian, VA. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Angie shares lessons from her own experience fostering, advice for moms who are involved in or considering fostering and resources for Virginians along the way. 

What led you and your husband to pursue adoption?

We did not set out on our journey with foster care to adopt. Honestly, we didn’t really know what we were doing! Our desire was to open our home to vulnerable kids, come alongside biological families and assist them in reunification. Our adoption story unfolded when reunification wasn’t going to happen. Our little guy needed a forever family. We became that family – we were that family. There is rarely a day that I don’t think about the loss he has incurred. There is also rarely a year that I don’t think about his biological mom and grieve for all she’s missed, yet so thankful she chose life!

What is one of the most important things you’ve learned from fostering?

I have learned so much! It’s hard to choose just one thing.

Someone once shared with me that deep work requires deep rest. The work that goes into fostering kids from hard places is one of the most taxing jobs you’ll ever have. There are so many twists and turns both emotionally and relationally. Navigating your “new normal” can be isolating and even fearful. Doing life in community is key and asking for help is necessary. Foster parents that have community and wrap-around support stay in the game longer. Statistics tell us that most foster parents have one placement and then they’re done – I think largely in part to not having community in place and not taking time to rest and refuel. Having these things in place before you say YES to that very first placement will serve you well!

In light of Foster Care Awareness Month, what would you say to another mother who is questioning her ability to foster a child?

I would tell her to learn all she could! I would encourage her to attend a local support group with other foster and adoptive families or attend an interest meeting at a local agency and listen to others’ experiences. If she were married with kids already, I would ask how that is going? If there are already struggles at home, foster care will not make those rough spots better – it actually has the potential of making the rough spots rougher. I would also say to her that impacting the life of a child is an amazing adventure – impacting an entire family is more than amazing. Both can happen, simultaneously.

What resources are available to help foster parents and families?

So many fabulous resources exist! A few of my favorites are Empowered to Connect (both website and podcast) and Robyn Gobbel (both website and podcast). Also, there’s a Facebook group called Adoption Connection – lots of great stuff there. Book resources that I have read multiple times are The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis, The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Local resources include Virginia’s Kids Belong – lots of great ways to jump in and be involved in the space of foster care and adoption.

What are a few things you’d like Virginians to know about trauma training?

Trauma training is essential in the world we live in. As a Cultivate Connection Facilitator, I have learned that there are levels or stages as to what “Trauma Training” can be: 1) We can be trauma aware – meaning we can become aware of the need for trauma-informed care. 2) We can be trauma sensitive – meaning we can grow in knowledge and skills while exploring the principles of trauma-informed care and how trauma impacts children and families. 3) We can be trauma responsive, meaning we implement trauma-informed principles and practices individually and organizationally, and 4) become trauma informed, meaning fully integrate trauma-informed principles and practices into the culture of a family and/organization.

In summary, we increase awareness, introduce knowledge and skills (which we are getting better at!), implement change and then integrate practices. If Virginia became trauma informed – meaning our schools, our homes, our churches and our places of employment – healing would be expedited in the lives of those affected by trauma. As Virginians, let’s see where we are personally in these stages and move forward!

About Angie Grant

Angie’s greatest joys are her family – she is Mom to 4 and Lolli to 4 grandbabies.

She has a degree in Child and Family Studies and is currently on staff at Cloverhill Church, where she and her husband have led for the past 26 years. She serves as the Executive Director of Cloverhill Christian Academy located in Midlothian, VA.  She is an advocate for foster kids and families as an Advocate for The Forgotten Initiative, as well as a Cultivate Connection Facilitator in her community and beyond. She serves on the Families First Board as well as the Chesterfield County-Colonial Heights Department of Social Services Board.

She finds great joy in sharing practical tools that promote healing. As a foster and adoptive parent herself, she understands the challenges that families face on a daily basis. She shares firsthand her own experiences with the desire to bring hope and encouragement to families serving vulnerable kids.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Shannon-Doyle, Spotlight
Shannon Doyle

Shannon Doyle is a tireless advocate for fentanyl awareness and solutions to address the horrors of fentanyl poisoning. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her advocacy work; her daughter, Makayla, whose memory inspires this work; and advice and resources for Virginia Women+girls (W+g).

On Fentanyl Awareness Day, we raise awareness about the horrors of fentanyl poisoning. Can you share about your ongoing efforts to speak out about fentanyl?

In April 2022, my sister and I started a 501(c)3 non-profit, Makayla Cherie Foundation, Inc., in hopes of bringing awareness and education to the community on the dangers of opioids, including but not limited to fentanyl. I also started a petition online to change the age for minor medical rights, specifically minors’ ability to refuse treatment for mental health and substance abuse, which currently starts at age 14. I worked with Delegate Anne Tata on these efforts, and she presented this to the 2022 General Assembly. The bill was voted to be sent to two review boards to be further looked into, and I continue to work with her on getting this changed. Additionally, I’ve partnered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a school board member, a licensed substance abuse and mental health therapist and a recovering addict to provide opioid and fentanyl education presentations at schools. We’re hoping to increase the number of schools that we’re able to present to in the next year.

Through the Makayla Cherie Foundation, in early 2023 about 10 billboards ran the DEA’s One Pill Can Kill campaign, featuring loved ones lost to fentanyl poisoning throughout Hampton Roads for about 12 weeks. Additionally through the foundation, we have secured a vendor table at the Water Lantern Festival, held at Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach on August 5th, where we will have fentanyl awareness banners displayed, informational handouts, Narcan and many other items to educate the community. My ultimate vision for the foundation is to be able to open a substance use rehabilitation center that works with teens. Finding a place where teens can get help is extremely difficult and needed.

I have additional plans throughout 2023 to work with mothers, families, nonprofits and elected leaders to continue to build awareness and discuss what needs to be done to address this terrible epidemic.

Can you tell us about your family and Makayla?

At the age of three, Makayla started gymnastics, which she continued to do throughout her life, mixing in cheerleading, volleyball and work. She never wanted anyone to be sad or upset and would always try to make them feel better. Makayla made friends with anyone and everyone she came across. She had a huge heart and was outgoing, energetic, silly and smart – as well as outspoken, argumentative and stubborn. All these qualities are what made Makayla the great person she was.

Makayla also had a love for animals. When she was younger, she used to get so upset that the dogs or cats wouldn’t stay in her room and sleep with her.  She wanted another dog, so that she could train it to stay her in room with her. And she did just that with her two husky puppies – even if it meant she chased them around the house until she could grab them and carry them up to her room. She was also insistent on having a hamster.

Makayla had huge dreams. When she was little, she wanted to be an Olympic Gold Medalist.  She wanted me to pull her out of school and homeschool her, so she had more time to practice in the gym. As she got older, she decided she wanted to be in the legal field. She told me she wanted to do what I do. But I told her to do better than me. With me having a bachelor of science in criminal justice, the topic of crimes, drugs and the dangers in the world were not unspoken in my house. I imagine because of this, she wanted to go to UVA and become a lawyer.

Can you share about what happened in January 2022?

During the summer of 2021, Makayla got her first job, at age 15, and that was the beginning of the end. She met someone she completely and utterly trusted, as most teenagers do. And as with most teenagers, thought she was invincible. She was introduced to Percocet or Xanax, and at some point between August and December of that year, decided to try it.

I discovered text messages on Makayla’s phone, and Makayla confessed to having tried the pills a couple times, but that was it. Knowing that these drugs are highly addictive, and more times than not laced, and that no teenager is going to fully admit how much or often they have done drugs, I immediately wanted to get her into some type of program.

In Virginia, and probably most states, minors have medical legal rights at age 14. This means that a parent or guardian cannot force their child or minor, whom they are legally caring for, to attend any type of treatment program, counseling, etc. And because teenagers think they are invincible, they are not going to agree to go to any program.

Our relationship became rockier, and I had to try to rebuild our relationship, while continuing to monitor and protect her.

In January 2022, things were getting much better. Makayla had passed a drug test in December and showed no signs of any use. On January 20, she saw the trusted friend, which out of compromise I allowed. The visit lasted maybe an hour. On January 21, school closed for a snowstorm. We ate dinner and watched a movie that night. It was early, and she kept dozing off and couldn’t seem to stay awake. I decided I would go get a drug test from the store as soon as it opened the next day at 6 a.m. When I came back, I went to Makayla’s room to wake her up so that I could test her. That’s when my life changed forever.

Makayla’s toxicology report shows that she had 0.026 mg per liters of fentanyl in her system.  NO OTHER DRUGS WERE FOUND. My barely 16-year-old daughter, who lost her life, was poisoned by fentanyl.

The mission now is to make adults and children aware of the dangers of drugs, but specifically making them aware, educating them and hopefully preventing them from ingesting drugs, and drugs laced with fentanyl. It only takes one time.

What can parents watch for to identify risks associated with fentanyl poisoning?

The biggest thing parents can do is talk with their children about fentanyl, and other drugs, and the dangers and risks that revolve around them. I had no idea about fentanyl prior to Makayla’s death. I knew opioids were highly addictive, and so my concern was focused on trying to make sure that she hadn’t and didn’t become addicted. I didn’t even know people were making these pills; I knew people would illegally sell legitimate prescription pills, but not that people were making them at home, in garages, etc.

Also, be highly aware of what your children are doing on social media platforms and whom they are in contact with. I monitored Makayla’s activity, but I didn’t read her messages on a regular basis because I had no reason to. She was always a good kid and made good choices. Her friends were always at the house and made good choices. Even the one friend who introduced her to this came over a lot and was respectful, but apparently had drug issues, which I never saw any signs of.

Above all, never say, “Not my child, not my family.” This affects everyone, in one way or another – whether directly due to use and/or addiction, experimentation or by association of knowing someone else who is affected.

How are you healing, and do you have any resources to share with Virginia’s Women+girls (W+g)?

I don’t know if healing is how I would describe it. While I know in my head that my daughter is gone, my heart doesn’t accept it. I still look in her room every day when I wake up and every night before I go to bed. But I can’t be in her room. Some days are fine, and other days are more difficult. I just stay as busy as I can with work, the house, the dogs and the foundation.

As for resources, there are several on the foundation website, There are tons of groups on Facebook and Instagram, including the foundation, specific to fentanyl, substance abuse, awareness and mental health that are a wealth of knowledge and help. Connecting with others that have also experienced this has been extremely helpful, and I have forged new friendships with many. Even if you haven’t or are not currently experiencing drug related issues within your family, knowledge is power, and getting to know those who have experienced it will help you be more informed. Don’t be afraid to speak out, if someone you know is having an issue. If just one of Makayla’s friends had spoken out, I would have been aware sooner, and that might have allowed me the additional time to get her help.

View the First Lady’s Resources page for additional information.

About Shannon Doyle

Shannon Doyle was raised in Virginia Beach, VA and graduated from Ocean Lakes High School, where her daughter, Makayla, also attended. Shannon is a lover of all animals, especially huskies, and a fighter for fentanyl awareness and change. She seeks to honor Makayla in any way she can along the way. She is a proud and dedicated mom and aunt to her nephews, as well as her adopted nieces, nephews and children through Makayla’s longtime friends that have become family.

Sisterhood Spotlight

sisterhood-profile Bershan-Shaw
Bershan Shaw
Motivational speaker, coach and women’s advocate

Bershan Shaw is a two-time breast cancer survivor who is dedicated to advocating for mental Wellbeing. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her health journey, lessons on mental health and her latest venture creating a new mental wellbeing app.

We are thrilled to feature you this Women & Girls Wellness Month. Can you tell us a little bit about your overall health journey and the challenges you have overcome?

My overall health journey has been a long road of learning, growing and being my best self. I was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in 2007, and in 2009 it became stage four terminal breast cancer. The cancer had metastasized. Doctors gave me three months to live. I was too embarrassed to speak about my cancer the first time, but the second time I had to make a choice: To get busy living or dying.

I chose to live, so I went on a journey of healing. I changed my diet, started to exercise daily, I had a meditation regiment and I did affirmations and manifestations daily. I decided to really thrive. I went to chemo on a faux fur, red pumps and red lipstick. I was going to dress up daily and show up. I was going to live. I asked myself a bigger question. What is the big cancer that’s holding me back from greatness? It was fear. I was not going to let fear hold me back. It was affecting my mental health, anxiety, doubt and depression. So I wrote a book: URAWARRIOR: 365 Ways to Challenge You to a Better Life. I started to challenge myself daily, and that was the day I thought about birthing my mental health app, URAWarrior.

You’re a two-time breast cancer survivor. What would you like to share with Virginia women and girls from your experience battling breast cancer?

I want to share to love yourself. Don’t let social media define you or define how you look and feel. You are special. Stop comparing yourself to other people. We kill our spirit as beautiful girls and women by being defined by what other people think. Be proud of who you are. Be happy about your accomplishments. Believe in yourself. And never, ever, ever give up. Own your power because you are a warrior!

What resources helped you along the way that you would recommend to other Virginia women?

I read a lot of magazines and books. I read Women’s Health. I went to Susan G. Komen’s resources page. I read InStyle Magazine. I wrote my book URAWARRIOR: 365 Ways to Challenge You to a Better Life. I read the Bible. I read and did everything positive to put my mind into a positive space. I read nothing but self-help books to change my attitude and mindset.

What did you learn about mental health through your experience?

I learned that “it’s okay to not be okay.” I learned that so many women and young girls are going through grief, loss, depression, anxiety, doubt and addiction. I learned that so many people struggle with mental health and are too embarrassed to speak up and stand up about it for backlash, and it’s time to start the movement to help “remove the stigma.” That’s why I created for a safe space to share, learn, motivate and get empowered.

Mental health is real, and childhood trauma is real. Killings and crime are up. The world needs to heal and get better, but we as leaders must do the work in helping make it possible.

You just started a new app on mental wellness! What led to this venture, what resources does the app provide and how can people access it?

What led to this app was that I was looking for a safe space that was positive and uplifting online. I knew the world needed a space where young people could share and not feel shamed. I wanted a community of support and hope. And so I built one. I self-funded this app by myself because my brother and my mother are no longer here, and this is a tribute to them – Bernice and Jerro are my warriors. To learn more, visit

About Bershan Shaw

Fourteen years ago, Bershan Shaw was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and given 3 months to live. Now, 14 years later, Bershan is disease-free and has committed her life to empowering women, men, executives, entrepreneurs, politicians and global leaders to find their inner warrior in their career and life and to ‘Step into their Greatness.’ She has appeared on countless TV shows and networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, OWN, News Talk Live, Good Day NY, Fox, Arise, TVOne, News 11 and more.

Nicknamed “The Warrior Coach,” Bershan is a sought-after international motivational speaker, business coach, women’s advocate and author and uses her leadership skills to bring a no-nonsense approach to motivate others. Bershan founded Warrior Training International (WTI) to help individuals and corporations reach their full potential. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bershan realized there was a need for a community to speak, support and empower each other by using their phones. People were depressed, stressed and tired, so she decided to birth a mental health app called URAWarrior, “where UR not alone & you don’t have to suffer in silence.” URAWarrior will provide four pillars to heal the individual: personal development, self-improvement, motivation and support.

Bershan is an industry pioneer in transformational coaching, executive leadership training and diversity & inclusion implementation. She and her team coach execs in technology, consumer products, emotional intelligence and unconscious bias.

Most recently, she can be seen on the Real Housewives of NYC as a Life Coach. Bershan has garnered numerous awards, including the 2017 Woman Whole Life Achievement Award, Business & Leadership of Excellence from Woman Economic Forum and the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award for National and Community Service from the President of the United States. She is a graduate of New York University with a Master’s degree in journalism and business and also earned a certificate there in leadership and executive coaching.

Sisterhood Spotlight

sisterhood-profile Cherry Dale
Cherry Dale
Vice President of Financial Education, Virginia Credit Union

Cherry Dale is a career educator and the vice president of financial education at Virginia Credit Union, a financial cooperative that provides financial education and resources to Virginia communities. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Cherry shares about what led her to financial education, advice for women and girls interested in the field and helpful financial resources for women.

What led you from being a teacher to a career in financial education?

In 2007, I was in my eighth year of teaching kindergarten for Henrico Schools. Having finished my graduate degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia, I started to ask myself what was next for my career. That’s when I came across a new role open at Virginia Credit Union (VACU) focused on financial education in the community. The credit union’s mission of people helping people through financial education and products was very appealing to me. VACU was looking for an educator and loved the idea of hiring a certified teacher to spearhead their community financial education programs. Fast-forward 15 years and we now have five full-time educators who reached over 90,000 people with financial education programs in 2022.

What are the top trends you are seeing in financial wellness and literacy?

COVID-19 was a game changer for many when it came to finances. Some consumers were actually able to save more because of some government subsidiaries. However, many people were left financially struggling and vulnerable. As we enter into a time of financial uncertainty, I think it’s crucial for financial institutions, community organizations, schools and universities to come together and provide products and financial education for people in all stages of their financial journey. Through the data we have gathered, we know that women tend to be more vulnerable when it comes to their overall financial health. We don’t want to see this trend continue. That is why it is important to provide financial information for women in all walks of life. Data is important, and we now have tools that can help measure financial health, which will help practitioners provide better educational materials targeted to individual needs.

What would you say to women and girls looking to enter the field of financial education?

“Hey, are you that credit union lady who taught me about money?” I love hearing this when I go out in the community. Educating people is my passion. Yes, the field of education has its challenges, but the impact that one makes is truly immeasurable. I had the full-circle moment when I was teaching Finance 250, a college class, and one of my students the first day of the semester said, “You taught me in kindergarten, I loved your class.” Every interaction a teacher has is another opportunity to impact and empower someone else. We need educators in every field now more than ever. If teaching in a school system is not for you, perhaps educating in another industry would be a good option. I love teaching personal finance for the credit union. I get to do what I love every day and, hopefully, help people along the way.

Where should Virginians go for more information and tell us a bit about Virginia Credit Union’s offerings?

VACU is a financial cooperative where every member is also an owner. Earnings are returned to members through a broad range of convenient services, attractive rates, lower fees and resources that help people feel more confident about their finances. You can learn about becoming a member here. Our Financial Success Educators bring their expertise to our Virginia schools, businesses, libraries and more. Meet the educators and learn more about how to request a visit for your group here. To explore digital resources we designed specifically for women, visit our Financial Success for Women series here.

About Cherry Dale

Cherry Dale joined Virginia Credit Union (VACU) as Director of Financial Education in 2007 and was promoted to VP of Financial Education in 2021. She holds a Master’s degree in Education Instruction and Curriculum from the University of Virginia. Cherry and her team of four full-time financial educators carry out the credit union’s mission of sharing financial knowledge and guidance through partnerships with schools, businesses and community organizations. Together, they provide hundreds of hours of instruction about savings, budgeting and managing debt to people of all ages. VACU engaged with approximately 90,000 people of all ages through online financial education content and in-person events in 2022. VACU is recognized as a Financial Health Leader by the National Health Network, and Cherry serves on a national panel to help guide best practices for financial health in the financial services industry. Cherry was also awarded the Eugene H. Farley Jr. Award of Excellence for her contributions to the credit union movement. 

Sisterhood Spotlight

Jill Cichowicz,2 End The Stigma
Jill Cichowicz
Creator and Founder, 2 End The Stigma and A Night For Scott

Jill Cichowicz started nonprofit 2 End The Stigma and annual fundraiser A Night For Scott to benefit people battling substance use disorders (SUDs). In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her twin brother, Scott, whose memory inspires this work, resources for Virginia families and her journey founding and leading her nonprofit.

On the heels of Women’s History Month, excited to feature a woman nonprofit leader who is so personally led to make a difference. Can you share a little bit about what your nonprofit does?

It’s an honor to be featured in your Sisterhood Spotlight as a woman nonprofit leader, especially after just celebrating Women’s History Month in March! I was humbled to receive an award from the Richmond Times-Dispatch as one of the 12 “Women Who Drive Richmond” for being a leader and innovator at the forefront of my field.

To be honest, starting my nonprofit, 2 End The Stigma, was never on my radar! I was an Army wife for many years and a stay-at-home mom with my two boys, Carter and Christian, as my husband, Marc, would deploy often for 12-18 months at a time. I relished in the fact that I was able to be so present in their early years, but I was mainly the sole parent and had to be the jack of all trades. This required me to be structured, strong, energetic, independent and “hold the fort down.”

I had the idea to start a scholarship fund to help those struggling with addiction to receive the help they so desperately deserved after devastatingly losing my twin brother to fentanyl poisoning. I was so grief stricken that I just started blurting things out and said I wanted to do a fundraiser and call it “A Night For Scott.” It took off from there!

2 End The Stigma works to educate about addiction recovery and connect individuals and families to resources and community programming. After a few years of success, I had this epiphany that I wanted to work with adolescents in early education and prevention. I am really excited as our 2 End the Stigma (2ETS) team is starting to work more with adolescents and young students at The Chesterfield Recovery Academy and VCU Rams in Recovery setting up scholarships at both to continue to support our community. Most recently, we branded our 2ETS Emotion Wheel and are starting to talk more with the students about coping mechanisms and ways to verbalize their feelings in the hopes of avoiding substance abuse.

Tell us about your family and your brother, Scott.

I grew up in a very loving and strong household. My Father was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, and we moved around often. I’m the baby of five kids, although technically not the baby, as I have a twin brother, Scott, who was born 5 minutes before me. I have fond memories of family dinners, mass every Sunday, summer vacations to Puerto Rico, annual Christmas trips to Ohio to visit family in our station wagon – it was the 80’s – and so many more wonderful memories as a child. You could say we had the “Beaver Cleaver” family, and I always felt so blessed.

Scott and I had a close bond, one that was unbreakable, and he always protected me. I used to be shy, and he looked out for me always. He was always a little goofy growing up, loved to tell everyone we were twins! In high school, he grew into a handsome young man, catching the eye of a lovely foreign exchange student from Brazil. They had a deep connection until she was tragically killed in a car accident. Scott never recovered from this and turned to marijuana as a coping mechanism to numb the pain. I firmly believe this trauma led him down the path he took.

Many years later, Scott was running gyms in Manhattan Beach, CA and suffered a back injury while working. He was put on OxyContin through workers’ compensation, and this woke the beast like we had never seen. It completely destroyed Scott. We didn’t realize it, but Scott was being overprescribed by many doctors and was consistently taking OxyContin daily for three years! When a pharmacy realized this, he cut the prescriptions off, and Scott desperately turned to a “friend” taking what he thought was OxyContin. Scott didn’t know it, but the pill was laced with a lethal amount of fentanyl, and he died in a Starbucks parking lot grabbing a cup of coffee while onlookers watched him struggle for 20 minutes.

It took us six months to have a funeral for Scott. We didn’t know what to do as our family was on autopilot trying to navigate this, and we wanted to lay him to rest properly. After the funeral, I woke up the next day devastated… What was next? I couldn’t let this wonderful man who meant everything to me leave a legacy behind that he died from drugs. He was so much MORE than that! He visited me at every duty station while my husband was deployed because he was worried I would be scared at night with the boys alone; he sent me Mother’s Day flowers; we talked or texted every single day; he donated much of his time to homeless shelters and was a devout Catholic. He was GOOD, his heart was HUGE, and I wasn’t going to let anyone forget that.

I made a vow to Scott that I will do this forever if he stays on this journey with me, and I am 100% certain he is driving this train. The “2” in 2 End The Stigma reflects how we are making an impact together: two hearts beating as one.

What should all Virginians know about fentanyl poisoning, and how can Virginia Women+girls (W+g) come alongside this cause?

When Scott died, I had never heard of fentanyl. No one believed that he could have died from JUST ONE PILL – and now you hear it so often that people are almost desensitized by it. We have a real problem on our hands with the opioid crisis, particularly with fentanyl poisoning, as the overdose numbers continue to rise and have become the leading cause of death in Americans aged 18-45, according to the CDC. “Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram quoted. I truly feel it’s critical that we come together to make the change Virginians so desperately need, through more education programs for our youth, same day services for those struggling and making more resources available.

From your family’s experience, what has been helpful in your grief and work to build awareness, and what resources should people know about?

Raising awareness on the disease of addiction, and in particular fentanyl poisoning, has been a great way to cope with my grief. I feel that even if one life is saved due to our efforts, then it’s all worth it. Scott always told us to never be afraid to share his story if something happened to him… and that is exactly what we are doing in order to normalize the need for help. All For Scott yesterday, All For Scott today and All For Scott always.

My family and 2ETS Team has made it our priority to make resources available through our website ( as well as our 2ETS Community Day that we host annually. It’s free to come out to get more information about organizations and resources in the area, as well as hear from experts to educate our community. I am a firm believer that power is in numbers and partnerships are essential, and we love having volunteers join us at all of our events!

As a nonprofit entrepreneur and leader, what is one of the biggest challenges you have faced?

I am lucky to have had a lot of support and success. I always want to be taken seriously, but I have a personable side too, and I think that’s very important when storytelling. I will say that sometimes I am conflicted running this organization as a business; my head will say one thing, but my heart says another. I am very intuitive and follow my gut, as it usually points me in the right direction, but I am blessed to have a strong team that is just as passionate and invested in our mission as I am. I am met with some resistance when it comes to speaking with kids at schools. Not all schools are as receptive as I would like, which is a challenge I will continue to work on.

About Jill Cichowicz

Jill Cichowicz, Creator and Founder of the nonprofit 2 End The Stigma and A Night For Scott Fundraiser, was born in Virginia but moved around quite a bit due to her father being an Army Pilot. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Public Relations with a minor in Marketing from Virginia Commonwealth University, then moved to Fort Bragg to become the “perfect Army wife” serving as FRG Leader and volunteering countless hours at each Post she moved to with her husband, Marc, and two energetic boys, Carter and Christian. They retired after serving 25 years and five long deployments, and moving back to Richmond was important to be around Jill’s family once again. 

After losing her twin brother, Scott Zebrowski, to fentanyl poisoning on February 28, 2017, she created her annual fundraiser to benefit those struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) and ending the stigma associated with the disease of addiction to normalize the need for help. Her fundraiser has been voted The Best Charity Event in Richmond (2019, 2020) and first runner-up (2021, 2022). Due to that success, she began 2ETS Community Day as well as the annual Fairways For Scott golf tournament.

Jill does national public speaking on addiction, has written for blogs and podcasts and partners with local recovery organizations such as Rams in Recovery, Chesterfield Recovery Academy, CARITAS and Real Life Community Center. She also volunteers at local food banks in addition to serving on multiple boards in her community. Most recently, Jill was honored as one of the “12 Women Who Drive Richmond” for her “tireless efforts to bring hope, light, and awareness to one of the most important causes of all time.”

She continues to advocate for those voices no longer heard and for those battling today as a way of channeling her grief in honor of her twin brother that she loved so much, to include working with Governor Glenn Youngkin and First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin. In her down time, she loves spending time with her boys and hoping that her work will make an impact on them. She is blessed with so much support from her doting husband and community.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Brenda-Solomon, Co-founder, Jill’s House
Brenda Solomon
Co-founder, Jill’s House

Brenda Solomon is the co-founder of Jill’s House, a nonprofit organization that provides short-term, overnight respite care and holistic family support services to families with children with intellectual disabilities. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her family and her daughter Jill, advice for families with children with intellectual disabilities and her journey as a nonprofit co-founder and leader.

Can you share about your family and your daughter, Jill?

My husband, Lon, and I are the parents of four children: James, Justin, John and Jill. We have eight grandchildren. Jill was born in 1992 with a genetic disorder called Dravet Syndrome and has profound intellectual and physical disabilities.

How did you learn of Jill’s diagnosis with Dravet Syndrome?

My family went from a mountaintop of joy and excitement when Jill was born to the lowest valley in a matter of three months, which is when Jill had her first seizure. She would seize all the time. We couldn’t sleep through the night; we had 911 calls, hospital stays and desperate searches to find any medication to make these seizures stop. A constant state of emergency marked the life of our family for many years.

Jill was 17 when she was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, which causes a catastrophic form of epilepsy. Our local neurologist had gone to a medical conference and met Dr. Dravet. I think that's how he learned about the syndrome. I was happy to get a diagnosis, but it’s not a good diagnosis to get. You're never going to cure it. The most you can do is semi-control it. Jill is ambulatory, she’s nonverbal, and she functions like a 24-month-old. She needs someone to care for her 24/7, and she always will.

What would you say to other Virginia families who are caring for children with intellectual disabilities?

I would personally say, “Get in community. Don’t live in isolation.” I think that’s what we’ve tried to create at Jill’s House—we’ve tried to build a community for the parents, not just the child. It’s easy to live in isolation but there’s a lot of resources in Virginia, and when you get in community with other parents, you learn what’s out there that you didn’t know about.

I’d also encourage families—regardless of their faith background is—to make sure the place of worship you choose to attend embraces children with disabilities and see them as gifts from God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. The whole family will need that encouragement and support.

What is Jill’s House?

Jill's House is a nonprofit organization that loves and serves families of children, adolescents and young adults (ages 6-22) with profound intellectual disabilities through short-term, overnight respite care and holistic family support services. Regularly throughout the year, parents send their children with disabilities to our "respite resort" in Vienna, VA, or to one of our camp locations around the country (Middleburg, VA; Chicago, IL; Nashville, TN; Seattle, WA, and northern New Jersey…with more to come!) for 24-48 hour stays. The kids get an amazing experience in a safe, fun, loving, and celebratory environment.

Meanwhile, their parents get a break. They get to sleep through the night. They get to go on a date. They get to give undivided attention to their other children. Most families take these things for granted. But for Jill's House families, these are rare and precious gifts—they're a lifeline.

We seek to love the whole family (i.e. mom, dad, kids with disabilities, and typical siblings). We do this in simple ways (e.g. gathering for a meal, book clubs, social outings, etc.) and in more "formal" ways (e.g. retreats for the whole family, retreats for moms, retreats specifically for single moms, retreats for dads, support groups, workshops for typical siblings, etc.).

At Jill's House, all families are welcome. As long as someone's child has an intellectual disability and can safely stay at Jill's House, they will be unconditionally welcomed, loved and served.

Here are a few videos that will provide a taste of the families Jill’s House serves, who Jill’s House is and what Jill’s House does.

Jill's House | Together - YouTube

The Gift of Rest - YouTube

Unwavering Strength - In Memory of Nick - YouTube

What led to the founding of Jill’s House, and what has that journey been like for your family?

About two years into Jill’s life, Jill was having one of her many seizures, and I was on the ground with her in a puddle of tears. I cried out, “Lord, don’t waste this pain. I only ask that you use Jill’s life in a mighty way.” I didn’t know what to do. Later that same day, something happened to me that had never happened to me before. This lady named Mary Doremus called out of nowhere and she said, “I don’t know why I’m calling you, but God told me to call you.” She formed a group of people around us who helped us get occasional caregivers to let us get a good night’s sleep or do something with our boys.

That was my start in learning about respite. I didn’t know how crucial rest was until I was deprived of it. Respite made a huge difference in our lives, and that is what laid the foundation for Jill’s House. We felt God calling us to do something big for other families raising kids with disabilities. We didn’t know exactly what that “big” thing was going to be, but that was the beginning of what has become Jill’s House.

Jill’s House was incorporated in 2003 and we opened our doors in 2010. It took years of believing and trusting. How would people ever understand the vision of a place like Jill’s House unless they were raising a child with disabilities? How would we get a respite center building through the zoning commission? How would we get the money to build and maintain a facility like Jill’s House? There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into making it happen.

One thing that most people don’t know is that Jill herself has never stayed at Jill’s House. We built it not to bless our own family, but as a love gift to other families. And when we built it, I always kept in mind that I wanted it to be a place that I would love to send my own children. I wanted it to be the best. I wanted them to have an indoor pool, a gym, a computer room, the best medical attention, the best caregivers. I wanted parents to know that we were going to cherish their child.

This video tells the story of the founding of Jill’s House: The Story of Jill's House - YouTube

How have you found balance and encouragement in your life as mother to Jill and co-founder and board member of a nonprofit organization?

Mary Doremus gave me hope that rest could make a difference. Mary was helping me, saying, “Jill has a purpose, you have caregivers now—use this to help other people just like yourself.” That gave me hope and energy to keep working. I get encouragement from hearing the stories of the families who are benefiting from respite at Jill’s House and knowing that Jill’s life has made a difference in this way. It was a calling and a passion and that's why I kept going.

What resources would you direct other families with children with intellectual disabilities to for support, from your own experience?

Sign up for any waivers in the state of Virginia to help you get respite hours. There are many services through these waivers that many parents don’t know about. Every child with a disability should have a caseworker, so ask your caseworker about waivers and other resources. Get your name on that list. It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s worth it. A good place to start is by connecting with your local Community Services Board. They can point you in the right direction.

I’d also encourage anyone to check out and see if this is a place that would work for your child. Look into Access Ministries at McLean Bible Church or get connected to another place of worship that will welcome you and your child.

About Brenda Solomon

Brenda Solomon is the co-founder of Jill’s House, a Christian nonprofit organization that loves and serves families of children, adolescents, and young adults by providing them with overnight respite care and holistic family support services. Brenda grew up in Hagerstown, Md., and attended Washington Bible College in Lanham, Md., where she met her husband, Lon. After she graduated with a degree in elementary education, they married. Lon and Brenda moved to Northern Virginia when Lon became the pastor of McLean Bible Church in 1981. While there, she and her husband founded Access Ministries to make their church more welcoming to people with disabilities and their families. She continues to serve as a Board Member Emeritus of Jill’s House. Brenda and Lon have four children—James, Justin, John and Jill—and eight grandchildren.


Sisterhood Spotlight

Christy-Huffman-Kerr, Teacher and Agriculture Education Advocate
Christy Huffman Kerr with retired agriculture teacher Henry Paris. In the summer of 2022, retired agriculture teacher Sally Shomo of Augusta County made a barn quilt to honor Agriculture Educators. At the 2022 Ag Teacher's Conference in Warrenton, VA, the barn quilt was auctioned off and Mr. Henry Paris was the winner. All proceeds go to the Virginia FFA Foundation.
Christy Huffman Kerr
Teacher and Agriculture Education Advocate

Christy Huffman Kerr is a past Virginia FFA State Officer and advocates for Agriculture Education and her students at Fort Defiance High School in the Shenandoah Valley. The National FFA Organization – Future Farmers of America – is an agricultural education institution that prepares youth for leadership and careers in agriculture. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Christy shares about her experience as an educator, about Virginia FFA, advice for young women entering the field of Agriculture Education and more.

What led to your decision to become an educator?

Throughout my education years, I thoroughly enjoyed learning and the school environment. In addition, I had so many wonderful teachers and school experiences that I knew I wanted to be in the classroom. Then in 2004, when I was selected to be the Virginia State FFA Vice President and served a year traveling to schools across the Commonwealth visiting schools and FFA members – that solidified my choice of education as my future career!

What to you is an exciting opportunity in education right now?

In the past, present and future, I believe the most exciting opportunity is making a difference in the lives of my students. Whether it is encouraging them to participate in an activity that might be out of their comfort zone, seeing them learn and have fun in the classroom and laboratory or listening to them on what is happening in their lives, teachers play a critical role in exerting a positive influence on students and helping them become contributing citizens to our society.

What would you say to young women who are considering entering your field?

Agriculture Education is an exciting field to enter as no two days are the same! From teaching classes that offer so many hands-on learning experiences, to coaching FFA competitive teams in every area of agriculture, to traveling to conferences and conventions, Agriculture Education is a rigorous – but rewarding – field!

What is a challenge you’re currently facing?

One challenge agriculture education is currently facing is current expectations of educators and contract time/salaries not matching the work needed to fulfill the three circle model: Classroom/Laboratory, FFA (the co-curricular student organization), and SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experiences). Many teachers across the Commonwealth have shortened contracts, not paying them for the summer work they do in taking students to the State FFA Convention in June, FFA Camp and the VAAE Summer Professional Development Conference in July, classroom planning and upgrading and so much more. More should be done to compensate these teachers for the time they put into building personal and professional growth and in building their programs.

What’s a piece of advice that has impacted the trajectory of your career?

Be kind, stay humble and follow through! In any career – education, agriculture, business, technology and more – people may not remember everything about you, but they will remember how you treated them. Production and efficiency are important, but relationships are the foundation for success in any career.

How does FFA help empower your students?

FFA allows students to grow outside of their comfort zones as they pursue goals in Career Development Events (CDEs) and Leadership Development Events (LDEs), volunteer in roles that impact their school and community and work towards success in many different fields of work. Not all FFA members work towards a career in agriculture; however, the skills and attributes they acquire set them up for success in many careers to be lifelong learners and hardworking citizens.

Agriculture is Virginia’s top industry. Can you share about how FFA is helping young people across Virginia become leaders in this area of work?

Agriculture Education and FFA are working to make our next generation of agriculturalists the most prepared in critical thinking, creativity, work ethic, civic responsibility as well as engagement in their communities. From hands-on experiences in the classroom and laboratory, to work-based learning experiences through their SAEs (Supervised Agricultural Experiences), and finally involvement in FFA leadership activities and CDEs (Career Development Events), our students are preparing to take on the challenges of the next generation. They will be the future stewards of the land, raising and growing a healthy and responsible food supply, researching new technologies to produce more on less land, marketing agricultural products to American and global consumers and so much more. Agriculture education students and FFA members will be leading our nation for future success on the global stage of agriculture!

Tell us one thing you’d like people to know about the school you serve.

Fort Defiance is truly a tight-knit community that supports their students, faculty, traditions and promotes excellence. Many alumni have gone on to serve in our local government and state government positions, from the Sheriff to the School Board, from the Board of Supervisors to the State Legislatures. Fort Defiance students, faculty and alumni exhibit true community service and value making the Shenandoah Valley the best place to live in Virginia!

About Christy Huffman Kerr

Christy Huffman Kerr has been a lifelong resident of Augusta County, Virginia. She attended Fort Defiance High School and graduated in 2004 as SCA President. She was chosen as a State Vice President for the Virginia FFA Association and took a year off from college to serve the FFA members of Virginia from 2004-2005. From 2005-2010, Christy attended Virginia Tech and received a Bachelor's in Agricultural and Applied Economics with two minors in Leadership and Political Science. She also received her Master's in Career and Technical Education with concentration in Agricultural Education and a Business endorsement. After college in 2010, she married her sweetheart Jack Kerr and they welcomed their first child Annabelle in 2016. After teaching at Wilson Memorial High School for seven years, Christy moved to her alma mater Fort Defiance in 2017 where she currently teaches agricultural education with dual enrollment options through the local community colleges. Jack and Christy have a small beef cow-calf operation with hay, egg and goat production and served together on the Virginia Farm Bureau State Young Farmer Committee from 2010-2014. Christy served on the Augusta County Farm Bureau Board from 2010-2021 and recently served as the Virginia Association of Agricultural Educators as President from 2021-2022.

Christy Kerr Three Generations FAA members
 FFA is a family affair! Christy Huffman Kerr’s family boasts three generations of FFA members.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Katherine-A.-Rowe, President of William & Mary
Katherine A. Rowe
President of William & Mary

William & Mary is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in America. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, President Rowe shares about her work in education, her decision to become an educator, areas of opportunity in her field and advice for Virginia’s women and girls (W+g).

What led to your decision to become an educator?

I’m someone who believes in playing the long game. That’s one of the things that attracted me most to William & Mary. You cannot thrive for three-plus centuries without innovation and creativity. To play the long game, you have to bring the next generation with you. Education does that. The best part of my job, as a teacher and now as a president, is supporting young adults to strive for something difficult together and succeed.

What to you is an exciting opportunity in education right now?

Over the last two years, higher education has shown that our industry can adapt much more quickly and efficiently than anyone imagined. We find ourselves at a moment where we can use that newfound strength to continue to adapt – strategically, by choice – in the ways that are going to matter most for our mission. In 2022, William & Mary launched a strategic plan, Vision 2026. For a world-class university, our fundamentals drive our vision. Student success is grounded in a great experience on campus. Students need to learn in transformative ways: ways relevant to their lives as citizens and professionals in a pluralistic democracy, where freedom of expression enables the open exchange of ideas that fuel positive change. And they need to land jobs. That means landing their first job as well as those that will follow, throughout rapidly evolving careers. The high quality of our arts and sciences and professional programs at William & Mary is more important than ever.

What would you say to young women who are considering entering your field?

Cross-train. If there is one thing I have learned throughout my career, it is that fully inhabiting the different aspects of our identities makes us more agile and effective as leaders, and better prepares us to lead through change. I have cross-trained in so many different roles: classroom teacher and scholar; entrepreneur; competitive athlete and coach; academic leader; CEO; mom. Every one of those roles strengthens the other. My second piece of advice, to quote women’s rights and civil rights icon Mary Church Terrell: “Lift as you climb.”

What is a challenge you’re currently facing?

Mental health will continue to be a major challenge nationally for higher education. That’s true, too, for every business and community. The American Psychological Association reports that anxiety and depression in every age group are four times higher than before COVID. And they tell us we’re going to see the impact of this for seven to 10 years. When it comes to young adults, universities have a critical role that we did not have 10, 20, or 50 years ago. We have an opportunity to teach our graduates how to differentiate between healthy stress and unhealthy stress; to define excellence in their own terms; to cultivate grit; to reduce stigma around mental health issues in a way that allows us each to draw on our community and gain resilience. William & Mary’s McLeod Tyler Wellness Center has become a nationwide model for wellness by cultivating these capacities for our graduates.

What’s a piece of advice that has impacted the trajectory of your career?

Be curious. Our “new normal” requires being ready to adapt in a way that sustains what we value most as professionals, as organizations, as communities. That’s a counter-intuitive idea: that we change in order to advance what we value. Our experiences with the pandemic proved its truth.

Tell us one thing you’d like people to know about the school you serve.

At William & Mary, we have a freshman class that concludes the semester with a fun assignment: come up with a slogan to recruit next year’s entering class. The year I arrived at W&M, they welcomed me with, “Join the tradition. Make history.” Pretty inspiring. Last spring’s class summed up their experience with, “William & Mary: Unprecedented, As Usual.” I love that way of thinking about old and new together. W&M is building on 330 years of innovation. Our graduates have an entrepreneurial mindset. They are the rising generation of professionals and citizens we need, who will ensure our Commonwealth and our democratic republic flourish for all times coming.

What is a lesson you learned from your Shakespearean studies that you use in your day to day?

Shakespeare wrote during a period of very rapid change: technology change, economic change, political change. That’s why I was drawn to that period as a scholar and teacher. (Also, I love the language.) The moment we are living through now in the early 21st century is one of similarly rapid change, and we are turning to many of the core ideas cultivated in that period as touchstones. For example, many in my generation grew up assuming the primary importance of freedom of expression as a core feature of a pluralistic democracy. We need to teach what that Constitutional right means very systematically now; knowing its history helps me do that. 

Our Constitution insists that dissent and differing viewpoints are sources of strength for the polity and for each individual. Those key ideas initially matured during the 17th century. I think of Milton’s arguments against censorship in Areopagitica, for example: “When there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions: for opinion in good persons is but knowledge in the making…” and as he argues, censorship inhibits moral growth. This ethos infuses our bills of rights, including the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which in turn inspired the U.S. Bill of Rights. Understanding this history helps me articulate why upholding these principles matters so much now, at a great university, dedicated to the maturation of citizens and the creation of new knowledge. 

About Katherine A. Rowe

Katherine A. Rowe, a nationally recognized innovator in higher education, became the 28th president of William & Mary on July 1, 2018.

Under Rowe's leadership, William & Mary has advanced a whole-institution approach to learning. The cross-university initiatives she has cultivated include a central Entrepreneurship Hub, a Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation, W&M's first Sustainability Plan and Climate Action Roadmap, realization of William & Mary's long-planned Memorial to the Enslaved, a Veteran to Executive Transition program, and an Institute for Integrative Conservation.

Also under Rowe’s leadership, William & Mary has held tuition flat for five years and successfully closed its For the Bold campaign in June 2020, raising just over $1 billion. Rowe oversaw the creation of William & Mary's ambitious strategic plan, Vision 2026, via an inclusive, multi-year planning process. During the first phase of planning, the university community came together to craft William & Mary's first-ever statement of shared values.

As president, Rowe led William & Mary's effective COVID-19 response, joining forces with the City of Williamsburg and other key local partners to keep the Tidewater region as safe as possible. In the 2020- 21 academic year William & Mary continued in-person learning, uninterrupted – flexibly adapting every university practice and system to ensure that students could maintain momentum to their degrees. Key cross-institutional efforts were launched during the pandemic: leading to enhanced career development for students, a unified approach to Communications and Marketing, and a whole-university Council for Community Partnerships.

Rowe serves on the Northern Virginia Technology Council, the Virginia Business and Higher Education Council Board, RVA757 Connects, and the GoVA Region 5 Council. Rowe was named to the Virginia Business Virginia 500 Power List in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education named Rowe one of the top 35 women in higher education.

Earlier in her career, Rowe co-founded and served for several years as the CEO of Luminary Digital Media, which developed a series of educational apps enhancing student engagement and learning of classic Shakespeare texts.

Rowe earned a bachelor's degree in English and American literature from Carleton College and a master's and a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard. She has completed graduate work in Cinema and Media Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Her areas of research and scholarship include Shakespeare, Milton, Renaissance drama and media history. Dr. Rowe is a past president of the Shakespeare Association of America.

An accomplished athlete, Rowe spent more than a decade coaching Ultimate Frisbee and has led multiple teams to state championships in Pennsylvania. She was a World Ultimate Club Finalist and a Women's Nationals Finalist. Rowe shares her love of Ultimate with her spouse, Bruce Jacobson, William & Mary's First Gentleman.

Sisterhood Spotlight

sisterhood-spotlight-Dr Shawnrell-Blackwell
Dr. Shawnrell Blackwell
Professional Curator and Motivational Speaker

Dr. Shawnrell Blackwell is very involved in the Richmond area and is a recent homebuyer. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her homebuying experience, what helped her during her journey of becoming a homeowner, and resources and advice for women navigating the process of homeownership.

What brought you to Richmond, and what do you do for a living?

I am co-owner of Avail Outpatient Counseling, known as Avail, a holistic healing private practice focusing on mind, body, and spirit wellness. I define my role as a “Teacher” who creates safe spaces to educate and increase awareness about mental health and self-care. In particular, I focus on women’s health. I am the Founder of Education Connection Academy (ECA) nonprofit, which along with Avail, provides community outreach programs across the city to increase awareness about mental and physical health for youth and families. In addition, I serve as an Educational Consultant with expertise in transformational leadership and school improvement. I consider myself a multi-hyphenate, but all of my work is driven by my passion for serving and bettering our community. 

I am from Petersburg, VA, but I lived my adult life and raised my son in Chester, VA. However, I frequented Richmond, VA because of the diversity of demographics, social and community events, and an abundance of “mom and pop” and small businesses. When my son graduated high school and joined the Airforce, I thought it was best for me to move to Richmond City. At that time, my business partner and I also assessed our clientele, revealing that most of our clients lived in Richmond. Our location in Chester did not have accessible transportation for them. We believe mental health services should be affordable, available, and accessible. Therefore, in 2017, we moved our business, Avail, to Richmond on East Main Street on a bus line route. I also moved to Richmond to an apartment in Scott’s Addition to move closer to work. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the city even more when I learned about my Blackwell Family Tree housed in The Virginia Museum of History and Culture and my ancestors' richness and historical contributions to the Capital. I wanted to own and “put down roots” in Richmond to be an active resident and advocate in the city.

Can you tell us a little bit about your home buying experience? What was it like to navigate this process?

After two years living in Richmond, in 2019 I started looking for homes to buy using online home search platforms. I noticed that houses fit into two categories that I call “Home A” and “Home B.” Home A, which was in my price range, included dilapidated, older homes that needed at least $50-100k in renovations to make it inhabitable by my standards. Or, Home B was two blocks away from Home A but significantly out of my price range and located in a “sought-after” neighborhood. Because it was a “seller’s market,” Home B properties often needed renovations and repairs before moving in. Also, during this time, many developers were buying up the Home A and Home B type properties as “cash offers,” leaving little to no inventory for home buyers like me. This was a frustrating process, and even with having a realtor to help me navigate this, it still was not enough. It finally hit me that I would be renting in Richmond for the rest of my life, or I would have to purchase a home outside the city. It was daunting to think that for the amount of money I was spending on rent, I could own a home and create generational wealth and wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity.

Who or what was helpful to you during the process? What resources would you direct people to, from your own experience?

What was most helpful during the process was when I learned about Southside Community Development & Housing Corporation (SCDHC). I was looking for resources for my clients because housing and finances are significant stressors that impact mental health, and in my search, I found SCDHC. When I read the services that they offered, I quickly realized that not only are the services for my clients, but they are for me too. I signed up for the free home-buying classes, in which I learned about the steps to buying a home and how to find a lender and realtor familiar with down payment assistance programs. Finding a lender who understood the down payment assistance and grant programs was a game changer for me.

Let me explain, because I know people are wondering how someone with a Ph.D. needs down payment assistance. To be quite frank, I chose the life of public service; unfortunately, these professions are not high-salary positions. Most of these positions require advanced degrees, which led to my student loan debt, yet the salaries are not comparable to the tuition costs. My student loan debt exceeded my annual salary.

At that time, I was a small business owner in the service field who had to pay for my benefits, such as health coverage, life insurance and retirement. Not only did our business revenue have to pay monthly business expenses like building rent and utilities, but it also had to pay employee salaries. This left little profit for us to save or invest, especially since we kept our prices affordable for accessibility in BIPOC communities. Inflation and the impact of Covid-19 made it more challenging to save for a 10-20% down payment for a home. Yet, I was paying $1300 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment, increasing yearly. In my experience, some lenders’ policies deemed small business owners as high-risk debtors and wouldn’t approve me for a loan, although I had a high credit score and no credit card debt then. 

When I worked with SCDHC’s Financial Specialist and a lender who understood the grant programs, I could provide the necessary documents for the underwriter’s approval for the loan. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate this on my own. It took me two years to work with the SCDHC Financial Specialist, Housing Program Manager and knowledgeable realtors and lenders of grant programs, and I was finally ready to purchase a home in 2021. I became eligible for the SCDHC Holland’s properties in the Southside of Richmond. I was able to secure down payment assistance for new construction at an affordable price. This was a dream come true! I closed on my forever home on January 19, 2022. Now, I serve on the Executive Board of SCDHC to help others find their forever home.

What is your favorite thing about being a homeowner?

My favorite thing about being a homeowner is creating a sense of community for my neighbors, friends and family, as my grandmother, Doreatha Blackwell, did for me. She was the matriarch of our family, and she hosted family gatherings and participated in civic and church community events. She made people feel welcome by cooking for them, sharing comforting advice and creating a space of laughter and fellowship. After my grandmother passed in 1996, that nucleus was missed. I am my grandmother’s child, so as a homeowner, I sit on my front porch and speak to my neighbors to get to know them and for them to get to know me. We look out for each other and our neighborhood. I love to host family and friend gatherings at my house. I like to “show off” our beautiful city to my out-of-town guests. I affectionately named my home Blackwell Chateau to signify that it doesn’t matter the zip code of your home; home is where the heart is. I created my urban oasis in the city I love! This home will be passed down to my son and serve as an investment to create generational wealth.

What encouragement would you give other women currently thinking about or navigating homeownership?

I encourage women to keep pursuing their dream of home ownership, be bold and brave and ask for help. If I didn’t ask for help from SCDHC, I would still be renting. Buying a home is a humbling experience, and it at times may feel intrusive, but it is worth it. I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college and become an entrepreneur, so I didn’t have many role models growing up to teach me about finances, wealth building, and business ownership. Still, they taught me how to fill a home with love and give back to the community.

Navigating homeownership means being vulnerable, which is hard for women because many women are plagued with Superwoman Syndrome. Superwoman Syndrome is a range of physical, psychological and interpersonal stress symptoms experienced by a woman who attempts to perform perfectly in multiple or conflicting roles. We feel that we are obligated to “have it all together.” Homeownership requires women to be brave to face past financial mistakes, acknowledge what they don’t know and allow others (realtors, lenders, grantors, etc.) to be involved in their decision-making toward home ownership. Also, I encourage women to change realtors and lenders if they are not meeting their needs. I had gone through several realtors and lenders before finding the ones that made me feel like a priority, not just a commission. Lastly, I would encourage women to be patient, a virtue I am still working on (laugh out loud). Seriously, my journey to homeownership was not easy because I was not willing to compromise living in Richmond. It took four years of submitting my finances to strangers, getting outbid on homes, sharing personal information and extensively searching for affordable homes. Still, I will do it all over again to have that feeling of sitting on my back porch, looking at the Capital city’s skyline, knowing my ancestors are proud of me, with family and friends’ laughter echoing in the background.

About Dr. Shawnrell Blackwell

Dr. Shawnrell Blackwell is a Professional Curator and Motivational Speaker for professional development, networking, and community engagements. Her interactive sessions in education and mental health fields have impacted thousands for over 20 years. She is a change agent with a proven track record of success, and her clientele boasts immediate transformation during her powerful coaching sessions. Affectionately called the self-care guru, she advocates for equity and accessibility of mental health services in BIPOC communities through her work at Avail Outpatient Counseling. As founder of the Education Connection Academy (ECA) nonprofit, she has spearheaded many accomplished philanthropic projects, including creating healing spaces for hundreds of people each year in Richmond, Virginia.  Dr. Blackwell specializes in nonpharmaceutical interventions such as mindfulness and movement to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Through her gift of storytelling and dance, she has created an unparalleled connection with people worldwide. She received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech University and M.Ed. and BA from Virginia State University, where she studied communications, literature, and leadership. A true multi-hyphenate, she shares her offerings as a licensed mental health professional, grant writer, educational consultant, and holistic health practitioner.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Ayana Johnson
Miss Virginia’s Outstanding Teen

Ayana Johnson was crowned Miss Virginia’s Outstanding Teen in June 2022. She advocates for blood and clotting disorders and sickle cell disease. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her role as Miss Virginia’s Outstanding Teen, tells more about these issues and offers resources and advice to Virginia’s women and girls.

How did you make the decision to engage in the Miss Virginia’s Outstanding Teen competition?

 I always looked up to the Miss Virginia contestants ever since I was eight years old and got involved in the princess program. When I was 13 years old, I realized that I was finally eligible to participate in the Outstanding Teen program. I was already extremely passionate about the work that I was currently doing to better the lives of those living with chronic conditions. I knew that the Miss America Organization could help me further my initiative, I could earn scholarship dollars, and I could enhance my social skills.

You advocate for blood and clotting disorders and sickle cell disease. How fantastic. What is the number one thing about these important areas that you’d like Virginia women and girls to know?

I would like for women and young girls to know that is imperative to regulate and take care of their bodies. As someone living with a blood disorder, it is important to recognize that menstruation can worsen the effects of my disorder. It is very important that I take the extra steps to monitor and give my body the care that it needs especially when I am on my menstrual cycle.

Why are you passionate about these issues?

I am passionate about these issues because I believe that there’s so much more we can do as a country to better the lives of people living with chronic illnesses. In the U.S. alone, there are only four FDA approved medications for sickle cell patients. This is a daunting statistic and something that needs to change in order to enhance our lifestyles. In order for us to improve American health, we need to work towards expanding resources for the people who need it.

What resources are available to help those with blood and clotting disorders and sickle cell disease?

The most important resource for a Sickle Cell Warrior is a comprehensive medical team. My team includes a Hematologist, Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Educator, Education Specialist, Social Worker and Patient Care Technician, just to name a few. In an effort to achieve optimal wellness, resources have been given by my medical team for support groups, mental health and pain management. My family and I have continued to be insistent and persistent seeking out new interventions on our own. Additionally, local and national organizations such as community-based organizations, the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and the American Red Cross encourage blood donation for SCD patients. As SCDAA’s National Teen Ambassador, empowerment begins with me.

What is one day like as Miss Virginia’s Outstanding Teen?

My job definitely varies from day to day. During the week, I usually start the day early, go to school and then attend my Arts school into the evening. However, I might have an interview in between that, a meeting or a school visit where I interact with children. Many things can happen, and it is important to possess agility in this job!

What would you say to other Virginia girls about opportunities to make a difference across the Commonwealth?

I would tell the young women of Virginia to explore their talents, explore their life passions and utilize those skills to impact others and become a catalyst for change. I would share how the Miss America Organization has allowed me to take my service initiatives to the next level. They too can experience this same opportunity! The mission statement is, “Preparing great women for the world, and preparing the world for great women.” Local, state and national titleholders wear a crown with 4 points. Each point stands for service, style, scholarship and success. Service, the most important: this embodies ethical and moral values with a yearning for betterment. Scholarship: life ambitions become reality. Style: an example of poise presents a role model and spokesperson. Success: positive outcomes from set goals.

What are you striving or hoping for this New Year?

In 2023, I desire good health, the opportunity to continuously, positively affect the Commonwealth and the ability to complete more of my goals for my social impact initiative as I round out my reign!

About Ayana Johnson

Ayana Johnson is an honors student at Nansemond River High School, a violinist, a dancer at Governor’s School for the Arts, a small business owner, and Miss Virginia’s Outstanding Teen. She is an award-winning scholar with recognition from National Junior Honor Society, National Junior Beta Club, the Suffolk Art League, and the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, among other organizations. She was the 2019 recipient of the Excellence Girls Club Pioneer Award and has been featured in the Suffolk News Herald “20 under 21.” Ayana was the 2020 Student Council President at her school and is a current member of her superintendent’s student advisory board.

In particular, Ayana is an advocate for Sickle Cell Warriors, a local champion for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, an ambassador for the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, an American Red Cross Blood Donor ambassador and the National Teen Ambassador for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. As an emissary, Ayana educates the public to negate the disparities and stigmas faced by those living with chronic illnesses.

Sisterhood Spotlight

Lynette L. Allston
VMFA Board of Trustees President

Lynette L. Allston is board president at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) and Rawls Museum Arts and the first Native American woman to lead the VMFA. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about her new role at the VMFA, her thoughts on art and the Art Experience at the Executive Mansion as well as career advice for Virginia women and girls.

Congratulations on your election to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Board of Trustees! How is it being the first Native American woman to lead the VMFA?

Being the “first” is not intentional. Assuming a leadership role happens when one shows an interest and passion for an initiative. Interestingly, I am also the first board president from a rural farming community. I’ve also been board president at Rawls Museum Arts, and for longer than I’ve been on the board for the VMFA.

What goal are you bringing into this job?

The VMFA is a fabulous place with art that is of interest to a vast audience. The VMFA is the legacy of the many donors who enabled the museum to have a world-class collection of fine and decorative art. My intent is to encourage and support continued growth. I’m an advocate. My role is to make sure that the message gets out and to do my part to make sure people know about it. Living in a rural area, I see that art museums are not for everyone. I can be an advocate and explain to farmers, children, people from any walk of life that there is something there for everyone. That’s why we get visitors from all over. The visionary focus of the management team, the curators and the education staff makes VMFA a place accessible and relevant for all.

How does art inspire you?

Art takes me on a journey of thoughts and inner reflection. Art is also storytelling – it’s wonderful to look at a work of art and decipher the story. What was the artist trying to tell you? You can travel through time, go forward and dream into the future. The storytelling in art fascinates me.

How about art within the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia?

The Nottoway Tribe has several artists who use various mediums to express their thoughts.  Our artists have varied professional careers, but find time to connect to art that reflects our indigenous heritage. Our Council Chair is a scientist who, in her spare time, creates story quilts.  Her quilts are currently on display at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk. The variety of creative interests include artists who exhibit drawings, beadwork, handmade instruments and floral design. Some also dabble in film making. I enjoy making functional pottery. 

What is your favorite VMFA-loaned piece in the Art Experience at the Executive Mansion?

I find the meaningful message expressed in the collection at the Executive Mansion to be that the artists are Virginians. It is a strong message of being connected to the people who are right here in Virginia. That the First Lady is highlighting talent within our state shows her appreciation for our citizens. That I thought was very significant.

What is a reflection or piece of advice from your career that you would like to share with Virginia women and girls?

See the opportunities that exist beyond perceived barriers and move forward. Every time there’s an opportunity, it’s a step towards a new adventure, a new learning experience, a part of a new personal evolution. You grow every time there’s a new opportunity. That’s why I always say “yes,” because I want to try. It keeps your mind and spirit moving forward.

About Lynette L. Allston

Lynette Lewis Allston resides where she spent her formative years on the family farm in Drewryville, Virginia. A graduate of Duke University with a degree in history and certification in secondary education, she returned to her farm after retiring from two decades of business ownership and civic engagement in Columbia, South Carolina. Lynette is currently Chief and Chair of the Tribal Council of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, one of 11 Tribes officially recognized by the Commonwealth. Under her leadership, the primary focus of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia has been to offer educational outreach and opportunities to close the gap that exists in understanding the history and culture of the Nottoway Indians. She is co-author of the book entitled, DoTraTung, which offers a compelling look at the history, culture and lifestyle of the Nottoway Indians. She is also currently the President of the Board of Rawls Museum Arts, Courtland, VA.

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Laurie-Francis
Laurie Francis
Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security

Laurie Francis and her husband, Randy, together have served the Commonwealth of Virginia for more than three decades. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Laurie shares the story of their granddaughter, Alex, who was born addicted to heroin, and how Laurie and Randy became Alex’s primary caregivers after her birth.

Can you tell us about the birth of your granddaughter, Alex?

On October 30, 2018, my husband Randy and I were catapulted into a completely new world when our granddaughter, Alexandria “Alex” Grace, was born. She came one month early, weighed only 4 lbs. 11 ounces and was tiny and jittery. Unfortunately, she was born addicted to heroin, THC and nicotine. My daughter, Alex’s biological mother, had used those drugs earlier that day, which caused her to go into early labor. Sweet Alex had to be put on a morphine drip for every two hours for the first two weeks of her life, to help ween her off the drugs. Before I go any further, I will let you know that she was lucky, not only to be alive, but that she is a very healthy and happy toddler. Thank the good Lord!

After those two weeks passed, my husband and I brought Alex home from the hospital on Friday, November 11 around 5pm. Alex’s mother and father left separately “to go pick up some clean clothes and such.” They didn’t bother to show up until almost 11:00 that evening. They had gone out to get high again. Shortly after, they left again and we were left to care for the newborn, as it was clear she was now ours.

A few days later however, Alex’s mother showed up and took her over to a friend’s house (a friend that she was using heroin with). It turns out that the friend was living at home with his mother and step-father. Alex’s mother asked the friend’s mother to watch Alex and be her caregiver. Child Protective Services (CPS) immediately stepped in and removed Alex back to our care. 

Can you tell us what happened when Child Protective Services stepped in?

When that happens, CPS has to set a date with the court to finalize the custody arrangement. We were also notified that the friend’s mother had also wanted to gain custody of Alex, so we had to hire an attorney and face this random woman off in court. Thankfully, the judge awarded Alex to us and was very tactful in advising the friend’s mother to leave us alone.

What was it like for you, finding yourself in care of a newborn?

At the time, I was 49 years old and my husband was 58. We both had full-time jobs, three dogs and many other responsibilities to attend to. It was quite the wake-up call when we realized we were now in full baby mode and had to be on an every-two-hour feeding schedule! I kept saying to myself that I would not make it through the week…but every time, I would hear God say to me, “You got this…you are Francis!” (a personal joke between myself and my husband). And I was always reminded that God gave us what we knew we could handle. Well, I guess God thought we needed a challenge in life, because that is what this has been. A good challenge that we accepted, and a blessing that we were gifted with this beautiful child.  

As the days went on, we adapted to new routines and learned along the way that she preferred things a certain way. No socks; a cold, not warm, bottle; tummy time, not back time; eventually all of her toys had to be lined up in special order; she didn’t like anything out of order. She preferred good ole’ country and classical music and absolutely loved her new stuffed puppy “Ooofas,” for Rufus. She became the light of our lives and we found energy in our aging bodies that we didn’t know existed. She was our purpose in life after a rather boring existence of eat, sleep, work, repeat.

How do you see Alex’s relationship with her birth parents in the future?

We are Mommy and Daddy and Alex doesn’t know any other parents in her life. One day, she will start asking why we are so old with gray hair and wrinkles and when that time comes, we will explain the situation to her. She will be told that her parents love her, but are just not able to overcome some demons in their lives right now. And if ever comes a day that they can get clean and remain that way, we will encourage visitations with them.

So four years later, we have made it thus far and are in the process of adopting her. She will now become a “Francis” and will, too, have the spirit of, “You got this…you are now a Francis.” After all, she beat heroin, she can do anything!

Visit the First Lady’s Women+girls (W+g) page and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) website for resources on substance use disorder services and other behavioral health information.

About Laurie and Randy Francis

Randy and Laurie Francis, after meeting as next-door neighbors, were married in 2009. Laurie, who was born in Richmond, attended Chesterfield County Schools, worked most of her adult life in the private sector and is now the Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security. At the time they were married, Laurie had a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Randy, who was born in Lynchburg, is a disabled veteran of two military branches and spent numerous years in homeland security positions, is a 35-year career employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He currently is employed at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. Randy and Laurie have legal and physical custody of their granddaughter, Alex, whose birth parents have abandoned, and are in the process of legally adopting her as their own. Their goal is to eventually retire to a nice piece of land with a home in the country where Alex can run and play and spend more time with nature (and less time with technology). Randy and Laurie hope to then spend more time with Alex and their German Shepherd, Jolene “The Wonder Dog,” along with the donkey for which Alex keeps asking, but they have no room for in the suburbs of Richmond where they currently make their home. 

Sisterhood Spotlight

2023 sisterhood-spotlight-Valerie Brown
Dr. Valerie K. Brown
Executive Pastor of The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches

Dr. Valerie K. Brown is the Executive Pastor of The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches, which serves six Virginia locations, including the Chesapeake community, and two North Carolina locations. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, she shares about the biggest challenge facing faith communities today, how Virginians can continue to support Chesapeake in the wake of tragedy and encouragement for Virginia’s women and girls this New Year.

Can you tell us about your responsibilities at The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches?

As Executive Pastor of The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches, I have the overall responsibility of assisting the Bishop of the Fellowship with ensuring that his vision becomes reality. I have had overall responsibilities for supervising all staff except the ministerial staff that serves eight Mount church locations (in Virginia: Chesapeake, Yorktown, Virginia Beach, Western Branch, Portsmouth and Suffolk; in North Carolina: Elizabeth City and Charlotte).

In addition to the Mount church locations, we also have The Signet Event Center, which is a multi-use facility with a signature ballroom (used for banquets, weddings and other large gatherings), an eight-lane bowling venue, a regulation-size gym for athletic events, exercise facilities and classrooms available for training classes.

We also have a Youth Empowerment Center (formerly known as The Elder’s House) where we host weekend and week-long classes to train and teach youth in all aspects of becoming mature and responsible young adults ready to step into leadership positions, including finishing high school and continuing on to college, military or some occupational skill training.

My responsibilities also include supervising the staff of The Mount Operations, LLC which is a separate entity that provides all the financial and administrative support for The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches.

Can you tell us about your faith walk and how it has led to where you are today?

It has definitely taken a lot of faith to believe that God was directing our steps as we joined Mount Lebanon in 1990 with 75 members to now having all the Mount locations and other non-profits and over 14,000 members. I faced my biggest faith challenge in believing that God was instructing me to close my successful CPA practice to join my husband, Kim Brown, full-time in ministry. At the time, the church was still in its very first location (with minimal growth), and the only staff was a full-time secretary and my husband who was still bi-vocational, working part-time with the church and full-time with the government. I joined the ministry full-time as a volunteer, not being added to the payroll for ten years. 

However, I truly believe and history has proven, that God was moving and I was correct in closing my practice and bringing my financial, administrative and leadership skills to the Mount.

What is the biggest challenge facing today’s faith communities?

COVID-19 has presented the biggest challenge to today’s faith communities. The two years that the faith community struggled with how to stay connected with their membership has continued to be a challenge. During the height of COVID-19, the churches that thrived and survived had invested in online technology and were able to stay connected with their membership. However, staying home and watching services online has continued even now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. So, the challenge for the faith community is how to get the membership back in the building and/or continue to keep them connected through expanded online services.

The Chesapeake community has just experienced a terrible tragedy. You and your husband have exhibited tremendous leadership. What would you say to Virginians about how they can continue to show support?

We can allow moments to define us, or we can allow them to become defining moments. I would hope that the tragedy would become a defining moment. Our community has become so divided that I remind everyone that disagreement is not grounds for disrespect. We must be committed to fostering a spirit of unity and peace. The healing of our community is the responsibility of every citizen. The faith community must take the lead in modeling compassion and empathy. Morality cannot be mandated; it must be modeled. This should be a time of self-examination and reflection that pushes us to display a spirit of community that impacts the culture of our city. We cannot allow political, social and theological differences to create barriers to working together to remain Chesapeake strong. We must be compelled by the example of Christ. Simply stated, we must always ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

This New Year, what encouragement would you offer Virginia’s women and girls?

Every New Year is a chance at a new beginning. So, I encourage all women and girls who are looking for a new beginning to not look back at past failures, but to focus strictly on the future and continue to aspire to meet and exceed their goals. You are not a failure until you stop trying to succeed.

For women and girls who believe this past year was successful, I encourage them to continue to strive for more, be more and do more for themselves and the community.

About Dr. Valerie K. Brown

Dr. Valerie K. Brown serves as the Executive Pastor of The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches and holds a doctorate degree in Business Management from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH. She is well known in the community as a Certified Public Accountant who has assisted countless professionals, businesses, and churches in managing their resources. She is the author of three published books: “The Miseducation of the Christian: Your Guide to Financial Freedom” and “What’s in a Title: A New Leadership Paradigm,” both published by Creation House Publishers, and “You Can’t do What?: The Real Meaning of Your Salvation,” published by Spirit Filled Creations. Dr. Brown most recently received The 2017 Women in Business Award by Inside Business Magazine and the 2018 YWCA Women of Distinction Award in the Non-Profit Category.

Drs. Kim and Valerie K. Brown have been married since 1989. They are the proud parents of two children: James and Kimberly Brown, who both serve on the Board of K.W. Brown Ministries and The Elder’s House; one daughter-in-love; Keshia Brown, who serves on the Board of The Elder’s House, and two grandsons; James Emmanuel and Jaxon Emory.

The Browns love the community in which they live and desire to constantly give back. Kim Brown is a native of Portsmouth, VA, and Dr. Valerie K. Brown is a native of Chesapeake, VA. Their roots grow deep within the Tidewater community and The Elder’s House is one of the many ways they have given and will continue to give back to the community that nourished them.