Cristina Condori

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Cristina Condori

Domestic worker, wife and mother, Cristina Condori is an immigrant from Argentina who places her beliefs on the line.

Since moving to Memphis almost a decade ago, she and her family have faced numerous obstacles. Economically, times are hard and they struggle monthly to make ends meet. Her husband lost his job in Memphis and currently works out of town. Her former clients can now only afford help once or twice a month so she constantly hands out cards and flyers seeking opportunities for housekeeping and childcare work. She barely earns $240 per week to help support a household that includes two daughters, a brother and a guest.

Her two daughters are both excellent students involved in many different volunteer activities. And Cristina has also been working to improve her English and takes every opportunity to practice.

Yet, Cristina somehow finds many hours every week to do what she can to bring greater justice to others who have been in situations similar to her own.

She volunteers with Workers Interfaith Network, and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, as well as many other groups dealing with justice issues, women’s issues, and health causes.

Cristina’s convictions are strong, so strong that she was willing to take the fight for freedom and the rights of citizenship in the United States to Washington, D. C. There, on September 12, 2013, she joined women from 20 states to blockade the intersection outside of the House of Representatives to protest the House’s inaction on comprehensive immigration reform to treat women and children fairly.

Cristina and the other women were prepared to be arrested and arrested they were. This historic act of civil disobedience included the largest number of undocumented immigrant women to ever willingly submit to arrest. The 105 women who were arrested wanted to draw attention to the fact that women and children constitute three-quarters of immigrants of the United States and disproportionately bear the burden of the failed immigration system.

On her blog the next day, Cristina said “The decision and oath that we took together was a great action… Women of all ages, professions and immigration status sat in the street under a hot morning sun of Washington, D.C., in front of the Capitol and Senate as part of a civil disobedience for a Comprehensive Immigration Reform that is fair and humane. We were there for the people we love and for all those who suffer from this immigration system that is broken and that continues to divide families. It was about OUR freedom! But also it was about the freedom of all immigrants, of all children who were separated from their parents, of all workers who were and will continue to be deported each and every day….”

One of her nominators, Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp, herself a Woman of Achievement for Determination honoree for seeking fairness for workers, says Cristina Condori is ”one of the most determined, energetic, and brave women that I have ever known…She is truly a leader, inspiring other immigrants to take risks and speak out for greater justice.”

Participating in civil disobedience for a just cause takes courage. It is an intimidating prospect for anyone, but for an immigrant so much more is at risk than for a citizen.

Cristina Condori truly deserves to be honored for her commitment to work on behalf of immigration reform and her courage to stand up for her beliefs.

Margot McNeeley

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

DETERMINATION
for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Margot McNeeley

Margot McNeeley was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, but moved a lot. She lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Texas and Arizona.

Twenty-two years ago she was working in a bookstore called Bookstar in Phoenix, Arizona, when one of the owners called asking if she’d ever been to Memphis. A month later she moved to Memphis to open Bookstar at Poplar Plaza. She worked and attended the then-Memphis State University.

She and her husband dined out a lot and Margot began to notice all the waste that restaurants create. Each meal served was reported to generate a pound and a half to two pounds of trash. She didn’t want to be part of that and grew tired of just complaining about it.

In late 2007, she met Chef Ben Smith and his wife Colleen Couch-Smith from Tsunami to talk about what might be done to reduce restaurant waste since the city doesn’t recycle for businesses. Margot found out that Ben and Colleen were already taking steps to reduce their environmental impact so working with them was the perfect starting point.

The three met for about seven months, figuring out what steps could be taken that would have the greatest impact but that would not break the bank or create too much more work for businesses. Margot searched for an organization to model or join, looking for something local, affordable to restaurants and unique to the Mid-South.

Finding nothing in Memphis that fit this description, Margot made the idea a reality by establishing Project Green Fork. The mission: to contribute to a sustainable Mid-South by helping reduce environmental impacts, with a focus on strengthening homegrown restaurants.
“Tsunami was a great pilot restaurant for Project Green Fork and from there it just kind of caught on,” Margot said. She had always been interested in environmental causes and even as a child preferred being outdoors, but had not been involved in green efforts until founding Project Green Fork.

Today 58 restaurants are Project Green Fork certified, with a few more working on their steps toward certification. Margot is the only staff member and works with 16 dedicated board members and usually a summer intern. Certified restaurants are promoted through advertising and social media – and the Project Green Fork sticker on the front window.

Since Project Green Fork receives so many calls from other communities trying to set up their own version of it, Margot enlisted the help of a local writer and created the “Toolkit for Restaurant Sustainability” that other like-minded people can purchase.
The organization certifies restaurants as practicing sustainability based on six steps:
• Engage in kitchen composting.
• Recycle glass, metal and cardboard.
• Use sustainable products.
• Replace toxic cleaners with non-toxic cleaners.
• Complete an energy audit and take necessary steps to reduce energy and water consumption.
• Prevent pollution.

Margot connected with another woman who wanted to help – Madeleine Edwards. Together the two set up Madeleine’s business, Get Green Recycle Works, which picks up and recycles glass and cardboard from the eateries and also will haul bins of composted food debris to community gardens.

To date, Project Green Fork restaurants have kept the following OUT of the landfill:
• 1,780,050 gallons of plastic, glass and aluminum
• 1,630,500 pounds of paper and cardboard
• 220,000 gallons of food waste

And the numbers continue to grow.

Memphis is fortunate that Margot McNeeley chose to live here and to share her business savvy and her determination with local restaurant leaders so that we can watch for that distinctive sticker with the leafy green fork that lets us know that we are dining in a business that cares about our environment.

Gayle Rose

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Gayle Rose

Philanthropist, business founder, civic innovator – Gayle Rose defines “initiative.” This native of Iowa came to Memphis with her degree in music and business to work in arts administration. Arriving in August 1979 to work as assistant director/development director for the Memphis Arts Council, she performed clarinet on the side in a quintet and in orchestra for local theater and opera productions. In 1984, she enrolled in Harvard’s masters of public administration program and in 1985 returned to Memphis to marry Holiday Inn Corporation CEO and chairman Mike Rose. The couple had three sons together.

Gayle became chair of the Rose Family Foundation and was a co-founder of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis in 1995. After the marriage ended, Gayle continued her role as a prominent philanthropist. And she expanded her community involvement to encompass areas as diverse as historical preservation, professional sports, and entrepreneurship.
She worked tirelessly in the effort to save the Hunt Phelan home, a Memphis landmark.

In 2000 and 2001, she was part of the seven-person Pursuit Team of local leaders that wooed and won the relocation from Vancouver of an NBA team – now the Memphis Grizzlies. With attorney Marty Regan, her partner in numerous community projects, Gayle had charge full-time of confidential day-to-day communications between the Memphis investors, the league and other team owners. Gayle says, “It was so confidential that my office staff and children didn’t know what I was working on.”

Her commitment to the NBA project was driven by her long passion for efforts to improve economic opportunities and community harmony.

That same passion moved her to lead the Women’s Foundation board into the Memphis HOPE VI project that replaced crumbling public housing with new buildings and supportive social services. Since nearly 100 percent of leaseholders in the properties are women, Gayle asked the foundation board to be the private nonprofit to raise and receive $7.5 million in private funds for the comprehensive case management portion of the city’s application for federal grants. Gayle committed to lead the fundraising and considers it one of her most important projects. The Women’s Foundation raised $7.7 million over five years for Memphis HOPE.

In business, Gayle is currently founder and CEO of a technology and business continuity company, EVS Corporation. EVS has 18 employees and in 2012, Gayle was named CEO of the Year by MBQ magazine.

She continues as chair of the Rose Family Foundation private charity as well as her newest venture, Team Max, named after her late son, Max Rose, who died in a car crash. Team Max is a social media based volunteer activator for youth, which mobilizes support for causes across the globe.

Gayle became chair of the board of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra last year. She is presently leading the effort to reorganize and fund the symphony as it copes with a financial crisis that threatens its very existence.

Gayle has written powerfully about her dedication to strengthening our community by improving the lives of women through philanthropy, community redevelopment and political action: “Women need to understand that in Memphis, and throughout the world, poverty has the face of a woman. We need leaders in government who understand that ignoring the empowerment of women results in social costs, which keeps our community lagging behind. And we need leaders in the community who can advocate economic and social parity for women, as well as job training, child care, healthcare, reproductive rights and education. We all pay the price for the suffering of our women and children through our tax dollars, schools, property values, healthcare costs and crime rates. . . As a community and a nation, we all lose if women lose.”

Gayle Rose invents ways to make change, to build new opportunities for herself and for others. She invests, she initiates, she inspires, she innovates – she uses her talents to create her own future despite personal tragedy or long odds – and we and our children benefit.

Jodie Vance

Women of Achievement
2009

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Jodie Vance

Jodie Vance, publisher of the Memphis Downtowner magazine, must have been imbued with the enterprising spirit early in life. For what else could have led her to see the possibilities of a publication devoted to downtown living and working in a recessionary time when just about everything downtown was depressed and only the most optimistic dreamers and developers could see a bright future for the core of the city?

Jodie is a product of the Delta. She was born in Webb, Mississippi where her parents were small business owners who demonstrated daily the values of hard work. She attended the University of Mississippi, earning a degree in sociology, with studies concentrated in social work, psychology and English. As she once said, “I have a degree in nothing and in everything.” Which is another way of saying Jodie was an entrepreneur in waiting.

After moving to Memphis in the 1980s, Jodie soon discovered downtown, where she found a few — but very friendly — downtown residents and merchants. She joined the Downtown Neighborhood Association and slowly, inevitably, the idea grew that led to the launch of a magazine on the strength of her $10,000 in savings, and the advice and help of a few friends.

While Jodie freely admits that she had no journalism experience – and really had no idea what she was getting into in late 1990 when she started putting together the first pages of the first edition – when did ignorance ever stop someone with her kind of initiative?

In the 18 years since that first 12-page mini magazine was published, the Memphis Downtowner has grown in size and content and has evolved into a sophisticated organ that is the voice of the central district with readership that extends well beyond downtown. It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that downtown Memphis itself has grown and evolved at the same pace.

Along the way, Jodie has won many awards that reflect her accomplishments.
All the accolades come down to a simple philosophy.

“I’ll always remember my father telling me, ‘Whatever you do, leave a place better than you found it,’” she has said. “And when I came Downtown, I thought, ‘My God, this is what I’m supposed to do! I’m supposed to leave this place better than I found it.’

“I felt my purpose when I moved Downtown, and I knew I had to publish a magazine about Downtown to do my part in bringing it back to life.”

Jodie Vance did her part, and more. Using her talents, she created her own future, and helped create a better future for Downtown Memphis and all of us.

June Mann Averyt

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2006

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

June Mann Averyt

An individual sleeping in a doorway or bumming a cigarette in a church parking lot or pushing a beat-up grocery cart toward an abandoned building prompts most of us to shake our heads at the overwhelming problem of homelessness. We wonder about the person’s plight and debate whether we should do something.

June Averyt looks past the questions and just sees a potential friend.

A true advocate for people living on the street, her work goes beyond advocacy: She pursues personal relationships with people most of the rest of us fear or shun.

Pat Morgan, executive director of Partners for the Homeless and a social services colleague, put it this way: “June Averyt has her Ph.D. in social welfare, but it should really read as a doctorate of philosophy in homelessness as this has been her major focus for years. June does more than study homelessness and homeless people. She literally devotes her life to developing relationships with street-dwelling people with severe and persistent mental illness, chronic substance abuse problems, and/or dual diagnoses of mental illness and substance abuse. She uses trust to persuade them to accept housing and non-traditional services.”

June’s postgraduate work began at the University of Georgia, where she obtained a Master of Social Work in 1993. As she worked toward her doctorate, she amassed a variety of educational and work experiences in Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York and Tennessee. Internships with the Georgia legislature and Jewish Federation of Atlanta put her in a position to affect legislation and allocate grants. A four-year fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychiatry provided the opportunity to study mental health policies and to do ground-breaking research. She has taught, performed research, published articles and made many professional presentations. Her career took her to Manhattan where she worked for The Samaritans of New York, including three years as executive director. From 2000 to 2002, she worked as director of social services for the Salvation Army in Memphis, starting four new programs in 18 months.

Winning her doctorate degree came at the same time that June decided to fully pursue her interest in the homeless. She joined an ad-hoc movement among Midtown churches seeking to help the homeless. After two years of study the coalition launched a new nonprofit called Door of Hope and hired June as executive director.

Door of Hope’s mission is to provide a welcoming place where people on the streets can learn healthy living skills and build positive relationships. June calls it servanthood in action. That, according to Pat Morgan, describes June to a “T.”

“She puts people in her car, takes them to appointments, to apply for housing or just to their favorite haunts. When the people she has befriended become too ill to sleep outdoors in freezing weather, she has been known to open her home to some of the most fragile.” That’s true, says June’s husband Murray McKay, who married June two years ago on Valentine’s Day. “Taking someone in may be unusual, but it doesn’t seem extraordinary to us. We focus on
the fact that the person needs help.”

Murray says June’s work amounts to a religious calling. He adds that June had perfect models in her parents, both of whom spent time and fortune helping the needy and the mentally ill.

June Averyt left Door of Hope in 2011 and founded Outreach, Housing & Community.

Judy Wimmer

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2013

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Judy Wimmer

 

Judy Wimmer has long had the vision of a peaceful and loving community free of prejudice and with respect for all. This vision has led her to bring her creative and enlightened leadership to many projects and initiatives designed to improve the lives of women and children in Memphis and Shelby County.

Judy has always been very sensitive. Even the nuns at school told her so. She’s always been an activist, ever willing to take on a new challenge. She began taking dance classes at age 3 and started her own dance school right after high school, teaching ballet, tap and jazz in her own studio in Whitehaven while attending college. She only became a stay-at-home mom with the birth of Dana. But even then she didn’t stay home.

In the spring of 1968, Judy participated in the first Rearing Children of Good Will Workshop, a program that brought black and white mothers together to hear speakers on civil rights, child development and community needs and then to promote dialog across racial lines. Inspired by the experience, that summer she organized a second workshop in the Whitehaven community.

That same year, she became a founding member of the Memphis Panel of American Women, organized locally by Jocelyn Wurzburg. This group brought together ethnically and religiously diverse women to speak at service organizations, schools, etc. about their personal experiences with exclusion and discrimination.

In 1969 she chaired the Public Affairs committee of the Concerned Women of Memphis and Shelby County. Their primary goal was to help AFSCME avoid another sanitation workers’ strike.

Being a family who talked the talk and walked the walk, Judy, her husband Fred, and their three children purposefully moved to the integrated Vollintine-Evergreen community. The children were then enrolled in public schools, much to the dismay of the grandparents.

She next became one of the key organizers and volunteers of IMPACT (Involved Memphis Parents Assisting Children and Teachers), a group that supported the court-ordered public school busing which took place in 1972. She often ran the office and served as the group’s spokeswoman. Once busing began she organized volunteers at every bus stop to insure a peaceful process. J. Mac Holladay, director of IMPACT, recalls that “her dedication to public education and to the future of the City of Memphis was a shining light in a time of crisis.”

Continuing to pursue her vision for women, from 1974-1976 Judy was a VISTA volunteer, working at MIFA as co-director of Mother to Mother, a program that paired church volunteers and mothers on welfare to help them navigate the social service system. Pairing these mothers from different backgrounds had the additional impact of dispelling myths on both sides.

In 1981, the Memphis Public Library received a National Endowment for the Humanities’ Women in the Community grant administered through Radcliff College. A small committee planned a series of public programs called “Memphis Women: From Yellow Fever to 2001.” Judy was a member of the committee as well being a program chair.

Judy says that one of the best things that ever happened to her was returning to the University of Memphis to complete her degree. She says that Maya Angelou and Women of Achievement Heritage recipient Myra Dreifus are to blame. Judy had gone to hear Ms. Angelou speak and along with a few others went out on the lawn in the rain to continue the conversation. Myra was there, invited her to lunch, and after two hours of exchanging confidences, told Judy to go finish school. Undecided until that conversation, she did, completing her degree in 1982.

Of course Judy was there – on the planning committee – when Women of Achievement began in 1984. Our goal of recognizing the unheralded achievements of women is right up her alley.

In 1968 Judy wrote: “These are times of soul-searching throughout our community, our country, our world. As never before, concerned people are seeking ways to live in fellowship, harmony, understanding, and love with all persons everywhere.” These words still inform her vision.

Susanne Coulan Scruggs

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2013

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Susanne Coulan Scruggs

Susanne Coulan Scruggs could have easily filled her days and social calendar with teas and luncheons and the activities of her six children and her husband, a prominent Shelby County attorney and judge.

Instead, Susanne devoted much of her adult life to improving conditions for many of the least fortunate in her adopted city of Memphis. Born in Boston, she moved to Memphis in 1889 after marrying attorney Thomas M. Scruggs. In the next 50 years, she would lead endeavors to provide safe places for children to play, improve public education, create a juvenile court, provide free medical care to needy children, and initiate family welfare programs.

A founding member of the Nineteenth Century Club, Susanne is credited with directing a fundraising reception that ensured the opening of the Cossitt Library in 1894. After that successful event, she began to focus her efforts on social programs to help Memphis children at a time when progressive leaders across the country were tackling similar community issues. Memphis had the added complications of recovering from the Yellow Fever epidemic just two decades earlier.

Many of the groups and agencies organized through Susanne’s leadership are organizations we take for granted today. At the turn of the century, she was on the cutting edge. She was perhaps best known for founding the Memphis Playground Association in 1908 to ensure supervised playgrounds in Memphis parks. The organization creatively enlisted unruly boys to be part of a “Playground Police”, transforming disorder into self-government with the young men serving as protectors of younger children. The Playground Association became the most influential child welfare organization in the city. Its leaders were responsible for the creation of a children’s ward in the City Hospital and the establishment of a Juvenile Court.

In working to create the Juvenile Court, Susanne corresponded with Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey of Denver, a national pioneer in the juvenile justice movement. Born in West Tennessee, Lindsey provided legal forms for the Memphis reformers to use in creating the Court and Detention Home. Susanne disagreed with a decision to make the Juvenile Court part of the city court system instead of the county probate courts, saying city court was an extension of the police department. As chairman of the Juvenile Court Advisory Board, she worked to make the best of the situation and fought for a larger budget. While the board did not receive all of its requests, Susanne stood firm on several issues including a female probation officer.

Susanne ultimately was dissatisfied with the Juvenile Court and resigned from the Advisory Board in protest. She founded the Children’s Protective Union, a complementary agency that found homes for children. Susanne argued that dependent children should not experience the Juvenile Court system because it was designed for delinquent children. In her work with the Union, she served as a “friendly visitor” to homes of children served by the agency.

In the first decade of 1900, Susanne organized two public school associations: the Woman’s Public Schools Association in 1905 and the Public Education Association in 1907. The Woman’s Public Schools Association focused on efficiency in education. They fought for free paper and books for needy children and less classroom crowding. In one letter to the Memphis School Board, Susanne made an argument still debated today. She contended that promotion to the next grade should be based on a child’s daily work instead of a single exam.

The second educational group, the Public Education Association, had a broader agenda in the schools. Through that group, Susanne led advocacy efforts for greater financial stability for the school system, improved sanitation in schools, medical exams for students and the serving of hot lunches. Both of the education associations focused on increasing parental involvement. Susanne was active in both state and city levels of the Congress of Mothers and Parent Teacher Associations and she urged women to participate as a way to make their voices heard until they earned the right to vote.

It should be noted that while Susanne worked for child-welfare reform during a time of segregation, she often supported Julia Hooks and other African-American reformers in their parallel efforts.Susanne looked beyond specific issues to address the broader social context. In 1913, at the statewide meeting of the Congress of Mothers and Parent Teacher Associations, she made a motion asking the organization president to name a committee to draft a series of bills to be introduced in the General Assembly. Among the 11 proposals were:

  • A provision that the state enforce child support by fathers, with incarceration as the penalty;
  • A requirement that girls under 16 not be required to testify in open court in cases of rape;
  • That women be allowed to serve as juvenile court judges and on school boards; and
  • That “all laws and measures affecting the welfare of children shall be state-wide in scope.”
    Susanne’s vision was years ahead of the General Assembly, but many of her proposals became law during her lifetime. In the book Gateway to Justice, scholar Jennifer Trost described Susanne as the most prominent child welfare activist in Memphis in the early Progressive years.

Susanne Scruggs died in 1945.

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2010

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was a contemporary of more famous women fliers like Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. She began her career in the early barnstorming days, walking wings and parachute jumping in her own flying circus. After she and her pilot, Vernon Omlie, landed in Memphis stranded and broke in 1922, they married and together established the first airport in the Mid-South and one of the first flying schools in the country.

Throughout her long career, Phoebe collected a string of “firsts” for women aviators. The recipient of the first Transport Pilot’s License and Airplane Mechanic’s License issued to a woman, Phoebe Omlie set a number of speed, endurance and altitude records. As an air racer, she won a number of high profile races, including the First National Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and the Transcontinental Handicap Sweepstakes in 1931.

In 1932, at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, Omlie logged over 20,000 miles for FDR’s presidential campaign. After the election, President Roosevelt made her Special Assistant for Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA), the first woman government official in aviation. Until she left government service in 1952, Phoebe Omlie was a central participant in the efforts to regularize and bureaucratize civil aviation, to make it safer and more affordable for the average citizen. Further, she used her access to government and the media to tirelessly promote women’s active involvement in aviation.

Though she came to a tragic end, dying alone in a transient’s hotel in Indianapolis at the age of 73, the victim of lung cancer and poverty, a few enthusiasts remembered her and proposed naming the control tower at Memphis International Airport for her in the 1980s. Due to a series of mishaps, the facility was never formally dedicated. This will be corrected when the new control tower is completed in 2011.

Phoebe Omlie’s place in the pages of aviation history is unchallenged. A woman of daring, courage, intelligence and devotion to the “air age,” she ranks as one of the greatest participants in 20th century American progress.

In October 2011, both the old and new air traffic control towers at Memphis International Airport were named for Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie in a ceremony featuring members of Congress and other officials.

Louise Fitzhugh

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2011

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Louise Fitzhugh

Best known to many as the author and illustrator of the well-loved children’s classic, Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh leaves a lasting legacy through her groundbreaking depictions of children that challenged sex role stereotypes long before such issues had become part of the public consciousness. Her books, first published in the early 1960s, depict a range of characters — from spunky girls who aspire to be writers and scientists to sensitive boys who want to be dancers rather than lawyers. Her characters provide positive role models for any child, girl or boy, who dares to be “different.”

Louise Fitzhugh was born in 1928 to a prominent Memphis family. She began both writing and drawing when she was young and continued to do both her entire life. She attended Hutchison, Southwestern, Florida Southern College, Bard College and NYU. She was uncomfortable with both racist and sexist attitudes prevalent in the south during that time so made a conscious effort to leave her southern accent behind. Prior to her work as a children’s author, she was a successful visual artist and illustrator. Later her book, Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, was adapted into a Tony-award winning play, “The Tap Dance Kid.” Yet it is for her children’s books that she is best remembered.

Her young, quirky outsider characters offer support for children who feel awkward or insecure. This is particularly true for young lesbian and gay readers, who find reassurance in Fitzhugh’s sensitive depiction of butch girls, artsy boys, and intense same-sex friendships. Fitzhugh’s characters challenged prevailing assumptions about sex roles in ways that are both provocative and entertaining and accessible for both children and adults. Her books were essential forerunners in the movement to publish non-sexist children’s books.

In 1964, Harriet the Spy was published. The groundbreaking novel featured a rude, incredibly inquisitive heroine who threw tantrums, mocked her parents, and alienated her classmates with her obsessive note-taking and candid opinions about their personal habits. She also happened to be extremely funny. The book was an instant hit with kids, though not with all adults.

Louise Fitzhugh’s unsentimental portrait of Harriet paved the way for writers like Judy Blume to present contemporary children grappling with hitherto unmentionable problems. Harriet the Spy is still in print and continues to influence and entertain young readers.

Awards for her work include a New York Times Outstanding Books of the Year Award, an American Library Association Notable Book citation and a New York Times Choice of Best Illustrated Books of the Year.

Louise Fitzhugh died in 1974 in Connecticut at the age of 46, but her work lives on to enrich all who turn the page.

Donna Fortson

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2007

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Donna Fortson

In the early 1980s, downtown minister Jesse Garner saw Donna Fortson as a woman with the ideal characteristics to lead the First Presbyterian Church soup kitchen.

He recalls: “Something about Donna struck me as a person who had the savvy to run something, and also as a person who had a great deal of compassion.’’

Donna, a Sunday School teacher and municipal bond underwriter, hadn’t thought about volunteering in the soup kitchen, but she agreed to take the job leading the church’s outreach committee. “I thought it was somewhere that I could help,” she said.

About 25 men began to show up for meals every Sunday afternoon, and the regular group grew to about 100 by the late 1980s. With the growing numbers of people, Donna began to notice a heartbreaking change in the patrons.

“When women and children started coming to the soup kitchen, that upset me,” Donna said.

Some of the families were homeless. Others were struggling to make ends meet in nearby Lauderdale Courts. Some of the women had been abused. Donna did what she could through the soup kitchen. She and the volunteers set up special tables for children and served them milk and Spaghetti-o’s instead of the adult food. But there just wasn’t much she could do to help the families on a Sunday afternoon. Donna wanted to do more and began to envision a shelter for women and children — something that wasn’t available in Memphis then.

She started making connections, attending meetings and learning all that she could about ways to address the problems the women were facing. By 1992, her vision began to manifest, and Memphis Family Shelter was incorporated. Two years later, Donna left her investment banking career to make her vision a reality. The first shelter, which housed four families, opened in 1996 with Donna as the first executive director.

Even as the shelter opened in a Midtown foursquare, Donna and her board knew they needed a larger facility if they wanted to make a real difference. They began to plan for a larger shelter that would house four times as many families. The new $1.7 million shelter opened in December 2000, providing food, shelter and safety for 16 women and their children.

Families can stay in the shelter for up to two years; the average stay is between six and nine months. While there, they have access to counseling, budgeting help, and tutoring for their children and rental assistance programs to help the families make the move from the shelter to apartments.

More than 250 families had found temporary homes in the shelter in its first 10 years. As she begins the second decade, Donna is looking to the future. She is challenged by decreases in federal funding, but encouraged that there are now other agencies offering transitional housing for families.

“I think this is what I was supposed to do,” she said.

Rev. Garner calls the results “spectacular” and says his suggestion of Donna for the outreach committee exceeded his greatest expectations.

“I don’t remember the particular logic, though I would call it divine inspiration,” he said. “I have always described that as the single smartest thing I have ever done in my life.”

Women of Achievement agrees! Donna Fortson turned the suffering she saw in the soup line into inspiration for helping homeless women.

Donna’s vision of a home for women who have no home, of a safe place where mothers and children can heal and renew their lives, has come true.