Jodie Vance

Women of Achievement

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.

Sonja White


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

Sonja White

Love shouldn’t hurt and Sonja White’s vision is for a world where it never will.

Women struggling to escape domestic violence desperately need the safety and justice that the legal system purports to offer, so nothing makes Sonja White angrier than seeing it fail them.

Her passion has fueled her work in two aspects of domestic violence – as a victim’s advocate and as a legal aid attorney. But she has not only worked her paid job – she also gives hours of her time in various volunteer leadership roles seeking resources and policy change that will rescue women and children from the nightmare epidemic of domestic crime that infects our community.

Sonja grew up in Memphis, graduated from Hamilton High and journeyed to Adelphi University in New York for college in 1981. She did a variety of part-time jobs to get through college and law school, including selling lingerie for Bloomingdale’s. She earned her law degree from Hofstra University 1988 and worked for eight years in the New York City criminal courts.

It was during that time that she realized she could not continue to defend batterers. She could not look into the faces of the injured and traumatized women and then stand up for the men who had hurt them. She came home to Memphis and went to work as director of the Memphis YWCA Abused Women’s Services Court Advocacy Program, helping women navigate the complex system of courts.

From fall of 2001 to spring of 2004 she was an adjunct professor of law in the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Domestic Violence Clinic. She has specialized since then in domestic violence cases as managing attorney of the Memphis Area Legal Services Family Law Unit. Her focus is on utilization of the judicial system to eliminate barriers to violence free lives for victims of domestic violence.

She goes above and beyond the parameters of her job, however, every day.

She writes grants to bring new resources to the community, such as one that created the Opportunity Plus project at Memphis Area Legal Services Family Law Unit. It offers women who have survived domestic violence case management support and assistance with employment, housing, child-rearing and other issues so that they can become independent and self-sustaining and avoid returning to their abuser.

She regularly speaks to civic and professional groups about domestic violence and court reform and has written numerous articles. She has led one plank of the domestic violence strategy for Operation: Safe Community, the coalition of business, elected and law enforcement leaders. Sonja’s initiative seeks to create a Unified Family Court here and she was named to the Shelby County Unified Family Court Task Force last year – a task that took many extra hours of work beyond her case docket.

As president of the Memphis Area Women’s Council since 2006 she leads the council’s DV action team that is pursuing new legislation, new funding and new collaborations to address the high numbers of local domestic crimes, including a record 34 domestic homicides.

As co-chair of the Memphis Shelby County Domestic Violence Council, she will oversee a revamping of its mission to grow from a networking organization to a hub of collaboration to fill gaps and strengthen capacity of essential service agencies.

Sonja White cares fervently for the hundreds of women and children who are damaged by domestic crime. She works tirelessly every day – while raising her own three children – to build a world where they and their friends and all of our children can expect to live in safe, nurturing relationships.

For her vision of a place where women can be safe from denigrating, demeaning and deadly treatment by those who are supposed to love and care for them, for her vision of a world where children can grow up in homes where adults are respectful and nurturing of each other and of them, for her vision that the judicial system can empower women to prosecute their abusers and rescue their children from harm and from generational violence, Sonja White is the 2009 Woman of Achievement for Vision.

Sonja White died in May 2013.

Caroline Turns


for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Caroline Turns

This girl likes her nails painted pretty and pink and wears her hats to match.

She’s a 9 year old fashionista and a gourmet cook who, thanks to Make-A-Wish Foundation, has traveled to Paris to work on her pastries!

Yet since age 7, Caroline Turns has been surviving a childhood cancer so rare that the doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital had only seen it once in the hospital’s 46-year history. That cancer is pancretoblastom. It appears in children age 9 and younger and is believed to be caused by left-over fetal cells.

From the time of her diagnosis, through difficult treatments and today, Caroline remains positive and upbeat. She has shared her story with others locally and throughout the nation through newspaper articles in Memphis and Dallas and through widely-read blogs and Internet sites.

In late spring 2007, Caroline developed a stomach ache that just wouldn’t go away. At first her parents and pediatrician thought she just had some kind of stomach virus. When the discomfort and nausea persisted, she was put on antacids. By late July, she was in excruciating pain and was admitted to LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center. On July 27, a CT scan showed a tumor. Time to move on to St. Jude for further testing.

At the meeting in which her parents received the cancer diagnosis, Dr. Stephen Skapek told them “We think your daughter is curable.” No percentages, but that word alone was reason for hope.

While her doctors discussed treatment plans, her parents discussed how to best help her through this enormous challenge. Her mother Marcjana immediately decided on a “no tears in front of Caroline” rule. Her father Patrick left his job and became Caroline’s full-time caregiver.

Her doctors came up with chemotherapy and surgery.

First, Caroline underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy at St. Jude. Side effects were excruciating but she persevered.

Removing the tumor, which was the size of a baked potato, was considered essential to her cure. Due to the shape of the tumor, Caroline’s doctor felt that the best way to successfully remove it would be with a multi-organ, single donor transplant.

Doctors at St. Jude searched for a hospital willing and able to perform such a complex procedure and found the Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Miami Transplant Institute.

The dangers of the surgery and problems following such a surgery are huge, but after much research, soul-searching and a trip to Miami to meet the doctors, Patrick and Marcjana agreed.

Caroline and Patrick moved to an apartment in Miami to await a donor. In June, 2008, one was found. Marcjana rushed to Miami to be there for the surgery. After an operation that lasted almost ten hours, Caroline came out with a new stomach, liver, pancreas, small and large intestine.

Three months later she was back home in Memphis and able to visit her third grade class at Dogwood Elementary!

But Caroline still has a long road ahead. She has returned to the hospital several times to fight off infections that are so very dangerous to a transplant survivor the first year following surgery. And in October two glitter-sized spots of cancer were found on her lungs. This resulted in more surgery, several more rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

Despite all, she forges ahead.

Her mother’s no crying rule and her father’s daily presence have provided a good base for Caroline and fit well with her sunny disposition and natural optimism. She continues her fight against this powerful disease, maintaining friendships with staff at both St. Jude’s and Holz Children’s when she’s in the hospital.

When she’s home – life is not about her health. It’s about normal kid stuff and family stuff — baking cookies, attending parties, checking in with school friends and just enjoying family time.

When asked how she’s able to do all this, our heroic nine year old says, “I just know it’s going to turn out right.”

Her heroic spirit is a model for us all.

Caroline Turns passed away on June 22, 2009.

Alma C. Hanson

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Alma C. Hanson

In 1922, the then 38-year-old Alma Hanson came to serve at the then-LeMoyne High School. She stayed until her death in 1962, at age 78, at the school she had helped nurture into LeMoyne College. During those years Miss Hanson dedicated her life to the growth of the school in order to improve the lives of the African American students who passed through its doors and thus to improve the lives of all African Americans living in the South.

Alma Hanson was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1884. As a young girl she lived in Sweden and attended school there. A dedicated idealist, she studied business administration at New York University before joining the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church. Her first assignment was to Palledelia, Alabama where she served until World War I, when she accepted a position with DuPont. In 1922 the American Missionary Association assigned her to LeMoyne High School. She moved into a small apartment on campus where she lived for the rest of her life.

For Alma Hanson, her work at the school was not just a nine-to-five job. She became involved in all aspects of life at LeMoyne-Owen as well as being active in civic groups in Memphis. According to Annette Hunt, Director of LeMoyne’s Hollis Price Library, Miss Hanson’s name is sprinkled throughout the college newsletters and archives. During her time, she was an intricate part of the success of the school and the success of its students. She was just a “good fit.”

For many years, Miss Hanson’s full-time job was treasurer of the school. She oversaw the financial transition of LeMoyne from a high school to a junior college to a 4-year college. During that time she also served in other capacities, at one time temporarily serving as acting president.

When she retired in 1952, she continued to live on campus and took on the job of Superintendant of Buildings and Grounds. She was especially fond of the grounds and cultivated a beautiful rose garden.

Over the years, Alma Hanson was active in the League of Women Voters, serving as board member and treasurer for eight years. Nominator and Women of Achievement Courage Recipient Anne Shafer says, “ (Miss Hanson) welcomed me to the board in 1958 as secretary. The racially integrated organization was new to me, and it was not popular in the South at that time. I had many things to learn about people and their role in a democratic government; (she) was patient and kind and a wonderful role model.”

Miss Hanson also loved theatre and music and had an excellent sense of humor. A 1960 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar describes her portrayals of “illiterate” and “handicapped” voters in League of Women Voters skits. Though intended to be humorous, the skits were designed to make an important point about everyone’s right to vote.

Alma Hanson continued to be as active as possible until her death in 1962. At her death, it was found that from her meager pay as a missionary, she had saved $30,000, a substantial amount at that time. This was used as the seed money for the building that became the Alma C. Hanson Student Center, the first building on campus to be named after someone who had not served officially as president. At the dedication, the college said of her, “Her interests were as broad as the world. She knew no pettiness nor did she concern herself with parochial or provincial interests.”

Following her death, in keeping with her request, her body was cremated and her ashes scattered over her beloved rose garden.

Alma Hanson’s life of focused, determined service and lifelong commitment to her cause left the legacy of opportunity for generations of students at LeMoyne-Owen College. She shows us the possibilities of one individual’s devoted purpose – our 2009 honoree for Heritage, Alma Hanson.

Gloria Kahn

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Gloria Kahn

Gloria Kahn’s community leadership began with bandage rolling during World War II and continues in the highly technical and explosive push for embryonic stem cell research in 2009. In more than 60 years, she has advocated for people and ideas here and throughout the world.

“She has been a leader, not just by words, but by example,” said one nominator. Asked why she always worked on community affairs, while so many did so little, Gloria said, “Because it has to be done. Not everybody wants to take on some of the things I take on (because) they’re controversial or time-consuming.”

This child of Russian immigrants, born in Memphis, was imbued with love, respect for and appreciation of the United States by her parents. She won a citywide essay contest on “What America Means to Me.” She was in college at Southwestern (now Rhodes) when World War II was declared. Wanting to help the war efforts, she became a Red Cross Nurse’s Aide volunteering at the veteran’s hospital.

Marriage and two children led to volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader – an acquaintance that later equipped her for a paid job as a field director and public relations director for the Tenn-Ark-Miss Girl Scout Council.

Her political activity began when she served as co-manager of President John F. Kennedy’s East Memphis campaign office. She served various leadership positions with the Memphis Women’s Political Caucus and the League of Women Voters and was a co-founder of the Public Issues Forum of Memphis, organized to bring greater advocacy for the Constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. She was its first president. Because of her passion for this issue, she was elected to the National Advisory Council for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She was West Tennessee Vice President of the Tennessee Federation of Democratic Women.

Other community volunteering included the Girl Scout Council, Council on Aging, Panel of American Women, Orange Mound Day Nursery, president of Theatre Memphis’ auxiliary Stage Set and fundraising steering committee for the Med.

For more than 50 years, Gloria has been a leader in Hadassah, the nation’s largest women’s volunteer organization. A member of a four-generation life-member family, she has served every position of leadership, including president, in the Memphis chapter and on the Southern Region Board. She also has been president of local and regional chapters of B’nai B’rith Women, the Anti-Defamation League and on the board of the Memphis Jewish Community Relations Council, Health Insurance Continuance in Tennessee and Beth Shalom Synagogue.

For 13 years, Gloria was chairperson of the Memphis Committee on Soviet Jewry, part of a national effort to give a voice to Jews and others who wanted to leave the Soviet Union but were denied visas simply because of their religion.

With the National Conference of Christians and Jews, she was instrumental in organizing the Interfaith Task Force on Human Rights and Religious Liberty. Through her involvement with Hadassah and Americans United, Gloria has taught others to lobby for issues in which they believe and she has led lobbying trips to Nashville and to Washington D.C. Former mayoral candidate Carol Chumney wrote of Gloria: “She would have been a fine candidate for office herself, based upon her knowledge, compassion, commitment, dedication and passion for improving our community. Yet, she chose to instead selflessly work to help other women, like myself, get their foot in the door in an arena in which women often struggle to gain equal participation.”

Despite repeated health challenges, Gloria Kahn remains devoted and dedicated to urgent causes. She almost single-handedly organized a community coalition to prepare and position legislation for state support of stem cell research. She only slowed that effort a bit last year after local legislators indicated that they were not ready to negotiate for it across the state! With new federal leadership open to scientific endeavor, she is ready with a revived campaign for Tennessee.

She helped plan and attended a reception for female state legislators in October even after another illness.

This champion of social change, of women’s rights, of progressive issues has steadfastly served our community as a leader on political, social and civic issues. And she’s not done yet! Gloria Kahn is the 2009 Woman of Achievement for Steadfastness.

Africa Gonzalez

Women of Achievement

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

Africa Gonzalez

As director of Immigrant Women’s Services for the Memphis YWCA, Africa Gonzalez can find herself in tense and difficult situations, facing angry husbands or clerics, neighbors or community members intent on their own interpretation of what immigrant women should be doing.

Helping women who are victims of domestic violence become safe and secure, helping them achieve their rights in a new country, helping them maneuver a strange landscape to get medical care and education for their children – all these things are the daily “to do” list for Africa, herself a survivor of a violent relationship.

After first coming to Memphis from Mexico 12 years ago, Africa moved here in 1999 to take a job with the Memphis Police Department communication division as a liaison for the Latino community. She was an interpreter and helped people deal with the legal process in the Criminal Justice Center where she was allowed to open the Hispanic Office.

When she learned that the Memphis YWCA was seeking an advocate for immigrant women, she left the police department and developed the program to help women in the domestic violence court and in the Order of Protection hearing room. Starting with Africa in 2003, the program now includes one full-time court advocate and three part-time. Almost 3,000 calls for help came to the Spanish line last year, 900 attended support group and 270 victims were helped with court matters – over 900 assists with filing orders, appeals or violations.

Africa collaborates with Latino Memphis, the Exchange Club Family Center, the Memphis Child Advocacy Center and other groups to connect immigrant women and their children to services. Africa is co-chair of the Shelby County Domestic Violence Council, speaks to groups and on the radio and is known for her work – but that’s not always a good thing.

She has had harassing emails, complaints from strangers at community events, even abusers who confront her in court.

“There’s a strong patriarchal rule that women should be in the house serving men,” Africa said. “Women helping other women stand up for themselves – these men see that as a threat, that we are changing these women and they’re becoming bad women.”

After one abuser showed up at her home, she moved to protect her children. “It was too dangerous to live there,” Africa said. “No one really knows where I live.”

Women caught in domestic violence suffer isolation, injury and fear. When that woman is a newcomer to this country, struggling to communicate and understand how to use the laws to protect herself and her family, perhaps unskilled or unemployed and with no financial resources or place to live – the challenges she faces are enormous. The YWCA Immigrant Women’s Services tries to understand that tangle of problems and help women find a way out. And Africa wants them to find their own voices.

She said, “My hope is to empower the Latino women I come across when I speak or do presentations, helping these women to have more control over their lives, to be able to use birth control if they want to, to report sexual abuse, to be more educated in terms of things that will better their lives – English, parenting skills, sexual education.

“If I don’t do this, the problem will continue generation after generation.”

Her dream is to add Arabic- and Vietnamese-speaking advocates to do outreach in those communities where she knows need is high and growing.

Africa Gonzalez speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. She guides the lost and vulnerable. Africa’s courage fortifies her every day as she continues the necessary, dangerous work of rescuing women and children.

Nancy Williams

Women of Achievement

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

Nancy Williams

Child sexual abuse. We don’t like to say the words aloud, much less talk about the problem. We don’t want to believe it happens in our community, to children we know, perpetuated by people we know. Yes, we know that it does happen, but not around here.

That was the case when Nancy Williams took on the job of director of the fledgling Memphis Child Advocacy Center in 1994 and that is the case today. Yet Nancy’s “dogged, persistent” determination has led to comprehensive services that make a huge impact on the lives of young victims and their families in Memphis and Shelby County and, that serve as a model for similar services all over the nation.

In 1994, Nancy Williams was completing a graduate degree while working full time and, with the incalculable help of husband Robert, raising two teenagers. Graduate school was nourishing her soul and she knew that her future work needed to be something that engaged her whole being. Having met the first Child Advocacy Center (CAC) Director Nancy Chandler through the Human Services Co-op founded by WA Recipient Jeanne Dreifus, she called to wish her well in her next job and ask who would be the Center’s next Director and just like that, Nancy Williams’ resume, name not attached, was in the mix.

Two months later she was on the job and two months after that, she wrote a therapeutic email of the “why didn’t you tell me” sort. Nancy was stunned by the apathy and inertia. People just didn’t want to believe that child sexual abuse existed. Organizations and institutions are slow to change. According to Nancy, it was like trying to move through a swamp, excruciatingly slow and filled with hidden obstacles. But Nancy came to CAC after seven years with the Mental Health Association and a brief stint with the Children Museum. She was used to hard work.

So, determined to make a difference, she rolled up her sleeves and did just that. In 1994 the Center had 4 employees and a budget of $350,000. Today there are 23 employees plus 43 from related agencies sharing the same site. And the annual budget is over $1,600,000.

But this story isn’t just about numbers; it’s also about the changes in service that these numbers represent. Nancy was determined to improve the experience of those children brave enough to speak up and look for a way out of their horrific situations. Solving child sexual abuse can’t be done by any single agency. It requires a group of agencies working together to reach that common goal.

Recognizing that urban environments come with a whole set of communication problems, Nancy decided that bringing the necessary groups to one site would vastly improve the results for young clients and their families. She used her vast diplomatic skills to push her vision forward. After all, she says, “Modern technologies even email can’t replace a cup of coffee.”

Now in addition to CAC’s staff, on-site offices include those of the Memphis Police Department, Children’s Protective Services and the District Attorney’s Office. The multi-disciplinary approach includes intervention, investigation, prosecution and treatment of abuse. Each day representatives from all four groups meet as a team to discuss each case and do the best possible work for each child. Cases now total over 2,000 annually. And thanks to the introduction of a revolutionary tracking system, each case can be followed and results used to improve outcomes for those children who follow. Forensic interviewing and counseling are done on site. Families enter the lobby and are immediately greeted with smiles, friendly voices and a wall of teddy bears of all shapes and sizes. Families are shown to a child-friendly waiting area and kids are offered snacks. And each young client receives the teddy bear of his or her choice for each visit.

Under Nancy’s leadership, prevention education has moved to the forefront. In 1994 there were age-appropriate presentations for 725 school children. In 2008, over 10,000 individuals, including children, teachers and parents, saw presentations by both staff and volunteers. Believing that child abuse is preventable only with the help of the community and wanting to make the problem more visible, in 2002 the Children’s Memorial Flag was raised for the first time. This flag flies every April in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month and flies for one week each week following the death by abuse of a child in Memphis and Shelby County.

In conjunction with the flag-raisings, the Center sends email alerts that are heart-stopping. Sadly, most deaths are of children under one year. Realizing that where there is child abuse there is often domestic violence, Nancy was at the table when discussion of a Family Safety Center began. She secured approval of the board for the CAC to become the incubator for the new program, which will open its doors later this year. Asked how she’s accomplished so much, Nancy responds, “Not by myself.” She mentioned the importance of finding people who are in places who can make a difference and calling upon those people. Just take a look at the incredible staff and board of the Child Advocacy Center and you’ll see that Nancy has a great gift in finding those people. She describes many instances of the right people putting themselves in the right place at the right time. She says that while some people believe in coincidence, she believes in god-incidence and quotes Margaret Meade, saying, “A small group of people can do amazing things.”

Whatever the reasons, we know that it is Nancy Williams’ determination that drives Memphis Child Advocacy Center in its vision is a community where children are safe, families are strong, and victims become children again. And we salute her.