Jennifer Pepper


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

Jennifer Pepper

As the United States Supreme Court prepared its opinion reversing a woman’s right to choose abortion and shuttering abortion clinics, who gets to work opening a new clinic to continue care and assure that pregnant persons have a choice?

Even with all this going against her, Jennifer Pepper does.

Jenn’s undaunted efforts to prepare for the Supreme Court ruling on abortion and her efforts to continue to provide for patients — from reorganizing and cross-training staff to finding, staffing and opening a new clinic in Illinois — drew attention from NBC, NPR and many others who told her story of heroic leadership.

Jenn’s deep commitment to women’s voices and bodily autonomy tracks right back to her “cool mom.” As a young single mother, she taught her daughter and son – and their friends — real names for their body parts, what they were for and how to be protected from HIV and pregnancy.

While Mom worked away from home, Jenn grew up taking care of the household and her younger brother in Alton, Illinois, developing leadership skills and problem solving. Her Catholic grandmothers took grand kids along to community projects like book drives and soup kitchens, instilling in Jenn the importance of helping people. But she also saw the impact family size had on people’s ability to live and thrive.

She says, “Women were who I saw taking care of stuff and I was always flabbergasted seeing my grandmas asking my grandpas for permission to do stuff….I didn’t really care for that.”

Jenn knew she needed straight As to get out of Alton and away to college. When a good-looking postcard from Rhodes College, five hours away in Memphis, Tenn., showed up senior year, she applied and got a community service scholarship.

At Rhodes she soon realized that nonprofits, not international business, would be her future. She interned at Planned Parenthood and honed activism skills producing Rhodes’ Vagina Monologs show and leading other women’s rights and women’s health programs.

One part-time job after graduation was at night at the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health as patient educator and abortion doula, then as full-time outreach coordinator for the agency founded by feminists in 1974. When longtime director Mary Frank retired, Jenn became interim director.

She found out she liked – and was good at – finance, management, the processes of running a nonprofit. When 2017 Woman of Achievement for Heroism Rebecca Terrell was hired as director, she made Jenn her deputy. With an expanding range of services, they rebranded the agency as CHOICES: Memphis Center for Reproductive Health. Jenn leaned into her knack for management and completed her MBA in 2014.

Shelby County government recruited her to run the Memphis Ryan White HIV programs, administering state and federal grant funds. But four years later, when Rebecca took her to lunch in May 2018 talking about the new birthing center CHOICES was building, Jenn eagerly returned as director of finance and operations.

With the birthing clinic, CHOICES became the first nonprofit, non-hospital health care provider in the country to offer both birth services and abortion care under one roof. CHOICES reproductive and sexual health care today covers perinatal and birth services, HIV testing and prevention, contraceptives, STI testing, gender-affirming care, IVF services and well-person exams.

In early 2020 Rebecca prepared to retire and asked Jenn to succeed her as president and CEO. The two worked closely with each other and the board for the transition on Jan. 1, 2021. Roe v. Wade guaranteeing the right to abortion was overturned on June 24, 2022.

“This is my third year,” Jenn says, “and it feels like 10 in lots of ways.”

To continue offering reproductive health care that was banned and made illegal in her own state last August, Jenn led CHOICES in opening a clinic in Carbondale, Illinois, one of the first and few abortion providers to open in a new state. It’s up the Amtrak line from Memphis or a 3 ½ -hour drive, in a state that passed a law in 2019 protecting the right to abortion. CHOICES’ new clinic saw its first patients on Oct. 11, 2022. It is the southernmost abortion clinic for most people across the Southeast.

Abortion is health care. Often life-saving care. Pregnancy complications should not become a possible death sentence. But Tennessee law forbids medical care in most circumstances and even bans terminations for raped, impregnated children.

Jenn Pepper stands firm, speaking out and working heroically to secure crucial health care that we all deserve.

Sandra Ferrell


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

Sandra Ferrell

What does the face of trauma, addiction, prostitution look like? Look in the mirror. It could be mine.

That’s what Sandra Ferrell realized in 2013 as she sat in St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral listening to Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, a Nashville community for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. As Becca discussed the well-established link between childhood abuse and prostitution. Sandra realized that if not for her loving family, she could easily be that woman on the streets.

Filled with gratitude for the grace she received in her life, she knew that she must help other women who did not have the support she had experienced. Right then Lisieux Community was born. In operation since 2014, it provides support and education for women who have survived trauma, addiction, and prostitution.

At age two, Sandra, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, was left regularly in the care of a trusted congregant so her mother and older siblings could pick cotton to help support the family. “Be good and do what the man says,” her mother unsuspectingly told Sandra. So she did. She was sexually abused for two years. Believing that what adults said was always true, she never told her parents.

Abuse began again at age 8 and was attempted yet again when she was 12. She never told. She never recovered from this abuse, never reached emotional maturity.

When her children were 12 and 16, she was unable to manage their behavior. She took them to a counselor who, recognizing Sandra’s deep trauma, said, “We can help you, too.” “I don’t need help,” Sandra said but with guidance, she checked into Lakeside Hospital for a week of intensive therapy and then began the long road to recovery.

Sandra’s children grew up and Sandra retired from a successful career then worked another 5 years. But she never forgot her own trauma. Leaving paid work, she became a volunteer at Caritas Village which was established by Woman of Achievement recipient Onie Johns to build community and break down economic and racial barriers that separate people. There, after her sudden flash of insight, Sandra told Onie that she wanted to provide support to women on the streets. Onie mentioned the name of a man Sandra needed to meet. That very day he showed up at Caritas for lunch, listened to Sandra’s dream and said, “You’re doing it now.” So, she started.

Sandra believes that God opens a door and, though you don’t know what’s next, you walk through and figure out what to do. And so it was with the founding of Lisieux Community. She would tell one person what Lisieux need. That person would say yes and then bring another person who would then bring another. Each person was just the right person who did what needed to be done.

The Lisieux Community started as a residential program on North Parkway. But women often did not stay long. According to Sandra, they had no trust. That facility was closed and in February 2019, Sandra with her volunteers took the program directly to the streets.

Not just any streets but dangerous Mitchell Heights.

Just off the Summer Avenue corridor, poverty and crime rates are high. Drugs and women’s bodies are sold and their lives are in peril. Despite the danger, every Thursday night Sandra would go to a liquor store parking lot and open her trunk. Women walking those streets soon came to know that Lisieux would be there with sanitary supplies, soap, toothpaste, clothes, food. The van was there rain or shine. Women were met with respect and love. Trust was established and word spread.

The pandemic made it impossible to gather in the parking lot, so Lisieux went on the road, traveling Mitchell Heights earlier in the day one afternoon per week. Recognizing the van, individually women would come for care bags and conversation, sometimes risking the anger of the men who profit off of them. Lisieux continues that Thursday drive.

Even before the pandemic, Sandra envisioned a drop-in center, a place to take a shower, wash clothes, and get help connecting with community resources such as counseling and rehab. That center opened on Valentine’s Day, 2021, with a cozy living room and beautiful, vibrant art on the wall, as suggested by Onie, to bring beauty into difficult lives.

Every Tuesday, clients are welcomed with love and asked what they would like that day.

Often, it’s a home cooked meal followed by a shower and possibly a nap in the living room. The Center serves as a home address and phone number which is essential for many services, including social security benefits and medical appointments. Once a month clients can choose a pair of shoes, a coat, a warm blanket. These things that we take for granted are regularly stolen. It’s part of street life.

Sandra always allows clients to choose. If you go to counseling and drop out, she doesn’t reprimand. If you go to rehab and drop out multiple times, she doesn’t judge. She helps whenever a woman is ready. Because she always remembers that she could have easily been that woman walking the streets.

The Lisieux website says: Our goal is to love each of the women we serve right where they are today, and then love them again tomorrow and again the next day.

Heroically, Sandra Ferrell never judges, and Sandra Ferrell never gives up. And Sandra Ferrell always loves.

Sandra Ferrell is the 2020 Woman of Achievement for Heroism.

Gabriela Salinas


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

Gabriela Salinas

Gabby Salinas’ story of survival and heroic devotion has been told all over the world. She was brought to the United States from Bolivia by her father at the age of seven, unable to walk, to be treated for cancer, but the family was turned away from a leading New York hospital after they were unable to pay for her treatment.

Without specialized care, Gabby did not have long to live.

Lucky for them that actress Marlo Thomas, daughter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital founder Danny Thomas, read about them and immediately faxed the story to Memphis. Two days later Gabby and her dad, a Bolivian Air Force pilot, were flown to Memphis courtesy of St. Jude – where no patient ever pays.

It was March 1996.

The medical team at St. Jude fought the Ewing sarcoma – pediatric bone cancer – in Gabby’s spine, helped her learn to walk again and saved her life – and not for the last time.

Gabby Salinas’ story, says WMC TV, “has plot twists worthy of a Steven Spielberg film.”

Gabby has survived cancer three times, suffered the loss of her father and younger sister in a horrific car crash, works as a scientist to discover new drugs to treat ravaging diseases and ran for the Tennessee State Senate – and she is only 30 years old!

Thirteen months after the Salinas family arrived at St. Jude, as they drove on Interstate-40 northeast of Memphis, their car crashed. Her father and sister were thrown from the car and killed. Her pregnant mother was paralyzed.

The surviving family – mother, Gabby, twin brother, toddler and infant – continued in Memphis. In 2001 Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson sponsored a bill in Congress, signed by President Bill Clinton, to grant them citizenship. Gabby was educated at St. Ann Bartlett (2003), St. Agnes Academy (2007) and Christian Brothers University (2011).

She was diagnosed twice again with cancer and again was treated at St. Jude – in 2003 and 2007. In 2010, still a college student, she joined the St. Jude Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics. She also helped establish “Danny’s Dream Team,” former St. Jude patients who run races that raise funds for St. Jude in honor of founder Danny Thomas. In 2010 this woman who once lost ability to walk participated in her first half-marathon to raise money for the hospital.

Acutely aware of the urgent need for access to health care and medical insurance, Gabby lobbied in Nashville for expansion of Medicaid after the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. She watched helplessly as her state senator ignored his own Republican governor in shooting down the effort. She later saw the rural hospital that had treated her injured family members close.

It all sparked her political awakening which led her to run in 2018 for her state senator’s seat in Senate District 31: Cordova, Germantown, east Shelby County and Hickory Hill. She defeated two opponents to become the Democratic nominee, facing a nine-year incumbent in a solidly-Republican district.

Gabby became the target of $369,000 in negative TV, radio and direct mail ads in a fear-mongering campaign funded by huge companies and a conservative political action committee, aided by Tennessee’s lieutenant governor. The ads painted Gabby as a dangerous radical and featured images of masked men representing criminal immigrants.

When Election Day ended, the incumbent had only 1,520 votes more than Gabby.

After almost a year of campaigning, she has returned to writing her thesis in Pharmaceutical Sciences for the University of Kentucky.

Gabby is a true hero. She has certainly been tested and her spirit shown – in print, television and online – as a heroic model over and over again. We salute Gabby Salinas as our Woman of Achievement for Heroism 2019.

Tami Sawyer


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

Tami Sawyer

The shooting of Trayvon Martin 6 years ago was a transformative moment for Tami Sawyer. She was then living in Washington, D.C. and working as a diversity analyst at the Navy Yard. Seeing the gentrification of her neighborhood drive out Black businesses and homeowners, Tami began thinking about moving back to Memphis. When a shooter killed 13 co-workers in the Navy complex where she worked, the decision to move home came easily.

Tami’s early life took place in Chicago, where her father was an entrepreneur who founded the first Black wedding magazine and her mother ran her own catering company. They moved back to her mother’s hometown of Memphis when Tami was 12. She found quite a different social world. Friendships among girls across the color line were not commonplace and, though her education was excellent, not everyone was supportive, even when she was elected president of her freshman class.

Her parents had raised her to believe in herself, to embrace her African American heritage, and to advocate for others. She knew who she was, and she was not afraid to speak up.

After graduating from St. Mary’s school, she attended the historically black Hampton University and graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Memphis. After spending some time at Howard University Law School, she worked on diversity issues for the Navy for the next 13 years.

Once she returned to Memphis, she worked for Shelby County Schools until assuming her current position as Director of Diversity & Cultural Competence with Teach for America, Memphis. She runs workshops for new TFA recruits and mentors the young teachers in area schools. She is a model, a confidant, and sometimes a mother to them.

The award for “heroism” is, of course, much more than embodying one’s values in one’s career. Once connected to a vibrant group of young activists here, Tami Sawyer emerged as the energizing force behind (hashtag) #TakeEmDown901, the citizen group that pressured the city to remove two Confederate statues from downtown parks.

As part of that effort, she called a public meeting at which some 300 citizens, from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, stood to testify to the pain that these Confederate memorials had caused or to decry the distorted history they promulgated. Speaking to groups across the city, she also collected thousands of petition signatures, and, with other local groups, proposed ways that the statues could be legally removed. Many had worked on this issue before. Tami pushed it to the forefront through social media and citizen protest.

She has since founded “Woke United,” a movement of young Black political activists from cities across the country dedicated to removing at least 5% of all Confederate statues in the country. It is a movement with growing support from historians, mayors, and city officials in many states.

Tami was included in The Commercial Appeal’s “2017 Person of the Year” recognition. And this year, she was named as “one of 18 Tennesseans to watch” by The Tennessean and The Commercial Appeal. She has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, MLK50, the New Tri-State Defender, the Memphis Daily News and the Memphis Flyer. She has been heard on Al Jazeera, NPR and BBC Radio. She has been an introductory speaker for social justice leaders Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem and Minister Louis Farrakhan.

The protracted protests stemming from the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland and so many others led Tami to realize that standing outside the seats of power and asking for change was not working.

Change comes faster from being on the inside. Consequently, in 2016 Tami ran in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Tennessee legislature. Losing to the incumbent John DeBerry only strengthened her determination for public service. She is currently a candidate for the Shelby County Commission, District 7.

A hero leads by example and provides endless encouragement to others. A hero continues to push the boulder up the mountain, even when the task seems hopeless. A hero needs tireless energy. Charisma helps.

Despite death threats and the seemingly intractable racism that she fights, Tami Sawyer’s heroic spirit sustains her and changes our community. For her bravery and commitment, Women of Achievement salutes the 2018 Woman of Achievement for Heroism, Tami Sawyer.

Kathy Kastan


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

Kathy Kastan

At 40, Kathy Kastan was happy, healthy and fit, as far as anyone could tell.

The physician’s wife and mother of three sons in Cordova was avid about exercise — running, biking, swimming and weight lifting. She had no family history or health factors that connected to heart disease.

But something was wrong. Shortness of breath and shoulder pain she attributed to the stress of the move to Memphis and her mother’s death. But then on a bike trip with friends, she became nauseous and pain flowed down her shoulder and arm. The first cardiologist diagnosed mitral valve prolapse and prescribed antibiotics, but exercise continued to cause shoulder pain and going up and down steps was difficult.

On a hiking vacation in Colorado she collapsed with classic chest pain that radiated from her jaw to her back. A second cardiologist ran tests but could not find the problem . “Go exercise,’’ he said. Four days later she collapsed again. Treatments either failed or caused other complications so that eight months later, at age 42, Kathy had double bypass surgery. Her third cardiologist provided proper medication.

“I had gone from a woman with symptoms after exercise to popping nitroglycerin like candy,’’ Kathy said. “Now I have a normal, busy life. I exercise four to five days a week.’’

Her search for good care for herself led her to WomenHeart, the
15,000-member national coalition for women with heart disease, and to
leadership in the cause of women and heart health. Based in Washington, DC, WomenHeart is the only advocacy group for women with heart disease. “WomenHeart got me someplace. They virtually got my life back,” she says. She now serves as president.

In February 2005, Kathy stepped into an international spotlight in a full-color advertising campaign that shows her, in an open white blouse, revealing the sternum-length scar she calls her badge of courage.’’

Kathy has become an indefatigable advocate for women’s health. She has met with President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, speaks at community and political forums and encourages medical students and doctors to care for women differently.

Kathy grew up, daughter of a physician, in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned her bachelor’s and two graduate degrees at Washington University in St. Louis and was a practicing psychotherapist for 14 years.

Six years ago, she and her husband Michael moved from Baltimore to Memphis where Michael is director of the St. Jude Cancer Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Now her photograph and her story are in The Wall Street Journal, Smart Money and women’s magazines across the nation. “This shouldn’t have happened to her,’’ the ad says.” Ignorance almost killed her.’’

She is excited about calls she’s had from local women who saw a news story about the scar photograph. She hopes they can be organized into a local support group for women with heart disease.

“It’s the number one killer,’’ Kathy says. “And it can happen to you.”

Kathy’s heroic efforts will go far towards saving women’s lives by building awareness of this unseen killer.

In February of 2010, Kathy Kastan was awarded the Woman’s Day Red Dress Award for her dedication and tireless devotion to women and the heart disease movement. Kathy Kastan, LCSW/Ma Ed., has been Director of Duke Medicine’s Women’s Health & Advocacy Initiative since October of 2011. She is Past President, Emeritus of the Board of Directors of WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. Ms. Kastan is the Past Chairman of the Board of Directors and board member for the Greater Southeast Affiliate of the American Heart Association. She is currently serving on the Board of Directors of the Triangle’s American Heart Association. Kastan authored From the Heart: A Woman’ Guide to Living Well with Heart Disease. She is also a frequent blogger on the Huffington Post.

Constance McMillen


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

Constance McMillen

Constance McMillen was just a girl who wanted to have fun, like any other high school senior looking forward to senior prom in the spring of 2010. But when she was told by her vice principal, principal, superintendent and school board attorney she would not be allowed to attend her prom – because she wanted to bring her girlfriend – everything changed.

Constance McMillen reported her school to the American Civil Liberties Union which informed the Itawamba County school district that the rule was illegal. Change it by March 10, said the ACLU, or we’ll sue. The school’s systems response was to cancel the prom on March 10 and issue a press release that generated national and international news attention. Constance’s life hasn’t been the same since and that’s putting it mildly. “They cancelled prom and I was on CNN the next day!” she says.

The ACLU immediately filed suit. Constance received text and Facebook messages saying she had ruined prom for everyone and that she didn’t deserve to go to that school. Her best friend, who had been like a sister to her, stopped talking to her on March 10 and they have not spoken since.

In court a few days before the April 2 prom date, school officials testified there would be a prom privately hosted by parents and that Constance and her girlfriend could go. But when she went to get a ticket, she found it had also been cancelled. Eventually it seems that officials and parents decided to have two proms — most students attended one held in another community and Constance was able to get tickets to one where only six students showed up.

Constance let her lawyers know. She had originally filed for only a dollar in damages but after the fake prom, the publicity – and the duplicity – she was harassed and had to move in with a family in Jackson, Mississippi, five hours away, to finish high school.

A federal judge ruled that Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, MS, violated Constance’s First Amendment rights. She filed for damages and settled out of court for $35,000 with a promise from the school system to change their sexual orientation and gender identity policy.

“It wasn’t about the money,” Constance says, “as long as they changed their anti-discrimination policies. Still, they were trying not to change it, but we got onto ‘em and told ‘em if they didn’t, we would file for contempt of court, so eventually they changed it.”

Constance, who lives with her paternal grandmother in Fulton, got connected to the ACLU and gay activists through her mother, a lesbian who lives near Biloxi. “She just tries to live and do what she’s got to do, but she didn’t think it was right,” Constance said.

Constance is majoring in psychology at Northeast Mississippi Community College.

Invitations to speak on panels and at rallies come from all over. Constance has been interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres who also gave her a $30,000 college scholarship. She has been honored as a Woman of the Year for 2010 by Glamour magazine. She has led gay pride parades in New York City and California, has met President Obama at a White House reception and lobbied Congress.

People are asking her to tell her story and why she chose to be out front
The ACLU reported fewer calls this year from students needing support around prom season – and that several kids called to say that their school officials had heard of “that girl in Mississippi” – and so they said, ”sure, you can take your girlfriend.”

What’s the best thing to come from all this? “That it changed things for people,” Constance says, “first at my school and then over the country. It was already illegal, really, but since this was in federal court, now it’s in black and white that no school can do what they did to me. It is illegal to stop someone from going to prom based on their sexual orientation.”

Constance took an enormously heroic step for a young woman who was raised hearing that gay people can’t go to heaven. She has become a spokesperson for gay rights and hopes her studies lead to a career as a psychoanalyst so she can scientifically study the hostile effects on overall health on individuals forced into the closet.

Constance McMillen is our 2011 Woman of Achievement for Heroism.

Sheila White Parrish


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

Sheila White Parrish

Sheila White had a job few women have ever held. She worked for the railroad, the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. to be exact. In fact, she was the only forklift driver and the only woman in the railroad company’s track maintenance operation at the Tennessee Yard in Memphis when she was hired in 1997.

After she complained about being subjected to what she considered sexual
harassment, the railway investigated and gave a male employee a 10-day
suspension without pay and required him to take sensitivity training. But then a supervisor gave Sheila’s forklift job to a man, saying that other workers had
complained that employees with higher seniority were passed over for the job.

Sheila was transferred to track laborer work — pulling spikes from rail ties, laying track — heavy work. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company had retaliated against her. After her new supervisor learned of her EEOC charge, he and Sheila had a disagreement with resulted in his reporting her as insubordinate. She was suspended without pay, then filed a grievance which resulted in a finding that she was not in fact insubordinate. The railroad reinstated her with full back pay for the days of work she had missed.

But Sheila sued the railroad, beginning a nine-year battle for justice. She alleged that the decision to take her forklift job away and her suspension without pay were retaliation of her sex discrimination complaint, in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law protects employees from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin.

At a five-day trial in 2000, a jury found that Sheila did not prove sex discrimination but had been retaliated against. It awarded her $43,500 in compensatory damages and $54,285 in attorney fees. Both sides appealed.
In the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court, Judge Julia Gibbons requested that the entire bench hear Sheila’s case and later wrote for the majority that the change in job duties from forklift operator to track maintenance was an “adverse employment action” in part because it was “dirtier” and less prestigious, even though it paid the same.

“Taking away an employee’s paycheck for over a month is not trivial, and if
motivated by discriminatory intent, it violates” the law, Judge Gibbons wrote. BNSF appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the debate was over what kinds of actions by management could be defined as retaliation following an employee complaint. The high court ruling in late 2006 held that retaliation in violation of Title VII includes conduct that might dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

Sheila’s case expanded the scope of what constitutes “unlawful retaliation.” That can now be based upon conduct causing harm outside the workplace, such as a scheduling change that might seem immaterial to many employees but that would, for example, “matter enormously to a young other with school-aged children.”

Today employers must scrutinize every management decision that affects an
employee who complains of discrimination. Federal law to protect workers has been changed and workers today and into the future will be better protected thanks to the heroic battle of Sheila White Vs. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe.

Sheila White Parrish travels and shares her story in workshops and among women’s groups.

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.

Meaghan Ybos


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

Meaghan Ybos

Meaghan Ybos was a 16-year-old high school student when she was raped, in her home, by a masked man who held a knife to her throat.

She waited in terror for her mother to come home – he had threatened to kill her family if she told anyone. Her mom called 911 and Meaghan began the first of multiple conversations with law enforcement when Sheriff’s deputies arrived. One cautioned that she could be arrested for making a false report if she were not telling the truth, if her story were just a grab for attention from her parents. The nightmare of reporting the rape went on for days – the hours-long forensic exam at the rape crisis center, the multiple interviews with officers. Even after a second rape nearby involving a young girl who physically resembled Meaghan, her parents could not convince police or local broadcasters to warn that a serial rapist could be stalking young women in Cordova.

And then nothing – no contact from the police, no word from prosecutors.
For the next 10 years, she struggled to cope with the trauma, pain and fear of not knowing who he was, where he was, while trying to live something like a normal life.

She finished high school, graduated from Rhodes College and entered law school at Ole Miss. It was in April 2012 as she anticipated law school graduation in May that her mom spotted a brief news report about a man being called “the Cordova rapist.” His attacks sounded eerily familiar; the Ybos contacted police and sure enough – when her forensic “rape kit” was tested, there was a match to Anthony Alliano, the Cordova rapist. In March of 2013, Meaghan was granted her request to speak to him at his sentencing in Criminal Court for multiple counts of rape.

Meaghan faced her attacker and had the satisfaction of seeing him led out of court into a 178-year prison sentence.

An experience that could have broken her became for Meaghan a purpose, a cause, a life’s goal. While studying for the bar exam, she went looking for a way to use her voice to bring attention to rape, the needs of survivors of rape and the need to hold rapists accountable.

She met with Deborah Clubb of the Memphis Area Women’s Council. The Council had worked intently and successfully on problems with rape crisis services and was engaged in ongoing efforts related to rape prosecution. Meaghan became an activist with the Council, working with Deborah to shape and convey a message aimed at encouraging leaders to address these needs. Part of that effort included becoming a part of the Victims of Crime Advisory League (VOCAL), a citizen group appointed by the Shelby County mayor to advise on needs of victims.

From there, Meaghan wrote and presented legislation to address the statue of limitations on rape cases and the use of DNA testing in those cases. The proposal failed to get through to the legislature in 2013; Meaghan rewrote it and is working with Shelby County legislators and others around the state to support it this year.

When the huge backlog of stored and largely untested forensic rape kits in Memphis Police Department possession was revealed in August, Meaghan went public as a survivor of rape. In local television interviews that were rebroadcast across the country, in web-based and social media, Meaghan heroically told her story, urging full action on the backlog and thanking local leaders for facing the task openly at last. Memphis police director Toney Armstrong eventually announced a tally of 12,164 stored kits.

Meaghan also has spoken on radio, to multiple print reporters and maintains a presence online, re-tweeting news stories and striving to keep a national spotlight on Memphis’ situation. For the Women’s Council, she contacted the Joyful Heart Foundation, the organization supported by television actress Mariska Hargitay, to ask for their help in widening the impact of the rape kit controversy toward real change in how victims and rapists are treated here.
Meaghan has become a fearless, determined advocate and activist for rape survivors. With more than 600 reported sexual assaults locally each year, we might expect that others would step forward in this cause – but Meaghan continues to be one of the few willing to speak publicly and consistently, to press for change, to demand attention and action, to demand justice for those who endure the horrific crime of rape, to put a face to the awful crime of rape.

Summer Owens

Women of Achievement

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

Summer Owens

Summer Owens’ childhood ended when she got pregnant on her 15th birthday.

Rather than become a silent statistic of poverty and ignorance, though, she has become a voice of warning and encouragement to young people everywhere. She tells her story in public speeches, on television and in the book she wrote and published titled Life after Birth: A Memoir of Survival and Success as a Teenage Mother.

The story begins with an encounter with an older guy in her hometown of Bolivar. They were fooling around. She was a virgin, a sophomore in high school. No adult in her world had ever talked to her about sex or the consequences of sexual activity. She let him touch her. He went further. What happened didn’t even feel to her like completed sex.

Four weeks later she went to a health clinic to get checked for STDs and tests showed she was pregnant. “Nobody ever talked to me which is why I talk now to girls – and boys – because it seems it is difficult for parents to talk,” Summer says.

With younger siblings at home and a stepfather with whom she had conflict, Summer moved in with her grandmother in Jackson. After her baby boy Jaylan was born, Summer was out of school for six weeks. When she went back to class at Jackson Central-Merry High School she had to catch up in chemistry, French and geometry while studying the current six weeks’ material.

Her grandmother, then 75 years old, helped with the baby. Her typical routine: Up at 5 to prepare Jaylan’s bottles. Off to school and then to after-school student government, Beta Club and yearbook meetings. Home to tend the baby and do some homework. Off to Arby’s to work as a cashier. Return home to tend the baby. Drop into bed around midnight. Repeat. She soon added a weekend job as hostess at Waffle House because, as she learned, babies cost a lot.

Her hard work and intelligence paid off! She graduated eighth in her class of about 300 and was elected Most Likely to Succeed! When she won an Emerging Leaders Scholarship to the University of Memphis, she left Jaylan with her grandmother and moved on campus for her freshman year, going home every weekend. Jaylan sometimes visited in the dorm and went to class with Summer. He learned his numbers and letters sitting in class.

In her sophomore year, Summer rented an apartment and found daycare for Jaylan. Roommate, faculty secretaries, even program directors helped with Jaylan when she wasn’t there. In 2001, Summer was named Miss University of Memphis – based on campus and community involvement and academic achievement. She graduated with a marketing major, magna cum laude.

That’s when Summer went to work in ticket sales for the Memphis Grizzlies. She pursued a master’s in business administration from Bellhaven University while rising to the position of marketing manager for the Grizzlies. She worked 70 to 80 hours a week, saved money and bought her first house in Bartlett.
In 2006, she joined ServiceMaster as a marketing manager and in 2007 joined the marketing staff at FedEx Corp where she today holds the position of senior marketing specialist.

Over the years, Summer’s friends wanted to know how she managed to accomplish so much when so many teen moms don’t. The questions led to her self-published memoir, which she began promoting on Facebook. Requests for speaking engagements soon rolled in from youth groups, school groups, even college. Now she has a website, publishes an online newsletter and volunteers as a mentor through Memphis City Schools.

Summer is the mother of a 17-year-old, now, and offers clear guidance to adults and teens: “It is our responsibility to love, nurture and educate our youth so that they can make responsible choices with regard to their sexual behavior,” she says. “We do live in a world where girls and boys are having sex, and they need to know (that) if this is the choice you make, these are the consequences.”

In her website and her presentations – from Frayser to Texas to Kentucky, from Channel 3 Live at Nine to CNN – Summer Owens urges parents to talk to children about pre-marital sex, teach them about making good choices. And she urges teens who have become parents to make their lives the best they can be, heroically using her own story of pregnancy and hard work to warn, guide and motivate today’s teens.

We thank her with the 2012 Women of Achievement award for Heroism.