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06/08/2020 12:00 AM

SHERO Awards Recognize Local Female Leaders with Impetus Toward Equality

A host of talented shoreline women from a huge variety of backgrounds were recognized at the inaugural SHERO Awards, presented by the Women & Family Life Center (WFLC), which hopes the event becomes an annual uplifting of women and girls in the area, raising the profile of powerful work and strong community involvement practiced by local “sheroes.”

U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro joined a host of other female leaders at the virtual event on June 6, applauding the activism, business leadership, community involvement, and compassion of these women, ranging from high school students to long-time business owners in the area.

“This started an idea, and a passion,” WFLC Director Meghan Scanlon said. “We recognized as agencies a need to lift female voices in the community, a need to recognize individuals that have been on the front lines helping do good work, but also the really hard work in the community.”

Originally planned as pancake breakfast with a chance to relax and help female leaders network and work together, Scanlon said she was still “very happy” with the virtual event while hoping to see it expand as an in-person gathering in the future.

The awards drew its honorees from Branford, Madison, Guilford, Killingworth, East Haven, and Clinton. Twelve Guilford women were honored: Gabriela Garcia-Perez, Carrie Bishop Healy, Jen Cruet, Shannon Gale, Deb Heinrich, Patricia McGuire, Brittney Oboikovitz-Tasto, Liza Petra (who also hosted the awards show), Marji Lipez-Shapiro, Dr. Andrea Silver, Kristin Song, and Janice Ward.

Ten Madison and Killingworth women were honored: Mary Angus, Christine Willett, Lauren Kaplan, Keelin Virgulto, Jennifer Chapman, Karen Helburn, Tara Henry, Katie Stein, and Martha Wells-Hoffman.

More than 130 attendees were logged in at the Zoom video meeting, though actual attendance was significantly higher than that, with many families gathering around the same computer screen to join in cheering the award winners, both figuratively and literally, as much as the format allowed.

DeLauro, who has represented Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District for almost 30 years, lauded the effort to center the work of women, particularly during all the recent crises and upheaval, citing a recent New York Times article that found one-third of jobs held by women were deemed essential during the pandemic.

“Non-white women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else,” DeLauro said. “The work they do has often been underpaid and undervalued. An unseen labor force that keeps the country running and takes care of those most in need, whether or not there is a pandemic.”

Scanlon said that DeLauro’s presence and words were incredibly important and powerful, and that she plans to bring keynote speakers every year in the future, hopefully drawing from past SHERO award-winners.

Scanlon and Petra both emphasized that those recognized came from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

“This group represents current students to retirees, farmers to health care workers, child care works to advocates for the elderly, entrepreneurs to legacy business leaders, leaders of nonprofits, leaders of for-profits,” said Petra. “Each of these remarkable women...has had her own story that has contributed to her work.”

Garcia-Perez, who will be graduating from Guilford High School (GHS) this year with plans to attend the University of New Haven, was lauded for her work in founding and running an initiative named Community Integration and Mentoring Program that helps support non-English speaking children in the New Haven school system.

Ward was recognized for her role “helping the most vulnerable” through work with Meals on Wheels particularly during the current crisis, both delivering hot and ready-made meals to elderly Guilford residents and training other volunteers to do the same work.

Stein, who chairs the Board of Education in Madison, also works in a unique role for Yale New Haven Hospital, focusing in a multi-disciplinary way on the holistic wellbeing of children who have suffered through trauma and disasters—a role that Petra described as “critical, hard work.”

Speaking to The Source via email, Stein said she was “thrilled” to be recognized with the award, and said that “DeLauro’s remarks...will serve as an inspiration in my work as a child advocate.”

Virgulto, a Daniel Hand High School junior, put together an exhibit and panel through the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame earlier this year, moderating a panel of female community leaders who shared stories of their success and struggles with the community.

The current circumstances—both the pandemic, and ongoing protests against police violence and racial oppression—were a theme of the awards, both explicitly and implicitly.

“Your compassion and leadership is especially crucial now during a pandemic that has wreaked havoc in our communities and has also shined a line on the systemic racism that pervades our society,” Petra said. “We need women like you to keep the [foot on the gas] as we press ahead for justice and equality for everyone.”

“For the last few months...we have been talking about how to get back to normal,” Delauro said. “However, what we can hear in the chants for justice and the cries for equality is that going back is not good enough. This tectonic moment exposes so many wrongs, deep inequalities...and that as we fight the COVID-19 virus that is before us now, we must also fight the virus of injustice.”