For years now, the Jackson Free Press has chosen and honored a slate of amazing women each year, a line-up we cheekily refer to as "Chicks We Love." These are women who embody what it takes to be renaissance women: They are involved in their communities; they believe in our city and state's future; they know what they do matters. They believe in themselves, and they don't let problems hold them back. They are women who pick themselves up, dust off and carry on. They are fun-loving and funny, and they are inspirations for all of us.
We will salute the 2011 Chicks We Love at the JFP Chick Ball on July 9. First, a VIP Chick-A-BOOM reception (for $50 and up sponsors) will honor them from 6 to 8 p.m. in Hal & Mal's Brew Pub. They will then join us on the main stage in the Red Room to be recognized by the full Ball at about 8:15 p.m. Be sure you're there to toast these fabulous chicks.
Beth Kander, a 29-year-old Illinois native, spent her young years in rural Michigan. Kander's adventurous spirit eventually lead her south in 2003 when she moved to Mississippi to work in education with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Kander is a playwright, and companies in London, England and New York have produced her work. She is president of Fondren Theatre Workshop and the Playwriting Chair for the Mississippi Theatre Association.
Despite her talent in theater and acting, Kander says, "I am a writer, first and foremost." She published her first children's book last year, "Glubbery Gray, The Knight Eating Beast." She has also contributed to several other books.
Kander obtained a master's of social work from the University of Michigan in 2007. In her day job, she coordinates community outreach and works with nonprofit companies. Kander supports the Women's Fund of Mississippi and the Animal Rescue Foundation of Mississippi, among other charitable organizations.
Kander's inspiration comes from "people who are not afraid to tell their stories; people who are not afraid to love. My parents, my grandparents, the diverse collection that is my family." Also, "from those big, spiritual moments that take you by surprise." Kander had a life-changing spiritual experience only a year ago when she was in an "epic car wreck." While trying to avoid hitting a deer, a semi-truck rear-ended her into the path of another semi-truck. The truck driver that pulled her from her mangled car and the EMTs that rushed her to the hospital all tell her that she is very lucky to be here today.
"I believe in miracles. They can't be predicted, but they can happen," Kander says. "I am honestly grateful for every single day that I get to be here, and I'm hoping that I can use each one of those days as well as I possibly can."
Many people use visual, musical and written art as an outlet for emotion and sentiment, but for Enrika Williams, the artistry of food is essential to living.
Born in West Point, Miss., and raised all over the southeastern United States, Williams has always considered Jackson her hometown because of her family roots in the capital city.
She moved to Jackson after landing a job at Parlor Market (115 W. Capitol St. 601-373-9841) in 2010, where she found an opportunity to be the type of chef she wants.
"I am all about great ingredients, minimal preparation, and just preserving the integrity of food," Williams explains about her art.
The 36-year-old attended the Art Institute of Atlanta in Georgia. Her formal education at AIA, where she graduated in 2004, enables Williams to incorporate her passions—food and cooking—into her career.
Since Parlor Market's doors opened in September 2010, Williams has cooked in the fine-dining, farm-to-table method.
"I have to constantly be motivated to create something because I get bored very easily," the chef says.
"I am the biggest food geek ever, and I like being around other food geeks. It's this energy we just bounce food off each other."
Williams finds inspiration for her culinary creations in all aspects of life—her southern heritage, music, good books and visual art.
Coming from a long line of southern women who love to cook, she uses much of her past as a basis for her original food phenomena of re-vamping an old recipe by giving it a new spin with extra ingredients or a modern flair.
"I like people to enjoy what I do. It makes me feel good," Williams says.
"Some people paint. I cook to relax and to create."
Mary Ann Galle
Mary Ann Galle has the resolve to overcome obstacles. The Gulfport native, 68, came to Brandon after Hurricane Katrina displaced her in 2005. The wife of Warren R. Galle Sr. and mother of three (Warren Jr., Paul, and Angela), Galle has always had a special place in her heart for children. For the last few years, Galle has worked as house manager at the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl. Galle, 68, started by helping children through therapeutic art.
Galle studied fine arts at William Carey University. After relocating to Brandon, Galle became invested in the local arts community. She joined the Rankin County Arts Alliance and was named treasurer in 2008. She also worked with the Kids Art Afternoon School program. Galle also joined the Women's Guild of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Flowood, collecting art supplies for children at the center.
As a volunteer at the Center for Violence Prevention, and then an employee, Galle became a "house mom." She got involved in the lives of the men, women and children at the center, helping take care of homes, scheduling appointments and assisting displaced parents in finding jobs. "I loved it. I loved being able to do that," she says.
Until Dec. 23, Gall' had always been present at the center. That day, however, Galle suffered a stroke. "I called the ambulance for someone else, but when they arrived, they said, 'You need to come with us,'" Gall' remembers.
It was a scary moment in Galle's life, and since then she hasn't been able to return to her job at the center. She is continuing her rehab and has improved. She is able to walk, and doctors are assessing her strength. "If I cannot get back to work, I would try to volunteer or even give private classes at home," Galle says.
Galle is a woman whose spirit refuses to be broken. She remains a central part of the art community, and has inspired others through her philanthropy. Galle believes in the center, and the influence it has had. "The Center supports them (the abuse victims), and that's what I love," Galle says. "Whatever their need, the center is there for them. It's like a little safe place in our world."
Jan Mattiace believes in the Jackson metro. Her father owned a men's clothing store on the square in Canton. Thinking she would follow in his footsteps, she studied merchandising and business at the University of Mississippi and started working retail out of college, but life took her in a different direction.
After working for the Mississippi Republican Party on several campaigns, Mattiace ended up in cable advertising sales for about 14 years. When her boss, Bob O'Brien, passed away, she decided it was time to try something new.
At that same time, her husband, real estate developer Andrew Mattiace, started work on the Duling School in Fondren. She helped with that project and, as she says, "accidentally" found her new career. She leads marketing and advertising for the company, researching merchants she thinks would do well in Jackson. Supporting local merchants while bringing new companies into the state is a balance that Mattiace enjoys.
"When we bring people who have never been to Mississippi here, we don't just show them our property; we sell the whole (metro) package, and people fall in love with it," she says. "Having someone look at me and say, 'I get it' is great."
What she calls her "big picture" perspective on the metro extends to the company, which also has developments in Madison, Richland, Ridgeland, including The Renaissance. "One can't stand without the other," Mattiace says. She strives to promote both the city and the suburbs.
This desire to bring people together extends to her private life as well. Mattiace works to maintain a diverse group of friends and tries to find the good in everyone. "Even if I have a different philosophy or a disagreement with someone on one issue, there's always some common ground that I can find," she says.
In her spare time, Mattiace works with animal rescue groups, which she calls her "heart and soul."
Despite the fact that Elaina Jackson had no acting experience, she won a state acting competition and went to nationals when she was a senior in high school—an experience that gave her confidence to pursue a theater career. But her knack for writing and communicating led her to a degree in mass communications.
"I still love theater, but when I started taking mass communication classes ... I realized I wanted to tell the news, be a part of what was happening and help people get the information they needed," Jackson says.
The 29-year-old Jackson native has worked as a producer for Channel 3 and 16, an on-air reporter for the Southern Urban Network and Marketing and Communications Director for the American Heart Association. She went back to Belhaven University to earn her master's degree in management in 2005.
Jackson—who lives with her husband, Jamian, and children in Brandon—refers to her current position as the marketing director at the Mississippi Children's Museum as a milestone in her life's journey. The museum opened last December and has already had more than 100,000 visitors. "We really hope that we are planting seeds and that children will develop a life-long passion for learning and discovery, and that they will develop a love for reading," she says.
The mother of four is a member of the Junior League of Jackson, which helped raise more than $26 million to build the museum and donated $2 million. Now as marketing director, she is responsible for designing marketing materials, assisting special events, managing web content and promoting the museum.
By her children's standards, it's the best job in the world. She often returns to the museum on Saturday mornings at the request of her children whose ages range from 1 to 13 years old.
"My kids say I can never leave," she says.
If there is a treasure chest of secrets to owning a successful business, you can find it in the possession of Michelle Austin, owner of Repeat Street in Ridgeland. A native of Cleveland, Miss., Austin spent much of her time as a young girl going to auctions and flea markets with her grandmother, who owned an antique store.
"I took my hobby and turned it into a business," she says. "I'm antiqued and flea-marketed."
Austin opened Repeat Street in October 2006. With an eclectic mix clothing and furniture, Repeat Street is the largest consignment store in the Jackson area and was ranked 2010 Best Consignment in Mississippi by Mississippi Magazine. The success of the store led to the July 2009 opening of Repeat Revolution in Starkville. In addition to Repeat Street and Repeat Revolution, her business ventures also include the Ridgeland Pet Clinic with her veterinarian husband Greg Austin.
With a degree from Delta State University, she briefly worked as a teacher. She later had twin boys and was a stay-at-home mom. She is now the mother of three, a wife and the owner of three striving businesses. She is also a member of the National Association of Professional Women, the Ridgeland Chamber of Commerce and the Madison Chamber of Commerce.
"Any success you have, you have to give back to the community," Austin says. As a result, she serves on the board of directors for Dress for Success Metro Jackson. Each month, her store raises money for different charities. One of her favorite charities is MadCAAP (Madison Countians Allied Against Poverty), a non-profit organization devoted to combating poverty in Madison County. She also works for breast cancer awareness and the Leukemia Association. Recently, her store collected more than 2,000 bras for breast cancer awareness. She says if people know of a special need, then she tries to help.
— Jordan Lashley
Rita Wray is tough, to the point and focused. She also loves to have fun. Last summer, she was one of the participants in Mississippi Opera's fundraiser "Dance with the Stars."
Wray has been the deputy executive director of the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration since 2004, where she has direct management responsibility for three offices.
A native of Florence, Ala., Wray holds a bachelor's degree from the University of North Alabama, a certification in nursing administration from the American Nursing Administration and a master's degree from Jackson State University. A former practicing and administrative nurse, Wray founded W.E. Inc., a national independent health-care consulting firm, and she serves as chairwoman of the board of directors.
When she took her position with Administration and Finance, she continued her work with the firm on the administrative business level.
"That was how I intermarried my interests of both health care and business," Wray says. "I believe health care is a business."
Wray is an expert in regulatory compliance, risk management, corporate communication, professional practice, nursing and health care. She has held leadership positions in the National Federation for Republican Women and the Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women.
"Our hope is that we will make an impact on the betterment of state government and people," Wray says.
When she is not traveling or working, she thoroughly enjoys her down time. "I work hard, so I play hard," Wray says.
"Playtime" for Wray is time at the beach and the spa and after hours chatting with coworkers over "adult beverages," as she puts it.
Recently, she was in New Orleans for the Republican National Leadership Conference. In July, Wray travels to Indianapolis to run for president of the National Black Nurses Association.
Wray enjoys meeting new people and experiencing new parts of her fair city. Particularly, she enjoys the different humors and "cheekiness" of the people that she meets on a daily basis. "You can't keep Jacksonians down," she says.
Wray's daughter Tamika, 29, is in her provision year in the Junior League of Jackson. Wray and her daughter will be the first African American mother-daughter duo integrated in this organization—a milestone for the state, the League and Wray.
All her life, JoAnne Hartley has helped people, advising women on making lifestyle changes and making sure those women get the counsel they need.
"I feel like women should look out for our own," she says. "It's a blessing that I have a career that is catered to the community. I have the sort of clientele that, if I know someone needs help, I know I can provide it."
Hartley, 52, owns Molecules Salon in Madison, where she helps provide haircuts and clothing to women in need.
Often, she takes things out of her own closet, or from her network of friends and clients. "I'm in a position to let good people know what other people need, and they'll do it," Hartley says.
After reuniting with elementary school classmate, Patti Culpepper, Hartley became involved with the Maeap Children's Home in northern Thailand. Culpepper founded Maeap to help prevent child prostitution by taking in children at risk. Its mission is to heal, restore and train the children, helping them live full, healthy lives.
In her salon, Hartley gives Thai purses for a $25 donation. In her first month, she raised about $1,200. Her goal is to raise $1,000 every month for Maeap. "It's a fabulous project," she says. "The influence one person can have on a community, just by word of mouth, is amazing. This is a unique gift of love."
Hartley grew up in south Jackson, where her parents worked hard to have nice things for her and her three sisters. Her parents pushed their daughters to be independent, work hard, and earn wealth.
In her 33 years styling hair, one of the greatest compliments she ever got was from a battered woman hoping to make a lifestyle change. "She said, 'JoAnne, you treated me as if I was a rich client,' and I thought, why would I treat anyone differently because of their financial status?"
"You are worthy no matter what. I am a big believer in the American dream. If you can work hard, you can make it."
"I absolutely love Jackson," proclaims the ever-youthful Noel Didla, an English professor at Jackson State University. She says she will continue teaching there out of loyalty toward Jackson and its inhabitants.
Didla was born in Gunter, India. When she was 2, her father gave her English books. He wanted her to learn English well because they had family living in America who would visit. She fell in love with the language. It is her third language after Hindu and her native Telugu, but she speaks as if it's her first.
At 37, Didla has taught English for 15 years in India and the United States.
She earned her master's in English literature at Nagarjuna University in India before moving to Mississippi where she is now working on her executive doctorate in urban higher education at Jackson State University. Didla first became interested in Jackson while working on an international project and decided to move here. Now she is a proud Jacksonian.
"I see so much potential in the young people. There are intelligent people," she says, emphasizing with her hands, "and I am proud of the progression they've done in Jackson. I want to see Jackson united by diversity. I know it can be."
She glows when she talks about her job: "The challenging part is that I have to teach students how to read, how to write and how to speak. I push them to excel through their weaknesses." Didla's class objective is to "build a global network of people of color to work and progress."
Didla is the mother of an 8-year-old son, and has organized and attended at least a dozen seminars and programs. She has raised awareness about HIV/AIDS, organized support groups for international students and led seminars for female entrepreneurs.
Karla Elmore Vázquez
Karla Elmore Vázquez spends her days whittling away the language and social barriers between Hispanics and other ethnicities in the metro Jackson area.
Vázquez, a licensed attorney in Mexico, is a legal assistant and translator at Nathan H. Elmore and Associates, a Jackson law firm that handles serious personal injury, car accident, workers' compensation, criminal and immigration cases.
The firm has a number of Spanish-speaking attorneys on staff, including Vázquez. They represent the Hispanic community in legal matters and provide them with opportunities previously out of reach due to language barriers.
Vázquez, who speaks fluent English as well as her native Spanish, helps bridge the language gap between clients and the judicial system. "Language can be a problem for a lot of people," she says. "I am like a referee. I keep relations smooth, and I help people understand each other."
After growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Vázquez attended the University of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, where she graduated with a degree in international law. At 21, she was one of the youngest people to ever become a licensed attorney in Mexico.
In 2005, she came to the U.S. to study English and law at Mississippi College. Soon after, she met her husband, Nathan H. Elmore.
Vázquez's dedication to her work and the Hispanic community has earned the firm the designation of legal adviser to the Mexican Consulate in New Orleans. She is also president of the Mississippi Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The attorney says she owes her success largely to her parents. "I come from a family that had next to nothing," she says. "My parents taught me that if you can work and study hard, you can really be someone."
Vázquez lives in Jackson, a city she's in love with because of its diversity. She believes Mississippi has a long way to go, however. The Hispanic population will keep growing, she says. Her goal is to keep people working together in peace.
Four years ago, all Rachel Jarman knew about the south was that "the Civil War happened here, then the Civil Rights happened, and it was hot."
The Connecticut native moved to Jackson right out of college for a fellowship at the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson. "I was this little Yankee girl coming in and learning about fried food and SEC football, and I ate it up," she says. "After I bit into it, I knew this is where I wanted to be forever."
After a Jewish upbringing and Hebrew school, Jarman became a religious-studies major at Brandeis University, near Boston, Mass. After graduation in 2008, she went where she found work—Mississippi. She took a full-time job in the institute's education department when she finished her fellowship. At 24, she has already curated her first exhibit in Brookhaven.
"Basically, there were two Jews left in Brookhaven, and they had this neat old temple," Jarman says. Hal Samuels, representative of the Temple B'nai Shalom congregation, donated it to the Lincoln County Historical Society to use as a museum with the stipulation that it would include a Jewish exhibit. Jarman chose the artifacts for the exhibit and was there to explain the southern Jewish experience when it opened.
"I like to be the advocate and the educator," she says. "I'm here, and I'm eating pork ribs, but I'm still Jewish, and that's kind of confusing to a lot of people. But usually people are just excited that I identify with a religion, and I make it my work. They get it."
Jarman has found a permanent home in Jackson. She recently became engaged "to a nice Southern boy from Batesville," and the two just bought a house in Fondren. "We decided to plant all of our roots in three months," she says. "It's amazing; I have no fear about it."
While her fiance, Chris Myers, grew up Christian, "he likes all the parts of Judaism that I like," she says. Keeping the tradition and culture alive is important to the couple.
Katrina Gibbs is a lawyer who handles workers' compensation and family law cases, and who also does a lot of work for domestic violence cases.
"She is a wonderful asset to our clients," says Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center of Violence Prevention. "She is willing and readily helps to take on pro bono cases."
Gibbs, 42, works closely with the center to help women and families who are victims of abuse. The center calls her if legal work is needed but she is also available for advice.
"Women in difficult positions feel like they do not have a lot of resources or choices," Gibbs says. "They feel they have no one to help them. If they are courageous enough to protect themselves and their family, I want to help any way I can."
Gibbs has been practicing law since 1993 and has an office in Jackson. A Pearl resident, she began working with the women at the center because of a church member.
"I really admire the ladies who work in Pearl because of their hard work," she says.
Gibbs also finds time to reach out to youth. She speaks and teaches at a Christian summer camp, coaches a community basketball team and spends time at different schools, speaking to the students. "I encourage them to dream big and excel," Gibbs says of the young people.
She also is on the board for R.E.A.L., Rural Education and Leadership, a non-profit foundation that aspires to enhance Christian community-based ministries through economic and technical support. The support includes leadership and organizational development and mini grants for building and program development.
"I've always wanted to help people," Gibbs says about her career in the law. "To me, that was a way to help people who may not be able to help themselves, receive the justice they deserve, or afford an attorney."
Tonja Murphy understands the importance of a positive role model in a child's life. The Jackson native, 37, founded the Ladybug Club and is director of mentoring services of the Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi.
Both programs are major components of Murphy's life, and are meaningful ways to make difference in her community.
At the Lutheran Episcopal Services, Murphy directs a program that pairs children with an incarcerated parent with a mentor. She actively recruits more children for the program.
"We go to schools, churches, any place where children are. We want to help more children, and let them know that this is available," Murphy says.
Murphy's work has a positive effect. The children improve their grades. The program also hosts a monthly gathering for mentors and mentees. Last month, they had a party.
Even though its funding will be cut September, Murphy will continue the program.
"It's important for a child to have a positive adult role model around them. It provides them with someone they can look up to and respect," Murphy says.
The Ladybug Club began in her living room in 2005. What started as six girls has become a group of 47 young ladies learning the importance of etiquette, education, self-confidence, self-proficiency and working in their community.
"These are our future leaders. They are getting the skills that they need," she says.
Mothers help organize some of the Ladybugs' activities. Most of their funding comes from The Midtown Partners, a nonprofit organization. Murphy believes the girls should understand their community's investment.
"I want them to understand that nothing in life is free. The $3 monthly dues help them understand the importance of money," she says.
"These ladies are the generations next nurses, teachers and leaders. I love it, and I'll always do it."
April S. Watson
"If you take care of your patients, they will take care of you" is the motto April S. Watson, 33, follows in her private practice in south Jackson off Highway 18.
Watson, who holds a bachelor of biological sciences from Alcorn University and a doctor of dental surgery from Marquette University School of Dentistry, credits her upbringing as motivation for becoming a dentist.
"Growing up in Simpson County, you didn't really see a lot of minority health-care professionals, she says. "... There was only one black physician."
When she enrolled in dentistry school, Watson says that African Americans made up 5 percent of dentistry enrollments nationwide. However, she wants young African American women and men to know her profession is not out of reach. She encourages them to network. "It would be great to see more of us in those higher medical positions, because your practice is going to mirror who you are," Watson says.
Word-of-mouth has helped to grow her practice, which she opened in 2007. She strives to provide full disclosure and keep the lines of communication open with patients."What truly speaks to your character is if someone has been so thoroughly satisfied with the job that you've done and the experience they'd had, that they refer another person to you," she says.
To give back to the community, Watson offers health fairs where she provides free dental screenings to children and adults. Watson has held three so far this year, with another coming up July 17. Watson says that dentistry impacts a person more than one might realize; it changes lives and restores smiles.
Watson is also an adjunct professor at Hinds Community College for their dental assistant program. She is married to Savante Stringfellow, and they have one child together, Landon Sean, and his three children from a previous relationship: Makenzi, Kennedy and Jalen. She credits her husband and mom as her biggest supports.