Hattiesburg — Three years after Brenda Strider married her college sweetheart, he was killed in an automobile accident.
While she was struggling to move forward, her pastor asked her to counsel a man in their church who had recently lost his wife and baby. After receiving her note, the man unwittingly called Strider on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. During the conversation, both were surprised to learn that he had been the firefighter who had pulled her husband from the car crash a year earlier.
When the two married, it wasn’t a storybook ending. After dealing with challenges of infertility, the couple had two children, one born with a cleft lip and palate. Today, Strider counsels new mothers about how to feed and care for their cleft lip and palate babies at local hospitals, sharing with them the hope the future holds for their child. She has traveled the state sharing her story with various groups and churches.
“Brenda walks into people’s darkest hour and offers hope,” said Lisa Slay, director of marketing for Wesley Medical Center in Hattiesburg, “and is the most inspiring woman I’ve ever known.”
Strider was presented with the inaugural Mentor Award for the first annual Celebration of Strong Women Awards Luncheon at the Hattiesburg Lake Terrace Convention Center April 19.
“I’m watching a great show,” said Strider, describing her roller coaster life. “It’s not the one I bought tickets for, but here I am.”
Wesley Medical Center joined with Lifetime Television for Women and Comcast Spotlight to establish the event to highlight exceptionally strong women in the community “who make this a better place for all of us to live, work and play,” explained Slay. Keynote speaker Gail Pittman, former Mississippi Business Woman of the Year, talked about the fact that she had to determine how to be a strong woman when she was moving her business from her house to the next level.
Of 71 nominees, five winners were selected representing mentor, leadership, perseverance, defender and promise.
“Every single woman who was nominated is a strong woman,” said Slay. “Their stories are incredible and the contributions they have made to their communities and our state are amazing. The Strong Woman program will be an annual event, and I can’t wait to see who’s nominated next year.”
Each winner received a crystal award, a certificate and a special piece of jewelry designed specifically for the program by local sponsor Lights Jewelers and Gemologist.
“Normally our family discusses everything presented to us for sponsorship, but when we were given the opportunity to participate in the Strong Women program, we collectively said yes,” said Susan Light, marketing director of the family-owned jewelry business. “My husband and son, Tommy, jumped on the bandwagon whole-heartedly. It was more than getting a chance to get our name out there; it was a chance to support women who make a difference. Tommy immediately went to his drawing board.”
The Lights decided to custom-design a brooch representing a symbol of strength. “We decided on a pillar, but when we drew it out, we realized it wasn’t very feminine,” said Light. “Just as we were getting ready to scrap that idea, it came to me to put curves on the pillar to reflect the curves of the woman. We re-created the ‘S’ part of the Strong Women logo, which signified a joyous woman with arms uplifted, in gold and put that against the sterling pillar so the difference in the two medals really stands out.”
Elizabeth Washburne, M.D., of the Women’s Pavilion of South Mississippi, another local program sponsor, said strong women come in a variety of packages.
“They’re tall, short, studious, serious, playful, fun loving, kind, active, quiet, bold, shy, wise and witty,” she said. “Strong women come from all walks of life, and no two strong women are alike. They are unique, with their own set of characteristics. There is one thing though, that they have in common: the way they live their lives inspires others.”
The winner of the Perseverance Award, Toni Wild, began fighting breast cancer 15 years ago while working as a surgical nurse. Even though she won her battle with the disease, life was good again for only a short time. She and her husband were marking her five-year milestone of being cancer-free with a rare vacation on Labor Day weekend. While he was changing a flat tire, a passing vehicle struck and killed him. Then weeks after the one-year anniversary of his death, her cancer recurred. After successfully battling a second round with the disease, symptoms of congestive heart failure emerged. After overcoming yet another medical crisis, she remarried in 2000, adding stepmother to her many roles.
“After losing her own hair not once but twice to chemotherapy, Toni’s long, dark hair is only inches shy of being cut and donated to Locks of Love, an organization that provides hair for the wigs of cancer patients,” said Slay. “That’s pretty amazing.”
The leadership skills of Joan Exline, the Leadership Award winner, came to the forefront during the recent time of uncertainty and unrest among faculty and staff at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was asked to accept a new assignment to lead the effort to assure the restoration of the university’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
“The situation was high profile in the media and feelings were intense as multiple agendas on both state and campus levels played out,” said Slay, former Southern Miss public relations director. “Correcting the administrative documentation gaps from years prior while ensuring that plans for future documentations were in place would take a yeoman effort. (She) successfully assessed the situation, developed a work plan and embarked upon an inclusive process with various colleges, schools and departments working to meet tight deadlines.”
Despite battling ancillary issues and opposing agendas, “she led university officials, faculty, staff and students in addressing the situation, correcting where necessary, and establishing processes and procedures to make documentation a mandatory and routine part of classroom and university operations. The process was complex; documentation occurred retroactively, requiring tremendous effort with assisting each department and college with the formulation of self-study documentation to meet their unique needs.”
“In December 2005, Southern Miss was removed from SACS probation, due in large part to Dr. Exline’s leadership,” said Mader.
Cindy Pennington, winner of the Defender Award, is a special education administrator, a registered nurse for South Mississippi Home Health, a Nurse Aide Competency Evaluation Systems evaluator, co-director of the Association for Retarded Citizens, director of the ARC Summer Adventures Program, Basic Cardiac Life Support instructor, practicum supervisor with Hattiesburg Public Schools for college nursing students, and a member of the Court Street United Methodist Church choir.
“(Cindy) works with individuals with special needs every day,” Slay pointed out. “She advocates for the least restrictive environment for each child, and she strives to provide each child she teaches with an equal opportunity to learn. Her typical day is never typical and includes everything from helping a parent schedule a doctor’s visit to fishing out a foreign object from a hysterical kindergartener’s ear. Not only is she concerned about her children, but also her staff. She often checks teachers’ blood pressure and gives practical health advice.”
Hallie Paul, winner of the Promise Award, a category recognizing young women between the age of 14 and 18 who demonstrate a commitment to high personal standards, has been described as “intrinsically driven and humble.”
“She goes about her business with grace and quiet confidence,” said Slay. “She shows a keen awareness of the world around her and has a very genuine drive to make a positive difference.”
The award-winning straight-A student was a lead actor in the acclaimed original production of “The Katrina Project,” for which she was named to the All Star Cast at the Regional Drama Fest.
“Since Hurricane Katrina, she has traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on four separate missions, working at the Gulf Coast Episcopal Relief Center, delivering coats and blankets to those in need through the Roots and Shoots service organization, and delivering needed supplies with her debate team,” said Slay. “During the Christmas holidays, she organized her own coat and blanket drive with her friends and extended family and delivered them to families most directly affected by the storm.”
Paul’s dad, Joe Paul, Ph.D., vice president for student affairs at Southern Miss, recalled about his daughter: “It was September 2002 … I was preparing to give a speech on campus at a 9/11 memorial. I asked my 13-year-old daughter what her thoughts were on the tragic event. She retreated to her room and brought me a paper she had written for class on the topic. Hallie had written the following: As the weeks went by, the television was constantly showing CNN. I began to learn about the Middle East, its problems, its people and the man they were saying was responsible for all of this. All I could think about him was, ‘that poor, poor man.’ I didn’t understand his twisted views, nor his enormous hatred for me. I just knew he, and others like him, were human beings, and therefore, neighbors. I did what I had been taught my entire life. I tried to love my neighbors as myself. I didn’t come to this conclusion easily, and if I ever had to face those responsible, I’m sure I wouldn’t treat them kindly at all… So, maybe when we say our prayers throughout the day we could replace the phrase, ‘God Bless America’ with ‘God Bless Mankind.’”
Light said when the emotional ceremony was over, and all of the stories were told, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was really nice to see these women honored for their strength.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.