Monday, February 25, 2008

Tough lessons teach, inspire

Joan Tomeo went back to school without a degree at age 40 –- at the same time she was raising five children eight years apart on her own. A decade later, she had her first master’s degree, and now has earned yet another.

Jackie West has been a teacher and administrator for 34 years, most of those serving the Manatee County school district. She has taught countless students and coworkers to lead by example. Oh, she almost fails to note, she was diagnosed with breast cancer several months ago –- and that has only added to her resolve to help others.

Amy DeTone is a former PACE student, looking out from the podium at girls where she sat just four years ago. She has had to use every ounce of focus she learned at PACE Center for Girls –- she had a baby when she was 18. Where is she today? Planning to get married in May, and getting her teaching degree from USF in December, with husband Kevin and their daughter at her side.

All three were honored today at the Junior League of Manatee County’s Women in Strength awards luncheon for the PACE Center for Girls. As I listened to each of their stories, I saw that woman of strength. I watched each woman stand just a little taller as they choked back the fear of speaking –- especially sharing such private moments –- with the hope that their story would inspire the PACE students sitting at the tables with Junior League members.

They certainly inspired me. It was the fastest 90 minutes I’ve spent in a long time. And, perhaps because all coincidentally are employed by the school district, they taught us about strength.

Joan Tomeo, a social worker for the school district’s Drop Out Prevention Department, was the first honoree. She was introduced by Catherine Bartz -- one of Joan’s five children, all of them gathered there at the Bradenton Country Club for their mom’s honor. Catherine contrasted a “strong woman” with a “woman of strength” -– and what a great takeaway. A strong woman has confidence; a woman of strength has grace, a way to instill passion in everyone else’s heart. “That’s the same kind of passion I hope to give my daughter,” Catherine said proudly. “Mom, you are a woman of strength.”

And Joan’s message to the PACE girls: “Someone has seen the potential in you… now it’s time for you to embrace that potential.”

Jackie West, principal at Seabreeze Elementary, was the second honoree. She, too, deflected the honors bestowed on her toward the girls instead. “It’s all about choice,” she said. “Your whole life is a tapestry of all your experiences. And you choose which path you take.” Here was a woman who is learning to deal with breast cancer, and she still adamantly believes in choice – and threw the challenge back at us, with a huge smile. My own challenges immediately fell into perspective.

The third honoree didn’t leave a dry eye in the house. Amy DeTone, a former PACE student, warned the girls that they should soak up the self-esteem PACE would teach them. She did –- and she credits that for her determination to walk across the stage for her high school degree, even though she was five months’ pregnant. As she spoke of that “sense of great honor” standing before us, she teared up at the strength of those memories –- and broke the silence by chastising herself, with humor: “It wasn’t that devastating!” The laughter embraced her, a woman of strength.

The Bradenton Herald sponsored the event, with the help of our marketing director Jill Lakner. This element of our jobs –- community involvement -– is one of the most important ingredients in defining the Herald as a leader in the community and a stimulus for needed change. The 50 girls from PACE are our future. Let’s hope they, too, gleaned strength from today’s honorees.

No comments: