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Classic Woman Awards 2013

Meet five amazing women who represent the best in American caring and giving.

Written by Rebecca Christian
  • George Lange

    They know because it happened to them. Growing up financially insecure. Being abused by a partner. Searching to find a voice. Seeing career ambitions thwarted due to gender. And the worst that could happen to any parent: Having a child murdered. Yet the five women we are honoring in our ningh annual Classic Woman Awards refused to let heartache keep them down. Instead it lifted them up. It is our pleasure to introduce Miki Farris, whose Infant Crisis Services provides necessities to infants, and Sandy Escobar-Schmidt, whose Women of Worth organizes safe houses for abused women. Meet Marie Wolbach, whose AAUW Tech Trek Science & Math Camp empowers gifted middle-school girls. Get acquainted with Yvonne Pointer, whose Positive Plus helps trouble women acheive their dreams. Finally, learn about Nan Elsasser, whose arts-based Working Classroom encourages under-represented students. Standing ovations all around!

    Photography: George Lange

  • George Lange

    Miki Farris
    Infant Crisis Services
    Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

    It was the little Sunday school project that grew. In 1984, Miki Farris was tired of pulling weeds as a service project year after year. So she proposed an initiative born of her passion to help struggling families, a passion developed by her "not so fairy tale-ish" childhood. After her parents divorced when she was 2, Miki witnessed her mom’s angst while stretching dollars. Her grandparents helped immensely or it could have been much worse. When her own babies were born, she imagined how awful it would be to struggle for their basic necessities.

    The first year, the project helped 500 babies. By 2012, more than 2,000 volunteers were working in a 17,000-square-foot facility to supply 14,000 babies and toddlers with formula, diapers, and other supplies. Plans include adding satellite operations and mobile units. An early client was Laverne, whose baby daughter Regina had Down’s and medical issues that caused her to lose her hands and feet. Regina died at age 18; Laverne has become an ardent supporter of the organization. Today its $2.9 million budget is—remarkably—totally privately funded.

    Miki’s mentor is Pat Potts, who is highly regarded in Oklahoma for her decades of work in directing the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits. "She helped to answer questions all along the way," Miki says. The one person Miki would have loved to meet is Mother Teresa, because "she knew how to pour herself out completely for the less fortunate."  

    Says Miki, who is always adding innovations to the agency’s services, "It is our passion and privilege to serve the last, least, and littlest in our communities."

  • George Lange

    Sandy Escobar-Schmidt
    Women of Worth 
    Grass Valley, California

    "I was terrified to go to court and face my abusive husband," says Beth, a woman who rebuilt her troubled life with the help of Women of Worth (WOW). "Sandy came with me and held my hand the entire time."

    Years earlier, WOW founder Sandy Escobar-Schmidt was just as terrified as Beth when she and her children fled her abusive husband. Working several jobs and going to college, she felt revictimized when seeking assistance for her family’s basic needs: "I then understood why women return to their abusers."

    She persevered, however, and recalls, "I learned that I could become independent. I could raise my children in a home free of terror. I could recover my self-esteem, my strength, and my stability. As a survivor of domestic violence myself, I had longed for the kind of support, resources, and education that WOW provides on a daily basis for our clients and community members who are in need. I wanted to provide that for other women."

    Since 2001, the agency has served thousands of women and children who have suffered  from domestic violence, sexual assault, even human trafficking. The success actually saddens Sandy. "We wish the epidemic of domestic violence had been cured." Until it is, WOW will continue offering shelter and assistance. 

    The agency’s Hetty’s Haven is a shelter named for Hetty Williams, a teacher shot to death with a nail gun by her husband of 20 years when she left their marriage. Like Sandy, Hetty would have loved seeing "fear gradually leave a woman and her children’s eyes as they realize they are truly safe."

    Sandy’s greatest heroes are the women that "graduate" from Women of Worth. "They take risks, put their lives in our hands, flee the terror, and embrace a better and safer way to live. That brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it."

  • George Lange

    Yvonne Pointer
    Positive Plus
    Cleveland, Ohio

    On a blustery day in 1984, Yvonne Pointer bundled her children off to school, delivered newspapers, and came home to a phone call. Her 14-year-old Gloria had been abducted, raped, and beaten to death. "Standing over my daughter’s grave, I promised God not to let her death go unnoticed," she says.

    A year later, Yvonne founded Positive Plus to help women recover from traumatic experiences through workshops that inspire, motivate, and build self-esteem. She then established the Gloria Pointer Scholarship Fund for girls challenged by violence and neglect. Next came the Gloria Pointer Teen Movement in Ghana to aid children. (She laughingly tells about returning a dress to Nordstrom in tears because she really wanted it, but conceded to God that "It’s more important that kids eat in Africa.") Remarkably, she ministers in prisons because "everyone, including the incarcerated, has a story to tell."

    Just after being notified of this award, Yvonne learned that Gloria’s suspected murderer had finally been arrested after 29 years. It made her doubly grateful for her aha moment: "After waiting for the cavalry to come speak for the children, I realized that I—an unemployed single mother—was the cavalry."

    Yvonne’s mentor is Alexandria Johnson Boone, a businesswoman whose passion is developing leadership in women of color. After Yvonne read about her work, she contacted Alexandria, who asked her to lunch. Upon hearing Yvonne wanted to start a scholarship in her daughter’s honor, "Alex" opened her purse on the spot, wrote a generous check, and has mentored Yvonne ever since. 

    Gloria’s motto shows her core belief that one person can make a difference: "One Pointer, One Passion, One Purpose."

  • George Lange

    Marie Wolbach

    AAUW Tech Trek
    Science & Math Camp for Girls
    Palo Alto, California

    When the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published a 1992 report that girls were being shortchanged in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—it struck a nerve with Marie Wolbach. Her own daughters were being teased as "brains." And Marie herself had gone into nursing because an M.D. seemed impossible. In 1970, due to gender, she was not even allowed to apply for physician’s assistant training. "I wanted girls interested in STEM to stay inspired and confident," she says.

    Founded in 1998, Tech Trek camps are held on college campuses so middle-school girls get a thrilling taste of university life. Experiences range from studying marine life in San Francisco Bay to reading X-rays to extracting DNA. In 15 years, the organization has hosted some 10,000 girls. From the first camp held on the Stanford University campus, Tech Trek has extended to numerous universities in five more states, with a plan of going national. Some of the girls who have attended Tech Trek camps have become the first in their family to graduate from college.

    One of them is Ellen Le, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who yearned for her to succeed. With the organization’s guidance, she applied for college, graduating in chemical engineering with a full scholarship from Stanford; she’s now headed for Harvard.

    Marie credits Mary Purcell, a former president of AAUW, "who saw the importance of the program and worked with me to help make volunteering valuable to people—and fun." She also greatly admires the late opera singer Beverly Sills, who became a passionate advocate for the arts after retiring from the stage. "She proved we don’t have to do the same thing all of our lives," Marie says.

    As Marie’s heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt, implored: "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

  • George Lange

    Nan Elsasser

    Working Classroom 
    Albuquerque, New Mexico

    Nan Elsasser became an English teacher after finding voices that resonated with hers in women authors. In 1984, she trained teachers who braved minefields to work at a Nicaraguan school: "There were no books. No pencils. A few stray chickens wandering the halls." Returning home, she visited an inner city middle school where students brainstormed about helping. A boy raised his hand and asked, "Why not write books?" From his vision, Working Classroom was born. Working Classroom trains and supports students whose ethnicities and communities have been under-represented or caricatured in the arts to create art and theater by, for, and about their communities.

    Professional artists, writers, and actors are invited to work with new and aspiring artists from historically ignored communities to create art, theater, and literature—often in their native languages. The result, Nan says, is a ripple effect created by "at least 2,000 students who have participated in the program, the healthy children they are raising (many grew up in poverty and in addicted/dysfunctional families and have broken those cycles), the arts organizations and businesses they work for, the communities that benefit from their taxes, volunteer efforts and activism, and the thousands of people who enjoy public art created by Working Classroom student and professional artists."

    Working Classroom’s projects span the globe, from founding an educational theater company for war-traumatized children in El Salvador to helping with a community mural in Toronto.

    Nan’s mentors include her students and playwright and director Moisés Kaufman, who "introduced me to an innovative, theatrically powerful theater practice that addressed social and political themes in a non-didactic, engaging manner that provoked reflection and dialogue." She greatly admires author George Sand, for writing novels without a typewriter and spending her evenings with Chopin!

    Nan dedicates her award to "the generations of students who have inspired me with their courage, imagination, and hard work."