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The Fund for Women and Girls

Gems of the Valley

When the Fund for Women and Girls’ Guiding Circle was launched in 2015, they wanted to hold gatherings where women could learn about grass-roots philanthropy in our region. In the summer of 2016, friend and Fund Shareholder Jenny Kennedy hosted the first “Gems of the Valley.”

This casual yet focused event was designed to be inspiring but not overwhelming, highlighting what determined women with well-crafted plans can accomplish. The event has become an annual gathering, identifying a new class of “Gems” to be recognized each year.

2019 Gems (from left to right): Dionne Dowdy; Abby Webb; Janet Haladay, representing Altrusa International of Youngstown; Tiffany Sokol; Karen Schubert; Patsy Kouvas; and Susan Laird

2019

Altrusa International of Youngstown is a nonprofit club of area women whose fundraising, scholarships, and projects are aimed at literacy, leadership, education, and human welfare. Its Plant the Seed to Read Book Festival, now in its 14th year, is enthusiastically attended by a thousand young children, plus parents, each year! Donating books, participating in YSU’s Academic Achievement Olympiad, supporting YWCA’s Wish Upon a Star program, providing scholarships to young women and school supplies to new teachers—even making pillowcase dresses for Children in Liberia—Altrusa’s impact spreads across the Mahoning Valley, as well as internationally.

Dionne Dowdy is Executive Director of United Returning Citizens (widely known as URC), an in-depth program in Youngstown designed for re-entry into life after being incarcerated. URC offers an array of work education and employment services, housing assistance, and case management services that include money management, character building, single mother resources, and substance abuse programs. Dionne is a coalition builder who fights fiercely for the people she serves. She also is Board President for Community Legal Aid and previously served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Taft Promise Neighborhood.

Patrice “Patsy” Kouvas grew up in the family business, AVI Foodsystems, becoming President in 2000. She decided to step down and take on the role of High School Program Director for Inspiring Minds, a Warren-based nonprofit outreach organization that empowers youth to reach their full potential through education and exposure to life-changing experiences. Patsy is a tireless mentor to the youth she serves. She is also on the boards of Leadership 100, the National Hellenic Society, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, and Dogs Unlimited Rescue.

Susan Laird is Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition against Human Trafficking and a part-time faculty member of YSU’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Gerontology. In 2016, she developed a course on Human Trafficking in America, which inspired students to establish the only student-led Coalition Against Human Trafficking. She works to raise awareness about trafficking through countless speaking engagements and by working closely with social service agencies, law enforcement, business, legislators, and other Ohio coalitions.

Karen Schubert is the creative force behind Lit Youngstown, a nonprofit organization formed in 2015 that offers anyone the opportunity to explore the written word and literature in its many forms. Poetry readings, writing circles, a Fall Literary Festival, an upcoming NEA Big Read project in collaboration with the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County….a myriad of literary experiences have sprung from this young organization, enriching community life. A Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts graduate, Karen is also a published author of poetry and creative nonfiction.

Tiffany Sokol joined the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation in 2012 and has served as its Housing Director for the past five years. She and her team have altered the city’s housing landscape, counseling over 1,465 housing and small business clients, creating more than 445 new homeowners, rehabilitating over 100 vacant housing units for resale or rent, repairing more than 225 occupied homes for low-income homeowners, and now building three new homes for sale. A YSU graduate, Tiffany is certified as a Housing Development Finance Professional by the National Development Council. She enjoys renovating her historic residence on Youngstown’s south side and mentoring neighborhood youth.

Abby Webb is about to begin her second year as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Working with Commonwealth Inc, she’s been dedicated to the revitalization and growth of Elm Street on Youngstown’s Northside. She’s also part of the Healthy Community Partnership’s Healthy Food Retail Action Team and its community health needs assessment and planning process. Her passion for community improvement, her diligence and hard work make her an inspiring example of young women bringing about meaningful change in Youngstown today.

2018 Gems (from left to right): Cheryl Strother, Mary Buchenic, Sr. Rene Weeks, Jennifer Gasser, Carmella Williams and Sauni Cianciola

2018

Cheryl Strother, the Director of Nursing for Warren City Health Department, deals with tough public health issues on a daily basis. She has taken her passion for connecting people in need with health services, information and crisis support into her church and her community. She leads the Nursing Guild at her church and she helps organize Warren’s annual Health Fair on the Square and the African-American Achievers Festival.

Jennifer Gasser and Mary Buchenic of Hubbard are an innovative team known as The Solar Sisters. They promote solar cookers as tools for education, wellness, economic empowerment and ecosystem recovery. They demonstrate solar cooking at schools and healthy cooking events. Their commitment to grass-roots change has taken them and their solar-cooking program to Haiti, Pakistan, Kenya, and Portugal.

Sauni Cianciola of Canfield is a retired oncology nurse and the longtime backbone of The Silver Lining Fund, which has brought urgent needed support quietly and compassionately to cancer patients and their families for nearly 40 years. This no-overhead, all-volunteer effort distributes as much as $8000 a month to patients in need across the tri-county area.

Carmella Williams is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Youngstown Business Incubator. She manages YBI’s Women in Entrepreneurship program and also the Minority Business Assistance Center. She is herself a successful entrepreneur, as the owner (and kitchen chemist) of CarmellaMarie, Inc., a natural hair accompany she founded in 2013.

Sr. Rene Weeks is the Director of the Hispanic Ministry at St. Paul Catholic Church in Salem. She has been deeply involved with coordinating community efforts in response to what has been described by ICE as its largest workplace raid in decades, at Fresh Mark meat processing of Salem, in June. Working closely with other churches, community members, the employee union and others, Sr. Rene has brought compassionate support and financial resources to help with basic living expenses and allow families time to make wise decisions about their future.

2016 Gems (from left to right): Mary Noble, Michelle Golladay, Paulette Edington, Penny Wells, Christa Coleman-Ng and Amy Camaradese

2016

Christa Coleman-Ng and Michelle Golladay met while serving on the Parent Advisory Board for Akron Children’s Hospital. The two women began a close friendship that led to conversations about how they could do more to help their community. Out of that discussion, ‘100 Women Who Care Mahoning Valley’ was born.

Mary Noble is a parent of 6 children and foster parent of 69. For more than 17 years, she has welcomed young, broken, abused and hurting children into her home. Mary and her husband Bob started ‘Fostering Dreams’, a non-profit organization which recognizes that each child’s journey through foster care is unique and that their spectrum of life experiences may be limited. It is their mission to broaden the experiences that foster parents and foster agencies can offer, by providing events in which foster children feel special, deserving, and encouraged that things can and will be better.

Amy Camaradese was a longtime, beloved Liberty Schools elementary teacher, and in more recent years has become a teacher of teachers as Chair of Westminster College’s Department of Education. Amy channeled the shared grief and support following her daughter’s death from cancer into funding the creation of Christina’s Garden Labyrinth at Fellows Riverside Gardens in Mill Creek MetroParks.

Paulette Edington is the president of Trumbull Family Fitness, which has evolved from the YMCA, where she was the Youth Program Director. Under Paulette’s leadership, Trumbull Family Fitness has grown and a much-needed community program has survived and thrived, continuing as an anchor in downtown Warren and the surrounding area.

Penny Wells has spearheaded the local development of the widely admired annual Sojourn trips with Youngstown high school students to Selma, Alabama, and more recently has taken a leadership role in addressing the high infant mortality rates in Youngstown.