During the third annual Empowering Women benefit supporting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, keynote speaker Jenna Bush-Hager urged a ballroom-jammed, record crowd at the Cleveland Country Club to reach out as mentors to others in need, especially children.
The chair of UNICEF’s Next Generation initiative, who doubles as a contributing correspondent for NBC’s Today Show, is the daughter of George W. and Laura Bush, the former president and first lady of the United States.
“If there’s anything people I’ve met have taught me is that life is a precious gift ... and it is a privilege, and an opportunity as much as a responsibility to help others in need,” the former teacher of inner-city middle school students in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md., offered. “I’ve learned invaluable lessons.”
Those lessons came not only from her teaching years in some of America’s more impoverished districts, but also from visits to Africa and Latin America on behalf of UNICEF or as a member of the First Family when her father served as America’s commander-in-chief.
As a prelude to Bush-Hager’s eagerly anticipated remarks — her keynote visit was first announced at last year’s Empowering Women banquet — the spotlight shined on a group of Cleveland women whose selfless work has empowered them to serve as role models for others. Each was honored with special awards in different categories.
The recipients included:
n Brenda Abel, recently retired president and CEO of United Way of Bradley County Inc., whose 36 years of nonprofit service earned her the night’s most prestigious honor, the Empowering Woman of the Year Award. A wife, mother and grandmother, Abel’s leadership helped to take United Way donations from $300,000 in the mid-1970s to more than $2 million in 2011. One of the community’s first women to be installed as a member of the Cleveland Kiwanis Club in the 1980s, Abel’s most recent outreach has included work with the Bradley County Long-Term Recovery Organization which continues to lead the community’s recovery from the devastating tornado outbreaks of April 27, 2011, and March 2, 2012.
n Sandy Ha, a young Cleveland woman who founded the Toboggans for Toddlers initiative, earned Empowering Women’s Compassion and Excellence Award. The original toboggan drive began at Cleveland High School and spread to Walker Valley High School and throughout the community on college campuses, churches and within other supportive organizations that climbed on board the Samaritan’s campaign to keep youngsters warm through the colder winter months in Tennessee. Ha’s objective is to collect 2,000 toboggans — also known as “beanies” — for distribution. To date, her initiative has received more than half its goal.
n Karen Mills, a Cleveland native who starred for the two-time state champion Bradley Central High School Bearettes basketball team during a 90-game winning streak in 1975 and 1976, earned the Outstanding Achievement Award. A 1980 First-Team All-American at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Mills barely missed making the U.S. Olympic Team. In 1981, she led the nation in assists. Following graduation, she coached a couple of years before moving to Atlanta where she launched a career in standup comedy. Her performances have taken her across the country performing in Las Vegas, aboard cruise ships and major corporation conferences. Described by Empowering Women emcee Garry Rodgers as “The Funny Girl,” Mills’ career in comedy has included on-stage performances with entertainers like Tony Orlando and Tom Jones.
n Evie West, public information officer for the Cleveland Police Department and published author whose life has endured the ups and downs of a roller-coaster ride, earned the Heart of Success Award. Described by Rodgers as a woman who “... comes from tough stock with a strong Christian background,” West was said to be a “rebellious” young woman whose early direction eventually took her to the New Life Pregnancy Center where she found support for herself and her baby. The former “gang girl” who later became a Cleveland policewoman authored “Revolving Choices: The Real Truth About Life,” a book that details her life as an author, a police officer, a mother and the choices she has made. Her work and life are now all about “giving back daily to the community” she calls home, Rodgers said. He added of the award winner, “[Evie] is a testament that you can rise above and beyond all struggles ... if you only have that willpower and perseverance to chase your dreams.” West also is involved in mission work.
Much of Bush-Hager’s message revolved around life stories she has told through her work as network news correspondent, as UNICEF (originally known as United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) worker and as a U.S. president’s daughter during diplomatic visits to Africa and Latin America.
One life story she dedicated to a book, “Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope,” which is a New York Times bestseller that offers the account of a 17-year-old mother in Latin America who was infected with HIV/AIDS at birth. Her mother and sister died of AIDS complications by the time she was in the sixth grade. The book tells of the young mother’s efforts to raise her baby, Beatrice, outside the influence of disease, poverty and abuse.
“Ana changed my life,” Bush-Hager said. “At the time, Ana was only 17 years old, but she had lived the life of someone so much older.” The speaker said of the teenager, “... She has been shuffled around, abused and abandoned by the people she trusted most and she was forced to drop out of school at the age of 16 after she had her baby.”
Bush-Hager lived in Latin America for nine months, traveling the region and telling the stories of the impoverished as an NBC-TV correspondent. Before and after her travels, she had served as an inner-city teacher in America. She said her Latin American experience, and her years of teaching in America’s inner cities, taught her many of the same social issues impacting underdeveloped regions are also found on city streets in this country.
“I was a teacher before, and after, I moved to Latin America so obviously I am biased about the power of education,” she said. “... It was really amazing to see how education could not only change lives, but could save lives.”
While working with UNICEF in 2006, Bush-Hager attended a Latin American conference for women and children impacted by HIV/AIDS. This is where she met Ana, an encounter that led to daily meetings with the young parent whose determination to rise above the elements on her baby’s behalf were the speaker’s inspiration to write the book.
“My personal mission has been to bring these kids to the attention of as many people as possible ... so that they become more than just statistics ... because the truth is, numbers don’t provide a real insight into the way people live,” Bush-Hager said. “It’s the detail of the people’s lives that resonate with us. Their life stories are what cause us to change, to grow and take action.”
Bush-Hager quoted Ana who, upon taking the microphone at the women’s conference, told her impoverished peers, “I want everyone here to know we are living with HIV, [but] we are not dying from it.” Of Ana’s words, the speaker offered, “I was so moved by her courageous action.”
The UNICEF leader gave other accounts from Guatemala and Africa, as well as from a visit to 9/11’s Ground Zero which led her to report on America’s Camp, a summer venture for children who lost parents during the 9/11 attack on New York City’s World Trade Center.
“They were labeled the ‘Kids of 9/11,’ but they were so much more ... and they refused to be defined by that day,” she said. Those who founded the camp are working to make a difference in the lives of the children, just as the children are working to make a difference in the lives of those around them, Bush-Hager stressed.
The keynote speaker urged her listeners to get involved in the work of their community and to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors.
“... Tonight’s benefit will help kids like Ana,” she said. “Unfortunately, poverty, abuse and violence transcend borders. There are many Anas living right here in your community and that’s why as a teacher who has worked in the inner cities, [I understand how] the Boys & Girls Clubs is so important.”
Speaking to area
Prior to the start of Thursday’s fundraising banquet, Bush-Hager talked briefly to area reporters and spoke of her UNICEF experiences, her life as the daughter of a president and her years as an inner-city teacher.
“Kids are so important to me, as well as education,” she offered. “A lot of times what kids are getting in schools is not always enough. When parents are working late, there’s nowhere for kids to go and that’s why the Boys & Girls Clubs are so important ... because they provide kids with the extra resources they need and a place to go so parents can work and provide for their families.”
To young girls looking for empowering opportunities of their own, Bush-Hager encouraged them to identify a community cause of interest to them and pursue it.
“For people who are interested in giving back to their communities, find something you’re interested in,” she said. “If you’re interested in sports, coach a team. If you’re interested in art, then tutor students in art. If you’re interested in children, then work with kids. There are so many ways we can make a difference.”
Teaching inner-city kids also taught her that America has issues of its own.
“... It took me moving to Latin America to become interested in HIV/AIDS and women’s issues when many of my students in inner-city Washington D.C. faced similar issues,” she said.
Of the economy and its impact on young people, Bush-Hager offered, “... There are many kids here in the United States, in this community, who need help; you don’t have to fly to a foreign country. There are so many ways we can make a difference here, and even in Cleveland, Tennessee.”
Next year’s keynote
Liz Murray, whose life’s journeys took her from homelessness to successful author, will be the keynote speaker at the fourth annual Empowering Women banquet on April 18, 2013. Her books include “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness,” “Survival” and “My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.”