Before I joined the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, I was an elementary school principal. My days began with the chants and smiles of 200+ tiny humans declaring that they were “smart, strong, and ready for whatever comes along.” Morning motivation was our way of getting kids excited about school and learning.

Another way we got our kids motivated was by sharing stories of students who demonstrated the core values of our school through their actions. If you were being celebrated, you’d stand on your chair, hear your story, and hear all the students chant back at you, “You grow, [your name here]!” These stories got our kids thinking about how they could learn from friends to show grit, growth, or gratitude.

March is Women’s History Month, but also the anniversary of COVID-19 shutdowns. There’s been so much reporting on the unique ways the pandemic has affected women, demonstrating how these kinds of events often fall harder on women at home, in the workforce and in the community.

All of this makes me feel like we could really use a moment to hold up some shining examples of how women are persevering, thriving and building up communities.

Because we can’t all get together in the gym to read aloud from Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which features kid-friendly stories about the lives of extraordinary women accompanied by an illustrated portrait of each heroine with an influential quote, I’m sharing the stories of sixteen local women who are doing some pretty amazing things to make sure our children’s worlds are a little brighter and better. And because I like the book so much (it makes a great gift for children, by the way), I’m following the same structure: story and quote.

I’ve worked with each of these women during my time at the Foundation — they are all leaders at organizations with whom we have partnered on initiatives. They are each incredible and inspire me as they pave the way with courage and grace. So, I invite you to put on the anthem of your choice (I recommend Run the World (Girls) by Beyoncé) and celebrate them with a hearty, “You grow, girl!”

Pam Allen, Executive Director of The Louisiana Center for the Blind 

Pam exudes grit and gratitude. She has dedicated her career to changing what it means to live with blindness, and has led the Louisiana Center for the Blind for the past 20 years. When Pam noticed a critical need to enhance efforts in employment and financial education for people living with visual impairment, she and her team developed the Blind Learning Lab of Louisiana, a first-ever resource providing specialized online learning opportunities to foster economic empowerment among Louisianians with visual impairment. Pam is a nationally recognized leader and advocate for creating opportunity-rich futures for blind children and a 2019 Angel Award Honoree.

“If you are fortunate to have opportunity, it is your duty to make sure other people have those opportunities as well.”  (From Vice President Kamala Harris)

Sister Judith Brun, Executive Director of Community Initiatives Foundation 

As a former principal and forever teacher, Sister Judith constantly seeks to understand, elevating empathy to earn trust.  She has adapted home visiting programming to ensure more children are developing and ready for school and life. Through the TakeCare initiative, she has embedded services for struggling mothers and children directly into their neighborhood, sometimes just across the street, for easy access and relationship cultivation. The TakeCare House she created is routinely filled with love and a full porch.

“I’ve consistently said and reflected on Willa Catha’s words in Death Comes for the Archbishop, ‘All those early memories, one can never get another set.’ It’s easy to forget that our memories are foundational of who we are, and they can continue to color decisions we make and paths we take. Our power is in how we allow our memories to define our present and our future. It’s difficult to assist people in reducing their memory-driven decisions without appearing to discount their memories. Balancing is a life-time act.”

Emily Chatelain, Executive Director of Three O’Clock Project

Emily inspires urgency. When she realized there was a gap in meal programs after school hours, Emily founded the Three O’Clock Project to help eliminate barriers to implementing these federally funded programs. Once COVID shutdowns started, Emily and her team quickly mobilized to get healthy meals to all students, leading the way to make sure there were feeding sites in all communities that needed them. Emily and her team served more than 6 million meals and have supported school districts to continue providing food outside of normal school hours, a movement that continues to spread. Emily keeps pushing and won’t stop until all children are food secure.

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” (From A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh Library)

Dena Christy, CEO of Family Road of Greater Baton Rouge 

Dena makes everyone feel like family. She and her team operate with laser focus to empower families to have a Healthy Start for themselves and their children so they can have the best possible outcomes on the road called life. To help address health disparities among minority women, Dena paved the way to extend direct access to Centering Pregnancy, a prenatal care program that takes place in comfortable group settings in the community.

“No one gets to choose how they start in this world, but some of us are blessed to choose how we finish. We are here to provide empathy knowing people have their own unique circumstances and obstacles to overcome.”

Jan Daniels, Youth Development Coordinator at The Children’s Coalition for Northeast Louisiana 

Jan fights to help kids feel connected and seen. Recognizing the mental health effects on children because of the pandemic, Jan led her team to expand its highly regarded Signs of Suicide program – a nationally recognized curriculum that includes education for caregivers, teachers, and students about the signs of depression and resources for help — to serve more middle and high school students throughout the state. Jan is an expert in suicide prevention efforts and is leading the expansion to give more middle and high school students tools to promote mental health as they navigate these challenging times.

“We must make sure that our children are not only physically healthy but also mentally healthy!”

Nicole Deggins, Founder and CEO of Sista Midwife Productions 

Nicole is a nurse and a midwife who has made it her mission to eliminate birth disparities and bring transparency to prenatal education. Her vulnerability and decades of experience make her one of the country’s leading birth advocacy experts. She recently developed a statewide initiative to address Louisiana’s high maternal and infant mortality rates among African American women. Her community-based program is training Healthy Birth Ambassadors to visit women in their homes. Healthy Birth Ambassadors will gain certification as Childbirth Educators, Lactation Consultants and Doulas. Community birth workers will also provide outreach, education and birth services to families in high risk areas.

“Always lead with Love.  We can’t do this work because we are angry, or because we hate the system. We must do this work because we love the people we serve.”

Erin Davison, Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Louisiana

Neither multiple hurricanes nor a pandemic can stop this persistent southwest Louisiana leader from supporting young people in need of help. With many kids facing isolation, mental health challenges, and lack of educational resources, Big Brothers and Big Sisters serving as mentors were able to continue providing a positive outlet for over 150 children in the region despite widespread damage to infrastructure in Lake Charles. Erin encouraged her team to focus on innovation by launching a virtual mentoring program, which uses an app that allows mentors to stay connected and engaged during social distancing and transitions from in-person learning to virtual environments.

“Always remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and EVERYTHING happens for a reason.  Don’t just reach for the sky, break that glass ceiling, and jump up and grab the sky, lasso it and use that lasso like a magic wand and make the change you want to see in the world.”

Andria Fontenot, Executive Director of Fostering Community 

Andria builds community through shared purpose and deep commitment to our most vulnerable children. In the Alexandria area, what began as photography project to raise awareness for adoption turned into the only foster care support entity in that region. Andria’s organization has now developed and implemented a mentorship program between current and new foster families to improve foster parent retention, reduce placement disruptions, and recruit more foster families to serve the 400+ children in local foster care.

“Love changes everything. Love builds up. Bridges are built when women join hands and lift each other up. Bridges that create inclusion, build community, meet needs, and “motivate one another to acts of love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24)

Aisha Johnson, Executive Director of Families Helping Families of Southeast Louisiana 

Once, there was a mother who wanted to ensure that her three boys, each of whom was on the autism spectrum, had exciting career opportunities. To support her passion and sons, Aisha joined the Families Helping Families team in 2009 and has been innovating ever since. She is considered an expert in the field of autism, treatment options and vocational opportunities for young people on the spectrum. Over the past two years, Aisha led her team to create a coding program to help place young people in meaningful training and work situations to increase their social connections and wage-earning potential.

“Jackie Robinson said ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’ I can’t be who I am without my boys and the kids who are just like them.”

Jessica Milan Miller, CEO of Gingerbread House 

Jessica leads with heart and hope to encourage resiliency in child victims of abuse. The Gingerbread House helps children go from victims to survivors, walking alongside them until they feel like they can fly.  Despite pandemic disruptions, Jessica and her team have not only managed to continue serving child abuse and child sex trafficking victims, but have also expanded programming to raise awareness for a potential rise in child abuse cases brought about by social isolation and reduced services. As a result of their efforts, an additional 35,000 children and adults through the state will receive educational outreach sessions focused on prevention and identification of child abuse.

“We must work hard to remind children, especially those who have been abused, that they are not defined by what has happened to them.  They can grow up to become happy and healthy individuals who can share their talents with the world.”

Anna Palmer, Executive Director of Crossroads Nola 

Anna cultivates structure to create change. A foster parent herself, Anna founded Crossroads NOLA to help recruit and train foster families. She has led the organization to expand services to support the DCFS Covington region and develop statewide coaching supports for organizations and systems serving vulnerable children and families. These expansion efforts are designed to increase placement stability for children in foster care and improve collaboration between organizations to eliminate fragmented services. Anna is also a 2019 Angel Award Honoree.

“There is nothing more uncertain than the creative process, and there is absolutely no innovation without failure.” – Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

Lucy Perera, Founder of Line 4 Line

Lucy leads with vision, supporting creative education within marginalized and disinvested communities for 20+ years. Once upon a time, Lucy heard about barbers across the country offering free haircuts in exchange for reading books. When she met local barbershop owner, Curtis O’Neil, Line4Line was born in Baton Rouge. Line4Line works through barbershops to support literacy and close the achievement gap by building self-esteem and providing positive learning. Lucy and the Line4Line team are working to change the narrative for African American boys ages 3-19.

“May all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some ways to that happiness and that freedom for all.”

Sister Sharon Rambin, Manager of David Raines School-Based Health Centers 

Sister Sharon’s smile is contagious and radiates purpose. Realizing that many children in rural northwest Louisiana did not have access to healthcare and vital vaccinations, Sister Sharon brought together a group of past Angel Award honorees to start a Mobile Pediatric Medical Unit. The Wellness on Wheels project is expanding medical and mental health services for 28,000 children in schools throughout the region. Sister Sharon brings people together to create change and is supported by the Angels of Change Grant.

“A smile can do so many things. It can defuse tension, open doors, create unison and close division. Most importantly, a smile is the unspoken word which expresses our individual goodness. Let us share smiles and bask in peace.”

Pat Smith, Executive Director of BR Early Childhood Education Collaborative 

Pat is a former state Representative who has never walked away from a challenge. She wanted to do more to ensure every child was ready to start kindergarten. To support the 62,000 children in Louisiana not enrolled in a nursery or preschool, Pat and team created the Home Start Early Childhood Education Program, a unique approach to serve preschoolers through partnership with the Public Housing Authority and community home visitors. The program will assist 50 low-income families in preparing children to meet early childhood health and development milestones through weekly home visits, technology, and curriculum resources.

“Never doubt yourself, accept the challenges that come your way because they are a major part of your life’s journey shaping your character, building your self-confidence, and enhancing your ability to be solutions driven.”

Dr. Libbie Sonnier, Executive Director of The Louisiana Policy Institute for Children

Having dedicated the last 20 years to supporting children and their families, Dr. Sonnier is writing the blueprint on how to ensure all our children receive a quality education from birth.  Her tenaciousness and extensive content knowledge instigate action in whatever room she enters. Once COVID-19 shutdowns began, Dr. Sonnier and her team immediately got to work to researching and responding to the impact on childcare providers, producing data, reports, and policy recommendations to ensure the stability of early care and education across Louisiana during the pandemic.

“When your greatest joy meets the world’s great need, that is vocation. Our greatest need is for our children to have the ability to learn, change, and grow to the best of their ability and my greatest joy is little people. Our little people deserve better so we must absolutely do better.”

Liz Marcell Williams, Center for Resilience CEO

Liz innovates to reach all students. She is the founder and CEO of the Center for Resilience, an organization that provides educational and intensive mental health supports to ensure the emotional well-being and academic readiness of children with emotional health and trauma-related needs. Recently, she and her  team have helped design an intervention for young people who have experienced trauma called called PLAAY (Preventing Long-Term Anger and Aggression in Youth). PLAAY is a culturally competent intervention offering stress reduction through physical activity and promotes the development of healthy coping skills for young people by embedding cognitive behavioral strategies in activities like basketball and group therapy. Liz and team are working to expand this one-of-a-kind intervention to reach more Louisiana students.

“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do this. Whether we do it or not must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we have not done it so far.”

To all the fearless women reading this – thank you all for your work, for your life, for the fearless way in which you have led us all forward, making our Louisiana better. We are bearing the fruits of your work with gratitude.

Happy Women’s History month! “Here’s to strong women: May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”

If you have other inspiring stories to share or would like to learn more about any of these innovative initiatives or funding opportunities, please reach out. As a reminder, Angel Award nominations are due 4/12 and our next grant deadline is 6/1.

Chloé Wiley
Initiatives Manager, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation

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