BRADENTON -- Wellwisher after wellwisher embraced Barbara Zdravecky during Wednesday's luncheon at Renaissance on Ninth.
Two decades ago, she would've been lucky to get a few handshakes.
What a difference time has made for Zdravecky, celebrating her 20th year as president/chief executive officer with Planned Parenthood of Southwest & Central Florida.
"It was very difficult to get people to come out back then, to be visible as activists for women and for choice," Zdravecky said. "In Sarasota, where we'd get 40 in a room, now we get 600. In Manatee, our numbers continue to grow."
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Wednesday's event drew 160 people on the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the Supreme Court's landmark ruling protecting a woman's right to have an abortion -- and illuminated ongoing issues where the organization is a vanguard.
Keynote speaker Leslie Kantor, education vice presi
dent for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, cited Zdravecky's influence.
So did Manatee Glens President/CEO Mary Ruiz, who expressed dismay the issues -- equal opportunity, Roe v. Wade, health issues -- are the same as they were 30 years ago.
"People still have to fight for these things. Women have to care and for us Barbara represents our leader who displays the courage, persistence, smart strategy and just the compassion we need to keep our focus on women's health," she said.
Peggy Klimek, a 30-year Manatee County resident, agreed.
"I saw Planned Parenthood back then and Barbara has done a fantastic job," she said. "She found all the right people waiting to come out of the woodwork and support this organization proudly," she said.
Vicki Waters is just one of them.
"Barbara has brought this organization forward and raised issues we need to face instead of turning our backs on them," she said.
Educating Planned Parenthood's constituency on the stakes in the political arena is another step forward.
"I think women have finally understood what's happening with legislators and the state the last couple of years," Zdravecky said. "There's been a lot of attempts at chipping away at women's rights, the issues we're having with birth control being covered by Affordable Health Care in 2013. Birth control is something almost every woman in America uses at some point in their lives. So the opportunity to promote women, to empower women has been a great one for me and to see women mobilizing across the country."
Women such as Kim Boyd, a mother of two teenagers.
"I think what a lot of other people don't understand is all the other services Planned Parenthood provides, including screening for breast cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer," she said. "Planned Parenthood to me is information and health care they provide so people can be in control of their health and wellbeing."
Making sure the public, particularly teenagers, have access to such information is key, said Kantor.
Teen pregnancies dropped 45 percent between 1988-2008. Florida is 14th nationally.
Coincidentally, the abortion rate nationally is at its lowest level in 30 years with 1.1 million in 2011, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research organization.
"One of the most important things is to make sure people have the tools to make healthy decisions from the beginning of their sex life, if you will," Kantor said. "The average age of first sex in this country is 17, but the truth is you want people to be thinking about these issues early -- like when and whether they want to be parents -- and to get middle school students thinking about it and help them wait longer to have sex. Everybody wants them to be prepared when they make that decision."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix