Eight years ago, Junior League of Manatee County members Kara Bettle and Jackie Dezelski wanted to find a way to honor local women who are successes in spite of overwhelming odds.
The members of JLMC agreed and started the annual Women in Strength awards luncheon. Kara and Jackie also wanted to encourage young girls to aim high, so they teamed up with Amy Wick Mavis, executive director of the PACE Center for Girls, and hosted the alternative school students as honored guests.
Fast forward to 2009 and Kara, now president of JLMC, welcomed guests to last Friday’s luncheon, chaired by Josie Brannon. The Bradenton Country Club was filled with tables shared by League members, community leaders and PACE students. The girls smiled proudly when they were applauded.
This year’s honorees were Ruth Lyerly, Valerie Wojciechowicz and Tristan Smith, and their stories brought tears and standing ovations.
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Ruth lost her teenaged son to drugs and suicide but has used the tragedy to help educate young people about the dangers of substance abuse.
Valerie’s poor choices led to obesity, drug abuse and HIV. Now she is a personal trainer and motivational speaker.
Tristan is a former PACE student who was arrested at 15 and became pregnant at age 18. She turned her life around and became a dental assistant and is raising her one-year-old daughter.
Among the guests were Mary Glass and Tricia McKay May from the Manatee Educational Foundation, Dr. Robyn Spirtas and Manatee Community Foundation executive director Marilyn Howard.