A champion of urban education. An advocate for people with disabilities. A voice for social justice. The 11 honorees of the 2017 YWCA La Crosse Tribute to Outstanding Women have diverse backgrounds, ages and occupations, but Rose Reinart can define them all with one word: grace.
“Everyone kind of had their own journey and came to where they are in a different way,” said Reinart, development director for the YWCA La Crosse. “But all of them have made an impact and touched many lives.”
On Thursday, each will share a few words about their inspirations and aspirations at the 34th annual Tribute to Outstanding Women on Thursday at the La Crosse Center.
About 30 adults and students were nominated for the honor by friends, family, teachers and colleagues, with a committee of community members making the final decision.
“We really focus on how these individuals live the mission of YWCA La Crosse — eliminating racism, empowering women, mentoring and advocating, with well-rounded, balanced lives,” Reinart said. “We look at this event as an evening to celebrate theses women who are doing amazing work. It’s unique to have an entire event centered around honoring women — as women we don’t celebrate ourselves, we’re not taught to do that.”
Young participants in YWCA’s programs will be guests at the program, a valuable opportunity to gain exposure to strong female role models, encourage them to focus on the future and inspire them to become outstanding women themselves.
“This (honor) is a big deal,” Reinart said. “The response is this means a lot to the honorees, and is something that will remain kind of a highlight in their lifetime.”
Susan Hessel: Trailblazer
Historian, award-winning writer and former reporter Sue Hessel has nominated others as Outstanding Women, never expecting a nomination herself. But her own ambition, perseverance and unfailing positivity haven’t gone unnoticed, leading Sheila Garrity and Maureen Freedland, among others, to submit her name for the 2017 Trailblazer award.
“A trailblazer does what she can, where she is, with what she has. That’s Sue Hessel,” Garrity said. “This community is fortunate to have her among us.”
Hessel, 65, spent decades making a name for herself in the La Crosse community, through both her powerful prose and strength in the light of trials and tragedy, including the loss of her eldest child to leukemia and the return of her own cancer.
“I always say the cancer is too serious not to laugh,” said Hessel, who has stage four breast cancer. “For me, finding humor in everything has been critical throughout my life. … I always say in an unlucky category of life, I’m really lucky.”
Writing was an early passion for Hessel, who started her writing career at the La Crosse Tribune in 1974, inspired by a quest for truth in the wake of Watergate. During her decade at the paper, she covered government and human interest stories, including many articles about local children battling life-threatening diseases. Years later, she recounted her many interviews in “Bald is Beautiful: Living With Childhood Cancer,” on behalf of the Shining Stars Foundation.
Hessel left the Tribune to focus on freelance writing when her son Matt was diagnosed with leukemia. He died at age 9. Hessel and her husband have ensured his legacy lives on through the Matt Hessel-Mial Creative Writing Contest through the school district of La Crosse and the publication of his short stories, the proceeds from which are donated to the La Crosse Public Education Foundation.
“You have to find a way to do something positive with your energy,” said Hessel, who has also found solace in volunteering with organizations including the St. Clare Health Mission, U.S. Holocaust Museum, La Crosse Storytelling Festival. She offers support to other women with cancer through her writing, encouraging them to do the same.
“She inspires her many readers almost daily with her essays on Facebook about gratitude, family, humorous observations about life and serious political issues,” Freedland said. “Hundreds of people follow her because she brings clarity to issues that seem so incomprehensible.”
Hessel, who has published several books and countless articles, remains a sought after freelance writer due to her empathy, meticulous research and genuine interest in the stories of others. As La Crosse’s first professional personal historian, she has captured the histories of Gundersen Clinic, the Dahl Family, Courtesy Corp. and the city of La Crosse. She has recorded the stories of a concentration camp survivor, member of the resistance in World War II and local activist, June Kjome, 96, whom Hessels calls a personal inspiration.
“(Kjome said) ‘silence is the same as assent.’ That really rattled around in me,” Hessel said.
Hessel has never shied from sharing her voice, particularly in regard to immigration, universal health care and issues of “human decency,” particularly in the current divisive political climate.
“I’m a Jewish woman, and I stand with Muslim women,” Hessel said. “I just speak up and try to have conversations with people who aren’t just like me. I’m a smart alec, I try to be funny, but I’m just trying to make the world better. And man, that’s a challenge these days, but we have to do that. … We need to support each other, stand together, write letters, make phone calls and try to tell your story.”
Hessel says she has found fulfillment in writing, but her greatest joy is her family.
“The best item on my life’s resume are my kids,” Hessel said. “They’ve shown themselves to be really good human beings.”
Marlis O’Brien: Health
Marlis O’Brien was 20 when she took a job as a respiratory therapist at Mayo Clinic Health System, and for the past 28 years she has continued to be an advocate for patients suffering from asthma while facilitating life saving CPR and advanced life support training courses as Training Center Coordinator.
“Asthma that is out of control has a profound impact on the quality of people’s lives, and it is a disease that in many cases is very treatable and controllable,” said O’Brien, a member of the La Crosse Asthma Coalition. “I realized that a little bit of education in the right environment could have a tremendous impact on people.”
O’Brien has helped supply schools in 12 area districts, churches and squad cars with chamber spacers used to deliver asthma treatments and defibrillators. She volunteers at St. Clare Health Mission, providing free respiratory services, serves with the American Lung Association, Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, Wisconsin Asthma Coalition and is on the board of Horse Sense for Special Riders. O’Brien advocates for her son, Erik, who has a neurotransmitter deficiency and aspires to make the community more inclusive to everyone.
“I would love to see a facility that can meet the needs of those who are different and offers the same options of higher education, recreational, physical, and spiritual support that normal developing people have access to,” O’Brien said.
She dedicates her honor to God, her son, her employer and co-workers and the many people who have helped with Erik’s care.
Elizabeth Kruck: Activist
Elizabeth Kruck knows change takes work, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. After three decades as an educator in Racine, working with students with learning disabilities, Kruch is spending her retirement inspiring and enacting progress in the fields of immigration, conservation, health care reform, social justice, equal pay and voters rights.
“It’s important for women to take an active role in voting and policies because policy decisions affect their lives now and in the future,” Kruck said. “Women who don’t get locked into ideological bubbles and corners can listen and communicate with understanding of different abilities, experiences, thinking styles and information levels and sources of information (which) can help bridge political divides.”
Kruck is a member of La Crosse chapter of the American Association of University Women and League of Women Voters, and mentors through the UW-L Self Sufficiency Program. She uses every project and experience as a chance to learn from others and challenge herself.
“I’m inspired by the many people who work tirelessly for fair and equitable policies that help everybody succeed,” Kruck said. “I’m prompted to speak out with the realization that the things I care about … don’t just happen. Gains that have been made in the past came about with the hard work and courageous efforts of women and men who came before me. With complacency, these gains are lost and we go backward.”
Sarah Coleman: Social Justice
During her 23 years at Central High School, Sarah Coleman had an impact not just on her special education students but on the entire school. An advocate for diversity education and students of all abilities, Coleman made strides to promote understanding and acceptance across the student body and faculty, organizing events and programs including for Humanity Awareness Week, Diversity Day, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolence Project and Unlearning Racism groups.
“Sarah has been one of La Crosse’s unsung change makers, working with and through our youth and educators to help prepare them to interact, live and strive in an ever changing multicultural society,” said Thomas Harris, interim director of the UW-L Office of Multicultural Student Services.
“It’s important to learn history — all the history,” Coleman said. “I think (diversity education) makes the students better people when they have knowledge of their own culture and the culture of others. They become aware that they are a part of a much larger world than just La Crosse.”
Coleman also volunteers at St. Clare Health Mission and organizes African Drum Circles at area middle schools. She names her students, daughter, Kalista, and her grandmother-in-law as her inspirations, and she says she is “extremely humbled” to be an Outstanding Woman.
Robyn Tanke: Nonprofit
For 25 years Robyn R. Tanke has proven a dedicated, passionate and influential employee of the Gundersen Medical Foundation, where she serves as chief development officer, helping raise millions for health care research.
In her late teens, Tanke was a wife and mother, juggling a full-time job, college and trying to break into a then predominantly male field of work. She studied hard, joined the Association of Fundraising Professionals and sought out both male and female mentors to help her succeed. Among her greatest accomplishments is collaborating to raise $3.5 million through Gundersen’s Steppin’ Out in Pink program.
“We believe strongly that we will only find cures for diseases like breast cancer through research and advocacy,” Tanke said. “Steppin’ Out in Pink brought passionate advocates together to champion for a great cause.”
Championing causes is more than a career for Tanke, who devotes much of her free time to volunteering with the La Crosse Community Theatre and United Fund for the Arts and Humanities along with mentoring students at Hamilton Elementary School. She plans to retire in late 2018 and says being recognized for her commitment and success is “exceptionally meaningful to me.”
“I gave this career everything I had and was happy to do so. I have become a better person having served in this role. … I hope every young woman, starting out against the odds, finds happiness and success as I have.”
Michelle Wanders: Business
Three Sixty Real Estate Solutions is more than a business for Michelle Wanders — it’s a portal to community revitalization. As co-owner of Three Sixty, Wanders spearheads housing and commercial projects, including the restoration and re purposing of historic downtown buildings and the construction of attractive student housing, while helping secure safe and affordable housing for low-income individuals through her work with the Collaborative to End Homelessness. On behalf of Three Sixty, Wanders sponsors and makes donations to organizations including the Family and Children’s Center, CouleeCap, Boys and Girls Club, and the Salvation Army, where she serves on the advisory board.
“We are truly a community of givers, be it of our time in volunteering or our treasurers in giving,” Wanders said. “I am so proud to be part of this community that has inspired me to look to ways I can contribute more.”
Wanders makes sure to find balance in her busy life by establishing personal priorities, starting with the things that have the greatest impact and letting the little things wait. She hopes to instill perseverance, servitude, and a strong sense of self in her daughters, and stresses that in a world of instant gratification, patience pays off and hard work is the best reward, though being named an Outstanding Woman is a nice bonus.
“You could have tipped me over with a feather,” Wanders says of the honor. “I have been completely humbled by the nomination … to be in the company of such a great group of women is such an honor.”
Colleen Dixon: Volunteer
When Colleen Dixon’s daughters joined 4-H, Girl Scouts, and softball, she signed on, too, as leader and coach. When their school needed a yearbook editor and a Band Booster president, she raised her hand.
“I felt that I would have a better connection with each of them by being involved in their school and community lives,” Dixon said. “I wanted to be the type of parent that said ‘yes.’”
Dixon rarely turns down an opportunity to serve, lending her time to school functions and fundraisers, co-chairing the Minds in Motion Bike Tour and working with hearing impaired students. She currently works at the UW-L ACCESS Center, helping people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and vision impairment.
“I have learned … about the invisible disabilities that often go unnoticed but yet have such a devastating effect on students,” Dixon said. “I’ve learned how important it is to treat each person respectfully as an individual as you never know what kinds of issues they may be dealing with.”
Dixon encourages other women to dive in when they find a cause they are excited about.
“No organization turns away a willing and eager volunteer. Figure out what tools you can bring … or just bring your enthusiasm.”
Marcie Wycoff-Horn: Education
Of choosing a career in education, Marcie Wycoff-Horn says, “Who wouldn’t want to have the opportunity to empower people, inspire ideas and create change?”
Wycoff-Horn does all three on a daily basis as UW-L’s dean of the School of Education, a position she has held since 2015 after previous positions as professor and director of the School of Education. Wycoff-Horn has taken strides to implement diversity education and global learning through international partnerships, including with sister city Luoyang, China, and assisted with the Grow Our Own Teacher Diversity Program.
“The goal of a better society and world is to embrace the complexities and opportunities that diversity offers. A more equitable society begins with every parent speaking empowering words to their child. It continues with teachers, role models, neighbors, mentors, etc,” said Wycoff-Horn, who herself mentors female students and faculty members and aspiring teachers.
“(As) a mentor I am a leader and a role model who is encouraging others to be confident, aim high, and reach for the stars until their goals are met or surpassed,” Wycoff-Horn said. “In turn, as a mentor I strive for more, and it has pushed me to be an even greater advocate and champion for women of all backgrounds.”
Wycoff-Horn calls her Outstanding Woman honor a validation of the combined efforts of herself, the university and the community.
Jerilyn Dinsmoor: Posthumous
When Jerilyn Dinsmoor took a job, she didn’t care about the paycheck — she cared about the impact.
“The vast majority of her career was spent working in the non profit community. … It became a mission for her and that came from the heart,” said her husband, Brad Dinsmoor. “She measured her success based on the outcome of her work.”
Before her death last year, Dinsmoor served in many realms of the arts and faith communities, first as executive director of the Pump House and later for the Western Wisconsin Education Conference, along with selling her art at fairs. She later taught at First Presbyterian and First Congregational United Church of Christ, where she led service trips, and Viterbo University. Her goal was always to “open up students’ eyes to diversity issues and use the lessons to make a positive difference in the world.
“She wanted them to do something about it and not just sit on the sidelines,” Brad said.
For the last three years of her life, Dinsmoor served as executive director for La Crosse Promise, striving to reduce poverty and encourage higher education through housing grants and college scholarships.
“Through her work, passion, and creativity a visual change is occurring in a neighborhood that is proud of its diversity, civic mindedness and proximity to work and play” said Denise Vujnovich, vice president of the La Crosse Promise board. “I see Jerilyn’s smiling face in the window of every La Crosse Promise home.”
Jamie Capatillo Young Women of Tomorrow
Jamie Capatillo made the most of her undergraduate years at UW-L, where she excelled both academically and in her many social justice and cultural awareness pursuits. Capatillo, who served as co-chair of ALANA (Asian, Latina, African, Native American Women), recognized many of her Latina classmates missed communicating in Spanish, enjoying traditional foods and spending time with family, and co-created Mujeres Orgullosas, a social support group for UW-L students, later expanding it into the Latina Outreach Mentoring Program for high school students in Arcadia.
During her work in the Campus Climate office, Capatillo organized social justice workshops and tutored. She helped produce the student documentary “Inclusive Negligence: Helping Educators Address Racial Inequality at UW-L,” and participated in “Awareness Through Performance,” taking to the stage to foster recognition and spark conversation regarding diversity and justice issues affecting colleges nation wide. In 2016, she received the UW-L College of Liberal Studies Recognition of Excellence Award in the undergraduate Ethnic and Racial studies category.
Capatillo currently works as a graduate assistant in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Masters Program at the University of San Francisco, overseeing a literacy skills tutoring program for K-3 students.
Emma Harlan: Young Women of Tomorrow
Emma Harlan doesn’t wait for opportunities — she finds them. The ambitious Onalaska High School senior reached out the Lugar de Reunion Hispanic community resource center last year, offering to tutor ESL students, and has recruited fellow classmates to do the same.
“I would have never started teaching ESL if I hadn’t searched beyond the bounds of my community for a pocket of need that I felt passionate about,” Harlan said. “… My advice for teens looking to become more involved in their community is to think of a topic you are passionate about, and don’t stop searching for an opportunity to get involved in that area until you find something.”
Harlans ambition and vigor are evident in many aspects of her life. A talented vocalist, harpist and bass player, she volunteers at Life in Harmony, a music program for children with special needs. She tutors in math at her own school, and is a member of Rotary Interact, leading donation drives. Last summer, she traveled to Hungary to work with teens in refugee camps.
“I can’t put into words the impact that volunteering with refugees and immigrants has had on me,” Harlan said. “It has allowed me to see just how connected our world is, and has moved my heart in ways that I can’t explain.”
Harlan, who names her mom as her inspiration, calls receiving the Young Woman of tomorrow award empowering, and knowing she is making a difference makes her want to do “more and more and more.”