11th annual Footprints Service & Scholarship Awards brunch


ST. PETERSBURG – The 11th annual Footprints Service and Scholarship Awards brunch was in full swing last Saturday. In keeping with tradition, the Epsilon Beta Sigma Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority hosted the yearly tradition that focused on honoring 11 local women for their contributions to success and empowerment of women through service.

The St. Petersburg Hilton Carillon, located at 950 Lake Carillon Pkwy., was packed with community members all set to hear inspirational guest speakers, praise God and applaud as scholarships were awarded to worthy organizations.

Mistress of Ceremony was the vivacious Edie Darling, who when took to the stage the tone of the event raised about 10 decibel. Never one to shy away from a microphone, Darling embodied the spirit of the occasion with uplifting prayer and song. Pastor Darling, who is also a retired deputy sheriff, motivational speaker and current Senior Chaplain of Religious Services for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Dept. of Detention and Corrections, had a message to deliver.

“You need to be brave,” she said empowering the women listening to recognize their focus and rise to the occasion and accept the assignment placed on them by God, especially those who selflessly give of themselves in the field of education, medicine and religious awareness. “The labor is huge; it’s a labor of love.”

After a delicious brunch, song and performances by the In Spirit and Truth Dance Group, women were encouraged to fellowship with one another to strengthen the female bond and to inspire change in equality of women.

Keynote speaker Bridgette Heller, who has made a name for herself in the world of business, took guests through a number of woman who had a profound effect on the lives of black women today.

“For generations black women have contributed significantly to the conversation around gender identity,” she began emphasizing that the ideas and accomplishments of women, especially black women, are not always truly depicted in the media and historical sources.

She spoke heavily of two African-American women who although had different ways of going about things, had a profound effect on the lives of women today.

Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree, was born into slavery and escaped to freedom with her infant daughter in 1826, became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

In her speech that became widely known during the antebellum period entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Truth depicts the differences between black and white women of the time.

“Man says women need to be helped into carriages and carried over ditches,” read Heller, “but nobody ever helps me into the carriage, or over mud puddles. Ain’t I a woman?”

In 1978 more than 125 years later, Maya Angelou had a different spin on being a woman but the fundamental message still rings true. Women have a lot to say and if you listen to the many prospective of other women and other cultures, the definition of womanhood become quite clear.

“There is no one definition of womanhood,” said Heller. Instead she suggested weaving the stories of who she calls “(s)heroes” together to encompass all the varying ways women interact with one another, society and the roles they play.

She talked of the strong sense of womanhood her great-grandmother possessed when she was alive. A wife, a mother, a friend, neighbor and a woman of faith, she encompassed everything that Heller believes women are about. A spirit that was passed down to her own mother.

Amidst tears, Heller recalled her own need to be strong, sometimes too controlling, when her mother, Shirley Proctor Puller, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2010.

“My mom’s diagnosis was a defining moment in my life,” she recalled. At first Heller approached the diagnosis with her usual type A vigor, trying to take charge and fight the battle for her mother. “It took time and a few slaps on the wrist to actually realize that this is her journey, not mine.”  The lesson here is that all women are strong and as women we need to make sure that our personal power doesn’t repeatedly overshadow one another.

Since then Heller has worked to make a long-standing dream of her mother’s come true. For a long time the state of education for young black women in St. Petersburg has been in need of a makeover. Heller named off statistics that paint a grim picture. In American, African-American women only hold roughly 5 percent of managerial or professional positions, while 26 percent of black women feel that their superiors don’t recognize their talents.

But today two new educational initiatives have sprung up in her mother’s memory. The book distribution initiative that is funded by the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation and the effort to bring back Girls Inc. to south St. Petersburg. The latter aims to motivate and engage African-American girls in education and reduce the now 38 percent of south St. Petersburg girls who do not finish high school.

“It was a dream that she and I shared, but for some reason I never found the time or the energy to help her get it started,” shared Heller. “In death my mom found the power to change that.”

The Community Service Awards were given out to organizations in their efforts to make St. Petersburg a better place to live. This year the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation for Literacy, the James Weldon Johnson Library and the All Kidney Patient Support Group were all recognized.

This year’s scholarship recipient was given to T’nora Dessaw, who was away in Washington, D.C., at CIA camp where only a few select students were chosen to participate. Her family accepted the scholarship on her behalf.

By taking the opportunity to celebrate and honor the phenomenal women whose contributions to society have made an indelible footprint in this community, the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority has once again proven the worthiness of women everywhere.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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