I covered this story for the Crescenta Valley Weekly which ran a lovely story that included the three of these women who live in the newspaper’s local area. Each of the women — especially the last! — were inspiring. So here they all are! Happy Women’s History Month!
(March 2017 – Pasadena City Hall) Beginning in 1987, every year during Women’s History Month in March, the members of California’s State Legislature honor and recognize women “who have made unique and often unsung contributions to enhance the quality of life for others.” This year recently elected State Senator Anthony Portantino selected ten women for special recognition and organized a community event to celebrate the women.
Introducing the group, Portantino said that most legislators pick one or two women to honor but that he had struggled to get the number down to ten. “This year I am proud to recognize ten exemplary women in SD25, women from all walks of life, different in age and unique in their advocacy.”
“As you hear their life stories, I’m sure you’ll agree,” Portantino introduced each honoree, shared her story and a note of personal connection, and presented each with an ornate framed legislative commemoration.
Mary Najarian is celebrated as a passionate supporter of her community; she and her husband founded Medical Outreach for Armenia raising more than $45 million in medical supplies. Following the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, Mary, an RN, and her husband Dr. Vartkes Najarian helped bring 110 victims to the U.S. for treatment. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, they built a 19-bed emergency center with two operating rooms. In Yerevan, they furnished and renovated a 550-bed hospital for veterans. The Glendale mother of four, including longtime Glendale councilmember Ara Najarian, has received medals from three Armenian presidents and two defense ministers; she was honored by First Lady Rosalynn Carter for her years of service to the Red Cross Blood Mobile and in 2008, she and her husband received the prestigious Ellis Island Award.
Mary recalled her first night in Cleveland, arriving as a young nurse with a job in a hospital but no home. “The hospital had arranged housing for me with several other girls but I would need to pay $30 up front. I didn’t have $30.”
Juanita DeVaughn is honored as a long-time civil rights icon in the Pasadena area with countless awards for her service and activism. Born and raised in Boligee, Alabama, DeVaughn earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Alabama A&M University, worked as a dietician for the Birmingham City school district, and helped organize the first Head Start programs leading to the expansion of the successful social justice program across the south. During the civil rights movement in Birmingham, she prepared and served meals to the out-of-state protestors.
Juanita has been an educator for 45 years, dedicated to guiding the youth in her community. Juanita DeVaughn joked and cajoled when she took the mic: “It has been my honor to work with the youth, to see them go on to good schools. But we need to make sure there are good jobs for them here so they don’t go off to other states.” A natural leader, Juanita DeVaughn has dedicated her life to her community and its needs. Her philosophy is, “it’s not how much you have, but what you do with the little you do have.”
Alta Skinner is a community advocate, compassionate volunteer, and strong supporter of children with special needs. “I always have a special place in my heart for the children that need extra support and need to know we care.” Her dedication to children runs throughout her career: 18 years as the Campus Supervisor for Ramona Middle School, numerous awards and recognition including the Bonita Unified School District Classified Employee of the Year, and San Dimas’ Citizen of the Year. Skinner said she was most proud that her three grandsons all volunteer in various ways, that they’ve experienced “the warm, cozy feeling of supporting the community.” However, she added, “our organizations are all ‘graying out’ and our number one priority must be to bring one young person along with you, onto a board or a committee. If we each turn one young adult on to the lifelong love of service, to community involvement and volunteerism, then we’ll have done our part.”
Claire W. Bogaard is best known as one of the founding members of Pasadena Heritage, a community-based historic preservation organization; the group offers architectural tours, nominates buildings to the National Register of Historic Places, and works with the City of Pasadena and its neighborhoods to create urban design plans for historic commercial districts and residential neighborhoods and to help resolve zoning disputes. Pasadena Heritage is recognized for its successful efforts to preserve and rehabilitate Old Pasadena. Claire has worked continuously to oppose the completion of the 710 freeway and for reasonable transportation alternatives. During the 1980s and 90s, Bogaard served as an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the California State Historical Commission as well as on Pasadena’s Planning Commission and numerous advisory board and committees.
As did most of the awardees, Claire Bogaard recognized Senator Portantino with clear affection: “What we need is more Anthony Portantinos!” With equal warmth, he replied: “And more Claire Bogaards!”
Alma Hernández is the first Latina Executive Director of SEIU California, a labor organization representing 700,000 workers and their families. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) represents janitors, home care workers, social workers, professors, school workers, health care workers, and city, county, and state workers. It is the largest union in the state and has been a powerful political voice for working people.
Portantino spoke about Hernández with the pride and joy of true friendship: “Alma’s is the story of the California Dream. Her parents immigrated from Mexico in search of a better future for themselves and their family and worked in the fields of Central California before finding other work in the Central Valley’s agricultural sector. She played in the fields while her parents worked and she honed her negotiating skills with her mother at swap meets on the weekends.”
“Alma’s name means ‘soul,’ and I love hers. Every time I sit next to her on the plane to Sacramento,” Portantino went on, “ninety percent of what we talk about is family, not politics.”
Hernández said that she is “blessed that I get to wake up every morning and show my kids what it means to fight for low-wage, hard-working workers, many of them immigrants. This honor is not about me but about the workers upon whose shoulders I stand, workers fighting for a better future.”
Marsha Ramos has a lifelong interest in natural resource management and has integrated it into her business, volunteer, and public service roles. She’s the small business owner of Geosystems, an environmental, geotechnical, and land consulting firm, served on the Burbank City Council, and continued her service in a variety of ways. Currently she represents Burbank on the Southern California Metropolitan Water District’s board.
“I do what I do because there’s a fire in my belly. It comes from my faith, my family, my friends, and my community. I am driven to support our most vulnerable,” Ramos roused the crowd. “When we went to the Women’s March, being there with 750,000 women and men and babies, what an extraordinary time. I marched for justice for all, for access to healthcare for all, for equality for all. I am on fire because of all of you!”
Sheri Bonner has been part of the Planned Parenthood family for over 25 years, serving as President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Pasadena/San Gabriel Valley since 2004.
“What I particularly appreciate about you,” Senator Portantino told Ms. Bonner “is that you make me better.”
Sheri Bonner accepted the honor noting that “what I do is my job. Juanita, Alma, Mary, these women give it all to their communities. I am lucky to represent our volunteers and staff, lucky to know what’s important, lucky to fight for people to have quality healthcare so they can sleep at night.”
Lisa Pitney joined the Walt Disney Company in 1996 and currently serves as the Vice President of Government Relations representing the company to city, county, and state governments throughout the US. Portantino acknowledged her work in making sure Disney is a “good corporate neighbor.” She serves on the boards of several organizations including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, and the Valley Economic Alliance.
Pitney thanked Portantino for this honor, recognized the women honored, claimed to not be in “their league.”
“You are a good friend, Anthony. A really good friend sees you in a better light than you see yourself and helps you see yourself.” Pitney added that she is “genuinely delighted to work at a company that brings happiness to millions around the world.”
Dr. Geraldine Perri’s more than 30 years of college administrative and faculty experience led her to Citrus College in 2008 where she serves as Superintendent/President, celebrating an era of growth and innovation as the community college celebrates its historic 100th year.
Anthony Portantino recognized the members of the college’s elected board of directors in the audience, joked that the board is dominated by women perhaps accounting for the school’s success. He introduced Dr. Perri as someone who “speaks my language. You’ll see. It is her frank east coast manner that impressed me when I met her.”
Perri lauded work happening right now to expand opportunities for concurrent enrollment. “Think about it. You could finish high school and get a jump start on college at the same time. Exciting things are happening at California’s community colleges.”
Angela Aguirre is a “Chicana Feminist poet who enjoys utilizing her creativity in meaningful ways.” Senator Portantino beamed as he introduced Angie as “a rising star, the youngest of the women honored today.”
“I heard her ADHD poem and it touched a chord,” Portantino noted to warm laughter. “We know each other,” he said.
Aguirre works for the City of Pasadena’s Human Services and Recreation Department as the site coordinator of the La Pintoresca Teen Education Center where she is a staffer, mentor, and friend to “her teens.” She plans events, coordinates programming, and teaches poetry and filmmaking. Her first book of poetry, “Confessions of a Firework,” was published by the World Stage Press in 2016.
Aguirre thanked the Senator: “A real leader not only recognizes the poet, he hands her the mic.”
“As women, so often we shrink, make ourselves smaller to take up less space,” Angela closed the ceremony, capturing the full attention of the afternoon assemblage. “Today, these phenomenal women! How many of them said some version of ‘I don’t deserve this’? We all fear that we’ll be found out to be the pretenders we fear we are, undeserving of glory.”
“But today I will take up space, so much space. I am practicing what I preach, breaking the cycle of fear, feeling like we are imposters, as if our accomplishments are accidental, as if it couldn’t have really happened.”
“It did. We are. None of it is an accident.”
California’s State Senate District 25 includes the cities of Altadena, Atwater Village, Bradbury Burbank, Claremont, Duarte, Glendale, Glendora, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, La Verne, Monrovia, Pasadena, San Dimas, San Marino, Shadow Hills, Sierra Madre, South Pasadena, Sunland Tujunga, and Upland.
Here is Angela Aguirre’s poem, ADHD: An Honest List of Fears & Confessions, referenced above:
I fear that my legacy
will be an unfinished poem.
like the ones that fill my notebook;
I don’t want to look back
and see that I could’ve been so much more than I turned out to be.
I also ordered her book Confessions of a Firework …