The room was filled with girls and women. It was a chance for the ladies to inspire and empower the young girls to follow their dreams, to be strong, to do what makes the happy, to excel in what they do in the future.
“We want to inspired you girls, so you know when you grow up you can be anything you want to be,” said Misty Matthews, who, with friend Vicky Roberts, organized the first GIRLs EmPOWERing Girls symposium held Tuesday evening at Fairfield Inn & Suites.
Eight women shared their stories of how they got where they are now in their lives and careers with the girls, most of whom were between the ages of 10 and 12.
“I became an attorney in 2003,” said Amelia Patton, who became a partner at Partin, Patton and Brown in January of 2009 after being with the firm for six years. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I came out of college.”
Patton explained that she is naturally a shy person, and she doesn’t like to argue, so she thought she wouldn’t be a good lawyer. “The way I overcame that was by being prepared. I may write briefs when some lawyers don’t. I may research more than others might.”
As an attorney who handles administrative law, Patton said she works with Social Security disability and long-term disability cases. “I found an area of law that can make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.
“Find something that makes you feel good about yourself,” Patton encouraged the girls. “You can find a way to do any job and make it a positive impact on other people’s lives and your community.”
Elkin firefighter Theresa Knops explained that her move into a traditionally male career came from a life of giving back to the community, as she laid her fire helmet on a table near her.
“When I was growing up, volunteerism was a big part of my life, beginning as a hugger at Special Olympics, going door to door collecting change for whatever walk or cause I was participating in. Most of what I’ve done has been in service to others,” said Knops, who also serves as executive director of The Ark shelter, which is a part-time position. “I light up in service to others.”
Upon moving to the North Carolina mountains, Knops said she joined a fire department ladies auxiliary and started helping provide sandwiches and refreshments for firefighters in the department when they were on emergency scenes.
“In 1992, we were at a chicken house fire, and I thought I don’t want to be making sandwiches, I want to be eating them. I want to be in the middle of it,” Knops said. “In March 1993, I joined Reynolds Fire Department in Asheville. It was the week of the blizzard of ‘93.”
She said in North Carolina, as a volunteer firefighter all training is paid for, so certifications can be obtained without having to pay out of pocket. In 1996, Knops said, she decided to pursue firefighting fora paid career, so in addition to learning to drive fire trucks, getting hands-on training and more, she started going to the gym and doing cardio and weight training.
“The gear weighs 60 to 80 pounds and most (paid) fire departments require a physical agility test,” she said.
After failing her first agility test, which is a timed test, she went back to Reynolds and her fellow firefighters helped her train. She said she learned how to do things like drag a dummy in a way that was more manageable for a woman. And in the spring of 1997, she was hired by the Fletcher Fire Department and was the first female firefighter hired in Henderson County.
She also fell in love with the education and training aspect of firefighting and went on to school to get her instructors licensure. Now she is a member of the Elkin Fire Department as a volunteer and a part-time firefighter. She is a level one fire inspector and training officer.
“I’ll do it till they tell me I can’t any more,” Knops said.
For Sarah Byrd Martin, writing is a passion she has had since she was a young girl “with a pink diary that had a key so I could keep my thoughts secret.” And now it is her third career.
She said at the age of 16, she lost a very close friend to a car wreck. “I wrote a poem called ‘Black Car’ and a couple of weeks later I gave it to his mother. Thirty years later, I was visiting with her and she pulled out a brown envelope and it had my poem in it. She said she keeps it in front of her at all times.”
Martin had the opportunity a few years ago to “go home and write stories. My life-long dream.”
It took her 13 years to write her first novel, “In the Coal Mine Shadows.” She said eight years later she took it off the shelf, got help editing it, and started sending it to publishers, but no one bit.
“If you’re ever going to do anything, you need to learn to hear the word ‘no,’” Martin told the girls. “I threw it back on the shelf and then wrote a second book, and I got a letter back from a publisher that she liked what she saw and wanted to read more.”
Once the book came back, she said as she showed the girls a copy of her published book, “That was my life-long dream to hold a book with my name on it.”
With a degree in children’s literature, Martin then wrote a children’s book. Now she is on edit number 10 of her third book, “River Keeper,” and she said it will be an 11th edit before it is ready to publish.
She gave the girls three tips — to work hard, to have stick-to-it-ness and to have common sense. “I wanted to be a country music singer, but I can’t sing,” she said of the common sense tip.
“When you think (your parents and teachers) are being hard on you, they are trying to make you be all you can be,” she added.
After opting for what she thought was a secure job as a marketing director for a 58-person company, Kimberly Seipel-Parks found out that her job wasn’t as secure as she thought. The company went from 58 employees to eight, and she was one of the ones who found herself without a position.
“My husband had said why don’t you start your own marketing firm,” Seipel-Parks said of the time while she was still employed by the company. “But I liked getting a pay check, paid vacation, and I thought what if I can’t get enough jobs.”
Instead she got a push out of the company and into an opportunity to work for herself.
“While I was sending out resumes, I thought I’ll start doing some freelance and work for friends, and I started building and growing, so I started focusing full-time on that,” said the Elkin native who was living in Beaufort, S.C., at the time.
She and her husband decided to move back to Elkin, so before the move, she redirected her work and focus on marketing clients in the Elkin area, and five years ago, they made the move.
“I have my own boutique design firm downtown now,” Seipel-Parks said. “All in all, it is pretty cool. I don’t have to rely on the success of the business for anybody but me.
“Don’t be afraid to bet on your self,” she told the girls.
Mayor Lestine Hutchens told the girls that her funnest job was raising her son and daughter. But in the career world, she worked as a banker for 40 years, starting with a bank from ground zero.
“I started my track to being mayor being president of the chamber (of commerce),” Hutchens explained.
Through her work with the Yadkin Valley Chamber of Commerce she made connections and met people who later encouraged her to run for commissioner first. In 1992, she was elected as the first female commissioner in Elkin.
“I was not a Republican or Democrat, but just a person who wanted to do what was best for the town,” Hutchens said.
In 2007, she was asked to run for mayor, and was elected.
Tips she provided the girls was to “always always let people help you and always always let people give you advise.” Also, she said “never lose faith. Ladies are always contingency planners, so plan ahead.”
Teacher Angela Oliver said her faith is what led her to teaching, because she believes it is a calling. “I would line up my Barbie dolls and teach them,” she said.
“I didn’t let guys get in my way. I married the one I knew was the right one,” she said. “I was taught that money does not make the person, and you cannot buy happiness.
“I kept my grades up and stayed away from the temptations out there. I stayed in church, and I got a scholarship to Appalachian.”
She has been teaching for 20 years now.
She told the girls that “everything is a choice.” And added that “attitude is everything” and “choose to be happy every day.”
Elkin Police Lt. Mendy Peles was the first full-time sworn female officer in Elkin. She said Alene Morrison was the first part-time female who checked meters.
“I was talking to my grandmother, and she said to pick a dominantly male profession and succeed at it and you can’t go wrong,” Peles told the girls.
She first worked in the Jonesville Police Department administrative office, and then as a Yadkin County dispatcher. “Elkin had an opening and the chief asked if I wanted to go to BLET classes,” she said of the Basic Law Enforcement Training required to be an officer.
“People don’t call the police department to say they are having a great day,” Peles said. “They call to have us help work out their problems. I enjoy helping people.”
It took her seven years, but Peles obtained her associate’s degree by taking two to three classes a semester. She encouraged the girls to not give up.
“Don’t let anyone discourage you. If it’s truly want you want, go for it,” she said.
The final speaker was Dr. Adrienne Classen, who is the pediatrician at Kids Count.
“We need more women in math and science,” said Classen after polling the girls’ interest in those subjects.
She also explained that her middle sister, who is now a widely sought after professor of ecology, struggled with dyslexia as a child and didn’t learn to read until she was in the third grade.
“How much money you have is not what makes you happy,” Classen said. “The most important things are friends and family.”
She encouraged the girls to not bully and be selective in who they are friends with, because it hurts others. Classen told them to be healthy and active.
And “when you feel a certain way about yourself or are stressed out, talk to someone about it,” she said. “Don’t let fashion magazines or Hollywood tell you you have to be a certain thing or wear certain clothing.
“There are lots of decisions to make,” Classen said. “But don’t let anyone tell you you have to be a certain way.”
Vicky Roberts told the girls she was going to keep the papers they filled out when they first started the evening, which included a space for what they thought they wanted to be when they grew up. “I’m going to look back to see you be the architects, the OB-GYN, the ones traveling the world.
“Every one of you being here today have made a difference. Use these ladies, use people as resources and inspiration,” she said. “Just do the best you can, do the right thing.”
Lisette Bahena, a freshman at East Wilkes High School, attended the event with a couple of friends. She said she is interested in being an obstetrician and gynecologist. “I always thought it was cool to do that job. I get bored real easy and I get to do something different every day,” she said of the career she hopes to pursue.
Eryn Brown and Reanna Rice attended the event with their friend, Bethany, daughter of Vicky Roberts. Rice said she was encouraged to follow her dreams. In addition to basketball, she likes reading, math, art and music.
Matthews, whose daughter Willow was the inspiration for the symposium, said about 30 girls attended the event that she hopes will become an annual gathering. Following the speakers, the girls were able to eat dinner, which was provided by sponsors Prism Medical Products, Elk Pharmacy and Heaven Scent.
Reach Wendy Byerly Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 835-1513.