Women of Distinction Awards 2014

Six women to be honored at Women of Distinction Luncheon

Sloane Bessey

Young Woman of DistinctionSloane Bessey

The six scholars living in the A Better Chance (ABC) Darien House know they’re exceptionally lucky to have Darien High School (DHS) senior Sloane Bessey at their side. Sloane is the lead volunteer tutor at ABC, which provides scholarships to academically talented minority girls from underserved areas living in Darien and attending DHS.

A National Honor Society student for the last two years, Sloane is well-positioned to tutor the students in subjects ranging from English to Chemistry, and she also coordinates four volunteers to ensure the scholars’ academic needs are met. “Sloane is kind, hard-working and an excellent example of a well-rounded young woman. She has been an absolute dream to work with,” says Katie Egan, a resident director at ABC Darien House.

In addition to her academic achievements, Sloane is a talented starter on DHS’s varsity field hockey team and was named an All State Scholar-Athlete in 2013 as well as an All-FCIAC East athlete in 2012. She also participates in the Fairfield County United Field Hockey Club and is on the DHS track team. On weekends, Sloane serves as a Sunday School teacher at Noroton Presbyterian Church, where she teaches the third-grade class.

ABC Darien House’s students say they are grateful for the opportunity to have Sloane as a peer tutor and mentor. “All of us have been impacted by Sloane’s positive attitude and commitment to our success. Her dedication shows itself in her ability to always do for others regardless of any personal reward in the end,” says Mahoghany Dolberry, a sophomore at ABC Darien House.


Jenny Schwartz

Woman of DistinctionJenny Schwartz

The start of a horseback riding career for her two children 10 years ago sparked Jenny Schwartz’s curiosity and passion for teaching equestrian sports that has wowed the community and changed the lives of hundreds of youth who have prospered under her unique riding programs.

Jenny, an equestrian athlete and medal winner, is the former development director for the New Canaan Mounted Troop (NCMT) who successfully planned and launched the Therapeutic Riding program in the fall of 2012. NCMT started in 1939 to help youth build confidence and leadership skills through sound horsemanship and is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

The Therapeutic Riding Program offers horseback riding and equine care instruction to children with special needs. Working around horses helps children to develop physical skills such as balance and gait, as well as mental skills to listen, communicate and follow instructions. There is also a ground program where adults with special needs come to the NCMT barn to interact with and care for the horses.

As a result of her hard work, the therapeutic riding programs have seen 100% enrollment rates one year after its inception. Jenny partnered with local groups to find members, and her dedication has led to increased volunteer participation and additional opportunities for adults to interact with high-school aged troopers. NCMT recently began Troops for Troops to help disabled veterans learn equine care.

“Jenny’s legacy at NCMT is immeasurable, and the benefits to the volunteers, therapeutic riding and ground program participants and their families cannot be overstated. She is the embodiment of NCMT’s mission and commitment to contribute to the local community, to build leadership through sound horsemanship, and to enrich the lives of all it touches, says Joan M. Burnett, an NCMT volunteer.

With a professional background in public finance, Jenny also served as volunteer Chairman of the Darien Housing Authority (DHA) for four years, overseeing the $30 million redevelopment of the deteriorated Allan O’Neill Moderate Income Family Homes into The Heights at Darien­—106 affordable housing units that will be completed on time in June.

“Jenny was able to combine her business and finance acumen, developed during a successful career in fixed-income finance, with her leadership skills, knowledge, understanding of her community and relentless energy to address every aspect of this important development,” says John H. McClutchy, Jr., president of JHM Group of Stamford, which built the units.


Maryann Lehmann, DDS

Woman of DistinctionMaryann Lehmann, DDS

Maryann Lehmann is all about building beautiful smiles. A dentist who owns a successful practice in Darien and works full-time, Maryann has spent many weekends volunteering at the Connecticut Mission of Mercy (CMM), providing free dental care to uninsured patients with limited incomes.

Maryann works to reinforce the importance of giving back among Darien’s youth, tapping high-school-aged students to volunteer alongside her at CMM, where dozens of patients line up on Friday evenings waiting for the doors to open early Saturday morning. It’s an “eye-opening” experience that helps kids “realize how many people are in need of affordable healthcare,” remarks Diane Barston, whose son has volunteered at CMM.

Continuing her thread of mission-minded service, Maryann regularly visits area preschools to teach students about good dental hygiene. She is a former teacher of religious education at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church and St. Thomas More. She also is a founding member of Doctors4Darien, a group that educates the community about healthy living and lifestyle habits.

“Maryann is a true example of a Woman of Distinction. She is a selfless volunteer and good role model to her family, friends and colleagues as well as to the children, students and adults of Darien,” adds Barston.

Maryann’s various volunteer efforts at local high schools have had a significant impact on the lives of students. She spearheaded an initiative to make custom mouth guards for Darien High School’s varsity football players to protect their teeth during games. She also participates in Women’s Career Day at Norwalk High School and once mentored a college student who went on to attend Harvard Dentistry School.

“Maryann embodies the spirit and moral convictions of the YWCA, and is one of the most giving, dedicated and professional woman I know,” says Maureen Bloom, who nominated her for the award. “She consistently demonstrates leadership in business and the community and is an active role model to women.”


Patricia C. Phillips

Woman of DistinctionPatricia C. Phillips

Patricia puts her stamp on volunteerism wherever she goes. An advocate for the less fortunate, she has worked tirelessly for a half-dozen nonprofit organizations in Stamford, Darien and Norwalk over four decades—rising to leadership positions at many and even having a homeless shelter dedicated to her.

Since her early beginnings as a member of Junior League of Stamford-Norwalk, her public service commitment has strengthened the community in countless ways. Patricia co-founded Shelter for the Homeless, the only regional shelter in lower Fairfield County serving the four-town area of Stamford, Darien, Greenwich and New Canaan. She served as Board Chair from 1997 to 2003 and today serves on the advisory council.

Patricia also created the Stamford Mayor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence in 1979, and worked with the Council of Churches and Synagogues in Stamford to provide training and develop safe houses for victims of domestic violence. She also founded and served on the board of Domestic Violence Services, a program of YWCA Darien/Norwalk that became the Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Norwalk in 1997. She continues to assists victims of domestic violence in lower Fairfield County as both a volunteer and advisory council member.

Patricia joined Person-to-Person’s (P2P) advisory board in 2005 and became a board member in 2006.  She works on the Development Committee helping to raise funds to allow P2P to assist low-income individuals and families.

“Patricia has an impressive record of ‘firsts’ — from taking a leadership role in the establishment of a homeless shelter to founding a domestic violence center. Her can-do attitude is encouragement to anyone who meets her as she makes one realize that each person can help to provide a solution to promote the welfare of others,” says Troy Ellen Dixon, head of marketing and communications for P2P.

The impact of Patricia’s work has been duly recognized. Last year, the Homeless Shelter of Stamford dedicated one of its homes as The Patricia C. Phillips House. And in January, The United Way of Western Connecticut and The Volunteer Center honored Patricia’s public service with the Lifetime Achievement Award.


Mary Genco

Woman of DistinctionMary Genco

Mary Genco parlayed a lucrative career in finance into many remarkable years of community service in Darien, transforming the town’s public schools along the way. Formerly a vice president at Morgan Stanley specializing in municipal finance projects, she left her profession to dedicate herself full-time to motherhood and volunteer work—starting at New Canaan Community Nursery School and then Ox Ridge School, where her children attended.

Mary joined the Council of Darien School Parents (CDSP) in the 1990s, when Darien Public Schools (DPS) were going through a period of dramatic change. She was instrumental in helping CDSP interpret the Board of Education budget, while introducing research and metrics to support CDSP’s goals and setting the standard for future CDSP budget representatives.

Mary didn’t stop there, turning her attention to Darien’s lackluster technology programs in public schools and in the community. She encouraged the Board of Education and Board of Finance to fund a comprehensive technology plan to equip DPS students for the digital age. She co-founded and served as volunteer executive director of the Darien Technology Foundation (now The Darien Foundation for Technology & Community), which has provided more than $3 million in private funds for technology and community capital projects in Darien.

“We all owe a debt of gratitude to Mary for the work she has done on behalf and in support of our schools. She forced us to challenge the long-held thinking in our community about appropriate funding levels for education, and helped to open our eyes to the limitless possibilities of technology in education,” says Susan Vogel, former co-chair of CDSP.

Adds Pam Dysenchuk, the Darien Foundation’s executive director: “Without Mary’s foresight, intelligence, hard work and perseverance, this foundation would never have been established.”

Mary also has served as an Allocation Panel Leader at the Community Fund of Darien, helping to shape donor funds to meet the needs of the Darien, Stamford and Norwalk communities. She is currently the treasurer and a member of the executive committee of the board. She also has been a long-term member and multi-year board member of the Darien League of Women Voters.

Fittingly, Mary also has given back to the business school that helped her get her professional start. She established the Reverend Patrick J. Sullivan S.J. Scholarship at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University for underprivileged women pursuing a business career.


Rhonda Kiest

Woman of DistinctionRhonda Kiest

A small start-up museum in Norwalk has become an award-winning laboratory for early childhood education and a cherished community resource, led by its long-time executive director Rhonda Kiest.

At Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Best of the Gold Coast Connecticut 2013), Rhonda is in charge of creating quality, interactive environments where children can learn about the world through play. It’s not a responsibility she takes lightly, and she has collaborated with dozens of public and private organizations over the years to create programs that improve children’s lives in the areas of health and literacy.

In 2006 Rhonda helped start Healthy Children, Healthy Communities, an initiative of 50 organizations including area businesses, government agencies, hospitals and schools to promote the health and well being of children and families. The museum’s popular Healthyville exhibit is now traveling to other children’s museums and science centers throughout the country.

She also led a strategic planning initiative for Norwalk ACTS, a support network of 40 community leaders and organizations—including Stepping Stones—working to better the lives and futures of Norwalk children and youth from the cradle to career learning continuum. This led to the development of the Early Language and Literacy Initiative (ELLI) in 2012 in partnership with Norwalk Community College, the Norwalk Housing Authority and Literacy How.

Stepping Stones’ now runs the ELLI Lab School for children ages three to five, offering full- and half-day learning programs for reading, writing and healthy growth and development as well as providing teacher training and after-school and parent programs.

 “Due to Rhonda’s relentless passion for our community she has become an unstoppable champion of Norwalk ACTS, says Dr. David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College. “She and her team have formed an exquisite collaboration with our Early Child Education program, with the museum literally becoming a learning laboratory for hundreds of early childhood educators.”

Rhonda also serves on the advisory board of the Junior League of Stamford Norwalk and on the search committee for Norwalk’s Superintendent of Schools. She has served on the Connecticut team for the Children’s Outcome Project based in Washington, D.C., and is a board member of the Association of Children’s Museums as well as a national peer reviewer for the Museum Assessment Programs of the American Alliance of Museums.

Says Stepping Stones board chair Sandra Miklave: “Rhonda can be described as a transformational leader who cares deeply about the museum and the broader community. She allows the mission to guide every decision and works to build collaborations both within her team and with the local, state and farther reaching community.”

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