Every year, The Independent Weekly honors women who are making a difference in the Acadiana community. They come from all disciplines and walks of life; our honorees this year include CEOs, artists, executives and teachers. We salute their dedication and accomplishments.
Jewell Lowe, Director, 232-HELP
When thousands fled to Lafayette seeking refuge from Hurricane Katrina, 232-HELP Director Jewell Lowe was waiting by the phone. In just two short weeks, her agency received 15,250 calls from evacuees searching for food, shelter and loved ones. Lowe and her staff worked in 12-hour shifts to answer these urgent cries for assistance.
"With the help of the volunteers, which were sent to us by United Way, we managed to take the calls that we did," she says in a voice hoarse from fatigue. "Besides the calls from the hurricane, we had our usual clients calling for medicine, dentistry and a lot of things. But, the volunteers helped make it the success that it was."
This year, Lowe celebrates her 40th anniversary as director of 232-HELP, also known as the Southwest Louisiana Education and Referral Center. Serving 10 Acadiana parishes, this clearinghouse provides information and referrals to people in crisis. The agency also discovers gaps in the community and fills them with needed resources. Under Lowe's direction, 232-HELP spearheaded programs such as the Milk Fund, which provides milk to underprivileged children; the Beavers Club Medical Loan Closet, which distributes medical appliances such as wheelchairs to the poor; and Donated Dental Services, which treats the elderly, developmentally disabled and handicapped to free dental care.
Lowe also launched one of Lafayette's most popular fundraisers, Anything is Pastable. The proceeds from the fête benefit Project RX, enabling qualified patients to receive prescription drugs at a discount. This year's gala netted $55,000.
Another landmark for 232-HELP was establishing the 211 toll-free crisis line. In 2000, Lafayette's program became the fourth in the country, and first in the state, to activate 211.
Although her work with 232-HELP has been extremely rewarding, Lowe's most proud of founding the first outpatient mental health clinic (now known as the Dr. Joseph Henry Tyler Mental Health Center) in Lafayette in 1958. It was the first of its kind in the nation, and people from as far away as Canada came down to study it. "We set the pace for starting them all over," she says proudly. "And we managed to succeed in building the first one." — Lisa Hanchey
Margaret McMillan, Swimming instructor, founder of McMillan Offshore Survival Technology
Margaret McMillan has always been a stroke ahead of the rest. She started swimming competitively at the tender age of 8, and by 11, she had already secured her junior lifesaving badge from the American Red Cross. That feat launched a lifetime of aquatic achievement.
This year, McMillan completed her 74th year as a swimming instructor. Although she no longer teaches, she still oversees 10 instructors at her back yard pool, where children have been splashing around since 1965. (Fellow trailblazer honoree Jewell Lowe was one of McMillan's students.) "I couldn't even begin to tell you how many people have come through this pool," she says. "But I can tell you that there are very few places that I go in this world today, whether it's to eat out, at a social function, or walking through an airport, where I don't run into one of my former students."
At a time when women in the oilfield were shunned, McMillan started her own business, McMillan Offshore Survival Technology, in 1976. Because of her aquatic expertise, the industry approached her to develop a plan to transform a worker safety program. After teaching several classes, she realized that many workers didn't know how to use the life-saving equipment on offshore platforms, vessels and helicopters. "At the time, helicopters were going down all over the place, and there was nothing being done about training the workers how to get out if they ditched," she recalls. "We succeeded in finding the resources to be able to train individuals to get out of helicopters when they were under water. And we saved a ton of people that went under water." For her work, McMillan was the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame for Offshore Safety & Survival Training in 2004. — Lisa Hanchey
Flo Guidry Meadows, Commercial Realtor, Coldwell Banker Pelican Real Estate
In Lafayette's male-dominated commercial real estate sector, only a handful of women have broken the gender barrier ' one of them is Flo Guidry Meadows.
Meadows' aptitude exceeds those of most commercial real estate agents, says Hammy Davis of Coldwell Banker Pelican Real Estate, Meadows' real estate partner. Davis says she is versed in every aspect of the profession, and her skills as a CPA lend another level of expertise to her work.
"She's incredibly talented at putting together business ventures," Davis says. After working in real estate in the Lafayette and Dallas markets, Meadows spent a decade as chief financial officer for a local venture capital investment company owned by attorneys Clay Allen and Ben Davis, who now lives in Austin.
Meadows credits that experience as the foundation for broadening the scope of her return to real estate. "It was during that period of growth that my career firmed and flourished," she says.
"Flo was involved in every aspect of our investments from research and analysis of the projects, to being the financial executive who guided companies through the startup and growth phases of their development," says Allen, who continues to consult with Meadows on projects. "We won't do a deal without Flo."
Meadows' and Hammy Davis' professional relationship started two years ago when they joined forces with Mike Lofton and created a specialized commercial leasing and sales group at Coldwell, with Meadows in charge of retail and office space. "I think [Flo] brings taste and culture, as well as a good eye for what both men and women need in a location," Davis says.
Despite the demands of Meadows' career, Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce President Rob Guidry says she maintains a high profile of civic involvement. "She makes time to contribute to the betterment of the community," he says.
Last year Meadows was the top fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an effort she championed in memory of her former employer in Dallas, who died of leukemia in his early 40s.
This year, in her capacity as a member of the Chamber of Commerce's executive committee, she's also chairing the chamber's education division and building on the organization's long tradition of being at the forefront of education issues and initiatives ' from desegregation to the economic vitality of the system.
"Her organizational skills are exemplary, and she brings vision and dedication and a very real concern for the students," Guidry says. — Leslie Turk
Catherine Schoeffler, Co-owner, Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House
In only four years, the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House has established itself as one of the friendliest and funkiest venues in Lafayette, renowned for a relaxed, homegrown vibe beloved by tourists and locals alike. And a large part of that success can be attributed to the hard work and warm personality of Blue Moon co-owner Catherine Schoeffler.
Schoeffler and business partner Mark Falgout deftly juggle two businesses in one: the guest house that accommodates up to 27 guests in five rooms and the adjoining saloon where patrons can enjoy a beverage while listening to rootsy local and national bands on the Blue Moon's back porch. Schoeffler handles much of the behind-the-scenes work for the guesthouse, including marketing, greeting and assisting guests and fielding and confirming inquiries and reservation requests. When the need arises, Schoeffler also handles housekeeping duties.
And she's done it all without any business background; Schoeffler has a master's degree in social work from Tulane University. "I've had to learn to become a businesswoman, and there's a strong business aspect because bills do have to be paid," she says. "But part of the business is being here [at Blue Moon], and it doesn't feel like work. I'm blessed for this because Blue Moon provides a door into the local culture and a feeling like you're at home when you're a visitor."
And that feeling has created an indelible sense of loyalty and appreciation for Blue Moon patrons. In a posting to Blue Moon's guest book, a visitor from Amsterdam sums up Schoeffler and the Blue Moon's appeal: "During your journey you can stay [and will] in a lot of places: hotels, motels, hostels, etc. They are similar, their name doesn't matter a lot. But rarely you'll get the opportunity to stay in a house with character, for travelers instead of tourists, and managed by people who understand why people travel. Blue Moon Guest House is such a place and Catherine and Mark are such people." — Scott Jordan
Megan Barra, Graphic Designer and Artist
After graduating with a degree in advertising design from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1981, Megan Barra landed a local job with Cradick Production Art. But in 1987, she moved to Baton Rouge to be a graphic designer for the startup publication Baton Rouge Magazine. A year later, Barra was laid off and moved back to her hometown of Lafayette.
"I've been self-employed ever since," Barra says. Her work is as much about communication as it is visual design. "It's about helping clients communicate their ideas, their service and products," she says, "by using the power of images and words."
For the last 20 years, running her own one-woman show, Megan Barra turned her company, Megan Barra Graphic Design, into a locally and nationally recognized powerhouse. The Acadiana Advertising Federation named her Art Director of the Year eight times in 12 years. She has garnered the federation's Best in Show for print design on six occasions. Nationally, her work was chosen for the 1995 Arts Director Club of New York Annual Exhibition, and she received a Grammy Award nomination for her work with local slide guitarist Sonny Landreth. Barra designed his last three albums ' Levee Town, The Road We're On and Grant Street. In 2002, she was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Recording Package for her work on Levee Town.
In 1998, Barra incorporated elements of fabric quilts into a poster she created for Festival International and began creating silk compositions. Utilizing silk fabrics, Barra renders images that speak of the musical heritage of south Louisiana. She has created 150 images by hand, using only an 1898 pedal Singer sewing machine.
"I love design," Barra says. "I love looking at it, and I like creating things that other people like to look at. With clients, it's their sensibilities and their ideas, and I'm just trying to help them communicate that to their customers. But when it's my artwork, I'm the client, so it's my own ideas, and I can take more chances because I'm not taking chances with someone else's image.
"I'm shy," she adds, "and I make art because I don't know how to say it. I know in my heart what I want to say, but it doesn't turn out right."
But as her 20-year career will attest, through her work, Megan Barra says it just fine. — R. Reese Fuller
Nannette Frye, General Manager, KATC-TV3
Nannette Frye accomplished what no one else had who had passed through KATC-TV3's revolving door of top management since the station went on the air in 1962. In February, after less than three years on the job, the only woman to serve as general manager of the local ABC affiliate won the ratings war with market leader and CBS affiliate KLFY-TV10.
More notable, she set into motion her "1 X 5" strategy (No. 1 by 2005) when she walked into KATC after having worked at a station in South Carolina. Her predecessors had similar aspirations, but none was as bold ' Frye turned the goal into a lapel pin she wore every day.
The general manager mapped a plan for each department, says News Director James Warner. "It was the headline of our mission statement," says Warner. "We had measurable goals each month."
While there's been a handsome investment in attracting on-air talent during Frye's tenure, what the cameras don't capture ' her management style ' has boosted morale at the ABC affiliate. Frye went into the trenches at both the station and the community. "She understands the work of every member of our team and the processes of running a television station," Warner says.
Frye says one of her first orders of business was the formation of six parish community advisory councils, or focus groups in outlying parishes that were polled on their views of the station. When Crowley Mayor Isabella dela Houssaye asked for a supplemental weather forecast in French, aimed at older viewers and French Immersion students, she got it. Tapping its existing resources, the station asked the head of its accounting department to translate the 5 and 6 p.m. weather in French; her voice is broadcast over the graphic of the meteorologist's eight-day forecast.
And while Frye is settling into this community, she knows there are no certainties in any business, especially media. She serves at the whim of the station's owner, Cordillera Communications (a division of Evening Post Publishing), though Missouri native Frye has developed quite a penchant for southwest Louisiana's culture.
"She has embraced it from day one," Warner says. — Leslie Turk
Becky Fontenot Lalumia, CFO, Lafayette Consolidated Government
Louisiana politicians are notorious for using creative math and rhetoric to try and stretch taxpayer dollars as far as they will go. But no matter what politics are in play at Lafayette City Hall, local taxpayers have always been able to trust Becky Fontenot Lalumia to provide detailed and candid assessments of where every public dollar is going.
"Don't let the smile fool you," says Councilman Marc Mouton. "She is tough as a $2 steak. She keeps everyone in check, and that's what you want in a manager and that goes with her integrity. Her integrity can never be questioned."
As chief financial officer for Lafayette Consolidated Government, Lalumia is charged with managing a $460 million annual budget with more than 2,000 employees and $3 billion in assets.
Despite the enormity of the numbers, Lalumia goes about her work in a very steadfast, humble manner. "I love my work here and find it rewarding," she says. "It's given me a lot of opportunity, and I've been able to play an important part in the overall management and financial success of the city."
A USL alumnus who graduated with a near-perfect 3.96 GPA in accounting, Lalumia has spent the past 28 years with local government, taking over management of the finance department in 1998. Over the years, her contribution to the city has extended far beyond diligent bookkeeping. She has been active with several local community service organizations, having served on the board of directors for Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults and United Way of Acadiana.
At City Hall, her legacy includes helping modernize and improve city-parish government's accounting protocol. Over the past two years, Lalumia has helped direct the refinancing of city-parish bonds that will result in public savings to the tune of $24 million.
For her co-workers at LCG, it's the intangibles Lalumia brings that continually prove invaluable.
"Her ability to recall the most minute details of years ago is remarkable," says Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley. "And what she doesn't remember, she has records of."
Mouton adds, "Her income potential would be a lot greater in the private sector, and yet her commitment is to public accountability and the city of Lafayette." — Nathan Stubbs
Patricia Colbert-Cormier, Lead High School Science Teacher for Lafayette Parish Schools
If Patricia Colbert-Cormier gets up at 3:30 a.m., she's running late. Every day for her begins at 3:15 a.m. She says her prayers and attends the 6:20 a.m. mass at St. Pius, then goes to work. "She's like that Energizer bunny," says Dorothy Scott, assistant principal at Lafayette High School "She just keeps on doing and keeps on going."
For the last 30 years, Colbert-Cormier has taught biology and molecular genetics at Lafayette High. "No matter what you do," she says, "no matter where you are, no matter where you go, it's biology. Anything the kids do or touch is biology. It's life."
For two years, Colbert-Cormier gave up her Saturday mornings to teach a biology class to students who were unable to take the course due to scheduling conflicts. "Now who do you know who would give up their Saturday mornings to teach just because kids couldn't fit it into their schedule?" Scott asks.
This year, Colbert-Cormier was appointed lead science teacher for the Lafayette Parish School System, a position that allows her to share her teaching methods and experience with science teachers throughout the parish. Her résumé is a staggering nine pages long; her awards and honors alone cover two pages and include an Albert Einstein Fellowship at NASA, finalist for the National Teachers Hall of Fame and a Disney Teacher award. In addition to her professional honors, Colbert-Cormier is also a member of her church's choir and served as the president of Lafayette's branch of the NAACP from 1976 until 1982.
As a single mother, Colbert-Cormier raised four children. One is a teacher, another's a real estate investment banker, and a third is in residency for neurosurgery. Tragically, her youngest child was killed in an auto accident nearly a decade ago, but Colbert-Cormier says she's thankful for the time she had with him. "God's been good to me," she says.
"I sincerely feel that other people are looking at the life I live," she adds. "If I'm not a role model or an example to the children, then I am living a lie. So I live my religion. It's important to me. I generally tell students, 'Never give up. Strive for the top, for the bottom is crowded. Be the best you can be.'" ' R. Reese Fuller
Kris Wartelle, Public Information Director for Charles Foti
When Kris Wartelle worked as a TV anchor and reporter for both KLFY and KATC in the 1990s, she exemplified a kind of dignified journalism that's become a rarity in the increasingly relentless world of 24-hour TV news. "She always got the story," says Angie Simoneaux, a former Advocate reporter who worked alongside Wartelle. "But she was also very compassionate with the people she was dealing with. You don't always see that. That's what I always respected about her. The human element did not escape her."
Wartelle's graceful tact and professionalism make her ideally suited for her current job as public information director for Attorney General Charles Foti. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the work of the A.G.'s Office is more critical than ever.
Wartelle has recently been coping with a huge influx of media requests, working overtime to get out news on price gougers, sex offenders and scam artists who have been trying to take advantage of desperate, displaced residents. Wartelle has split time with Foti in handling interviews with news outlets from the New York Times to BBC in London and in the process, given Louisiana government a more pro-active image.
"It's been nonstop," says Wartelle, who was reached on her cell phone last week during her daily commute back to Lafayette from Baton Rouge. "I'll get requests from CNN from 10 different reporters in one day. The national media is like a machine that doesn't stop. But we're handling it."
Attorney General Foti says that he has always been impressed with Wartelle's composure and dedication. "She never fails to be there, stay late and make personal sacrifices when we've needed her," Foti says. "She's done a great job for me." — Nathan Stubbs
Kathy Bobbs, CEO, Women's and Children's Hospital
Kathy Bobbs' professional life is an extension of her family life. The mother of four children, Bobbs made the decision early in her career to become a health care administrator and make a positive difference in the lives and health of children and women.
"That's my passion," says Bobbs, who's been the CEO of Lafayette's Women's and Children's Hospital since 2000. But Bobbs' commitment goes far beyond the private sector; she's one of Acadiana's most dedicated volunteers and serves a number of government and civic organizations. She's been a representative on the Health Care for the Uninsured Task Force, is on the board of the Lafayette Health Care Consortium with the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and has been a member of the Louisiana Maternal/Child Health coalition since 2000. And she shows no signs of slowing down; she's chair-elect of United Way of Acadiana's 2006 giving campaign. Currently, she's navigating the challenges presented by Hurricane Katrina.
"Our commitment has been to assess what the community's needs are," says Bobbs. To address the pressing issues facing so many New Orleans-area residents affected by the hurricane, Bobbs is recruiting pediatric sub-specialists in neurology, orthopedics and cardiology. "Our goal is to provide as many services for our pediatric patients and their families as possible to keep families united," says Bobbs. — Scott Jordan
Dianne Mouton-Allen, Executive Staff Director with the Office of State Parks
Dianne Mouton-Allen is a woman in transition ' and she likes it that way. As a member of the National Coalition Building Institute, a non-profit leadership organization with a mission to eliminate prejudice and inter-group conflict, Mouton-Allen applies her training to her personal life and everything she does.
Her day job is executive staff director with the Office of State Parks under the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. She is also the president of the Board of Directors of the Acadiana Arts Council and serves as co-chair of Rebuild Lafayette North. Mouton-Allen had been working on a series of community projects focused on diversity in a partnership between NCBI and Lafayette Consolidated Government until Hurricane Katrina struck.
Although the hurricane put a number of projects on the back burner, Mouton-Allen says the winds of the storm blew in opportunity as well. "I'm so excited that we have so many different multicultural opportunities," she says. "We have different types of people among us. We need to set an atmosphere to welcome these people. I think some will stay." In her meetings with Rebuild Lafayette North, Mouton-Allen has been promoting diversity initiatives in schools and exploring economic development in a climate of change. She has helped the Acadiana Arts Council find work for displaced artists in the hope of infusing new talent into the local scene. Throughout the state parks system she has placed counselors to help evacuees cope with the transition into new housing.
Her focus throughout all of her work is to help people begin to set goals for their future. "Right now people are in limbo," she says. "Once a decision is made, you can go on," which is the way she approaches her own life. "I'm so different than my idea of myself. The work with NCBI has changed my approach to many different things and helped me to fully realize what is really important. I'm always rebuilding myself." — Mary Tutwiler