Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation celebrates influential South Florida women

Coral Gables activist Roxcy O'Neal Bolton at her home in Coral Gables in 2012.
Coral Gables activist Roxcy O'Neal Bolton at her home in Coral Gables in 2012. Miami Herald Staff

Aileen Marty has stood on the front lines treating Ebola and malaria. Sheila Duffy-Lehrman’s early juvenile-delinquent camp experience shaped her many volunteer projects. Anne Mergen braved the editorial cartoonist industry in the 1930s.

To launch Women’s History Month, these three women with join seven others being celebrated as influential trailblazers in South Florida. They’ll be honored at Miami-Dade’s Parks and Recreation 27th annual In the Company of Women Awards Ceremony on Thursday.

Florida feminist and women’s rights activist Roxcy O’Neal Bolton will also be presented with the key to Coral Gables by Mayor Jim Cason. An iconic women’s rights activist, Bolton in 1968 helped found the Miami chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also established the first Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial in 1974.

Here are the honorees:

Mayor’s Pioneer Award

When Sheila Duffy-Lehrman was a girl, her mother unknowingly sent her to summer camp for juvenile delinquents.

In the first few minutes, all of her belongings were stolen. But after the first day there, she didn’t want to leave.

“These girls were really not so dissimilar than me,” she said. “The only benefit I had was luck and a beautiful, incredibly smart mother and some of them didn’t even know theirs.”

Her experience at summer camp shaped some of the work she does today, Duffy-Lehrman said.

Duffy-Lehrman is the COO for Tropic Advertising and Marketing, an ad agency that does strategic retail planning and consumer centric marketing. It creates branding strategies to communicate messages.

It also runs CometAds, a digital technology company and cloud-based online video advertising platform.

She also volunteers with the Girls Advocacy Project, which provides services to detained women to help them make better decisions. And she now serves on the advisory board of Casa Valentina, a program in Miami-Dade that helps women who age out of foster care find housing and jobs.

Duffy-Lehrman said when she found out she won the award, she said she had to take a step back and collect herself.

“I realized that my mother had won this award, this very same award,” she said. “She was so excited and I was so proud of her. So here I am. And it means a lot. It’s a tribute to her. Everything I learned was from her.”

Arts & Entertainment

Kalyn Chapman James says dancing was always her passion.

“I have always been a performer at heart from a very young age,” she said. “I was always dancing around the house and doing cartwheels and splits.”

And now, Chapman James is the host of Art Loft, an award-winning show highlighting the arts in South Florida.

She also serves as the corporate sponsorship consultant for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. In that role, she identifies and solicits corporations to invest in the arts, to make art and performing opportunities accessible to everyone.

“An artist only has a certain lifespan, especially as a dancer, in which they can be at their peak performance level,” she said. “It was a natural transition to go from performing arts to ensuring that artists that come behind me and who are still performing have the funds they need to fulfill their talent.”

Chapman James moved to Miami in 2003 with her husband, and her commitment to the arts never wavered.

“I’m thrilled,” she said, “just to be the best that I can be so I can influence the life of other women.”

Business & Economics

When Antoinette Patterson’s child got injured at daycare, she decided to open her own facility.

She wanted to open a place that was devoted to both safety and education.

So she started One World Learning Center, a nonprofit daycare.

The daycare had to relocate, she said, but will be reopening in the next few months at 12901 NW 27th Ave. The new location is smaller and will accommodate about 44 students.

Patterson said the center has been closed for a few years, but through that time, she never lost sight of her passion: educating kids.

“I think that they don’t have a voice in the sense that no one’s listening,” she said. “I think that they need to have a good education and I think if they start at a young age it’ll carry on as they get older.”

Now, she sits on the board for the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Broward, an organization that offers programs to help children and puts on seminars and conferences for teachers and staff.

She said she feels blessed to be recognized and to be in the company of such accomplished women.

“I’m not looking to get rewards,” she said. “I do it from my heart, but the acknowledgment that quietly comes makes the world of difference.”

Government & Law

When Bertila Soto was little and she saw her father practicing law, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I kind of got weaned on the law in my home,” she said.

She started her career working in her father’s law firm. She then worked in the state’s attorney office for some years before going back to her father’s firm. But she realized how much she missed going to court.

So when a friend suggested she run for judge, she did.

“I saw the defense didn’t reflect our community and I thought it was important that women and other minorities be represented on the bench,” she said. “And I felt I could do it.”

Soto now works as the chief judge in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court.

As chief judge, Soto serves as the liaison with the chief justice of the Supreme Court. She also assigns judges, controls the dockets and does periodic reviews of inmates in county jails.

Soto also mentors students in mock trials and often speaks in schools about law and its importance to the community.

“I really love being in Miami and being part of Miami and working with the community,” she said.

Education & Research

Malou Harrison, president of Miami-Dade College’s North Campus, said her goals for the campus are clear.

“My vision is to be able to bring the world to the North Campus for the betterment of the students,” she said, “so that they can leave our campus not just with a degree in their hands but having been exposed to global issues that will help them to better assimilate into society and be productive citizens.”

As campus president, she oversees the educational and operational aspects and works to make sure students get all the opportunities they need to succeed.

Before serving as president, she worked as the dean of students for the college — a job she said she’ll always value.

“Where my passion truly is,” she said, “it’s truly the passion that I had serving as dean of students and being able to on a daily basis charter programs to support students and see them flourish.”

But in her job as president, she said she’s taken on new responsibilities. And through it, she’s never forgotten the cause — the betterment of the students.

Harrison said the college enrolls some of the most ambitious people. The opportunity to work with these students and help them to achieve is her reward, she said.

Government & Law (Non-Elected)

Iraida Mendez-Cartaya has 350,000 children. At least that’s how she feels during the school year. It’s the number of kids enrolled in Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Mendez-Cartaya is the school system’s associate superintendent. She heads the district’s intergovernmental affairs office and is responsible for legislative, funding and community initiatives that promote achievement and equity for all students.

“I really enjoy working with parents and community leaders, in general working with other people for the betterment of educational services for our children,” said Mendez-Cartaya, a 25-year Miami-Dade County public employee. “I enjoy finding ways for us to partner together, ways for us to find solutions and improve the quality of life in Miami-Dade.”

Trained in business administration and taxation at the University of Miami, she transitioned from public accounting to education nearly 26 years ago. The switch has allowed her to do what she loves: be a custodian of the county’s school tax dollars.

“I’m honored to work for the school system, the superintendent and the School Board,” she said. “I believe very strongly that I protect and look out for the best interests of all of Miami-Dade County Public School kids. It’s just become more personal when two of those kids are my own, but it’s about all children.”

Under her leadership, supplemental funding increased to $700 million annually. More than 20 local municipalities have developed agreements to enhance educational services and a new foundation for educational innovations has spurred $10 million in private support.

And about the award, Mendez-Cartaya said: “There’s so many women in this community and in the state of Florida who have led the way for younger women to take on additional responsibility and become leaders in the community. I was honored to be nominated and to, ultimately, be selected.”

Mendez-Cartaya is the first in her family to work in education. “It’s an honor to be recognized for what I actually love doing,” she said.

Health & Human Services

Dr. Aileen Marty’s specialty is treating extraordinary diseases such as Ebola, malaria, river blindness and leprosy.

She considers it one of the privileges of being a former Navy doctor — the ability to practice the types of medicine most regular doctors can’t. She’s an expert on tropical medicine, as well as disaster medicine, infectious diseases and clinical and anatomic pathology.

During her 25-year career in the Navy, Marty ventured into the depths of the Amazon, the trenches of South Africa and to the Negro River in Bolivia. She’s treated thousands of infected people in more than 50 countries.

“We were there and we made a difference,” said Marty, who now works as a professor of infectious diseases at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. “These medical missions that we do have the added benefit of making sure that military physicians know how to deal with exotic diseases that the troops might encounter, plus giving intelligence as to the diseases in these places. It’s a form of surveillance that’s very good for the United States as well.”

A graduate of the U.S. Navy War College and University of Miami School of Medicine, Marty’s unwavering commitment to medicine has led her to jobs within the State Department, World Health Organization and Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, along with other government agencies.

In August, WHO deployed her to Nigeria to assist in contamination efforts against Ebola.

“The work that I do has risks, but I’m going to take the appropriate precautions and maybe a little bit more than the minimum because I don’t do myself or my patients any good if I myself get sick.”

Sports & Athletics

Jan Bell knew she wanted to teach since the seventh grade. What she didn’t know was that she’d be teaching something that didn’t exist when she in college: sports administration.

“We’re training students to go work for the business side of sports: marketing, fund raising, sports information,” said Bell, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics faculty athletics representative at St. Thomas University. “It’s not developing players, it’s developing the business side so that we can generate more money than we have to spend.”

Bell’s lifetime involvement in sports began as a player — basketball and volleyball in junior high school — then professionally as a high school teacher and equipment manager in Denton, Maryland.

“I started equipment management because we were always losing equipment and to figure of how to save on budget. That’s when I determined I wanted to be in administration,” Bell said. “I never wanted five girls on a basketball court to determine my destiny.”

After receiving her doctor of education in sports administration from Temple University in Philadelphia, she joined St. Thomas to fulfill her childhood dream to teach at the college level.

In her 30-year career at STU in Miami Gardens, Bell has taught graduate and undergraduate sports administration classes (sports financial management is her favorite) and served as director of the sports administration program and chairperson for the department of management.

Notable alumni who studied under her include Andy Elisburg (B.A. ‘89), senior vice president and general manager for the Miami Heat; Dave Gettleman (M.S. ‘86), general manager of the Carolina Panthers; and Blake James (M.S. ‘94), director of athletics at the University of Miami.

In November, she became the 10th inductee into the Bobcats Hall of Fame advancing her retirement at the end of the academic year. Bell won’t be leaving STU, though. She’ll continue as faculty athletics rep with reduced pay.

Her biggest accomplishment: “Watching students go through our program, having them still maintain contact with me, [and] knowing what they’re doing. It’s rewarding to see that while it might only piece a small piece, I had a role in what their doing and they’re so successful.”

Posthumous Award

Anne Mergen was a housewife by day and an editorial cartoonist by night.

Over a 20-year career at the old Miami Daily News, she produced more than 7,000 political cartoons covering local, national and world-wide issues from local government corruption to World War II.

“She had a big interest in current events and she was artistic from the time she was a little girl,” said Joan Bernhardt, Mergen’s only daughter. “She was the only woman in the country working as an editorial cartoonist. That didn’t seem to bother her.”

Mergen’s concern for others motivated her to draw the cartoons, Bernhardt said.

Most notably, she helped the Miami Daily News win its Pulitzer Prize for its campaign against Miami’s notoriously corrupt “termite administration.” The paper published hundreds of her cartoons that eventually forced three commissioners out of office in a recall election.

She also received national attention for drawing two cartoons upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote Mergen and asked for the originals.

As a housewife, Mergen was known to retreat each night behind her drawing board with open newspapers scattered around her as she sketched the following day’s cartoon. Her husband would deliver the drawing to the News Tower, now known as the Freedom Tower, after she finished.

Mergen died on July 3, 1994, of a brain tumor. She was 87.

More than 1,400 of Mergen’s original cartoons still exist. They have been preserved in the Library of Congress, the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Community Spirit

Cassandra Theramene put academics first, kept faith and family close and the rest followed.

Born to middle-class parents in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, Theramene witnessed her family leave the comfort of their home, relocate to Miami and rebuild their lives to give their daughter a chance at achieving the American dream.

“That was the first lesson, the plight of the journey,” said Theramene, 32. “That story alone motivated me to say, ‘There’s nothing you can’t do Cassandra.’”

The strength and humility she saw in her parents is the same passion she depends on today to help girls of Haitian descent and other minorities create success in their own lives. It’s her purpose and the legacy she wants to leave behind, even in her corporate job as a senior recruiter for Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corporation.

“I’m only who I am because of the people who took me in as mentors,” Theramene said. “People saw many things in me that I didn’t recognize.”

To help the generations of Haitian girls behind her, , she founded a scholarship program which grew into Scholars Today, Leaders of Tomorrow, a 501c3 nonprofit that helps to educate and empower youth with skills for academic and professional success.

“Giving back and knowing that there’s a purpose behind that, knowing that I can touch a life, that keeps me going,” she said.

It’s her voracity to help others that won her this year’s community spirit award.

“Knowing the caliber of women that’s been selected from law to health, I’m very humbled,” Theramene said. “It means a lot, especially at my age.”

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If you go

What: 27th annual In the Company of Women Awards Ceremony, presented by Macy’s.

Where: Coral Gables Country Club, 990 Alhambra Circle.

When: 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cost: Tickets are $60 in advance, $65 at the door and include pre-event reception with drinks, hors d’oeuvres and silent auction, followed by the ceremony. Contributions of $250 and above also afford young women an opportunity to attend the event.

For more information: Visit www.miamidade.gov/parks/company-of-women.asp.

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