Chatter Faced with threat of losing signature fundraising event, local women step up to the plate

Chatter Faced with threat of losing signature fundraising event, local women step up to the plate

March 1st, 2018 by Jennifer Bardoner in Chatter

Clockwise from left, Julie Baumgardner, Lynda Hood, Rickie Pierce, Barbie Standefer and Paula Henderson meet to discuss the Women of Distinction event.

After-hours, in the otherwise silent Benjamin F. Edwards & Co. financial services offices, laughter spills out of a small conference room. Inside, arranged around the circular table, are five women, all smartly dressed and looking like they'd just come from the beauty salon, the board room or both. In fact, some had just come from their high-powered day jobs, while the others had come from an afternoon of errands, the kind of list that comes with the free time of retirement coupled with the to-do's of a heavily involved citizen. Each of the women carries a reputation within the community. There's:

Julie Baumgardner, left, and Lynda Hood are part of the steering committee helping to keep the event alive - and local.

Julie Baumgardner, left, and Lynda Hood are part...

Lynda Hood, executive director of the Chattanooga Bar Association. If you haven't met her at a charity function — many of which she's helped chair — you aren't plugged into that side of the city.

Julie Baumgardner, CEO of family focused nonprofit First Things First, and 2017 Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year, and chair of the National Association of Relationship and Marriage Education, and Scenic City Women's Network's 2017 Lydia Award winner, and Her list of accolades could fill a CV.

Barbie Standefer, a community volunteer and fundraiser for over 45 years, has worked with the Symphony and Opera Guild, Siskin Foundation Auxiliary, the American Lung Association, Friends of Special Children, the Performing Arts League, and Signal Centers. She proudly helped establish the Buz Standefer Lung Center at CHI Memorial in memory of her husband.

Rickie Pierce is a Tennessee Woman of Distinction, a former Associate Head at GPS, a board member and chair of the board academic committees of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and Hiwassee College. Currently she is chair of the Red Cross board and serves on committees of several organizations of which she has been president, such as the Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute and the Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga.

Paula Henderson is a part-time employee of Benjamin F. Edwards & Co.  She has been a not-for-profit volunteer for the last 25 years with a variety of organizations including Siskin Children's Institute, American Heart & Stroke Association and as a past board president of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and current board member of WTCI-PBS, for which she is currently chairing the Masterpiece Wine Experience, as well as working on the Habitat for Humanity Annual Women Build Breakfast, to name only a few of her involvements.

Encountering any one of these women in an after-hours setting could point to a new project or outreach. All five of them in the same room definitely does.

Those who know them would almost certainly say they are women of distinction, tirelessly working to help one cause or another. It's a title the local chapter of the American Lung Association formally bestowed on each of them with its annual fundraising lunch and awards ceremony of the same name — and it's an honor they don't want to see fall by the wayside.

"We had the opportunity to keep it local," Hood says. "But we had to meet fast. We had to meet really fast."

Barbie Standefer, left, and Rickie Pierce are two of the former Women of Distinction honorees helping to take the event over from the American Lung Association following the closing of its local office.

Barbie Standefer, left, and Rickie Pierce are two...

Photo by Mark Gilliland

In November, ALA closed its Chattanooga office following the retirement of 15-year Development Director Shirley Cudabac and local volunteer coordinator Sue Winston. The move didn't just spell an end to the local resource, but a local tradition. The Woman of Distinction designation stretches back to 1985, when downtown retailer Loveman's started honoring the city's 10 best-dressed women. In 1993, the award began focusing on local women's sense of style in a broader context, weighing one's contributions and philanthropic achievements as a marker of her intrinsic values.

Each year, a dozen or so women receive the title; more than 330 to date, counting the five huddled around that conference room table. And with their help, this year will be no different.

"I'm thrilled this event is going to continue on. I really think we need to keep honoring these ladies. There are so many amazing women in Chattanooga who haven't been honored yet," Cudabac says. " It's an amazing group of ladies who are going to help run it. They understand that it really will help Chattanooga if they do continue it. And these ladies know how to do it."

Julie Baumgardner, Holly Warlick and Shirley Cudabac, from left, attend last year's Women of Distinction luncheon. Warlick was the guest speaker and was named the Tennessee Woman of Distinction, potentially the last time that honor will be bestowed. Baumgardner, who chaired the event last year, is on the steering committee helping to take the fundraiser over from the American Lung Association, and there will be changes to the program.

Julie Baumgardner, Holly Warlick and Shirley Cudabac, from...

Photo by Mark Gilliland

But there are some differences in how the program will be presented. For starters, it's being held in October this year, as opposed to May, a season already rife with events as the city shakes off the weight of winter and springs into a philanthropic calendar that has earned Chattanooga a reputation for being extremely generous. There will also be no Young Women of Distinction, nor Tennessee Woman of Distinction from outside the area, though the local honorees can now come from surrounding counties, a change reflected in the event's new name: Women of Distinction of Greater Chattanooga.

"I am very excited about being able to carry on the legacy started so many years ago to honor women who are making a significant difference in our community in a variety of ways," Baumgardner says. "There really is something powerful about coming together to celebrate these women in addition to being given the opportunity to give back to our community."

The biggest change is the beneficiary. Instead of the $75 ticket cost, sponsorships and proceeds from the on-site "marketplace" of local vendors going to the ALA to help support the local office, promote education in the area about the effects of smoking, and help fund research projects on an even larger scale, the funds will be funneled to three local institutions with a similar, but hyper-local, mission: The Heart Center at Parkridge Medical Center, the Erlanger Heart and Lung Institute, and Memorial's Buz Standefer Lung Center. The money will be managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

"Hopefully this year we'll get more sponsors since the money is actually staying in Chattanooga," Hood says. "We're hoping to net anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000, close to what it has been. We're not lowering our standard — we're trying to increase it a little bit."

Last year's event, featuring beloved UTK basketball coach Pat Summitt's protege, Holly Warlick, raised $75,000.

The fact that that money will now all remain local has already generated excitement and buy-in among former Women of Distinction honorees, who have been invited to become founding members of the new initiative, says Hood.

Women of Distinction logo

Women of Distinction logo

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

In making the event their own, the steering committee has also adopted a new logo, designed by Hood's 21-year-old daughter Lauren, a former Young Woman of Distinction nominee.

"I chose to center the logo around the lotus flower because the lotus flower is a delicate flower with layers of petals surrounding a strong central core, much like that of a strong, dignified woman," Lauren Hood says. "The lotus represents patience, purity, victory, love and compassion, self-awareness and faithfulness — all key characteristics of what I believe a Woman of Distinction is."

Distinguish Yourself

This year's event is Oct. 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nominations for the 10 honorees will be accpeted April 1 through June 30. To nominate a woman from the area, or to learn more, visit Applications will be mailed to those who request them.