Photo illustration by Mark Gilliland / The 2021 Women of Distinction. Front Row: Donna Fitch Lawrence, Caroline McGuire Walker, Sandy Brandt Chambers Dittus. Back Row: Daisy Mauyra-Ballard, Amy S. Walden, Dr. Valerie Boaz, Dr. Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, Dr. Cathie Smith, Becky Fuller Hansard, Anna Marie Stone.

Nearly 500 people gathered Wednesday for the annual Women of Distinction luncheon, which this year raised $89,500 to help support Dolly Parton's Imagination Library — and the 13,000 children in the Chattanooga area who receive free books from the organization.

Signal Centers, which provides support to children and adults with special needs, took on the administration of the literacy program locally in the fall of 2020. Women of Distinction of Greater Chattanooga directed its fundraising efforts to the library this year in part to keep the impact of their work local, said Lynda Minks Hood, a member of the steering committee that organized the effort.

"When [Women of Distinction] reorganized in 2018, a chief purpose was to make sure 100% of the proceeds stayed in Chattanooga," she said during the lunch at the Chattanooga Trade Center.

Sustaining the local Imagination Library requires about $160,000 a year, and every dollar raised through Women of Distinction for the literacy effort is matched by the state, Minks Hood said.

Women of Distinction has evolved over decades from a fashion-focused showcase created in 1985 to a broad philanthropic effort that recognizes the achievements of women in their careers and communities. Women are nominated for recognition based on their civic, cultural, philanthropic, human service, environmental and professional contributions to the community.

These are the 2021 Women of Distinction: 

— Dr. Valerie Boaz served as the Hamilton County Health Department health officer and Tennessee Department of Health regional health officer and medical director for 32 years.

— Sandy Brandt Chambers Dittus has worked in banking and finance in Chattanooga since 1986, and is past president of the Estate Planning Council, Chattanooga Tax Practitioners and the Accounting and Financial Women's Alliance.

— Becky Fuller Hansard, head of school at Silverdale Baptist Academy, has been an educator and advocate for families for 35 years, and is a past winner of Teacher of the Year for Hamilton County.

— Dr. Shewanee Howard-Baptiste is professor and vice provost for academic outreach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and has been teaching at the secondary and college level for 20 years.

— Donna Fitch Lawrence served more than a decade on the alumni board for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, rising to the role of president, and was recently invited to represent UTC on the University of Tennessee's statewide Alumni Association Board of Governors.

— Daisy Maurya-Ballard spent almost two decades in the health care industry as a medical device sales specialist and national sales trainer before shifting her focus to real estate with the Uptown Firm as well as co-owning two investment and development comapnies.

— Dr. Cathie Smith is an educator and pediatric physical therapist who has worked internationally as well as mentoring young professionals from multiple disciplines in her work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Erlanger's Children's Hospital.

— Anne Marie Stone served as secretary and vice president of Friends of Special Children before serving as president from 2015 to 2018, and she helped the organization raise $1 million in 2015 for Signal Centers, which serves children and adults with special needs.

— Amy S. Walden, chairman and CEO of Walden Security, which has established a $1 million endowment for the University of Tennessee Veterans Entrepreneurship Program.

— Caroline McGuire Walker has worked in development for Girl Preparatory School and McCallie School, as director of marketing for Torch and as a commercial banking officer

For many years, the Women of Distinction event benefited the American Lung Association, but that organization closed its local office in 2017. In 2018, Women of Distinction of Greater Chattanooga was formed, and the fundraising focus shifted to prioritize local impact. The effort is entirely volunteer-driven, Minks Hood said.

"It's a lot of work and we're all volunteers, but we're all glad to do it," she said. "It was one of those things we didn't want to see go away, so we just stepped up to the plate and we're trying to keep it going.

More than 300 women have been honored through the annual event over three decades.