By Marianne E. Weaver | Photos by Kathy Strauss
When Prince William Living launched its first Influential Women Awards four years ago, we quickly realized that this topic resonated with readers. Entries poured in, and the issue announcing the inaugural winners was one of our most-read to date.
This year was no different. Choosing just five women from the impressive entries was no easy task for our judges, all past winners themselves.
Many women in Greater Prince William give of themselves to strengthen our community, leaving their marks on the business world and serving as inspirations to others. However, these five women have gone above and beyond: Denyse Carroll, Cynthia Dudley, Shanel Evans, Liz Robens and Meschelle Williams.
Although each of these women brings a different set of skills to the table, they all teach those around them how to live fuller lives. Congratulations to these influential women!
Denyse Carroll is the robotics and STEM initiatives specialist for Prince William County Public Schools (PWCPS). But that’s just her official title.
“Denyse is a mentor, cancer survivor, ‘Robot Momma,’ mother, wife, cheerleader and a friend,” said Jack Palmer, who submitted her nomination. “She assiduously elevates the future young leaders of PWC Public Schools. She realizes that the raw talent of PWCPS young scholars needs to be nurtured because they are the future leaders of this country.”
According to Palmer, Carroll is directly responsible for 2,656 PWCPS students participating in robotics during the 2016-17 school year. She has spearheaded hosting regional and state competitions and has also worked on the planning committee for the VEX World Championship in Kentucky.
“Denyse has worked tirelessly to bring robotics to all Prince William County schools. All elementary, middle and high schools have at least one platform of robotics because of her dedication,” said Tammy Hinkle, Buckland Mills Elementary School librarian, former robotics coach and mother of two robotics team members.
Hinkle noted that Carroll has written grants and found corporate sponsors to help fund robotics. Through her efforts, PWC students compete on land (FLL, FRC, VEX, VEX IQ), in the water (SeaPerch), and in space (Zero Robotics).
“I love Denyse, and I love that my sons love her and will do anything for her without question because they know she would never lead them astray,” said Hinkle. “Just recently my oldest son’s VEX team was tournament champions, and his first thought was to text Mrs. Carroll.”
Palmer said Carroll refers to the STEM and robotics students— all of them—as “her kids.”
“They all feel like they are part of a cohesive family inclusive of the students who are popular, intelligent, introverts, geeks and outsiders,” he said. “To her, everyone is wonderful and has great potential. She creates a comfortable environment where they can all showcase their exclusive talents. Denyse inspires, encourages and motivates her students.”
And she encourages them to use those talents to give back to the community. For many of them, that means giving their time to inspire future generations of robotics students.
“These students, who will be attending schools such as Virginia Tech, MIT and Yale, volunteer their time at robotics events throughout the year,” said Hinkle. “They volunteer at tournaments, schools for younger students and outreach programs all because Mrs. Carroll encouraged them to do more than just what was required.”
Palmer concluded his nomination, “This woman is a one-of-a-kind role model that makes students think and believe that anything is possible with the power of STEM and robotics. Quite simply, she is a unique individual and truly dedicated to her students.”
“Cynthia Dudley has built, and is ever-building, something where there was nothing,” said nominator John Marckesano.
Officially, her title is executive director of Trillium Drop-In Center in Woodbridge. However, anyone who has spent time at Trillium can attest that she is much more than a title.
For starters, she is a co-founder of the free peer-led, private nonprofit center for adults that promotes, encourages and facilitates recovery from serious mental illness through supportive, recreational, educational and social activities.
“What we know about people with mental illness is that they tend to isolate themselves and feel alienated,” said Dudley. “There were a lot of dark years when I had no one. I learned a lot of important things in those years. And once it all snapped together, I knew it was my mission to help people understand that recovery is possible. It takes a lot of work, but you can achieve your dreams. But first you have to take care of your mental illness.”
Ten years ago, Dudley partnered with Ann Gurtler and Traci Jones. The three wrote the initial grant that opened the center’s doors. In July 2008, they secured additional funding for the center to double its size. Since its inception, the center has hosted more than 3,500 people, some who visit daily.
At Trillium, Dudley mixes with the visitors, chatting and drawing them into conversations and activities, encouraging and mentoring them when appropriate, too.
“Whenever I personally felt hopeless or was simply in need of solace, I have been able to turn to Trillium and have access to therapy, empathy, camaraderie and intellectual stimulation. The unique, warm niche and holistic service Trillium has provided all of us in need are unparalleled,” said Marckesano. “Cynthia’s
direct encouragement and personal example have greatly helped me through acute bouts of depression. This, in turn, has enabled me to share and socialize with many people, discover numerous intellectual passions, enhance my artistic skills and actually be happy.”
Outside of the center, Dudley is an outspoken advocate for mental health. She has spoken before the Senate Health and Education Committee in Richmond and the United Nations Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organizations Conference. Dudley is the co-chair of Prince William County Mental Health Awareness Committee and a member of the Prince William County Recovery Stakeholders and Greater Prince William Diversion Intercepts for Varied Emergency Responses and Treatment (DIVERT). She is the Greater Prince William Crisis Intervention Team peer coordinator. She and her staff have represented Trillium at the spring and fall Occoquan Arts & Crafts Fairs and the American Psychological Association convention. She has 26,500 followers on Twitter.
“Over the years, Cynthia has created programs that empowered people living with mental illness and helped them find their voices. She has a natural talent of identifying people’s strengths and finding creative solutions to all kinds of issues that come up,” said Marckesano. “Cynthia has made Trillium a critical source of therapeutic and companionship support to thousands of people through every venue possible. Her tireless efforts with city, county, state and national government legislators and administrators, as well as with private companies, have resulted in extensive financial and political support for the peer support program, Trillium, and the many other mental health wellness
initiatives and programs that provide guidance throughout people’s lives.”
Her husband’s job transfer brought Shanel Evans from Michigan to Prince William, but the community made her stay, thrive, and take steps to help others do the same.
“We moved here for a job and then made it our home,” said Evans. “We loved the area. It is diverse, and there is always something new, different and fun to do.”
What started out as an attempt to find an activity for her young children has evolved into two community organizations—the Dale City Track Club and the Competitive Edge Athletic Performance Center—that serve many families in Woodbridge and the surrounding areas. Evans explained that about eight years ago, she and her husband were searching for athletic activities for their three elementary-aged daughters.
“My two youngest (twins) started running track with a program in Arlington, when they were five years old,” she said. “Initially, we tried other sports and activities. However, they instantly enjoyed running and began to make friends.”
The girls found their niche, but Evans soon realized there weren’t any running or training options in the Woodbridge area for kids that young. That’s when her family started the Dale City Track Club, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in educating youth in and out of the classroom.
“We saw the need for an affordable running club in Prince William County, so we started out with eight athletes, three being our own,” she said. “The program grew quickly. We made it a fun way for parents to offer their kids a new outlet, develop in their sport and even participate with their fitness activities. And we treat our athletes like family.”
Delores Topping, who nominated Evans, discovered the Dale City Track Club in 2013 when she was searching for affordable activities for her two young children.
“I moved to Woodbridge due to military orders. I was going through a very ugly divorce, and found myself in a new place with two kids and a long commute,” she said. “Without even knowing my story or anything about me, the team took us in as family. Being military and moving around quite often, I
usually don’t have the opportunity to really connect with the community. Shanel’s track club truly made it easy for us to adjust.”
The club has grown to include about 300 families, who compete year-round in both indoor and outdoor seasons. Evans noticed, especially as the interest in the indoor season grew, that the eastern side of Prince William didn’t have a lot of practice venues. “We had to leave the county to have practice,” said Evans. “We wanted to have something in our backyard that could support youth sports and the community.”
That sparked the opening of Competitive Edge Athletic Performance Center, where Evans is creative director. The goal, she said, is to make the center a resource for the entire community and a home for athletes.
“For people living in the D.C. metro area, it’s hard to connect— everyone is on the go, traffic is terrible, and people work in high-demanding jobs,” she said. “Being able to know who is in your community lets you know you are not alone. We really are all in this together. Offering support to the community by
providing positive outlets for local families is important.”
Founder and Leader of the Kids Who Care Club in the Montclair/Dumfries area
Prince William resident and Stafford County Public School Systems teacher Liz Robens saw a need for instilling community service into children at a young age. Through her efforts and initiation, she founded the Kids Who Care Club. Emma Young, who nominated Robens, wrote in her nomination: “The
greatest impact is perhaps not on the several organizations which have benefitted from the club’s service, but the children and families who participate. Service to community becomes a part of the family structure and monthly activities, giving back becomes natural to the children working to help others seems easy to accomplish because they are doing so regularly, and families come to know other organizations working to improve our community.”
Founded at the end of 2016, the Kids Who Care Club has about 120-member families currently. The Kids Who Care club provides monthly service opportunities for families, with projects designed specifically so that children as young as three years old can actively engaged and participate. Membership is free and
participation voluntary. Projects in 2017, and organizations positively impacted, include:
- Creating over 120 hygiene/food kits for distribution to the homeless. Member families each took kits to keep in their vehicles to distribute. The Good News Community Kitchen received the bulk of donations.
- The Hilda Barg Center requested a lunch that provided variety from the usual sandwich fare. The KWC Club responded by making burritos with sides, providing variety for the entire shelter.
- Over 60 all-natural bird-feeders were made and placed at the Bull Run Wounded Warriors retreat.
- The club placed many wreaths on veteran’s graves at Quantico National Cemetery.
- KWC youth planned a service project through Keep Prince William Beautiful, planting shrubs and trees at the historic Barnes House and the Montclair Community Library.
- On multiple occasions, the club ran social activities for seniors at Potomac Place’s memory care unit.
- Over 50 Arts/Crafts project kits were created and distributed for the Hilda Barg Center so that children/youth could engage in creative projects.
- The children created and distributed thank you notes for those not often acknowledged in our communities: librarians, sanitation workers, postal employees, etc.
- Earth Day clean-up of a local Dumfries playground.
“Robens is an elementary school teacher and mother. Life is busy. She puts a lot of time and effort into ensuring the club continues to offer a variety of experiences that engage children in community service. She leads a team that proactively encourages the children to decide and plan service projects as well. One month’s activity was initiated and planned by an elementary-aged girl. Providing these experiences has lifelong impact for those involved,” wrote Young. The group has a Facebook page at facebook.com/groups/1366229070075339/.
Co-founder of TekConnX IT firm; wife of 34 years; mother of three daughters and foster mother of 14 sons; grandmother of 12; founding member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Prince William County Chapter; First Mount Zion Baptist Church former married couples and social committee ministry leader; Past Commandress for the local Masonic Order of Magnus Court 100 in Alexandria; Woodlawn Faith Methodist Church married couples ministry leader; and founder of Lives2Save, LLC.
Meschelle Williams has held numerous titles, but to the students—and their families—who attend the Precious Bookworm STEAM learning center, she is “Nana.” As director and founder of an in-home, STEAM-based learning center, she has left a lasting impression on the young families who trust her to teach and care for their pre-school children.
“When Noah started at Precious Bookworm at about two years old, he was suffering from a significant speech delay, although he didn’t quite qualify for free services from the state,” said his mother, Sarah. “In a short amount of time, we saw a vast improvement in his vocabulary and articulation. Although he
still suffers from some articulation delay, he has improved by leaps and bounds. We have no doubt that, with Meschelle’s help, Noah will be prepared for kindergarten and beyond.”
Williams didn’t plan to start an in-home center. In 2008, she was working at Freddie Mac. “They were letting go of hundreds of people, and I was one of those people,” she said. Her kids were grown and gone. Her husband had a job that would support them both. She didn’t need to find a job, but then a friend called to ask a favor. “Her daughter had congestive heart failure, and she said she couldn’t think of anyone else to ask to take care of her,” Williams explained.
And so it began. Williams wanted to take in another child for companionship. And then another. And another. Today, there is a waiting list.
“Precious Bookworm STEAM Learning Center LLC is her true labor of love,” said Kevin Williams, who nominated her. “She has recently enhanced her focus and transformed the center into a STEAM Learning Center in which children are introduced to science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics applications and concepts through play at an early age.”
Williams’ dedication to education doesn’t end when she sends the last child home. As a member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, she has partnered with businesses and churches to spread awareness about health-related issues. The coalition has advocated to raise the level of awareness of diabetes as well as triple negative breast, prostate and colon cancers.
“Educating people is a must, especially in the African-American community,” she said. “I love being able to help others. The fruit of the spirit–to know that I can bring love and joy and peace to someone–makes me happy; it makes me happy to see them happy.”
Come celebrate our Influential Women, March 13, 5:30 p. m.-7:00 p. m. at the Dumfries Holiday Inn- Quantico Center. Tickets available at princewilliamliving.com/?p=11861. Your ticket price is donated to givebackpw.org.
2018 Nominees in alphabetical order:
- Markita Aldridge-Woods
- Ann Alexis-Hamilton
- Uma Alexandra Beepat
- Nicole Brown
- Denyse Carroll
- Janet Chihocky
- Nicole Dawkins
- Kathy Wentworth Drahosz
- Cynthia Dudley
- Shanel Evans
- Alejandra Hall
- Kathie Johnson
- Kimberly Crotty
- Angela McConnell
- Davida Mensah
- Kristina Nohe
- Odori Pendleton
- Dr. Sabrina Ricks
- Liz Robens
- Jennifer Schock-Bolles
- Bethiah Shuemaker
- Meschelle Williams
Marianne E. Weaver (email@example.com) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and an MJ from Temple University.