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Woman of Distinction honored
Stephanie Barnes
Single mom Stephanie Barnes (left) accepted the Live Your Dream: Education & Training Award from Amy Peterman at Thursdays Soroptimist Women of Distinction Awards ceremony. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The Soroptimist International of Ceres recognized a number of women Thursday evening who enhance the community on during its annual Women of Distinction Awards ceremony.

The service club held its event at the Ceres Unified School District Board Room.

Stephanie Barnes and Mireya Martinez were recognized as winners of the club's "Live Your Dream: Education & Training Awards" program. The award is given annually to a woman who is the head of their household and its primary financial supporter while pursuing their education. It comes with a financial award.

Since she was a small girl, Barnes had a dream to be a nurse while dealing with life in a family adversely affected by an abusive, alcoholic father. She was raised by her mom after the family split up. Stephanie struggled with self-esteem and after she was married put her energies into raising three children while her dreams were on hold. After her mother died, Barnes dusted off her old dream and three years ago went back to school. She recently made the college Dean's List carrying 13 units while running a business as a single mom.

"This is just a great honor," said Barnes. "This is going to help me so much next semester with books and tuition."

Mireya Martinez, who is a La Rosa Elementary School administrative assistant, was the second awardee. A full-time single mom of three children, Martinez has held it together despite challenges and hardships. She said her early life struggles stemmed from marrying too young, being a teen parent and enduring emotional and physical suffering. She returned to school as a half-time student in 2006 while working two part-time jobs early on. Because of a lack of money and childcare, and a desire to be available for her children, Mireya often took breaks in studying. When she joined the CUSD in 2014, she left her husband while maintaining a strong and positive façade while often staying late at work to cry away from her children's eyes, said Amy Peterman who presented the award. Martinez is studying at Modesto Junior College and plans to go on to pursue a bachelor's degree in psychology at Cal State University. Her desire is to work in student support services.

"It's been a challenge but I have a great support at work," Martinez said. "They're not just coworkers. They're more than that - they're my family."

She also thanked her children for enduring while she meets their needs while working and studying.

"This scholarship will help me move forward. It will help me pay for tuition and expenses to move on to Stan State and continue. I don't have a stop."

Honors and scholarship funds were given to Estela Arreola and Rachel Olide, participants of the Distinguished Young Women program. The program did not materialize this year but the club wanted to honor two girls who participated in the mock interview and four rehearsal practices.

"They give not only to their community, they do good in school, they're involved in school and they're just really well-rounded ladies," said Angie Smith.

Charlotte Ewing of the Steps Dance Arts Center was honored as the local business partner of the Distinguished Young Women (DYW) Pageant. Ewing allowed use of her studio to the girls for four hours every Saturday.

The event allowed the service club a chance to highlight their highly successful Soroptimists Empowering Teens (SET) program. President-elect Beth Stochl explained that each month members go to one of the three junior high schools in Ceres to spend time with a group of 30 to 35 girls, offer a "Girl Talk" message about topics like proper perception of beauty or internet safety. The time includes provide enrichment activities such as making floral arrangements, baking and sending thank-you cards.

"We're trying to show different potential job and career opportunities that maybe they haven't thought of," said Stochl. "It is really a privilege touch young lives in the community."

The club honored the principals of all three junior high schools for allowing the program to take place on their respective campuses.

"I love this program," said Carol Lubinsky, principal of Mae Hensley Junior High School. "I love what you bring to our students. Sometimes kids have a hard time finding their place in the school and we seek out the girls who don't have a connection somewhere else and they love the program. I love the program. It's really made an impact at Mae Hensley Junior High School."

Rosemarie Kloepfer, principal of Blaker Kinser Junior High, said the Soroptimists bring a sense of empowerment to the girls "that they can do whatever they want to do and that serving others is very important."

SET also gives the junior high girls a chance to learn about Soroptimists and its "S" Club at the high schools. Boys also join the S Club, which participates in many volunteer activities in the community. "S" Club advisers - Ashley Groom at Central Valley High and Angela Durossette at Ceres High - are often called upon to rally students to help carry out community activities.

"We're just very thankful that we do have ‘S' Clubs very active and involved at both of the high schools," said Denise Wickham, emcee of the event and past president of the Soroptimists.

The club took time to honor Sharon Caruso, who was named in January as the "Citizen of the Year" at the Ceres Chamber of Commerce's annual banquet.

"It's no wonder that Sharon would receive this award," said Lisa Mantarro Moore. "It's only a wonder how long it took for her to receive it. She does so many things that people don't even know about ... Among all the other jobs that she has to do, this woman never says no."

Caruso, who moved to Ceres in 1987, was employed for 18 years at Gallo Winery. Her community service has included planning and set up for the Ceres Harvest Festival, chairing the committee that reinstated the Miss Ceres pageant, modeling in the Soroptimist fashion show fundraiser for years before she became a Soroptimist member in 2003, serving on the Soroptimist board of directors while sitting on the Distinguished Young Women's contest committee; giving presentations for the Soroptimist Empowering Teens program at junior highs in Ceres; actively participating in community service projects of Soroptimists, including serving as the chair of the club's Fabulous Fall Auction for the past six years; serving ice cream at the annual Daniel Whitmore Home Ice Cream Social; and supporting the Salvation Army Red Shield and Redwood Family Center.

"We don't do the things we do expecting recognition, said Sharon. "We do the things we do because we love the people that we're doing them for."

The club also honored charter and life members Sophie Pallios, Ruth Strange and Marilyn Luton Wyatt. Wyatt was not present. Arlene Vilas called the women the club's "most treasured members." The three were members when the charter was established on Sept. 8, 1972.

"I'm sure that they would like to make you aware that they are not the most seasoned women in our club, which in our club means o-l-d-e-s-t," said Vilas. "These ladies have a great sense of humor and their ability to age gracefully has been an inspiration to us all."

Both continue to support club activities and projects.

"Ruth and Sophie demonstrate to us the importance of dedication and love - not only for this community for their families as well. By their example we are educated on the importance of being strong and reliable mentors, starting with our families."

Strange remarked that she continues to be amazed "at the fantastic young women" that have carried on the club.