7 Women Who Wow

“She is so amazing! How does she do it all?”

It’s a familiar refrain about women on the North Shore — at schools, meetings or just over coffee — as people marvel at the incredible feats of their female neighbors and peers. Women make our communities tick. North Shore women have so many gifts, and more important, many realize that it’s what you do with the gifts you’re given that matters.

We chose to feature amazing women in our launch issue—and throughout our launch year—because they inspired our mission and continue to bring it to life every day. North Shore women have the resources, education, perspective, intelligence and organizational skills to help solve some of the world’s ills and to make the world better in large ways or small.

So, we asked you to tell us about the “women who wow” in your midst. And, boy, did you answer: From sassy Allison McNally’s “My nanny is the most amazing woman” to several husbands’ sincere and endearing nominations, you made us laugh, made us cry and made us proud to know you.

While we can’t tell the incredible stories of all North Shore women, those we chose capture the essence of “amazing”: A leader in global plant preservation, a cancer survivor fighting to integrate holistic treatments into our healthcare system, the ambitious director of a large and growing local art center, a nonprofit founder propelled by her son’s suffering, a force in drug and alcohol prevention and a duo that’s growing the next generation of amazing women.

We hope you’ll find them as inspiring as we do. And we hope that you will tell us about more amazing women for our upcoming issues, too.

LISA WATERS

WHY SHE’S AMAZING: After her 4-year-old son, Benny, was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable brain tumor more than two years ago, the mother of three started a foundation called Benny’s World to fundraise for research on pediatric brain tumors. “Benny’s World has provided a way for people to be close to Benny while raising money for research that might lead to a cure for tumors like his,” she says.

WHAT SHE AND HER FAMILY HAVE BEEN THROUGH: Nine months is the average survival time for children with Benny’s condition, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Under the watchful eye of Children’s Memorial Hospital’s leading experts, Benny has participated in a number of clinical trials as well as rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

ON BENNY NOW: “We’re in a good period now. Benny’s tumor continues to grow — but it’s growing very slowly. It hasn’t impacted his speech or his motor skills. Benny acts like any other 4-year-old boy would,” Watters says. Benny started preschool this fall.

ON LIVING IN THE MOMENT: “A diagnosis like Benny’s gives us permission to do things we otherwise wouldn’t — really taking advantage of beautiful days when we have them instead of doing some chore we can put off. Those can wait.”

MOTTO: (Hanging on her kitchen wall) “Live the life you imagined.” —Henry David Thoreau.

 

JANET POOR

WHY SHE’S AMAZING: Poor is a driving force behind saving and conserving our planet’s botanical heritage. At 40, she decided to pursue her passion for plants in earnest. She cobbled together a landscape architecture degree from three different schools, traveling as far away as the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study.

The mother of two then launched a career that led her to the forefront of plant conservation and landscape design locally, nationally and internationally, including serving as board chair of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where she has headed an ambitious program to collect seeds from the world’s endangered plants.

In addition to running her own landscape design business, she has been vice president of the Garden Club of America, board member with the Center For Plant Conservation, chair of Open Days, a showcase of hundreds of American gardens by the national organization The Garden Conservancy, advisor to the historic country estate at the Filoli Center near San Francisco, on the awards committee at the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Delaware, a board member with the American Horticultural Society, and a member of the advisory council of the U.S. National Arboretum, an appointment by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

BOOKS TO HER NAME: She was editor of “Plants that Merit Attention, Volume I: Trees” (Timber Press, 1985) and “Plants That Merit Attention, Volume II: Shrubs” (Timber Press, 1996).

CONSERVATION SENSATION: “We owe it to our children and our grandchildren,” Poor says of preserving vulnerable plant species. The Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) has taken a leading conservation role nationally and internationally under Poor’s leadership. She encouraged CBG into its participation in the international Millennium Seed Bank Project. By 2010, seeds from thousands of the world’s rare and threatened plants will be stored, some of them in Glencoe.

LATEST FEAT: Playing a major role in the development of the new Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, which provides laboratories and teaching facilities for more than 200 Ph.D. scientists, land managers, students and interns. It opened in September.

MOTTO: “There are efforts, and there are results. And the strength of the effort is the measure of the result.” —James Lane Allen.

GAIL RUSSO

WHY SHE’S AMAZING: Rousso is executive and school director of The Art Center in Highland Park, an organization she’s grown in challenging economic times when many arts organizations are cutting their budgets. Since becoming director almost two years ago, she’s worked to make the North Shore a destination for fine art by increasing the number of exhibitions and events at the center.

PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: On a tight nonprofit budget, Rousso has maintained and grown The Art Center’s school, which offers more than 100 classes per quarter to students ranging from ages 3 to 83. Under her leadership, the center’s board has doubled in size.

ON WHY ART IS IMPORTANT: “With life being as challenging as it is, the beauty, calmness, passion, serenity and joy that art brings really help people get through the everyday challenges.”

IN HER PAST: The mother of three ran her own successful interior design firm for 18 years, with commercial and residential clients in Chicago and the suburbs, including corporations such as Kraft. She still does occasional design work for clients who swear they can’t live without her. She also planned ambitious art festivals as president of the Sisterhood of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El and led the PTO at Elm Place Middle School and Indian Trail School.

ON HER VOLUNTEER WORK: “I like to make things happen. I’m not a small doer.”

MOTTO: (Since she was a kid) “Follow your dreams.”

 

VICKIE BURKE

WHY SHE’S AMAZING: Burke, mother and grandmother of

Evanstonians too, recently beat stage 3 sarcoma cancer. In conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy treatments,she used integrative medicine, including acupuncture, massage and hypnotherapy, to expedite healing. These alternative techniques prompted such fast healing that her radiation oncologist declared himself a convert, and Burke began a crusade to make holistic techniques more available to cancer patientsin hospitals.

Now, she’s using her experience to spread awareness for and grow integrative medicine programs in NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Evanston and Highland Park Hospitals. She’s already founded a scholarship fund at the Evanston hospital to make integrative treatments accessible to those who normally wouldn’t be able to afford them.

BUT THAT’S ONLY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG: Other accomplishments including being a major funder and advisor of the nascent Evanston Women’s History Project, and leading a million-dollar capital campaign for the Evanston Women’s Club.

LATEST APPOINTMENT: Board Chair of Evanston’s McGaw YMCA. She is only the fourth woman in McGaw’s 124-year history to hold the position.

ON HER FRIENDS: “I love being with strong women.”

SURVIVING CANCER: Following surgery to remove a 2.5-pound tumor and several days of recovery, doctors told Burke she would have to use a walker when she left the hospital. “I decided no — I’m going to walk out of here,” she says. And walk she did.

HER WORKOUT: A 5-mile walk, just about every day.

MOTTO: “Things happen for a reason—the good along with the bad. Nothing is by chance.”

 

MARCIA DONIGER

WHY SHE’S AMAZING: Doniger co-founded the Northbrook Citizens for Drug and Alcohol Awareness (NCDAA) in 1983, in the days when the stigma surrounding drug and alcohol abuse kept most people silent. The mother of two has been the organization’s president ever since.

The organization’s accomplishments include town meetings that unite clergy, policy-makers, youth, social workers and schools; an annual Drug Awareness Month; the youth “Just Say No Walk”; a referral service; and school-based programs such as teen seminars on drug prevention. The group was also a catalyst for the creation of new school district policies. Doniger gained widespread community support for the NCDAA by forming partnerships with the Village of Northbrook as well as the Rotary, the park district, the Women’s Club and local businesses.

ON HELPING KIDS GROW UP HEALTHY: “The kids who are trying to do the right things but are struggling to make friends, those are the kids I’m worried about.”

PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Developing multiple venues for parents to learn about prevention, such as a “Parent University” and a parenting newsletter, and giving parents opportunities to talk with each other. “We help make it OK to discuss drugs and alcohol,” she says. “When we get parents talking together, that’s one of the greatest therapies.”

WHY SHE KEEPS WORKING, EVEN THOUGH HER CHILDREN ARE ALL GROWN UP: “It’s harder than ever to parent, and research is starting to demonstrate that healthy behaviors start in the home. It’s never been clearer just how important a parent’s role is.”

MOTTO: “Never take no for an answer. If one door closes, go through another, even if it’s the back door!”

 

LAURA LEDERER & KATHY DEVENY

WHY THEY’RE AMAZING: Brownies often grow into women who wow. So great Brownie leaders are important people, indeed. Deveny and Lederer were nominated by their Brownie Troop parents because they bring passion and great values to their co-leader positions. Deveny, a former special and elementary ed teacher, is the mother of three and a dedicated volunteer with the local schools and Glencoe Union Church. She’s always on the lookout for direct, simple ways to give back and be a role model for her kids. Lederer, a mother of two who works full-time for a top technology company and travels six days a month, shares Deveny’s passion for giving back. The two channel their values into leading their daughters’ Brownie troop, now for the third year.

BROWNIE BOONS: The girls have sent care packages to soldiers in Iraq, grocery shopped for needy families around Thanksgiving, written thank you cards to the fire and other local public service departments and collected more than 500 coats for homeless people in Chicago.

RANDOM ACT OF KINDNESS: When Deveny saw a lightly clothed family in a Highland Park Burger King in the dead of winter, she remarked to her kids, “I bet that family would really like some of your sweatshirts and sweaters you don’t wear anymore.” She talked to the mother, got their address and took her kids home to start packing boxes and writing notes.

ON RAISING THE NEXT GENERATION: “It’s easy for kids to just think about themselves. It’s important to instill some of those important lessons into your girls so that you have a next generation of young women that continue the good leadership,” Lederer says.

MOTTO: Lederer: “Live, learn, laugh, love.” Deveny: “Remember the least, the last and the lost.”

 

SUE KATZ & LISA THURMAN

Why they’re amazing: In February 2010, Katz and Thurman will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their makeup company Amazing Cosmetics, which the duo — mothers of two, respectively — started out of their homes. Now they have an office, a staff of a dozen full-timers, their own distribution center and a boutique makeup studio.

History concealed: Amazing Cosmetics was born because Katz couldn’t find a concealer that worked for her. Now, many women swear by the original product, “Amazing Concealer” — the company’s biggest seller. The makeup comes in seven shades and is hyper-concentrated so a pin-drop amount will cover a blemish.

Grand opening: Responding to constant requests, Katz and Thurman opened a makeup studio, trimmed in hot pink, in downtown Libertyville in early 2008. A snowstorm hit on opening day, but that didn’t keep women from lining up outside.

Giving back: The company did the makeup for this year’s Gold Coast Fashion Show and has donated its services to numerous fundraisers. “We’re glad to be at a point with the company where we can say yes,” Thurman says.

The reward: “When someone writes you and says they were burned or had a terrible scar and were worried about looking a certain way on their wedding day, and using the product made them feel like a different person,” Thurman says. “It is just makeup, but when you make somebody feel like that, you feel really good.”