The dynamo members of Soroptimist International of Downey are at it again.
Honoring six local women who have done outstanding work in empowering women and children, the Soroptimists produced their annual star-studded morning breakfast show, Women of Distinction, on March 28.
Giggy Perez-Saab, newest member of the school board, acted as emcee and Donna Lindley introduced members of the audience. Donna asked all who had been previously named Women of Distinction to stand and conscious of the honor, many in the group did, both Soroptimists and women guests.
President Blanca Rochin called the group to order and Cecelia Gonez, in a dusty rose lace duster over black top and pants, with stunning pale pink coral beads, led the Pledge of Allegiance and Dorothy Pemberton, probably the longest-serving Soroptimist present, gave an invocation which asked for guidance and help. White table cloths were set off by a spring nosegay of pink lilies, roses and stock and the newly green spring grass of the golf course sparkled behind the glass walls.
Mayor Rick Rodriguez, Councilman Alex Saab and Dr. John Garcia, Superintendent of the Downey Unified School District were on hand to see kudos go to the Captain Leslie Murray, first woman to hold the rank of captain in the Downey Police Department, and a now a Soroptimist 2019 Woman of Distinction. Add to that Downey School Board Member Nancy Swenson, herself a previous winner, and Councilwomen -Soroptimists Claudia Marroquin-Fromenta and Blanca Pacheco.
Arriving just in time for the Rio Hondo Event Center’s breakfast and coffee, Judge Catherine Pratt of the Compton Court is one if the six stars in the tiara of this year’s Distinguished Women. Judge Pratt has pioneered the STAR Court, which means Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience, System for juveniles arrested as prostitutes. She treats each girl as a victim, not a criminal, relating to them one girl at a time.
“Later today we’re having something special,” Judge Pratt said, “a celebration for all the girls in the program. Well, 40 of them.”
“They are on probation until they reach 18, aren’t they?” I asked. Probation is how Judge Pratt can keep in touch with the girls on a monthly basis.
“Tonight,” said the judge, “we’re having a dinner for graduates, alumni who have gotten their high school diploma and are now in college or a business, as well as those still under court supervision.”
“And,” she added, with a twinkle in her eyes, “it’s being catered by one of the girls who graduated from the program. She has her own business now.”
“What kind of success rate do you have,” I asked.
“If success is measured by not going back to the life of crime and dependence that they had before, then we so far have a remarkable 72% success rate,” said the judge. A team of case workers, psychiatrists, vocational therapists and the judge have worked with over 500 girls in the last six years. Cupcakes for the many informal birthday parties are paid for out of the judge’s own pocket.
Many Soroptimists came up to talk to the judge, one being Dr. Nina Smart. Dr. Nina just came back from New York City, where an unprecedented 5,000 women convened at the United Nations for the 63rd meeting of the Women’s Council on Social Development to discuss human trafficking. That means sex slavery, and enforced prostitution, as well as domestic and sweatshop labor. Dr. Nina represented the Camino Real Region of Southern California Soroptimist International.
Captain Leslie Murray is a Downey High grad as well as a diplomate of the Los Angeles Police Department “West Point Leadership Program.” She has worked as a sexual assault and child abuse investigator, as well as with the homeless. Today she heads the Peer Support Program.
Co-founded by Leslie herself, Peer Support provides first responders with the tools to deal with their own feelings raised by issues they encounter themselves, such as in-line-of duty deaths and suicides, whom they may be the first to discover. The job can be grisly.
Kim Tachiki-Chin from Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard’s office not only accepted the plaque for Woman of Distinction on behalf of the congresswoman. She also participated by handing out framed commendations from the congresswoman’s office to all the other winners.
Roybal-Allard is the original co-sponsor of the Dream Act, allowing certain immigrant children lawful permanent residence and eventually U S citizenship. She has successfully secured funding for better infant and child care, rights of women and children, and animal rights.
After the guests had finished their hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes, bacon and sweet rolls, coffee, orange juice and petite Danish pastries, the program continued.
Alexandra Hanks, owner of Ocean Breeze Salon in Downey, and mentor to many young girls and women, was honored for her work with the Assistance League, the Chamber of commerce and Girl Scout.
Susan Patterson, who had been the keynote speaker when Soroptimist sponsored its first symposium on human trafficking this fall, gave a passionate speech in her thank you for her award. Susan’s focus is on working with faith communities to take action in the nation-wide sex trafficking of young girls, and boys, that has also been a huge social problem all over the world.
Sex trafficking happens, beginning in schools and the home, here in Downey and Norwalk and Bellflower, just as it does in Long Beach and New York and Thailand. Young girls, unhappy at home, are coaxed to run away and join pimps who then exploit them.
In some countries, families sell their daughters to pay family debts, and the girls do not dare to complain to authorities about abuse because they pimps control any money going back to the family village.
Susan gave her book, “How You Can Help Fight Sex Trafficking,” to several women. Soroptimist’s mission now is to shed the light of awareness on deplorable conditions like this, and makes available hot lines where an abused girl can call for help.
Christine Spino has been working for the last eleven years with special needs kids at Warren High, where she teaches Social Behavior Communication. The Special Olympics are a great place for young people to find inclusion and empowerment, and Cristine spoke fervently against any possible cuts to the Special Olympics program.
The final recipient of the title of Distinguished Woman was Judge Pratt. Looking rosy in her coral sweater, with her long curly blond hair and a multi-colored print scarf, she spoke about the need to support these exploited and abused young women, whose re-entry into society is now their greatest challenge. Her STAR courtroom for underage, mostly black and runaway girls, is in Compton Courthouse, not five miles from the airy and elegant golf course in Downey where we were meeting.
After the meeting, attendees, Soroptimist and guest of distinction began to cross-talk, with winners congratulating others and asking about their work. Kim from the congresswoman’s office earnestly asked questions of the judge, and Captain Murray waited to congratulate her. Susan wanted details from Captain Murray, and exchanged her book and card for e-mail addresses with Dr. Nina and Christine and Alexandra. Christine told listeners how easy it is for predators to get close to girls after school, and even hand free cell phones to young girls whose parents never know they have them.
When women get together helping women the results can be formidable, as illustrated in the adage, “behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.”
“I will put forth my greatest effort,” are the words of the Soroptimist Pledge, which everyone recited to end the meeting, “to promote and defend these ideals.” Ideals for Soroptimists are the joy of achievement and the dignity of service.