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Women of Action

By Sue Bjorkman
Photos by Mark Cubbedge

Every year, Old City Life carves out a section of the March issue to shine a spotlight on area women who make a difference in our community. Along with our “cover girl” Letti Bozard, these five women epitomize the St. Augustine/St. Johns County woman: strong, intelligent, caring, giving, fierce, impactful, virbrant (and the glowing adjecives could go on and on and on). Each one has made a significant mark on their world, and our world and without them. While there are thousands upon thousands more who make this community the gem that it is, we think you’ll agree, these women are good representatives of what St. Johns County has within its borders.

Kris Philips

Finding Her Frequency

Kris Philips | Owner – Philips Broadcasting

It takes a lot to rattle my cage these days,” says Kris Phillips. Tough talk accompanied by a sweet smile – a balance of grit and grace.

“That comes with age and what you’ve endured,” she clarifies. More the latter than the first for this president of Phillips Broadcasting and owner of local radio stations WFOY and WAOC.

There was a time, fairly recently, when bad news and worse breaks pummeled Kris physically, financially and spiritually. This was her, “‘What is God doing to get my attention?’ phase,” she says.

Her marriage broke up after her husband was incarcerated for a white collar crime, for which he was later exonerated. The economic downturn and staggering legal bills cost them their business in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their two children, both adopted from Russia, were 10 and 13 at the time. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A toxic stress cocktail.

“Every day I’d allow myself a good 15-minute cry behind closed doors. Then I’d re-do my makeup and act like everything was fine. At some point, you’re going to crack. You just are.”

Born and raised around Chicago, Kris was the shy middle daughter of three children. She grew into a proud, private woman who loathed asking for help. It took many years and misfortunes to learn she couldn’t handle everything alone.

When Kris moved to St. Augustine 10 years ago, she says, “People didn’t know me at all, and what they did know wasn’t very good. When I finally stopped hiding and getting defensive, they helped me through a very bad time. People are pretty forgiving when you own it.”

Her gratitude inspired her involvement with ARC of St. Johns, SJC Chamber of Commerce, St. Francis House, American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, Haven Horse Ranch and Youth Academy.

ON THE AIR

Kris’ career began as a television reporter for KATV, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas. She then became a meteorologist. Later, she produced public TV documentaries and moderated the political program, Arkansas Week. When she moved to Washington, D.C., she was Managing Partner of a public affairs agency and Communications Director of a U.S. Senate Committee, working on pharmaceutical drug pricing issues. Kris also hosted ‘Secure Retirement,’ a nationally syndicated radio show.

When she took over the “The Voice of St. Johns County,” she changed AM channel WFOY (1240) to 102.1 FM and WAOC (1420 AM) to 96.5 FM. She and her former husband had owned stations before, but this was her first solo gig. She kept the talk format because it’s worked well for 80 years now. “Radio is a wonderful way to connect people. It’s vital community conversation,” Kris says.

She’s still driven and determined, but now realizes she’s not responsible for fixing everything and everyone. “I evolved to this point. I’d like to believe I‘ll leave my little corner of the world a little better place, but I’m starting to relax and enjoy the ride more. My sense of humor gets me through.”

Barbara Vickers

Forever a Foot Soldier

Barbara Vickers | Civil Rights Activist

Barbara Vickers has a hometown perspective few others share. As St. Augustine grows, some history tends to get glossed over. But Barbara remembers.

At 93, she still lives across the street from the late dentist-turned-activist Dr. R.B. Hayling’s house. She vividly remembers the night in the early ‘60s when the KKK aimed for extreme intimidation with gunshots into the dentist’s home. It was Scott Street then, but was renamed in 2003 to honor Hayling. Barbara also recalls being three feet from Andrew Young when he was brutally beaten in the Plaza during a march.

“I felt it was possible to help make change, I put my heart into making a difference,” she says. Mostly, Barbara participated in “kneel-ins” at local white churches.

“White folks wouldn’t allow us in but they couldn’t arrest us if we kneeled on the church steps outside and prayed. One time I was with two white boys from Yale who came to help and we got into a church because I was sandwiched between them.”

When spotted, Barbara was angrily threatened. “What have I gotten myself into?” she thought. “But I got involved because of how black people were treated then.” She has not forgotten the humiliations and pervasive prejudice. There was nothing too “civil” about civil rights.

The oldest of three sisters, Barbara grew up in Lincolnville and graduated from St. Benedict the Moor School. After high school, she lived in New York and Seattle. A graduate of Orchid Beauty School in New York, she returned as a cosmetologist. Later she taught cosmetology at St. Augustine Technical Center.

She was married for almost 20 years to Eddie Vickers. “Little Links Park” was renamed to honor his coaching legacy. The couple didn’t have children but Eddie came with a “package deal,” a grandson named Fred.

“At the time, I thought I don’t want to raise someone else’s child! But Fred [Warthaw] turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. He’s very protective, always looking out for me.”

In her 80s, Barbara became the President of St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Remembrance Project, Inc.

“People put so much into the struggle and then it seemed like it was just gone. Forgotten. They needed some recognition for their sacrifices,” she says. Civil rights “foot soldiers” lost businesses, homes, jobs, and were beaten and arrested.

“I wanted a monument in the Plaza where it could have the most impact,” she says. Some said St. Augustine wasn’t ready. “Well, I was ready! I got fired up. I got a good group together and we got it done.”

The bronze sculpture portrays four foot soldiers: A Caucasian college student, and three African Americans. Unveiled May 14, 2011, it was then donated it to the City.

“I’m most proud of that accomplishment,” she says. Her hopes are on young people to affect change now. She’s done her part.

“I walk slower now. I’m like ‘Old Man River,’ just rolling along,” she laughs.

Jenny Harvey

Happiness is Helping

Jenny Harvey | Director of Administration – United Way

It all started with a hug. As a middle-schooler, one of Jenny Harvey’s teachers offered extra credit for volunteering. Jenny signed up as a hugger for the Special Olympics. One exuberant embrace and she was hooked on helping.

“Once I got involved, I thought, ‘this is fantastic!’ After that, I was jumping out of my seat to volunteer. I had a natural passion for it; it also fell in line with the way I was raised. I’m empathetic; good at walking in another’s shoes.”

It also fell in line with her career. During her 23 years at Publix, her passion for helping really kicked in. While there, Jenny twice served as a ‘loaned executive’ to United Way, giving her an insider’s view and a portent for her future. In September of 2015, she became United Way’s Director of Administration, helping connect people with needs to agencies that offer help.

“It’s so exciting to have my job be my passion as well,” Jenny says. In between the Publix and United Way jobs, she was a Personal Banker for Prosperity Bank. Their POP (Prosperity Outreach Program) enabled Jenny to volunteer with Meals on Wheels for The Council on Aging, Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraising, and Quota International of St. Augustine.

Jenny served as QI president for four years and is still active in this non-profit agency that helps disadvantaged and hearing impaired women and children. Currently, she also volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, St. Francis House, and St. Johns County Housing Partnership.

“All these great organizations help make our community whole,” she says.” It’s so rewarding to help launch somebody on life’s path, to see them open their wings and go! It’s fun and it feels good,” she says.

A native of St. Augustine, Jenny graduated from St. Augustine High School, and earned her degree in Creative Writing from Florida State in 1996. Her dream was to write for Saturday Night Live in New York City.

“That didn’t work out, but things worked out better. Not that I’d turn down an offer even still,” she laughs. “Life is never what you think it’s going to be, but always what it’s meant to be. You end up getting what you need. I sincerely believe there are no strange coincidences. Things line up how they should.”

Happy, positive and spirited, she says her sense of humor gets her through. She helps her sons, ages 7 and 9, see the absurdities of life, too.

“We laugh together all the time. They wake up happy and smiling every day. I’m proud of the little men they’re becoming.”

When she went through a divorce, she utilized Kid’s Bridge, one of the United Way’s partners at the time. “They had such a kind, gentle way of helping my sons understand what was happening with their family. Everyone has unexpected rough spots. Everyone needs help at some point. I get that. I’ve needed help and now I’m able to give back.”

Susan Ponder-Stansel

The Heart of Hospice

Susan Ponder-Stansel

I’m passionate about aging.”

That’s hardly what you’d expect to hear from a woman facing a milestone birthday, but Susan Ponder-Stansel has a different perspective. Devoting 30 years (and counting) to a phenomenally successful healthcare career centered on older adults will do that. An energetic, determined visionary, Susan is the president and CEO of Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, now the 6th largest Independent Hospice in the United States.

This “positively transformative” milestone means no more “maybe someday,” and all “today’s the day.” Her fearless approach to aging is influenced by both professional and personal choices. It means never saying no to a new experience.

“I get excited by using my time and energy to help good things happen for others. Seeing the results gives me energy. I believe we’re supposed to use the blessings we’re given in life to give back. Nothing feels better than that,” she says.

A true local, Susan graduated from St. Augustine High School, where she was recently inducted into the SAHS Hall of Fame. Good call. In a field with very few female CEO’s, she stands out as a sought-after teacher, consultant and author. Yes, she is a Big Deal.

There’s no plaque (or article) big and long enough to list her complete bio or accolades. Some community service gigs include the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board; the Junior Service League; and founder of St. Johns Volunteers. She’s been named Social Worker of the Year, and one of the most influential people in healthcare. Oh, there’s more, but that’s what internet searches are for.

For all her accomplishments, Susan’s proudest of being a good mom to her daughter, Sarah, a recent graduate of the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville.

After earning her Masters of Science in Social Work from Florida State University in 1985, Susan worked with the North Florida Area Agency on Aging and St. Johns County Council on Aging. Then she was approached to explore a new frontier – hospice.

“I went into it with trepidation. I mean, it was all about death and dying,” she grimaces. “I said I’d do it for a few months. And here I am.”

Insurance had just started paying for hospice, but what did it entail? As Hospice of Northeast Florida’s first Hospice clinical social worker in 1986, it was Susan’s to help craft. It took courageous, pro-active thinking to learn how to best meet patient’s needs and the belief that “no matter what age we are, we can still be important and relevant.”

By 1988, she was the Executive Director, and three years later became president and CEO. Community Hospice of Northeast Florida multiplied from 35 staff and 60 patients a day, to 900 staff (and 1,200 volunteers) serving about 1,300 patients daily in five counties: St. Johns, Baker, Clay, Nassau and Duval.

“It’s a holistic approach; a very active plan centered on patient’s wishes. They’re more in control,” she says. The recent death of Susan’s father reinforced her belief in the beauty of her life’s work. He was treated with dignity at the Bailey Family Center for Caring. Helping to open this local center five years ago topped Susan’s career bucket list. Before this, patients had to go to Jacksonville.

“I didn’t have some grand master plan. I had no idea how big and complex it would get, but I was open to all possibilities. I was persistent and resilient,” she says. “I’m glad I worked my way up. It changes your perspective as a CEO to have been on all levels. By now, I know a lot of things, but better than that, I know what I don’t know.”

Heather Neville

Ride in Peace

Heather Neville

Cycling down the street, Heather Neville and her five-year old son, Tex, were startled by an encroaching car. “Do you know how stupid you are? You’re being unsafe!” the driver ranted. Just another unfortunate encounter when narrow streets meet wide open tension.

“In her own misguided way, she was telling me she cared about us. She didn’t want to hurt us,” says Heather, a passionate bike safety advocate.

“Being an advocate isn’t easy. I’m not here because things are good. I’m here because there’s a big problem. But I don’t go negative.” Instead of assigning blame, she seeks positive change. Heather founded the non-profit VeloFest Community Initiative in 2011. ‘Velo’ is French for bike and ‘fest’ is just fun. So far they’ve developed 45 separate street-safety projects.

Heather is poised, dynamic, and very knowledgeable, but it’s the question, “Why do you do this?” that makes her tear up.

“Why?” she repeats. “I just have to. Families now look to me to do something after these terrible things happen. I’ve taken 32 phone calls from families of those who have died. I just do it.”

Since Heather began tracking statistics six years ago, there’ve been 250 collisions involving cars and bicyclists in St. Johns County.

“It’s more than just a bike or car issue. It’s a cultural issue. It’s about caring for each other. We’re all so caught up in this tizzy all the time. It’s our society’s chronic illness. We have a human connections problem.”

Heather moved to St. Augustine in 2008 from her hometown Jacksonville Beach. It was supposed to be temporary. But she met current St. Augustine City Commissioner Todd Neville and stayed. They married on Nov. 21, 2010.

“Professionally, I was doing really well. I traveled around the world developing new software products. But I didn’t feel fulfilled. In April 2011, I Ieft to work in community service.”

Leaving a successful, blooming career with nothing specific on the horizon was gutsy. Or was it fate? Later that month, her good friend, Bryan Wrigley, was killed while riding his bike. Heather’s uncle was killed years before in a bike accident. Her brother suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit. This third tragedy flipped her switch to full-on advocacy.

When you lose someone unnaturally, it leaves a seed that either grows into something powerful and life-affirming or something poisonous and bitter — depending on the actions taken next.

“After the anger and sadness, you start to deal with it. Then you’re ready to help make changes,” this change-maker says.

She organized Wrigley Ride, a memorial for Bryan, and raised money for a scholarship. In April 2012, they started a USA Cycling sanctioned race. In its first three years, registrations grew from 76 to 1,000.

Heather spends an “enormous amount of time working for free,” along with Flagler college interns and devoted volunteers. She’s partnered with community groups and law enforcement, all with the same goal: Stop the madness.

“I’m tenacious. I refuse to stop until I get things done,” she says. “Putting all my experience and knowledge into such an awesome, massive thing is amazing. I just want to help make a little paradigm shift, a little culture shift.”

That’s why she does it.