Unsung Heroines

Meet five women who are making a difference in Memphis.



Our city is full of women going quietly about their work in numerous fields achieving remarkable goals. Starting this year, we want to recognize a few of them who, in their own circle or in the wider sphere, are making their mark on Memphis.

On these pages you’ll find a scientist who’s improving the lives of cancer victims; a young journalist who won’t settle for less than the truth; a principal determined to help teachers and students succeed; a communications specialist striving to make people aware of an invaluable civic resource, the Regional Medical Center; and the organizer of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, which received the sports world’s highest honor for its philanthropy.

Unsung? Not altogether, but we believe our readers should hear their “song.” Heroines? Yes, because they give their all to a vital cause every day of the world.
We hope to make this an annual feature, so let us know of women whose stories should be told. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy getting to know more about this year’s honorees.

 

 

Jenny Turner Koltnow

Grizzlies Charitable Foundation

With a giving spirit and determination to succeed, this local philanthropist has rewritten the rulebook as she works for the community she now calls home.

The Memphis Grizzlies are world champions.

That’s not wishful thinking or a headline hopefully ripped from a future newspaper; it’s true right now. The Grizzlies are the best at what they do — not on the basketball court but in philanthropic terms.
In July, the international organization Beyond Sport named the Memphis Grizzlies the 2012 Team of the Year. The honor recognized the benevolent efforts of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation and the team’s Community Investment department. The Grizzlies beat out such finalists as Premier League soccer clubs in England and the storied Boston Celtics.

Not bad considering the team has only been in Memphis since 2001 and the foundation has only been in existence since 2004, formed by executive director Jenny Turner Koltnow.

The Grizzlies relocated to Memphis not long after Koltnow herself arrived. The Wisconsin native had attended Vanderbilt, where she received a bachelor’s in human and organizational development and English and a master’s in higher education administration. That kind of background, she says with a laugh, “prepares you for anything or nothing.

She formed the idea in grad school that she might like a career jogging toward being a dean of students or similar position in academia. She took her first job coordinating student organizations at the University of Memphis.

She came to realize, though, she wanted her career to be focused more on helping the broader community beyond the college campus. She was particularly interested in how companies and organizations work to benefit the community philanthropically. When the NBA team came to town in 2001, she saw an opportunity to help others on a large scale. Her character was clearly strong enough that she was willing to alter her career course after the race had already begun. Koltnow was one of the earliest hires the Grizzlies made in Memphis.

She joined the team as the coordinator of Community Investment before being promoted to manager. Koltnow developed the charitable giving programs and funding partnerships for the new team. Soon enough, it was evident more infrastructure and intentionality around the team’s philanthropy was needed.

“Every sports team approaches community involvement differently,” Koltnow says. “It’s driven by the ownership or the orientation of management. We were fortunate because the owners saw the Grizzlies as an engine to drive community engagement and civic pride.”

Koltnow was given the unique blank slate of being with a young sports franchise in a new city. It presented an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

“We’ve never been beholden to one way of doing things,” Koltnow says, “except how best to operate in this community. We can’t call the HQ in some other city and ask, ‘What do we do next?’”
The learning curve of the foundation has followed Koltnow’s own to an extent. “It’s pretty personal,” she says. “There’s been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. When there’s no template to follow, no how-tos in this business, you go with your gut and where your resources are. There’s a lot of ‘throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks,’ and a lot doesn’t.”

She and the foundation have clearly figured some things out. “The Grizzlies Charitable Foundation made a name for itself early because we were giving 10 times what an average sports team was giving,” she continues. “We’ve committed more than $29 million to the community since 2001. That statistic alone makes my colleagues’ [from other cities] jaws drop to the floor.”

Where the journey has taken the foundation is a mold-breaking new way of looking at mentoring. The foundation formed TEAM UP, a community-wide initiative that forms groups of three mentors and nine students. The change in the traditional one-to-one model came about as a way to reach many more children than would otherwise be possible and as a way to strengthen the depth and range of experience on the mentor side. “We created it ourselves with some inspiration from around the country,” Koltnow says, “and it’s been extraordinary.”

TEAM UP began in January 2011 with 15 mentors and 45 students. As of this fall, the program has evolved to encompass 162 students from Power Center Academy, Soulsville Charter School, and KIPP Memphis Collegiate School. TEAM UP helps enhance students’ academic achievement and conduct and helps teach the students that graduation and college are possible.

The vision has led to building a charter school as well. The Grizzlies are one of a couple of U.S. professional teams involved in a school and the only one with their name on it, Koltnow says. The all-boys middle school Grizzlies Prep opened downtown this year.

Wins on the court don’t necessarily translate into community support for the foundation, but Koltnow has seen an outpouring of interest since spring 2011, when the team made a run into the second round of the playoffs. “Whether or not you liked basketball, suddenly the Grizzlies took on more significance in the community,” Koltnow says.

“Things are clicking,” she adds. “The Beyond Sport Award reassures everyone what type of organization you get to do business with. You can trust us. Few teams around the world have that commitment and depth of engagement.”

Koltnow and her husband, PJ, have two boys, ages 6 and 3. “It’s important to me to not only spend time with them but also to expose them to being involved in the community,” she says.

 A number of mentors have helped along the way, of course. Koltnow cites specifically founding Leadership Academy CEO Linda Bailey, who advised that, “When you say ‘yes’ to one thing, you say ‘no’ to another.” That lesson underlines the importance of time management, prioritizing your responsibilities, and finding balance between home and work life. Koltnow also names Memphis businesswoman and philanthropist Gayle Rose, whom she first encountered through the Grizzlies. “Rose would always ask me, ‘Do you have all the tools in your toolbox?’ It’s a simple question but it’s why I still feel I’m challenged in my work: I don’t have all the tools, and we haven’t mastered this. [The foundation] has achieved some exciting success but there’s so much more work to be done.”

Koltnow mentors other Memphians and has further expanded the scope of her personal philanthropy, serving on the board of the Leadership Academy and the advisory committee of Healthy Memphis Common Table.

Koltnow is an athlete as well: She has always run to stay in shape or train for a sport, and she ran her first marathon in 2004. After the birth of her second son, she was interested in proving to herself she could run another marathon.

In 2011, Koltnow ran the Boston Marathon. While doing it, she raised more than $9,000 for the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership.

Vision, commitment, and belief in the value of the goal: Those are what win the race. — Greg Akers

 

 

Rosalind Martin

Georgian Hills Middle School

Wth unwavering focus and a few "courageous conversations,"  this dedicated dynamo has steered a struggling school from failure to success.

A strong person. No nonsense. Someone to come in and take charge.” That’s how school system leaders saw Rosalind Martin when she was hired as principal of Georgian Hills Middle School in 2004. Since then she not only rescued the Frayser institution from the state takeover list, she’s moved it steadily from “adequate yearly progress” to being recently named a Reward School by the State of Tennessee. Of the 169 schools recognized in August, 20 were in Memphis. Georgian Hills was among those making the largest gains over three years on TCAP tests. A major improvement was in math — a whopping 18 percent gain.
Martin, whose career with Memphis City Schools began in 1989, recalls her first months at Georgian Hills. “After I looked at the data and saw that the teachers who had been here were getting the same results, I did what was called a ‘fresh start’ of the entire school, replacing every teacher in the first two weeks.” She and the faculty also conducted a “community walk,” knocking on doors and introducing themselves to parents and residents: “I told them I believed in these kids and what I was going to do differently.”

For instance, she noticed the school had no “exploratory courses” — such as choir, band, or foreign language classes — so she started a French class, a piano lab, and a second section of physical education. With help from her husband, a Memphis police officer, she launched a gang awareness and prevention program. She put college banners around the school and encouraged the children to believe they could reach that level. She talked with teachers, homing in on their strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, the school made “adequate yearly progress” and was removed from the takeover list. “We were working hard,” says Martin, “but we were not where we needed to be.”

In 2009, state standards changed, and Georgian Hills landed on a list as a “target school.” Says Martin, “The content on the test was two years more advanced than what kids were used to. It was a new curriculum and teachers had to change their way of teaching.”

To boost math comprehension, Martin put in place a program called Algebra Readiness, which meant each teacher in each classroom spent 20 minutes on algebra at the beginning of each period. But as Martin says, “Implementing a program is one thing. Implementing it with fidelity is another. I went to the classes and inspected what was expected. I kept a journal. I monitored.” She also conducted “courageous conversations” with teachers who weren’t meeting expectations. “If they weren’t making it in their class, we had to talk,” says Martin.

Her efforts paid off, not only in math, but also in language arts, with a 6 percent jump in test scores, and in the students with disabilities program, which saw a phenomenal 33 percent gain. “We have a high special-ed population,” she explains. “With many of those students, the tests are hands-on, helping them learn certain life skills.”

When the news came that Georgian Hills Middle had been named a Reward School, jubilation ran high. “I attribute every bit to the teachers and to my assistant principal, Michael Henry.”

The students, too, deserve kudos for overcoming challenges: “They live in a community with high gang activity. Many don’t have proper clothing much less computers at home. Their parents may be incarcerated. At least 20 percent are raised by grandma or an aunt. One boy’s 19-year-old brother was trying to raise him.”

Martin, who has three children, faced some hurdles herself — the death of her mother, a bout with breast cancer, and rising at 3 a.m. each morning to study for her doctorate degree, which she earned this year. Keeping her on course was her fierce commitment. Says Martin: “I’m passionate about this school.”

 Previously, she adds, Georgian Hills was known as one of the worst in the city. “Some of the students took negative pride in that. Now they have positive pride. Being named a Reward School has made a difference.” — Marilyn Sadler

 

 

Chelsea Boozer

University of Memphis

Once a timid teenager, she's now a fearless college journalist, whose passion for the truth can't be shaken. Despite pressure from higher-ups, she stands her ground.

No” isn’t an acceptable answer for firebrand Daily Helmsman editor-in-chief Chelsea Boozer.

The University of Memphis senior will get the story no matter what obstacles are put in her way. Deny her public records, and she’ll recite the law. Refuse to offer comment, and she’ll be sure to let her readers know. Try to hide the truth, and she will sniff it out.

“Nobody can take her courage away as far as I’ve seen,” says Helmsman faculty advisor Candy Justice.

Throughout her college career as an award-winning student journalist, Boozer has faced challenges from University of Memphis administrators and Student Government Association (SGA) leaders who were none too happy about her stories exposing free tuition benefits for SGA members and a football program that loses money every year.

University officials often give Boozer a hard time when she’s attempting to view open records. She even had two police reports (which she and her journalism professors believe contained false accusations) filed against her as she and another reporter attempted to gather news about campus rapes last fall.

“I’m not intimidated. If I know I’m standing up for something that’s right, I don’t have anything to worry about,” Boozer says.

Student Press Law Center director Frank LoMonte has described Boozer as “Mike Wallace with molasses syrup, disarming, but deadly.”

This summer, as Boozer was preparing to begin her last semester at the U of M, the Helmsman’s funding was slashed by 25 percent. Boozer and Justice alleged the cuts were a First Amendment violation as SGA members retaliated against the Helmsman staff for choosing to cover hard news over fluff pieces about SGA events. A university investigation found that claim to be true, and the Helmsman’s funding was fully restored in late August.

Boozer boasts a 3.8 GPA, and she’s garnered numerous awards for her writing, including the 2012 College Journalist of the Year award at the Southeast Journalism Conference and a first-place Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Award for her series on SGA members receiving free tuition.

“They have one student category, so I was there with people from The New York Times and CNN,” Boozer says, calling that award her proudest accomplishment.

It’s hard to believe that Boozer was once painfully shy. When she was in her teens, she wouldn’t even go to the gas station in her hometown of Marion, Arkansas, without her older sister by her side.
“When I first started in journalism in junior high, I was so nervous,” Boozer says. “But I had to go out and talk to people, and I was president of other clubs. Eventually I became more sociable. I think journalism brought me out of my shell.”

Boozer was drawn to journalism through her dreams of being a writer. When she was in the seventh grade, her honors literature teacher actually accused her of plagiarism when she turned in an exceptionally well-written short story. Boozer’s mother was called to the school to confirm that her daughter had indeed written the piece. “That was encouraging,” she says. “That’s when I realized I could write well, so I ended up taking  a journalism class because it was a writing class.”

Although Boozer still loves the craft of writing, it was the allure of the Fourth Estate’s watchdog role that kept her interested. After graduation this fall, the self-professed “news nerd” hopes to land a job at a daily newspaper. She recently finished an internship at Scripps Howard News Service, Washington Bureau.

“I’m passionate about the service that journalism provides,” Boozer says. “As a journalist, you get to uncover things that may not be going right. Or perhaps your work can persuade a policy change. You get to tell people things they want to know when they may not have the means or be brave enough to find the information out for themselves. Your job is to be the voice for them.”
— Bianca Phillips

 

 

Lori Spicer

The Regional Medical Center at Memphis

After college, this native Memphian returned home and planned to stay here only a year. That was five years ago, and since then she's immersed herself in projects that have helped empower women and girls throughout our community.

From a rather young age, Lori Spicer knew what she wanted — “I couldn’t be fulfilled unless I was working to improve somebody else’s life,” she says — but she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that in Memphis. Like so many other talented young people here, “I was convinced I could find better opportunities and a better quality of life somewhere else.”

So the White Station High School graduate studied for a year at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, before transferring to UT-Knoxville and earning a bachelor’s degree in management. After that came a master’s degree in mass communication from the University of Florida. From there she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a communications assistant for the American Association of Colleges and Nursing. “D.C. was my haven,” she says, “and I got involved in a lot of programs there,” but then things happened that brought her back home.

“I come from a long line of strong women,” she says, “and my grandparents got sick, so I decided to return to Memphis to help them out.” She only planned to stay a year, but landed a job as a communications specialist with the Greater Memphis Chamber. It was an eye-opening experience. “That completely reacclimated me to the city,” she says. “I saw parts of Memphis I had never seen before, and I really began to appreciate the unique culture that we have here.”

It also showed her some of our city’s shortcomings, and it wasn’t long before Spicer “tried to fill a void in her life” by joining organizations designed to help the less fortunate citizens of our community — especially young girls. After getting involved in Northside High School’s Girl Talk mentoring program, and later expanding that to a nonprofit called Brown Girl Dreams, she learned firsthand that “girls here often have so many social barriers facing them that it’s even a challenge for the volunteers.” She would take girls to other neighborhoods because “often they had no exposure to anything at all outside their own environment,” remembering how they regarded a lunch at Panera Bread Company as a special treat. She even got many of them involved in their own social projects, from feeding the homeless to growing community gardens.

For the past two years, Spicer has been manager of community affairs and engagement for The Regional Medical Center at Memphis, a job that she considers a perfect fit. “I have a problem-solving nature,” she says, “and I like to work with people who need a resource to help them.” Her job involves reaching out to community organizations, grassroots organizations, and religious leaders and make them more aware of The Med — not just as a hospital, but as a resource for a healthier lifestyle. “I want to create initiatives that combat the issues this community is facing, whether it’s teen pregnancy or childhood obesity.”

Even all that work doesn’t begin to fill her day. In her spare time, Spicer has served on the board of directors of MPact Memphis, on the Leadership Council for Young Women Philanthropists (part of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis), and on the board of directors for Dance Works, which introduces inner-city children to the art of dance. She was past chairman and public relations chair for the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals, and this year was named president of that organization. Last year, she organized a citywide Memphis Prom Closet, to provide financially challenged teens a chance to wear something nice to their high-school prom.

“Every three years, it seems I have this need to re-invent myself, both personally and professionally,” she says. In October, she takes on a new project; she’s getting married to Eric Robertson, the CEO for Community Lift, a neighborhood-level community development agency.

Spicer has more than a few other projects on her plate for the future, both for The Med and the city as a whole, but isn’t ready to discuss them just yet. “I know I’m a ‘connector’ and I want to use that skill,” she says. “We have lots of nonprofits in this city, and I’d like to make sure they are actually reaching the groups they need. A city disconnected is a city divided.” — Michael Finger

 

 

Mary Relling

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

As she unlocks the mysteries of how individual genes interact with medicines, this Phoenix transplant is making life easier for countless young cancer patients.

In choosing her field of college study, Mary Relling settled on pharmacy at the University of Arizona at Tucson. “I was really an English or history major type,” she says, “but I had also discovered I was pretty good at chemistry.” With a degree in pharmacy, she explains, “I could apply chemistry to practical problems.” That decision has been literally life-saving for many children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Relling is chair of the pharmacy department. Since she joined the staff as a postdoctoral fellow in 1985, her research has helped boost cure rates, decreased the side effects of certain medicines, and broken new ground in the field of pharmacogenetics.

When she was nearing completion of her doctorate of pharmacy and realized she wanted to focus on pediatric cancer, her colleagues informed her, “There’s only one place to go: St. Jude.” So the Phoenix native headed to Memphis to work with Dr. Bill Evans, who is now the hospital’s CEO and Relling’s husband of 23 years. With a joint interest in pharmacogenetics — which explores the role genes play in a medicine’s effect — the couple has seen projects they started years ago result in beneficial changes. Their marriage also benefits from their professional partnership:  “Our work is so integral to who we are; we don’t have to stop and explain anything.”

In their studies, Relling and her colleagues have learned that genetic variances identify patients who are at high risk for side effects. “But it’s one thing to study genetics in the laboratory and make discoveries,” she says. “It’s another thing entirely to say, ‘How come when Joan goes in to see her doctor, nobody does a DNA test to decide what medicine and what dose she should have?’ So we’re sort of putting together all the world’s literature on how genetics should be used to change the way we give medications, applying the knowledge to day-to-day care.”

Relling, whose lab receives $2.9 million in annual funding from the National Institutes of Health grants, explains what motivates her studies. “I’m not one of those scientists driven by an insatiable curiosity of how biology works. We need scientists like that and St. Jude has a lot of them. But for me it’s about how we can better care for our patients and improve their lives. Everything I do is driven by that.”

Sometimes that drive leads to exciting moments when a solid discovery in the laboratory has implications for change. “Those moments don’t happen every day,” she says, “so when they do, they’re special.” As an example, she tells of an analysis her lab conducted of anti-seizure medications. “We suspected that some medicines were revving up the livers of certain patients and making their bodies rid the anti-cancer medicines too quickly,” she says. “The study showed exactly who got the medicine and who didn’t. From that we could show what patients had a higher leukemia relapse rate after receiving those medicines.”

That finding led to recommendations that have altered the way doctors around the country administer the drugs. “So while I make new discoveries, a huge chunk of my efforts is implementation science,” says Relling. “That means I take what’s been discovered and validate it. I get calls and emails every day from people wanting us to share exact procedures on how to use genetics to give better medications. In other words, if a patient has gene A, give him drug B. If he has gene B, give him drug X.” She and her colleagues are writing the rules as a guide for clinicians. “If we don’t do it at St. Jude,” she asks, “who will?”

Relling  hopes to see genetics incorporated into a universal healthcare system. “If we had a universal system for at least tracking and dispensing medications on each patient,” she says, “then making the leap to genetic testing would not be so unthinkable.”

One of only a handful of Tennesseans named to the prestigious Institute of Medicine, Relling’s also a stepmother and grandmother and a satisfied Memphis transplant. “I like downtown, all the good restaurants and the music,” she says. “And I really love St. Jude and its international flavor. We’ve met a lot of great people here.” — Marilyn Sadler

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