From ages 20 to 88, Blair County group’s honorees cover the decades

WISE Women of Blair County is committed to empowering women. In April, the organization will pause in its pursuit to honor seven area women who are making a difference.

The WISE Women of Blair County Tribute Honoree dinner will be held at 6 p.m. April 17 at The Casino at Lakemont Park.

This year’s honorees are: Mary Francis Burgoon, Sue Whiteford Johnson, Vi Whiting, Christine A. Lysinger, Patricia Labriola and Jackie Clouser and Arianna De Reus.

WISE (Women Involved in Scholarship and Empowerment) Women of Blair County is “dedicated to empowering women and eliminating racism through collaboration, service and education,” according to information from the group.

A quote from a letter requesting nominations characterizes the goal of the honors, President Shamim Rajpar said in an email.

“WISE Women of Blair County Tribute recognizes and honors Blair County women who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in promoting awareness of the significant role of women in the economic growth and quality of life in our community,” it said.

The YWCA of Altoona started the tradition in the early 1990s, Rajpar said. WISE Women is thankful for the continued Blair County community support of their efforts in making Tribute an annual success, she said.

“Each year, those of us who work on this project are reaffirmed in our awareness of the outstanding women among us who help to make all our lives richer,” she said.

“The seven women who will receive the title of ‘Tribute Honoree’ this year are indeed deserving of the recognition and honor for which their nominators have recommended them,” she added.

Mary Burgoon

Lifetime Achievement

Burgoon of Hollidaysburg, who turned 88 on Saturday, said the honor also recognizes those who have influenced her along the way.

It recognizes the “inspiration and assistance that I’ve had from so many people that enabled me to do any of this,” she said.

Burgoon has helped others through several groups, including the Pennsylvania Prison Society and the Settlement of Vietnamese families.

She has helped bring literacy to incarcerated women and get them ready for release through her work with the Prison Society, her biography said.

Burgoon said she feels a need to give back.

“Well, for one thing I think my faith has made it important for me to give back. I’ve been blessed, and I have good health and, I had good teachers in my life and a lot of inspiration so it wasn’t hard really to give back to the community because it means so much to me,” she said. “Being active in the community is important.”

Burgoon did not refer to a specific quote that inspires her, but her biography said, “her devotion to her faith and her belief that all people need respect and love, is paramount in making better lives for others.”

Sue Whiteford Johnson

Community Service Volunteer

Johnson, 54, of Bellwood said she was happy to receive the honor, but it was overwhelming because she is accustomed to the giving part.

Johnson, a volunteer at Bellwood-Antis community events, is involved in several groups including Bell-wood-Antis Council of Churches. She also served on the Bellwood Borough Council for eight years.

“I feel that a community grows,” she said of why she finds it important to give to her community. “A small community stays together. … I think you need involvement and you need activities, and I just think that it keeps a little community growing and striving. I think a little community has more than what these big cities have.”

In her biography, Johnson credits her parents for her motivation.

“My motivation to lead and give freely of my time comes directly from the teachings and practices of my parents,” she said. “I have always been inspired by my father’s quote, ‘When a festival is in your town, you work. When you go to other towns, you have fun.’ And I have carried his teachings through to all of my activities.”

Vi Whiting

Arts & Letters

Whiting, 70, of Hollidaysburg said she was “flabbergasted” to receive the honor, saying she was not an artist, but a “pretty good worker.”

The retiree, who is the Altoona Symphony Orchestra board president and a Blair County Arts Foundation board member, enjoys “all types of entertainment” and attends many of the live performances in town because she would rather experience an event in person.

Whiting received the first Blair County Arts Foundation’s Angel of the Arts award in 2005.

This quote from Mother Teresa inspires her, she said in her biography: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

Whiting feels proud of the WISE Women’s mission to eliminate racism and empower women.

“I am so proud that this group had the initiative to promote and honor the accomplishments of the many women in our community,” she said.

Whiting is trying to do her part to maintain live entertainment locally and elsewhere, she said.

“I’m really afraid in maybe 10 or 20 years there’s not going to be live entertainment because everybody’s using their iPads, or iPods, their phones, their computers and I don’t want to sit in front of something like that at home to be entertained,” she said. “I want to be there live. And every organization is having such a hard time maintaining their yearly schedule because people just aren’t donating, they’re donating less.”

Christine A. Lysinger


Lysinger, 59, of Altoona, said the honor is special to her because her employees nominated her. Lysinger is the director of the Blair County Assistance Office, Department of Public Welfare.

“I always considered my employees to be my customers, so to speak, in this job and there’s a sense in which I work for them so I’m pleased that they chose to nominate me,” she said.

Lysinger, who once worked for and currently volunteers for the Salvation Army, said in her biography that her Christian faith and her desire to achieve her best motivates her.

“I’ve been pretty blessed myself and have everything I need so this job certainly gives you a sense of appreciation for what you have and probably a desire to give back if you can,” she said.

Lysinger identifies and supports the WISE Women goal of eliminating racism and empowering women, she said.

“I am very fortunate to have found employment with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where there are numerous opportunities for women of all races,” she said. “However, I also recognize that this is not the case with all employers and I am thankful for organizations such as WISE Women of Blair County, which continue to empower women to develop personally and achieve their highest training and employment goals.”

Patricia A. Labriola


Labriola, 60, of Altoona, said the best honor was the nomination from her peers in the educational field.

“Your peers know what you do and so I think that the honor coming from them means more than anything,” she said.

Labriola, a retired teacher and co-founder of Project SOAR for the Altoona Area School District, said a mutual interaction must take place between the community and its schools.

“My whole life has been spent working with children and one of the things that I’ve realized in teaching was this, ‘Schools cannot do this alone.’ We have to reach out to the community. The community has to give to us … if we had that we could do so much more with the children in our community and I think it’s just important to be able to do that,” she said.

Giving of one’s time is important, she indicated.

“I’ve given to charity organizations and whatnot across this country and there was one day in my life that I stood there and I thought why don’t you just help in your own community,” she said. “Start at home. I think it’s so important because they’re our kids. It’s going to benefit us.”

Labriola sees public education as the great equalizer, she said in her biography.

“When I see something that I consider unfair; I want to change it,” she said. “My main concern has always been for children who have not been given opportunities others have been blessed to have. In my life this is one area where I have worked consistently encouraging children to pursue education in order to change their lives.”

Jackie Clouser

Business & Professional

Clouser, 41, of Hollidaysburg, founder and CEO of Kids First, said the award is an affirmation.

“The award affirms the commitment I made to strengthening children and families, to doing my best to find the right people to do the work with me. I was nominated by many of the employees who work for Kids First,” she said. “We currently employ 75 women and 25 female volunteers and interns, who have been true partners in my lifelong mission and vision for children and families. I think so highly of them, that for them to think me deserving of this award is the highest form of praise I could possibly receive.”

Kids First, a local human services organization dedicated to creating opportunities for young children to develop and learn to their fullest potential, provides a supportive work environment for its staff, Clouser’s biography explains.

“Sincere and healthy relationships are by their very nature empowering, as they are founded on such principles as mutual respect, mutual positive regard, honesty and support,” she said.

Clouser’s community involvement includes serving on the Blair County Children’s Roundtable and the BASICS Early Childhood Subcommittee to the Blair County Chamber of Commerce.

When it comes to why she gives to her community, Clouser said, “It is important to give to the community because it shows the appreciation of what the community offers to me. We are all interdependent with one another to some degree, probably more than most of us realize. ‘Self-sufficiency’ is an old American ethos, but in reality, we are healthiest when we have a good support network of friends, family, neighborhood, church, schools, etc. that we can rely upon. Giving to the community strengthens the health of our community for all of us. It helps empower those who may need extra help to be able to make their own meaningful contribution.”

Arianna De Reus

Rising Star

De Reus, 20, of Hollidaysburg, said the honor is meaningful to her because through her service work in other countries at a young age she saw serious issues such as poverty and rape up close, and that knowledge isolated her from her peers who did not have such a broad view of the world. The honor validates her work and recognizes it as good, she said.

Among her many efforts, De Reus, a sophomore at Penn State, University Park, and a community environment and development major, has volunteered in such places as Panama, building latrines for a Kuna community, and at Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, teaching art and English to children of rape survivors.

“I find it really important because I consider myself a global citizen,” she said of why she finds it important to give to her community. “My community for me is not just domestic but international as well, and so I feel like everyone has [a] responsibility to do their part and to contribute to improve society, and so I’m always working to do that.”

In her biography De Reus credits her mom, Lee Ann, with helping motivate her. She calls the woman who she said took her on service trips and instilled in her the importance of service “the most compassionate, brave, intelligent and graceful person that I know.”

“She raised me to value human rights and taught me about courageous women throughout history who were leaders for justice,” she said. “My mom has always believed in me, and sacrificed to help me achieve my goals. As I grow up, I hope that I will become a woman like her, living to improve the world.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.