Women lifting up women

They empower other women, but they go about it a little differently, from founding an edgy theater company to a highly successful investment firm; from rescuing a struggling but popular parochial school to serving poor children with after-school and summer programs.

WISE Women of Blair County, which stands for Women Involved in Scholarship and Empowerment, honors at least a half-dozen women every year based on the organization’s mission: Dedicated to empowering women and eliminating racism through collaboration, service and education.

At its annual tribute dinner on April 19, the organization will honor Valerie Stratton for Arts & Letters; Barbara Kooman for Business & Professional; Joyce Knowles for Community Service Volunteer; Donna Messner for Education; Antoinette Bilik-Bennetti for Non-profit/Government; and Makenzie Wilkinson as Rising Star.

It also is giving its Lifetime Achievement Award to retiring judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva, the first woman in Blair County on the Court of Common Pleas bench. (See story above).

Arts & Letters

Valerie Stratton co-founded Things Unseen Theatre in 2011 and is co-artistic director.

“She gave vision to the project to produce challenging theater in the area, theater perhaps not of the popular sort required for presentation at the Mishler (Theatre), but theater that needs to be seen,” noted Marlene Liszka, who nominated Stratton for the Arts & Letters Award.

The plays presented by Things Unseen in its venue in The Church in the Middle of the Block most often focus on social issues, many of them women’s issues, including breast cancer, inequality in marriage, growth, rape, pay inequality and their unacknowledged service in the military during World War II.

Stratton produces each show, has directed and acted in some of them and promotes all of them. But she also has encouraged women to participate onstage and backstage by acting, directing, stage managing, designing lights, sets, costumes and more, according to Liszka.

“Often people without significant experience have learned and succeeded with her mentorship,” she said, noting that Stratton also has worked with the Altoona Community Theatre and is active with the Big Brother Big Sisters of Blair County, for which she served as board president for a time.

Business & Professional

As a partner, owner and financial advisor with Kooman & Associates, Barbara Kooman is a “highly respected, passionate and driven business woman” who is known for her honesty and integrity, said Sally Earnest, one of several people who nominated Kooman for the Business & Professional Award.

Earnest said she knows first-hand that Kooman gets to know her clients on a personal level and is compassionate about serving them, as well as her community at-large.

“On a professional and personal level, she is giving of her time and expertise and goes out of her way to help anyone,” Earnest said. “Barb is very involved in the community through sponsoring of events or sitting on boards and committees. If she doesn’t know something, she asks the right questions and learns about the objective, event or project. She offers advice and opinions in such a way without alienating or offending others.”

Flo Shuss said she also nominated Kooman for the award because Kooman offers many educational opportunities for women to learn about investments and their finances. She attended one such seminar and “was impressed with her knowledge, the way she delivered her information and how, one on one, she grants full attention to the questioner.”

Community Service Volunteer

Joyce Knowles received 35 nominations for her community service award, which is a record, according to WISE Woman board member Diane Osgood.

One was from John Poe who described Knowles as a “super volunteer” at the Hope Center in Bellwood, who “seems to do just about everything” there.

The center’s director, Rick Beatty, said Knowles helps prepare and serve meals to more than 70 residents every Wednesday, September through April, in a program called Soups On.

Knowles also is president of the local food bank, and she helps in periodic situations, such as raising money for a local family that recently lost two members and their house to a fire, according to Poe.

Poe said Knowles also is a mentor to other volunteers.

“Joyce has encouraged other women to serve and those women have gained a sense of purpose and identity while also giving their time,” he said.

Because a lot of widows live in the area, they have been able to gain friendships that get them out in the community simply by attending Soups On, according to Poe.


Donna Messner retired from the Altoona Area School District last November. The next month, she was hired to be principal of St. Patrick School in the middle of a fight between a community that wanted to keep the school open and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese that had targeted it for closure.

“I wasn’t finished,” Messner said.

Maria Brandt, executive director of the The Arc of Blair County, nominated her for the Education Award because of Messner’s collaboration and communication skills when dealing with disparate groups.

“I have witnessed how Dr. Messner in a supervisor capacity at both the Altoona Area School District and Hollidaysburg Area School District was able to handle uncomfortable situations or tough decisions in a professional, respectful and calm demeanor,” Brandt said. “Her willingness to collaborate on projects that would benefit the entire county, her knowledge of special education law as it pertains to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and her open communication lines have always proven valuable to students, parents and advocates.”

Messner taught for 23 years, at least half of that in supervisory positions, including special education supervisor and special education director for Altoona Area School District, and five years as special education director at Hollidaysburg Area School District.

“I believe Donna truly believes in the future of our children, all children,” said Brandt, who noted that several people nominated Messner for the award.


For the 10-plus years she has served as executive director of the Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation, Antoinette Bilik-Bennetti has always put the children first, said board member Lenora Irwin.

“In a nutshell, I don’t believe that the Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation would be what it is today without Toni,” said Irwin. “Her focus has always been what’s good for the children. She’s a remarkable person.”

The GGMF is an after-school and summer program for children in kindergarten through sixth grade from low-income families. Irwin and her husband, Tom, are on the GGMF Board, and they were among the five people who nominated Bilik-Bennetti for the award.

“Her dream for the children she so ably serves is to instill hope and confidence, and provide a reliable and secure place for them to grow,” the Irwins wrote in their nomination letter. “This will enable them to develop beyond their circumstances and become contributing members of the community at large.”

In addition to hiring skilled staff, managing volunteers and providing ongoing education at three sites, Bilik-Bennetti also pulled in outside resources to help, including college students and professors, nutritionists and entertainers “who can motivate and enrich the experience,” according to Irwin.

She also has been the face of funding for the foundation, including writing grants, soliciting private donations and directing fundraisers.

Rising Star

Makenzie Wilkinson is only in her first year of college and she already has an impressive resume, as outlined by Tom Kopriva, executive director of the Hollidaysburg YMCA, who nominated the young woman for the Rising Star Award.

She “has combined the gifts of intelligence and athletic ability with a fierce determination to be the best she can be in all that she attempts,” said Kopriva.

Wilkinson graduated fourth in her 2016 Hollidaysburg Area High School class last June and earned 11 varsity sports letters in the process, along with participating in other activities including TV production and art. She was raised by a single mother after her father, Pat Wilkinson, was killed in a car wreck when the girl was 4.

Wilkinson currently is on a full scholarship to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore studying neuroscience and is considering a double major in psychology; she is minoring in women, gender and sexuality. She said she is on the pre-medical track for medical school, but she also is considering graduate school and a doctorate in neuroscience.

“Either way, I’d like to work in the pediatric field,” she wrote in an email to the Mirror. “I feel that there are so many aspects of the mind that have yet to be understood, especially during childhood development.”

Her level of extracurricular activity remains high. She is a small forward on the university’s women’s basketball team, as well as a mid-distance runner (400 and 800 meters) on the school’s track team, recently competing in her first collegiate meet where she “split one of my better 400 times during the sprint medley relay.”

Wilkinson also is a member of the JUMP program (Johns Hopkins Underrepresented in Medical Professions), FLOC (Female Leaders of Color) and GEMS, a tutoring program for high school girls.

“School is going extremely well,” she said. “The workload is most definitely a challenge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Wilkinson credits a cadre of people with helping her succeed so far.

“I think I am the person I am today because of a culmination of people and experiences who have continued to shape me,” she said. “My coaches, family members, friends, and even those who haven’t liked me, have all played a pivotal role, and without them I can’t say I would be where I am today.”

She said her mother, Terri Wilkinson, instilled in her at a young age confidence and a strong work ethic.

“I know she’s mine, but she is unlike any other kid I have ever met,” the mother said. “She truly is a driven, driven child.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.


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