11 Civic Leaders Who Have Made a Difference
The word “prosperity” is defined as a “successful, flourishing, and thriving condition.” A prosperous city is marked by a growing economy with ample employment opportunities, strong ties between houses of faith and the community, a vibrant arts and culture scene, and an array of foundations and charities that are poised and equipped to help others in need. The following 11 women, shown here at the Hunter Museum of American Art, are among the many civic leaders who have worked tirelessly—both inside and outside of their careers—to make the Scenic City a prosperous place where people will want to live and work. They are truly “Women for the City.”
By Greg Thompson | Photos by Med Dement
Alexis Bogo (above)
Hamico Foundation Executive Director | Community Volunteer | Advocate for Children, Education, and Health Care
Hamico Foundation executive director Alexis Bogo will tell you that her desire to give back to the Chattanooga community is part of a time-honored and muchvalued family tradition in her family. The daughter of Chattem CEO Zan Guerry, Alexis has applied her well-respected business skills to assisting a host of nonprofit groups in the community.
In 2008, Alexis co-chaired the very successful annual Siskin Star Night event (featuring country music superstar Sugarland) along with her husband, Barry. She has been a part of the Partnership For Families, Children and Adults’ Dancing with the Stars event, and, in 2010, Alexis and Barry teamed up again to chair Memorial Health Care System’s Pink! gala, which supports breast cancer treatment and research.
As executive director of the Hamico Foundation, Alexis has taken the lead in the organization’s continued support of locally based efforts on behalf children, education, and health care. “Paying it forward and giving back to the community is in my blood,” she says. It’s true: the Guerrys’ community involvement dates back to the work of Alexis’ great-grandparents. “I am just doing what I have seen done my whole life. It’s a way of life for my family. There is really no other option for us.”
But for Alexis, it’s certainly about more than carrying on a family tradition. She harbors a sincere passion for the future of the city. “This community is an amazing place to live, made possible by the people before us. Maintaining what is here and making Chattanooga a better place for the people behind us is our duty, and it’s a duty that we embrace,” she says. “Chattanooga is a special place because the people here do give back. They want to protect and maintain the wonderful place where we live.”
Alexis is the immediate past chair of the Memorial Health Care System Foundation. She is currently serving on the boards of Baylor School and the UC Foundation. She is also the current board chair at St. Peter’s Episcopal School. “It’s been great to be in the corporate world as well as the non-profit world. I have enjoyed both immensely,” she says.
President and CEO of River City Company | Community Volunteer | Advocate for Education and Health Care
Almost every morning, you can find River City Company president and CEO Kim White walking her dog through downtown Chattanooga— and passing several areas she has helped to renew. A graduate of UTC, Kim lived and worked outside of Chattanooga for 20 years before returning in 2003. That was the year she found a Scenic City that reignited her passion for community involvement.
Then serving as the president and CEO of Corker Group, Kim was invited to join the board of River City Company. Meanwhile, she also accepted other opportunities serve in leadership roles on the boards of Erlanger Health System, the UT Foundation, the UC Foundation, the Chattanooga Downtown Rotary Club, the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, and the UTC Chancellor’s Roundtable.
“I had the ability when I came back to try and find something that I was passionate about doing,” she explains. “When this position at River City Company opened, I had gotten very involved in the community.”
Through that involvement she had noticed something was different about our city. “I think what makes Chattanooga different from other communities I have lived in is that there is a sense of coming together. People do give back. That’s what makes our city special. If you want to be part of it and make a difference, that’s what you can do.”
Kim, who also served as a senior executive with Luken Holdings, Inc., since returning to Chattanooga, is today a passionate advocate for the growth of families choosing to live in the downtown area. She sees the continued development of housing downtown and other downtown amenities as important opportunities.
“The one thing about downtowns is that they are never finished,” Kim explains. “We want to stay authentic. In whatever we do, we want to do it with quality. The challenging part about having so much growth is to make sure you have a handle on it. We want to grow in a smart, strategic way.”
Mai Bell Hurley
Trailblazer as a Community Leader & Volunteer | Advocate for The Arts, Education, and Downtown Revitalization
To say that Mai Bell Hurley has been a pioneer in a lifetime of service to the community understates her lasting impact on Chattanooga. Mai Bell’s lists of trailblazing accomplishments are so numerous that they would fill several chapters of history book.
Mai Bell is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking career in local politics. She was the first woman to be elected to the City Council (she served for 11 years) and she was also the first woman to chair the City Council. She was also a founding member of Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga (now ArtsBuild), a founding member of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, and the first woman to chair the administrative boards of First-Centenary United Methodist Church, United Way, and the United Way Campaign.
Mai Bell’s civic involvement began when she became the first woman to chair the United Way campaign in Chattanooga, whereby she opened the doors of opportunity for herself and many other women to hold leadership roles in organizations.
“The truth is, I didn’t think too much about it at the time,” says Mai Bell of this community service break. “I was honored to be invited. In my opinion, United Way is one of the major assets of this community. It has so many people working so hard to make it successful. I would hope that maybe, because I was reasonably successful in the campaign, that opened the door to the fact that women can really do this.”
Looking back, Mai Bell says one of the highlights of her career was serving as chair of Chattanooga Venture, a pioneering organization that worked to encourage many grassroots-inspired improvements in Chattanooga. “Chattanooga Venture was a high point in my civic life and in the life of the community,” says Mai Bell. “It was always a collective effort and it was an honor to be a part of it. I think we helped to turn Chattanooga around.”
Coordinator of Bridge Refugee Services | Advocate for More Than 700 Refugees
As coordinator of the local arm of Bridge Refugee Services, Marina Peshterianu provides a comforting voice and a shining example for clients seeking to start a new life in Chattanooga.
When Marina began working at Bridge Refugee Services in 1998, it had only been five years since her family had left Ukraine for the promise of the American dream. And while she left her homeland by choice rather than force, Marina says her personal journey affords her a unique viewpoint as she works with international refugees. In fact, she considers them extended family.
“The most rewarding part of my job is that I get to be a part of so many people’s lives,” she explains. “For refugees, it’s a very difficult period. I empathize with them and I understand. Everything you have known has to be reassessed. You end up walking in the dark, trying to get to the light. It takes a lot of character and strength to get to where you need to go.”
To date, Marina has worked with more than 700 people who have resettled in Chattanooga. “I get to see that each and every one of them ultimately has success story. Most of these people have survived the worst of times, many of them in refugee camps. To see them have a second chance, declare their independence, and pursue their dreams…that stands as a success to me.”
When it comes to the resettlement process, Marina is proud of the generosity she has witnessed in resident Chattanoogans. “We may be able to provide the needed services to help our clients resettle, but it takes a community to help refugees to rebuild their lives,” she says. “It’s because of our community that those who come here can call Chattanooga home. I am so grateful for the people of Chattanooga who have had welcoming arms and open doors.”
VP of Investment Operations at UNUM | Community Volunteer | Advocate for Women and Children
Chattanooga’s first lady Monique Berke recalls learning the virtues of community service and its power to impact people at an early age. Growing up in Austin, Texas, Monique and her sister were inspired by the example set by their mother, Yolanda Rogers.
“She was a single mom. She worked full time and she went to college full time. Yet she made every effort to contribute to the community and modeled that for us,” Monique explains. “She also did everything to ensure that we had a strong, independent voice and that we used that voice to shine beams of light into the dark places in this world.”
As she left Austin to go to college in San Francisco, Monique continued to ask herself, “What is the sacrifice that I need to make for the world to be a better place?” She found an important answer through her work with the largest battered women’s shelter in San Francisco. Years later, she arrived in Chattanooga with an even greater desire to give a voice to the voiceless, and again became an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, working closely with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County and a number of non-profit organizations related to women, children, and education.
“It really goes back to what my Mom said about shining a light into the darkness. Abuse is an example of a very dark place in our society,” says Monique. “Providing a voice for people who have either lost their voice or never found it is something I feel very strongly about.”
Now in her first months as Chattanooga’s first lady, Monique continues to be an advocate for women and children. “The vibrancy and the energy here in Chattanooga is palatable, and community service is the best way to move the needle to make things better,” she says. “I can’t imagine not giving back to the community. It’s the table stakes here in Chattanooga.”
TV Host | Columnist | Author | Community Volunteer | President of One Clip at a Time
Amidst her busy schedule of public speaking, running a non-profit, hosting a weekly TV show, and writing humorous magazine columns, Alison Lebovitz always finds time for her family and her community.
Alison is active on a number of community-based boards, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Tennessee Aquarium, Read 20, and the Jordan Thomas Foundation. She is also co-chair of National Young Leadership of The Jewish Federations of North America, and she was chair of United Way of Greater Chattanooga’s community campaign in 2012. Currently, Alison is president of One Clip at a Time, a nonprofit committed to inspiring service learning and empowering students to make a difference.
“I am very much motivated by my faith to do service. The idea of charity is part of anyone’s faith. But more so than charity, there is the idea of benevolence and repairing the world – to make it better than you found it,” she explains.
This imperative is augmented by a collective spirit of generosity in Chattanooga, Alison explains. “I have never lived in a city that has not just a sense of community, but a sense of belonging. Whether you were raised here or whether you are a transplant, that sense of belonging becomes almost immediate as soon as you work to make the city better.”
She continues: “We don’t rest on our laurels and I think that is tremendous. I’ve witnessed how this city and its citizens always believe in doing better, achieving more, and building hope for everyone who lives here.”
In 2011, Alison published “Am I There Yet?: A Journey Through Marriage, Motherhood, and Miles of Minutiae”—a hilarious collection of personal essays about her “travels to adulthood.” Meanwhile, her weekly show on WTCI—“The List with Alison Lebovitz”—continues to offer viewers up close and personal encounters with both local and national personalities.
Today, Alison stays active raising her three sons—Arthur, Abe, and Levi—with her husband, Alan. She hopes their shared value for community service will pass on to the next generation. “My husband is my social conscience, and I was raised with the idea of giving back. This is not a torch relay. Hopefully, my husband and I are lighting our sons’ torches and they can see that they have the power to make a difference, too.”
Writer | Lecturer | Motivational Speaker | Sunday School Teacher
If you are a long-time resident of Chattanooga, it’s likely that you are familiar with the name Nell Mohney. Nell has worked as a writer, lecturer, motivational speaker, and Sunday school teacher in Chattanooga for decades. She is the author of 13 books, and her column appears weekly in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. She also leads seminars for business, professional, and church organizations across the state and the nation.
A North Carolina native, Nell moved to Chattanooga as a newlywed to start a joint ministry with her husband. While he worked as a Methodist pastor in East Chattanooga, she supported his work as a youth director. “I have always loved young people, their energy, the possibilities,” explains Nell, who majored in Christian education in college. “I felt then, and still feel, that churches ought to encourage them to use their talents.” As Nell acclimated herself to a new town and grew to know its people, her heart for youth and faith-based education was infectious. She started getting invitations to speak at different events and conferences. “I wasn’t sure whether that was what I was supposed to do. Then I sat next to a well-known speaker on a plane and she said: ‘If the invitations come, you are supposed to be doing it.’” So that’s exactly what she did.
Today, Nell is in the Chattanooga Women of Distinction Hall of Fame, and she was named a biographee in Marquis’ Who’s Who in America in 1998. She continues her ministry in Chattanooga as a Sunday school teacher for single adults at her church, with attendance averaging around 75. She is also active as a mother and grandmother, and loves the fact that her son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and granddaughter-in-law live nearby. “Having family in town that loves me is what stabilizes me,” she says.
Her life motto? “I think it would be to ‘Live fully, TODAY. TODAY is the day we have to see all the possibilities and enjoy all kinds of people, no matter their age. It’s been an exciting life and it’s still very exciting.”
Scottie Goodman Summerlin
Communications & Media Professional | Advocate for Education | Community Volunteer
After working for 13 years as a respected television anchor, reporter, and producer, Scottie Goodman Summerlin discovered a new calling to community service when her twin sons entered kindergarten at Nolan Elementary. Wanting to stay involved in her sons’ daily lives, Scottie decided to leave her job in TV news. That’s when she began to learn more about public schools in Hamilton County—including how she could make a difference.
Scottie explains that the more she learned about how she and other could help the schools, the more she wanted to become involved. Her volunteer efforts soon led to various board positions. At one point, Scottie served as president of the Nolan Elementary PTA, a vice president of the Hamilton County PTA, and the communications chair of the Tennessee PTA. In 2012, Scottie was selected as the Tennessee delegate for “Mom Congress,” a program sponsored by Parenting magazine. There, she had the opportunity to meet U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and get to share ideas with other moms about how parents can better support public schools.
“Before, I felt like a lot of people feel. I didn’t have kids in the public school system so I really didn’t pay attention to the public school system. Quite honestly, that is the wrong way to think,” she says. “Our public education system directly affects our economy. Our public education system is the driver of our economic engine for the Hamilton County/Chattanooga area. It’s so important that people realize that.”
In July, Scottie was hired by the Public Education Foundation to serve as a communications consultant. Her focus will be on sharing the great stories happening in schools within the Hamilton County district. “It’s the perfect marriage of my skills from the media business with my interest in public education and my passion for wanting to be an advocate for all children. I really could not be happier. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I am so excited to get up every day and find out all the good things happening in each school.”
Business Pioneer | Advocate for Civil Rights, Education, The Arts, and Downtown Revitalization
Ruth Holmberg’s list of accomplishments is truly historic. The first woman to run a major Chattanooga business, she served as publisher and chair of the Chattanooga Times for more than 30 years. During that time, she shined a light on civil rights, pointed out the importance of arts and education, and played a key role in the revitalization of downtown Chattanooga. In short, her efforts as a community leader shattered countless glass ceilings.
Yet her answer to “What inspired your service?” speaks to the humility in which she has approached life’s opportunities.
“Well, I didn’t like playing bridge,” she observes, with a twinkle in her eye. Then, more seriously: “I just began to get involved in a few organizations and the passion followed. I think where I helped the community was possibly in opening the door for other women. I always said that a woman should think like a woman. It brings an additional perspective.”
The granddaughter of Chattanooga Times and New York Times founder Adolph Ochs, Ruth says she tried to make the most of opportunities to serve from the beginning. “I was backed by the newspaper and the newspaper was an important voice in the community. My grandfather was revered and that paved the way for me. So the door was opened, but that wasn’t the answer. I had to earn my place.”
It wasn’t long until Ruth’s knack for leadership and her dedication to public service through non-profit groups positioned her as one of Chattanooga’s most respected leaders. Today, her resume is long and impressive—certainly too long to cite. And she continues to be actively involved in the community by serving on the boards of the Public Education Foundation and the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga. She also recently completed a stint on the board of the UC Foundation.
“People owe something to the community,” she says, noting the philanthropic trend she is seeing in Chattanooga. “More and more, we are beginning to see young people begin to create their own philanthropic committees. That is a very exciting thing to see.”
President and CEO of First Things First | Counselor | Advocate for Families & Children
As president and CEO of First Things First, Julie Baumgardner leads an organization that provides road maps for two of life’s most important journeys: marriage and raising children. Since the organization’s inception in 1997, First Things First’s programming and resources have played a key role in Hamilton County seeing a 62% decline in unwed teen pregnancies and a 29% decline in the divorce rate.
An important focus for Julie and First Things First has been to promote increased involvement by fathers in their children’s lives—a major factor in building stronger family units. In recent years, the organization’s model for helping families has been taken throughout the country and across the globe. Julie frequently travels the country, helping other cities strengthen their families and communities.
“I’ve been amazed at what’s happened with First Things First. I was surprised at the way people so quickly embraced what we were doing,” she says. “By 2000, we started to receive phone calls from across the country from other communities asking us to teach them what we were doing.”
Julie currently serves as board chair for the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education and was recently awarded their Vision and Leadership award at their national conference. Yet while her travels have taken her far and wide—even an opportunity to present at the White House conference on Helping America’s Youth—Julie holds a deep appreciation for Chattanooga and the giving spirit of the community here. Locally, she writes a weekly family issues column in the Chattanooga Times Free Press and hosts a weekly program on WTCI: “First Things First with Julie Baumgardner.” She also serves as chair of the curriculum committee for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Chattanooga, vice chair of Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s program committee, and as Elder at Signal Mountain Presbyterian. She was named American Lung Association Woman of Distinction in 2001.
“Chattanooga is an incredibly philanthropic community, and it’s not just with gifts of money. People are generous to give of their time, their talent, and their brain trust,” she says. “People come together to rally around what is it going to take to make Chattanooga this amazing place to live, to work, to play, to raise children, to build a family, and to thrive.”
Rae Young Bond
Executive Director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society | Advocate for Health Care Issues | Advocate for Families and Children
Rae Young Bond has such a dedication to service and making the most out of every day that she refers to her position as the executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society as “her day job.” Rae’s extensive list of community board activities includes: Get Covered Tennessee, the Regional Health Council, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department’s IRIS (Increasing the Rate of Infant Survival) Initiative, The Chattanooga Medical Group Management Association, Hamilton County Step ONE, and the Greater Chattanooga Colon Cancer Foundation. She is the past chair of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, the Tennessee Physicians Quality Verification Organization, and the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s public policy committee.
When she came to Chattanooga in 1994 after serving in Washington D.C. as the public affairs director for the National Governors Association, Rae immediately connected with the “cando” spirit of the Scenic City. One of her first positions was serving as the founding president and executive director of First Things First (Julie Baumgardner was an early staff hire). In that role, she piloted a divorce education project in Hamilton County that later became the model for the entire state.
In recent times, Rae has been a driving force behind the Project Access, an initiative of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Medical Foundation of Chattanooga that connects low-income, uninsured residents of Hamilton County with health services. “It’s a clinic without walls. We have over 700 volunteer physicians along with hospitals, health centers, and other organizations,” says Rae of Project Access. “We’ve coordinated an average of $1.1 million in donated health care services every month since April of 2004. It’s been a thrilling program to have had the privilege of starting.”
It’s evident that Rae stays in a state of perpetual motion—even on the weekends. On Sunday, you will find her serving as an organist, pianist, and Sunday school teacher at Charleston Cumberland Presbyterian Church, where her husband, Bill, is a minister.
“I really do believe in paying it forward,” she says. “I take the Biblical injunction ‘to take care of the least of these’ very seriously. I believe that God has given me unbelievable opportunities and blessed me with people who encouraged me, mentored me, and opened doors for me.”