Wonder Women 2021

Seven amazing women are leaving their mark on SJC

Every year we feature women who are making a positive impact on our community through outreach both in their careers and their free time. Regardless of what drives them, every woman who has held the designation as a San Joaquin Magazine Wonder Woman has had a profound and lasting impact on our community—one that is making our corner of the world a better place. This year, the women featured are serving a community deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With shutdowns, school closures, and shelter-in-place orders, San Joaquin County is facing a slew of problems they’ve never endured before, but with these seven women at the forefront (and many others behind and alongside them) the community is recovering, youth needs are getting met, and families are able to survive despite hardships such as unemployment and food insecurity. Join us in celebrating the courageous women who are championing those most vulnerable right now, helping SJC thrive in the face of adversity, and doing it all while caring for their own families and households, as well. Women truly are superheroes.

Heather Green
Executive Director, Oasis City Center

Oasis City Center, the community center of Oasis Church, has long been an outlet for community support, helping those in need physically, mentally, and emotionally. When COVID-19 hit San Joaquin County hard, Oasis had even more people to care for with unemployment surging and food insecurity hitting new highs. The work didn’t become any more important than it already was, but there were more people looking to Oasis for a helping hand. “So far, we have supplied hope to over 245,000 individuals in 50,000 families, giving away over 1 million pounds of product (food, water, and household supplies),” says Heather Green, executive director of Oasis City Center. “Over 12,500 cars have waited in sometimes two-hour long lines to receive aid, which tells us that the effects of this pandemic will be felt for months, maybe even years.”

In true superwoman fashion, Heather helped the City Center shift to a safe delivery format of essential goods for families—”our regular operations were suspended due to shelter-in-place orders, and we flipped on a dime by establishing a drive-thru food distribution to help families experiencing economic hardships, quarantine, and school closures,” she says—while working many of her regular duties all with a baby on her hip. Heather entered the pandemic nine months pregnant and had her first child in the midst of it all. She navigated motherhood, her new position as a working mother, and even postpartum depression, all while continuing her work with Oasis to ensure her community was also served. “My greatest accomplishment and biggest struggle [during the pandemic] was becoming a mother,” she says.

In addition to relief efforts, Heather wears many hats at Oasis. “One hour, I might be shooting a video to promote our food and resource relief program, Oasis Cares, the next I might be helping with the behind the scenes operations or sharing the Oasis story with those who come by the City Center,” she says. Her position also allows her to engage with other community organizations, like Second Harvest Food Bank and Stockton Police Department, that enhance Oasis’ vision of igniting hope for the community. “I believe, wholeheartedly, in the work Oasis City Center, Oasis Cares, and Oasis Church are making in our community,” she says.

Shauna Buzunis-Jacob
Development Director, The Child Abuse Prevention Council

Protecting children is Shauna Buzunis-Jacob’s superpower.

She has witnessed alcoholism and addiction in her family, events that eventually led to her taking over legal guardianship of her young niece. Seeing her loved ones struggle is also what sparked Shauna’s compassion for caring for at-risk families and her role as the development director for The Child Abuse Prevention Council, an organization with the mission of protecting and streghthening families.

Shauna was recruited by Lindy Turner-Hardin, the executive director of CAPC, after implementing the Safe Families program at First Baptist Church in Lodi. Safe Families/ Safe Refuge  Program is  designed to help keep families intact by temporarily hosting children and offering  support networks to families in crisis.  , An idea  that sparked Shauna’s own desire to help children and families that have experienced trauma right here in our own community.      In Shauna’s role with the CAPC, she works with donors, designs and implements programs to meet the organization’s goals, and appropriately markets these services to the community.

Her position has always been instrumental in protecting vulnerable youth and helping high-risk families get on track, and during the pandemic, her work became even more important. One of the first things CAPC noticed when the world shutdown was a more than 50 percent decrease in calls to Child Protective Services. That didn’t mean the abuse wasn’t happening, it meant it was happening behind closed doors. In response, Shauna and her team developed the Neighbor Aware Campaign to educate people on reporting instances of potential abuse as well as encouraging them to check in on friends and family who may be struggling with kids at home.

The CAPC-run early education programs also needed to stay connected with and support families in the centers. One way this was done was by creating Facebook groups for classrooms where teachers could connect with families and parents could connect with each other. A COVID tab was added to the website with a list of available resources and activities. “If they needed anything, we were there,” Shauna says.

At CAPC, Shauna works closely with programs including the Transitional Age Youth Program, Court Appointed Special Advocates Program, and Suicide Prevention, Shauna sits on the alumni board of Leadership Stockton and is the coordinator for Safe Families/Safe Refuge at First Baptist Church in Lodi. She also sits on community boards including San Joaquin County’s Children and Youth Task force, San Joaquin County Children’s Alliance, San Joaquin County human Trafficking Task Force, and United Way Community Council in both Lodi and Stockton.

Sister Abby Newton
Vice President of Mission Integration, St. Joseph’s Medical Center

If you’ve ever felt the healing spirit at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, it’s very possible Sister Abby Newton was behind the efforts. The vice president of Mission Integration at St. Joseph’s and for the Central California region of Dignity Health, is responsible for making the healing presence of God known throughout the hospital hallways. “While involved in many conversations and Zoom meetings, my focus has been tending to, and being present to, the very noble people who are doing the work,” Sister Abby says. She’s acting as a spiritual and emotional support for not just patients but staff as well, who have endured more in the last 12 months than likely ever before in their careers. “As with all who are facing this pandemic, they too are concerned about the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones, are struggling with the education of children and stay-at-home restrictions, and the myriad of feelings and issues that each of us face,” she says.

On a regular day, Sister Abby gets to the hospital by 6 AM so she can round on the night shift before the day shift comes on, making herself available to everyone who works at the hospital for prayer or just to be a positive presence. Staff support can look different for everyone; a shared laugh, a friendly check-in, a person to share struggles with. “I walk the halls taking the opportunity to have real but mostly brief conversations,” Sister Abby says.

While COVID has shifted the way every organization has to operate, it’s truer in the walls of a hospital than anywhere else. Sister Abby says her greatest sadness is not being able to visit and pray with patients in COVID-19 rooms. Instead, she prays for those patients, along with their families and the staff caring for them, in the Morning Prayer she leads at the hospital, and in the Rosary she prays during her morning walk. She also places her focus on instances where she can help, whether at her multiple meetings, supporting employee morale activities, or helping at the vaccination station. She is known as the go-to person for anyone within the hospital who needs a little help from a friend.

Monica Filoso
Division Director for Special Education Programs, SJCOE

Monica Filoso works in special education serving the San Joaquin County Office of Education as Division Director for Special Education Programs. She is also a mother. And like many local moms, the sudden transition to distance learning from an in-person school model meant more responsibility. In Monica’s case, that responsibility was exemplified in both her home and work life, which were now suddenly and strangely melded together. To make it work, Monica woke up each morning at 5:30 AM to complete schoolwork with her second grader before 7:45 AM. Then, at 8 AM, she started for normal workday, and for up to ten hours she sat on back to back Zoom meetings struggling to make sense of an education model that didn’t serve her special education students. “While students in general education could watch a live lesson via Zoom and practice the skill via a worksheet on their individual time, our students struggled with the attention span needed to participate in online lessons and continued to need hands-on experiences to learn new skills and maintain the skills they had developed,” Monica explains.

Monica was paramount in getting SJCOE special education programs back on campus, utilizing a hybrid model to uphold the safety standards needed to keep families healthy while also catering to the specialized needs of her student population. In her position, Monica oversees approximately 100 classrooms throughout San Joaquin County, two separate schools, and community-based locations for students in the young adult program. She says the approval for on-campus learning is one of her greatest accomplishments during the pandemic. “There are huge benefits academically and socially/emotionally for our students,” Monica says.

In addition to her full-time job and raising two kids of her own, Monica has taught evening classes to special education teacher interns at Teachers College of San Joaquin (TCSJ) and mentored new special education teachers and special education administrators both on and off the clock. She is also active in the professional organization Special Education Administrators for County Offices (SEACO) and participates in the mentoring program for new SPED Directors throughout the state.

Margot Aguilar
Program Director, Lodi Boys & Girls Club

For decades, the Boys & Girls Club has operated as a space to support youth after school. When schools shut down in 2020, the needs of youth and their families changed drastically, and Margot Aguilar, the program director for Boys & Girls Club Lodi, was at the forefront of changing the long-standing model. “We went from serving youth after school to serving youth all day with distance learning,” Margot explains. In her role, Margot is responsible for the new programming offered at the Lodi Boys & Girls Club from planning and developing it to overseeing staff as its implemented. “When COVID-19 happened, my role became more important, figuring out how we were going to continue to serve youth while implementing new safety policies and procedures due to COVID-19.”

School shutdowns have affected everyone, but Margot says some students and families are suffering more than others due to struggles with technology, lack of resources, language barriers, discord between parents and teachers, and learning styles that don’t work well with a distance learning model. Her biggest struggle has been deciding who the Boys & Girls Club will and will not be able to serve, based on member limitations. “I do believe the greatest accomplishment is being able to stay open to serve youth even if it means assisting just with distance learning and being available to them for any emotional support,” Margot says.

For Margot, being the voice of reason, guiding decision making, sharing in achievements, and instilling confidence while helping children overcome obstacles, it’s all what keeps her working toward being that positive mentor for kids. “One of the best informal recognitions a person can receive is to have youth come back as adults to thank you for the positive impact you had in their life. If that is not motivation, I don’t know what is,” she says. And outside of the Boys & Girls Club, Margot strives to have the same impact on another demographic as a volunteer coach for youth sports—a position she can’t wait to get back to when team sports are up and running again.

Carol Ornelas
CEO, Visionary Home Builders of California, Inc.

“Today, I am one of the leading developers of affordable housing in the Valley,” says Carol Ornelas, CEO of Visionary Home Builders, an organization focused on bringing affordable housing to San Joaquin County. When she first started in the industry, Carol says she was told to go home. Construction was not a place women were welcome. Now she stands in a pile of broken glass—the ceiling has been shattered.

For Carol, building affordable housing doesn’t start and stop with the building. Instead, her communities—she’s built over 1,400 multi-family housing units for families, seniors, and farm workers, as well as over 900 single-family homes in SJC—the focus is on complete communities that support tenants. Adding a HeadStart facility to appropriate complexes is a holistic approach to benefitting families that live in these communities with children ages 3-5.

Regardless of the type of development Carol builds with her crew, she stands behind one key principle—she only builds homes she would live in herself. And when she was told tenants wouldn’t care for the properties, Carol let them prove people wrong. “When you give tenants an opportunity to have better housing, it is something they take pride in and are more likely to treat with care,” Carol says.

The passion to help others find affordable, comfortable living solutions that meet their needs comes from her own childhood. Growing up with seven siblings and a single mom, Carol remembers the stigma attached to her own family. There were times landlords wouldn’t rent to her mother because they were convinced the kids would destroy everything. “I felt no child, or mother, should have to go through that,” Carol says. “That was one of those things that always burned at my heart.”

Since COVID-19 began, new challenges in building and living have erupted. Regardless, Visionary Home Builders kept pushing forward. In December 2020, 54 families moved into Oak Leaf Meadows, a recently completed Oakdale property, and they are working on Liberty Square, a 75-unit property in downtown Stockton.

“I can honestly say I love my career,” Carol says. But Visionary Home Builders isn’t where community service ends for her. The former Athena-recipient also sits on the board of Aspire Public Schools, Housing California, the United Way, and the Haggin Museum.

Rebecca Scharmann
Events & Community Engagement Manager, Visit Stockton

Rebecca Scharmann was hired as the events and community engagement manager for Visit Stockton in January of 2020, but not long after coming on board, the world shifted and events weren’t happening anymore. As a result, Rebecca had to pivot. Her job quickly became less about hosting Visit Stockton’s big events (Stockton Restaurant Week, Brew Fest, Feast at the Fox, etc.) and more about supporting the businesses within Stockton.

“I’ve done more for our community than I could have ever done with an event,” Rebecca says of the shift. For those familiar with the Dine Stockton page (a page that keeps updated information and links about local restaurant offerings to make ordering easy) and the Stockton Healthy Pledge (an initiative that encourages local businesses to commit to a safe environment while also building confidence in the community to support them), Rebecca is the one who manages those efforts.

With Dine Stockton, Rebecca has had a heavy hand in supporting businesses as they transitioned to alternatives to in-person dining during the stay-at-home orders in San Joaquin County. “We used Dine Stockton to help businesses reach locals on larger scale,” says Rebecca, who reached out to restaurants and researched their social media channels to obtain information that would allow their businesses to survive one of the toughest times most, if not all, of them have ever faced. As part of the Stockton Healthy Pledge campaign, Rebecca and her team also doled out PPE needed to follow through with the commitment. “It was really important to keep those businesses going and keep those businesses open,” Rebecca says. It came down to the livelihood of the employees as well as many were getting laid off.

At the core, Rebecca has made it her mission to help every business in Stockton feel like they have someone on their side fighting for their success right alongside them. “It resonates with people and they feel like a community,” she says. “It makes you feel good but it makes other people feel much better, too.”

In addition to her day job, Rebecca volunteers with Manteca Millennial Advisory, an organization geared toward enhancing Manteca through philanthropic opportunities for a younger group as well as gotten involved in community efforts in Stockton.

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