Local attorneys honored by St. Teresa's Academy for service
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - As part of the observance of National Women's History Month at St. Teresa's Academy, the faculty and students honor two Kansas City area women who exemplify one of the core values the school was founded on: Service to the poor, excellence in education, community stewardship and social justice.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Kansas City attorneys Angela Bennett, left, and Suzanne Gladney show off the Mother Evelyn O'Neil awards presented by St. Teresa's Academy faculty and students for excellence in education and service to the poor.
The award, first given in 2000, is named in honor of Mother Evelyn O'Neill, a charismatic school administrator who was named superior of the academy in 1908.
This year, following the theme of "Women Change America," the award went to attorney Angela Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in Kansas City, for excellence in education, and Suzanne Gladney, managing attorney of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, for assisting the poor.
The awards were presented at a March 4 ceremony at St. Teresa's Goppert Gymnasium.
Bennett, who is African-American, spoke to the students about the importance of education which, she said, was not always freely offered to African-American women.
"You are so fortunate to be in a group of young women who are getting a quality education," she said to the almost 500 young women in the gym. "Don't forget to thank your parents for the sacrifices they make to get you that education. Worldwide, there are about 121 million kids not in school, 65 million of whom are girls. There are many reasons why: Poverty or the HIV-AIDS pandemic often keeps girls out of school. In some cultures, religious or social beliefs dictate that girls don't need or are not entitled to an education. In those cultures girls are asked to marry at an early age, often as young as 8, and produce many children."
"In the U.S., public education has its own drawbacks. The 2002-2003 graduation rate in this country was 71 percent overall. The graduation rate for African-Americans was 56 percent and 52 percent for Hispanics. Of all those students only 34 percent were college-ready," she said.
She had run into roadblocks herself, she told The Catholic Key later. She recalled hearing comments about working on her "Mrs. Degree," and still bristles when she remembers a former faculty member at the law school she attended saying that "blacks and women were taking seats that were meant for white males."
It has only been since the late 1980s that area law firms have bowed to client demand and begun hiring more blacks and females, Bennett said.
The native Kansas Citian has been involved in civil rights since she was a child and went with her parents to register African American voters to vote on "Public Accommodations," which acknowledged the rights of blacks to eat at public lunch counters.
Bennett currently sits on the Board of Curators for the University of Missouri System, is chairperson of the Starlight Theatre board of directors, a member of the Alvin Ailey board and a member of the Missouri Bar Association. She recently received the Missouri Bar Association's President's Award for her service to the Missouri Bar. She has also been recognized for her volunteer service, especially for the Girl Scouts.
She challenged the St. Teresa's students to maintain a commitment to community service to better lives and help others.
"It makes no difference what your station in life is, you can still help others," Bennett said.
Suzanne Gladney has worked for Legal Aid of Western Missouri for 30 years, specializing in immigration law.
"Service [to others] is the rent you pay for living," she said. "When you work to provide service to others in the community, you work with a lot of people who are invisible. The invisible ones are the low-income strangers who are the dishwashers in your corner cafe, they are pushing mowers over the lawns in wealthy neighborhoods, and they are the cleaning crews at the hotels, the aides and orderlies at hospitals and nursing homes, the workers at Tyson foods or the burger flippers at your favorite fast food place. The women who are strangers, who are different from us, are sisters, wives and daughters who want the best for their children, just like us.
"Immigrants bring a wonderful diversity to the classroom, the workplace and to our lives," she said.
Gladney designed and developed the Migrant Farmworkers Project, which provides legal, medical and social services to migrant workers who pick Missouri's fruit and vegetable crops.
She said Project staff members are gearing up for the summer peach crop workers in Missouri's Bootheel area, the vegetable crop workers in July and the fall apple season in Lexington.
Gladney is looking forward to the May 7 graduation of the first migrant student to graduate from college. He will graduate from Missouri Valley College in Marshall and then plans to spend a year with the Lasallian Volunteers.
She challenged the St. Teresa's students to consider service and volunteerism, especially with "strangers."
"There's an old Jewish tale of a rabbi teaching his students about light and dark. 'How can you tell when dark is changing to light? he asked. One child answered, 'When you can tell if you are looking at a sheep or a goat?' 'No,' he replied. Another said, 'When you can tell if you are holding a fig or a peach?'
"'No,' the teacher said. 'The answer is when you can look on the face of a woman or a man and tell if they are your brother or your sister. If you can't do that, no matter what time of day it is, you are still in darkness.'"
The awards honor Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Evelyn O'Neill, who led St. Teresa's Academy from 1908 to 1915. She is credited with moving the school from 12th and Washington streets in Quality Hill to its current home at 5600 Main in Brookside in 1908.