In honor of Women’s History Month, the Rockville Centre Democratic Club recognized six residents at its first “RVC Women of Distinction” panel on March 7. From artists to activists, each woman told her story to roughly 50 attendees at the John A. Anderson Recreation Center.
Honorees included Dr. Karen Blitz-Shabbir, a physician and former political candidate; Scottie Coads, chair of civic engagement for the NAACP New York State Conference; Susan Kluewer, retired Board of Judges president and acting county court judge; Laura Vaccaro Seeger, a two-time Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator; Cindy Vaupel, co-founder and co-director of Raising Voices USA and Marguerite Keller, co-director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre.
Dr. Louise Skolnik, co-president of the Rockville Centre Democratic Club, hosted the evening of celebration and discussion. “They do not make headlines, but they make and have made a significant difference in the lives they have touched,” Skolnik said of the honorees.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen congratulated the panel members. “You have all in your own ways really contributed to our community, to the Town of Hempstead, to Rockville Centre and well beyond there,” Gillen said. “I thank you for all that you’ve done, and I look forward to supporting you and supporting each other in this journey.”
Skolnik kicked off the conversation by asking the women to share the inspiration and challenges that led them to where they are today.
Keller’s mother was the driving force behind her community involvement, she said. Her mother founded the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre in 1984 to help Hispanic people with housing. Keller has continued its mission for the past 30 years. “My mother started this program helping those in need that didn’t know the language, didn’t know the customs and were raising their families in a different environment than they had grown up in,” Keller said.
Kluewer, 71, shared the struggles that she faced to become a judge. “When I told my father that I was going to law school, he said, ‘That’s really not very lady-like,’” she recalled. “And my mother said, ‘That’s very nice, dear. You won’t go.’”
Despite the odds, she walked into Hofstra University’s registrar office. The woman at the desk said to her, “You know you’re taking the place of a man.”
“All women of my generation have faced the same thing,” Kluewer said. “I went anyway.”
Seeger faced her own obstacles while trying to become an illustrator. She shared stories of being sexually harassed at her first job, moving to Manhattan to create show openings at NBC and eventually writing award-winning children’s books.
She noted that she endured harassment throughout her career in the television industry, but that she loved her job. She left only to take care of her children, which she said was “the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
Vaupel spoke about her penchant for activism, which sparked after the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. She grew up in nearby Danbury, and had daughters who were 2 and 8 at the time. “It was a story that took on real personal significance in my life,” she explained. “And I just thought, ‘Oh no…’ You don’t take something like this lying down. You just don’t.”
After the 2016 presidential election, she co-founded the group Raising Voices USA. Vaupel noted her gratitude for the support system of like-minded people who have fought with her for similar goals over the years.
Blitz-Shabbir also spoke to the benefit of reaching out to other people and fostering community among women. About a year ago, she ran for Nassau County legislator against longtime District 7 incumbent Howard Kopel, and though she lost, she said, “I met so many incredible people. I learned the power of women, the power of learning new things and a whole new sphere.”
Coads, now in her 70s, migrated to New York from South Carolina after high school and lived through the tumultuous civil rights movement of the 1960s, which influenced her work later in life.
“As a minority, some of the things you have to endure… you just gravitate to wherever you need to go to make things better for yourself and for everybody that you come into contact with,” she said of her community involvement. “Those years stayed with me.”
The evening closed out with questions and comments from the audience, which led to a conversation about moving women’s rights, and other forms of equality, forward.
“Getting young people involved is very important,” Coads said. “We need to come together and unite around the issues as we’re doing now. When things are happening, be there for each other.”