In Her Own Words: Honoring 33 Central PA Women Who Inspire Us

Words by Angelique H. Caffrey, Photography by Kelly Ann Shuler

As springtime begins its descent upon the Susquehanna Valley, the YWCA Greater Harrisburg once again plans to fete the Women of Excellence who have consistently given back to the community in their working and personal lives. The Class of 2018 includes 33 vibrant, intelligent honorees whose collective actions have shaped their communities and positively affected the people around them.
Although the nominees will be celebrated on Thursday, March 22, at a Tribute to Women of Excellence awards dinner at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center, their stories deserve to be highlighted in print form. Read on to learn more about this 29th annual group of professional, philanthropic ladies who join more than 500 other extraordinary individuals who continue to inspire, guide and encourage.

Rubina Azizdin,
Central Penn College
Coming from a very structured family, Rubina became accustomed to working hard and managing finances at a young age. Influenced by her father’s honesty and loyalty, she cautions other women not to limit themselves. “Do not feel guilty for making your career a priority,” she explains. “There is no one right formula for family, work and play balance. I love my job and I love my family. I have never felt that I have missed out!”

Crystal Brown,
Brethren Housing Association
“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” Those words from Crystal’s wise Pop-Pop stuck with her as a reminder of life’s ups and downs. Her grandfather wasn’t the only inspiration in her life; she was surrounded by plenty of adults full of love, integrity and compassion who lived the walk and cared for others. Now, she lives in peace and joy, but if she couldn’t remain as Executive Director at her nonprofit? She’d work for an advocacy organization increasing economic opportunities for people of color.

Tiffany Brown,
National Coalition of
100 Black Women, Inc., Harrisburg Chapter
Even though Tiff’s occupation keeps her busy, she’s learned how to maintain life balance by praying, reading positive affirmations, and setting aside time for relaxation and fun. In 2018, she’d especially like to add stamps to her passport by traveling to at least one new country. Tiff’s advice to other women is simple: “Leave your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to take chances or pursue new opportunities!”

Patricia B. Cameron,
St. Stephen’s Episcopal School
Pat retired in 1997 from the head of St. Stephen’s, but remains fiercely loyal to the school she founded to improve life in the Harrisburg area. “Having well-educated people living here makes it a better place,” she avers. Interestingly, St. Stephens Episcopal Cathedral played pivotal roles throughout her decades living in the Valley: She was the first female Senior Warden in an Episcopal Cathedral in the United States, she and her husband wed at the Cathedral, and all four of her children were baptized there.

Mary Ann Claraval,
Claraval & Claraval
Having children and being responsible for other humans changed everything for Mary Ann, from her job choices to the cars she drove. Everything she did was “based on what was best for the kids.” Now, her children have left the nest, giving her time to focus on everything from work to volunteering. Of course, family and fun are always on her calendar. Plus, praying each day keeps her close to God, a testament to the faith she developed growing up.

Diane Cooney,
Hershey Entertainment & Resort
Gilda Radner’s quote: “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next” serves as a reminder to Diane that no matter how much she plans, she never knows what’s coming. Consequently, she leans on her happy childhood memories, as well as her travels to the Dominican Republic and Mozambique, which helped her retain a sense of perspective.

Kimberly Craig,
Hamilton Health Center
Coming from a structured household, Kim remembers doing homework—even during summer breaks. “The adults in my life showed me what hard work could get you,” she recalls. “I always knew that I wanted to succeed. …Being ‘average’ was never an option.” Accordingly, Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” spoke to her. She’s on target to complete her bachelor’s degree in May, and then move on to the next big adventure. Though she loves what she does, she might consider becoming a lawyer if the timing were right: “I love a good debate!”

PICTURED: (l-r): Crystal Brown, Maria DiSanto, Constance B. Foster, Beth Peiffer, Autumn Lang

Marsha R. Curry Banks, Amiracle4sure
Marsha has dedicated herself to serving those who want to transform their lives after incarceration, and convincing people that everyone deserves a second chance. Her upbringing might have been difficult, but she feels blessed to have had her paternal grandmother as a role model. “She showed me through her unconditional love how to pray and have faith in God,” Marsha recalls. “I truly believe that the influence that she’s had on my life helped me overcome the various challenges that I experienced on this journey called life.”

Maria DiSanto,
Catholic Charities of Harrisburg
Board of Directors
A self-employed human resources specialist and Italian language interpreter, Maria has always been a dreamer. Perhaps that’s why she was drawn to geography books as a child: “I would close my eyes and imagine being there!” Growing up on a small farm in southern Italy, she did her share of picking olives, figs and other items as part of her daily chores. Coming to the United States at 13, she was thrust into a new culture. Though it was tough, she took her studies by storm, embarking on a stellar and rewarding career path punctuated by faith and humility.

Marilyn Dowling,
Dauphin County Council
of Republican Women
Despite a busy lifestyle, Marilyn tries to find moments to be quiet and breathe. “It brings a simplicity to the hectic, fast pace.” Throughout her career, she has worked with many people, but an experience while teaching elementary school changed her outlook on how far-reaching one action can be. A student told her through a note that she had planned to kill herself; after speaking with Marilyn, she decided not to. The lesson? “Showing a little kindness to a child can make a huge difference in their life.”

Janet Fararo,
Penn National Insurance
Independence. It’s what Janet experienced from little up, and it—with a dose of faith—likely helped her get through losing her mother at age 25. In fact, she regularly says thanks for her blessings, putting challenges in perspective. An avid reader, she plans to increase her knowledge as part of her quest to constantly learn something new. Additionally, she’d love to jump into photography and ballroom dancing.

Carolyn Fogle,
Giant Food Stores
If Carolyn exudes courage, it might have something to do with a huge picture in her office that says: “Be brave! Even if you’re not, pretend to be.” On her own since 14, she credits the teachers in her life for taking her under their protective wings when she was without a stable family life. As a consequence, she’s remained a firm community leader and developer. Her message to others is to stay true to themselves. As she points out, women especially “need to support each other… and stand up for what is always right.”

PICTURED: (l-r): Marilyn Dowling, Mary Ann Claraval, Jillian Williams, Tiffany Brown

Asheleigh Forsburg,
Alzheimer’s Association
of Greater Pennsylvania
Asheleigh’s early years were hardly typical, as she grew up at The Milton Hershey School, 1,000 miles away from family. Her experiences there have increased her awareness of how she treats her own daughter and other children. “I want her to feel in control of as much of her life as possible,” Asheleigh says. “I want her to be in control of her own body and mind.” A survivor of victimization, she feels the #MeToo movement has built awareness and opened the door to discussions about behavior and speech, especially in the workplace.

Constance B. Foster,
Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP
(Carolyne L. Smith Legacy Award Winner)
Connie has never stopped learning. Even as a Senior Partner in a law firm, she’s driven to dream about eventually tackling German and Art History. Growing up as one of 11 children, she was consistently offered living examples of how to face life’s ups and downs. And her attendance at Girls’ State for high school gave her the understanding that there were no limits to what females could do. For her, the #MeToo hashtag has particular importance: Removing one more barrier to full equality for women.

Renu Joshi, MD,
UPMC Pinnacle
Never one to get disheartened, Renu strives to give unconditionally to the populations she serves, as well as to the community. From her father, she learned love and affection; her mother taught her the value of working and education. Growing up, she enjoyed Indian dances and Hindi movies. Now, she maintains balance through regular exercise, singing and doing good for others. “Exercise gives me encouragement that I am taking care of myself.”

Ellen Kyzer,
Girl Scouts in the Heart of PA
A leap of faith: That’s what Ellen took when moving from a rural northeastern Pennsylvania town to attend the University of Pittsburgh. Not only did living in a large urban center with thousands of students in every class challenge her personally, but it allowed her to see the world differently. She’s always interested in helping women achieve. “Connect with a mentor,” she suggests. “Strong women are willing to help you build your career, model how you create balance and drive you to be your best self.”

Autumn Lang,
Capital BlueCross
Although Autumn enjoys what she does, her dream job would put her front and center as a sportscaster for ESPN. “I have been around sports my entire life. …and have seen so many inspiring stories of perseverance and determination,” she explains. “There are so many life lessons that can come from athletics, and I would love to be the person that shares them with the world.” Until EPSN calls, the team-driven, scholar-athlete will continue to value the time she spends with her husband and children by staying in the moment and appreciating the “now”.

Claudette Mack,
Wells Fargo
Claudette’s parents immigrated from Guatemala in the 1980s to provide a better future for their children. “They worked two to three jobs each to provide for myself and my three sisters. I learned from them to be driven and have grit.” At work, she’s a go-getter, but at home, Claudette tries to shut down work devices so she can be present with her family. “Family is the most important thing. …I have found that my flexibility and understanding in this area makes for an extremely engaged staff.” Currently, her husband is deployed in Afghanistan; she’s anxiously awaiting his return this summer!

Rachel E. Mathias,
Members 1st Federal Credit Union
(Karen F. Snider Emerging Leader Award)
What wouldn’t Rachel trade for anything? Her morning routine. She’s an early bird who puts aside time to sit on the couch with a big cup of coffee. “It gets my mind in the right place,” she asserts. Growing up, her family practiced regular encouragement; as a consequence, Rachel uses her role to positively motivate others. In 2011, she met her husband Caleb and began attending church; it was a pivotal moment. “Through that experience, I began a relationship with Christ. …it’s been by far the most beautiful, earth-shattering event of my life.”

Bitsy McCann,
Bitsy Plus Design
Not all spouses would be supportive of their wives starting an entrepreneurial venture; Bitsy considers herself lucky to have her husband Kevin by her side. A Millennial, she was taught to believe she was a magical unicorn, and holds onto the idea that she can do anything she wants—with the exception of actually turning into a mythical creature! A survivor of a major surgery at 26, she turned her experience into power and stopped stressing about things that didn’t matter. “Success is so different for me now than it was,” she says. “Money and status don’t matter.”

PICTURED: (l-r): Karen Rousche, Kimberly Craig, Judith Windom, Nicole Stezar Kaylor, Kristin Novinger

Kathy Morrison,
Penn State Health,
Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
She was a Little House on the Prairie fan, so maybe that’s why Kathy has a pioneering spirit. Knowing how tough it can be for people to navigate the complex healthcare system, she would love to help find a way for everyone to understand and utilize their benefits better. In fact, she has considered becoming a community nurse navigator in the future. Being in a high-stress profession, Kathy keeps herself in a good place by leaving work early once or twice a month, as well as putting aside weekends for family and relaxation.

Kristin Novinger,
K. Novinger Jewelry
As an entrepreneur, Kristin is living her dream. “If there was no way I could look at diamonds and gemstones all day, I would be a mess!” she laughs. While she was an athlete at Central Michigan, her field hockey coach imparted many life lessons: diligence, tenacity, goal-setting. “She taught me to believe in myself, and [believe] that I could achieve anything I put my mind to.” For 2018, Kristin’s set a long-term goal to run a marathon. In the meantime, she burns off stress at the gym to stay in her “happy place” and continue to eat what she wants.

Tressia Pankewicz,
Morgan Stanley
Tres was raised in an easy-going household and played every sport she could. Her father, who coached her teams, lived for family and gave them the world—literally. Not only did they live overseas, but they traveled the world in the summertime. “I learned that change was constant, so very little flusters me. I was shown that the world is made up of all kinds of people, cultures, religions, traditions. …I try never to judge.” Her Vietnamese-born mother pushed Tres to pursue her education and endeavors. Is it any wonder that Tres lives by the Nike “Just do it!” mantra?

PICTURED: (l-r): Bitsy McCann, Tressia Pankewicz, Rubina Azizdin, Rachel E. Mathias, Crystal Skotedis

Christine Pavlakovich,
Centric Bank
When Christy was a new human resources professional, she worked with someone who gave her very honest feedback. Though it wasn’t easy to hear, it forced to her to evaluate how she did many things—both at work and home. “I will be forever grateful for his mentorship,” she adds. Now that her children are older, she finds it easier to take time to decompress every night. She also schedules paid time off to ensure she’s doing things to help her relax, like traveling to interesting places. She’s hoping to add clean eating principles into her diet in the coming months.

Beth Peiffer,
Ralph E. Jones, Inc.
Beth credits her father for influencing her decision to become a small business owner. After weathering the Great Recession of 2008, she developed a newfound gratitude and appreciation for life’s blessings. “Have faith in yourself and don’t give up,” she counsels other women who are striving to meet their own goals despite inevitable roadblocks. Beth’s life is steeped in prayer, which she deems a centering influence that helps her get closer to her desire to live intentionally and enjoy each moment.

Dr. Lavette Renee Paige,
KING Community Center
Taught strong family values, unconditional love, and forgiveness, Lavette grew up seeing her ill mother demonstrate tremendous grace and kindness. “She gave me the tools that I need to be the woman that I am.” In fact, each night, her mother would read a Mother Goose book to Lavette and her siblings; when her mother was in the hospital, Lavette would read it to her family instead, trying to sound exactly like her mother. Always striving for more, Lavette hopes to learn to play the guitar and chess, as well as speak Spanish.

Karen Rousche,
“Crazy” is how Karen remembers her childhood. The youngest of seven children basically one year apart, her housemates included dogs, cats, and a monkey. As she puts it, “Never a dull moment… ever.” Not surprisingly, her mother ran a tight ship. Even before she had official school assignments, her mother would hand her a World Book Encyclopedia volume. She would read a section and report back. Still, she had time for fun, including watching I Dream of Jeannie, which presented endless possibilities. Although she often works long hours, including evenings and weekends, she tries to shut off work whenever she can and take her golden retrievers on a hike at a nearby state park.

Crystal Skotedis,
Boyer & Ritter, LLC
Ten minutes each day. It’s a special, private time for Crystal to brainstorm all the things she’s grateful for. “It truly opens up my thinking, forces me to acknowledge the things I take for granted, offers the right perspective, and brings a lot of happiness to my life.” An ambitious professional with a community-service based mindset, she believes the smartest people become that way by constantly challenging what others blindly accept as “fact.” “In real life, much of our knowledge moves along a continuum where facts evolve from true to false, and visa-versa, over time.”

Nicole Stezar Kaylor,
McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
Although she’s an attorney, Nicole muses about a dream job as an event planner. “I love working with teams, project management and coordination,” she notes. “Fortunately, this also translates well into successful mergers and acquisitions!” While she was in college, email emerged as a primary method of communication and she credits it for enabling her to stay in touch with her numerous friends and family more easily. She’s hoping to return to her pre-pregnancy morning running routine in 2018 and would love to complete the Key West Half-Marathon for her 40th birthday.

Natalie Wech,
M&T Bank
A former professional ballerina, Natalie always jokes that her mother carried her brain in her hands, and her father, her heart. At age 11, she was part of a severe car accident; the event showed her how delicate the gift of life was, helping her see each day as a gift. Though she can recite the Disney movie Aladdin, she’s just as comfortable discussing Shakespeare’s works thanks to an English Literature teacher. Natalie’s a proponent of life management rather than balance, trying to live in the moment and being present in all she does. This year, she’s continuing her goal to take chances, laugh more, cry more, give more time, listen more, talk less, and love unconditionally.

Jillian Williams,
Bevrore Portraits
Jillian’s always been a “work hard, play hard” person. “I try as much as possible to work my hardest and do my best.” At the same time, she makes time for friends; however, her 2018 resolution is to make sure she controls social media—not the other way around! To her, the #MeToo movement allows females to support each other as an opportunity for women to lift each other up. Has she known hard days? Of course. But she encourages everyone to look for the light at the end of the tunnel. “So many people whom you think of as successful have failed many times… Stay the course!”

Judith Windom,
Breakfasts and dinners were family time while Judi was growing up, and she misses those moments that made a huge impression on her. Of course, she always had time in her young life for reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mysteries! “I loved them,” she says. “I would oftentimes get up early in the summer, sit on our porch, and read from start to finish.” A purposeful planner, she regularly sets goals and strives to reach them without settling for anything less per her mantra: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). “This reminds me that no matter what I am faced with, I can and will achieve anything I set out to do.”

Laurie Zimmerman,
West Shore School District at
Washington Heights Elementary
In seventh grade, Laurie had the opportunity to work with an amazing Sunday School teacher who encouraged her students to raise money and collect items for families in the Appalachian mountains. Not only did this experience have a profound effect on her, but it helped her gain a better understanding of her good fortune. She states, “I think it’s extremely important to put people before things, and others before yourself.” Upon college graduation, she snagged a job in the world of technological advancements. Interestingly, though, she remembers her first encounter with a computer—and that it took up a whole room!

PICTURED: (l-r): Marsha R. Curry Banks, Ellen Kyzer, Christine Pavlakovich, Renu Joshi