2016 Outstanding Women of Stanislaus County

Carla Strong
Carla Strong

Outstanding Women


Debbie Soro Adair – Debbie Soro Adair, an Enochs High School (Modesto) English teacher, began the Healthy and Responsible Relationships Troupe in 2014 with its first presentation in 2015. The 16-member student troupe is the outgrowth of an English class awareness unit on rape, abuse and human trafficking that involved showcasing class projects at student assemblies and evening parent/community events. Last year the students made presentations to more than 300 freshmen and are mounting a social media campaign to raise awareness. Other high schools and junior highs have expressed interest in the program. Soro Adair brought the Day of Respect to Enochs with more than 75 speakers and works with student organizations dealing with mental health issues and the Gay Straight Alliance. This spring she will direct “The Sirens,” a play at the Gallo Center for the Arts about five women who are victims of domestic violence. Soro Adair has been a teacher for 24 years.

Joyce Gandelman – Joyce Gandelman has a passion for helping women who are elderly and economically disadvantaged. This led her to become an attorney at age 49 and to establish the nonprofit Senior Advocacy Network Senior Law Project in 2010. SAN advocates for the health, legal and social needs of senior citizens in Stanislaus County. Free legal services are provided to county residents age 60 and older. Through grant funds, this group provides a variety of services and education, including a 24-hour hotline to collect and distribute information about new scams in the community. The most recent program provides visitors for residents of nursing and care facilities who seldom see their families. To support the nonprofit, she recently established a secondhand collectible store, Two Old Bags. A Modesto resident, Gandelman is an active member of Congregation Beth Shalom.  

Janette Garcia – Janette Garcia has overcome adversity to advocate and be a role model for women with addiction and trauma issues. Abused as a child, then addicted to drugs and alcohol, she entered a recovery program and left an abusive relationship. Single with a young daughter, Garcia received a MJC degree in human services. Homeless during a three-year period, she used services such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Children’s Crisis Center. Garcia began her Haven Women’s Center career as a volunteer support group facilitator. Haven hired her in 1997 to ensure that the needs of domestic and sexual abuse survivors are met, a job she continues to do 18 years later. Garcia also volunteers at Laura’s House, Samaritan House and Steps to Freedom, as both a child care provider and a mentor to women who need access to educational and community services. She has been clean and sober for 23 years.

Linda Lagace – Linda Lagace, a volunteer court-appointed special advocate, spends at least 30 hours per month mentoring and advocating for a 13-year-old developmentally disabled child in foster care. Through LearningQuest’s adult literacy program she tutors on a weekly basis. For the past year her client has been a young woman from Mexico. Lagace an active member of the local Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans Immigration Coalition. She works with the Modesto Peace/Life Center’s homeless project, helping women and men obtain identification, such as a birth certificate and DMV photo identification, and is a member of the group’s essay contest committee. A Riverbank resident, she is also program chairperson for the local chapter of the Sierra Club. A retired scientist and engineer, she often speaks at high school career days to encourage girls to explore opportunities in science.

Erin Nelson – As a widow with young children, Turlock resident Erin Nelson discovered the importance of strong grief support along with the realization that there were few grief-support programs for her children. Years later she began taking grief-support courses and visiting programs with the goal of establishing such a program. Her dream caught the attention of Emanuel Medical Center officials, who committed the resources to make her dream a reality. Nelson was named founding executive director in 2011 and in April 2012, Jessica’s House, a grief support program for children and their families, opened in Turlock. Under her guidance Jessica’s House serves an average of 175 children and their families each month. School support for children affected by the death of a classmate, teacher or friend began in 2015. Nelson makes herself available to individuals and agencies needing grief support and is a volunteer with a number of community activities.

Denise Nordell – Denise Nordell offers her talents to many community organizations. Her 10-year volunteer career with LearningQuest earned her the 2015 Tutor of the Year for Literacy Award. She also helps write and edit LearningQuest newsletters and marketing materials. One morning a week is spent at the American Red Cross, where she assists with the annual Stanislaus Tuolumne Counties Heroes Breakfast and public relations. A number of other organizations have benefited recently, including the McHenry Mansion, where she donated 20 newly crocheted antimacassars (doilies that protect the backrests of 1880s furniture). Nordell served on the Stanislaus Library Foundation Board for seven years and continues to help with annual fundraising events. Nine years ago she established the community Sing-A-Long Messiah each holiday season. Nordell also tutors weekly at Fremont Elementary, donates knitted items to charity auctions and offers her assistance at many annual charity events.

Hattie Pope – Hattie Pope began her 25-year career with United Way of Stanislaus County as a loaned executive. Now the campaign director, she manages or assists in the management of the contributions from more than 8,000 employees in over 250 companies. She gives her job that extra mile, whether working weekends at fundraising events, talking to employees during their graveyard shifts, or just being available. People rarely say “no” to Pope and in the past 25 years the local United Way campaigns have raised more than $21.5 million that goes back into the community. She is active in the Women’s Auxiliary, a nonprofit that raises funds for scholarships for minority students in Stanislaus County. A member since 1989, she serves on the board, mentors girls and women, and is involved in the annual Red, Black and Green Ball. Pope is a deaconess at Modesto’s Christ Unity Baptist Church.

Ruhi Sheikh – Ruhi Sheikh moved to Modesto 10 years ago. Along with raising a young family and spearheading efforts as president of Fremont Open Plan parent’s group, she has been instrumental in bringing arts and culture to the region. With her husband, former Modesto Poet Laureate Sam Pierstoff, Sheikh has coordinated the annual ILL List Poetry Slam. The event showcases local and regional emerging artists through spoken-word competition and has sold out every year. She is one of three organizers of the annual MOD Shop, which features local artisans and crafts people on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in downtown Modesto. Sheikh was also one of the inspirational forces behind the first Women of the West Film Festival, which debuted to a strong crowd at the State Theatre in 2015. In her work life she is a donor-services coordinator at the Stanislaus Community Foundation.

Carla Strong – Carla Strong brings business sense and an entrepreneurial spirit to community involvement. Work experience, both paid and volunteer, brought her to her current position as executive director at Howard Training Center. Her extensive community involvement in the last 10 years includes: volunteering with the Stanislaus Elder Abuse Prevention Program, helping to launch the Adopt a Grandparent Holiday Program of Riverbank Rotary, and serving on the board for the Riverbank Christmas Food Sharing Project. When Strong discovered that not everyone in need was open to service from Christian organizations, she founded Riverbank Cares with similar goals to the Christmas Food Sharing Project, but provided in a secular manner. During her years in the banking industry she provided SAFE banking seminars for the elderly and taught basic budgeting skills at Riverbank High School for three years. She was named Riverbank Citizen of the Year 2009.

Terry Wheatley – Hughson resident Terry Wheatley, a breast cancer survivor, has found a unique way to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer. She is wife and mother of professional rodeo competitors, which gave her the idea for the Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign. She teamed up with Wrangler to raise funds and awareness through professional rodeo venues. For the last six years the Wrangler National Rodeo Finals have featured one night of competition during which contestants and spectators wear pink. Rodeo and western events throughout the United States replicate the “wear pink” event to raise funds for local breast cancer charities. Since its 2004 inception, the campaign has raised over $22 million for local breast cancer charities and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Wheatley, who owns a wine company, takes raising funds and awareness a step further by donating one dollar (up to $50,000) for every case of Purple Cowboy Tenacious Red Wine sold by her company.

Sue Zwahlen – Sue Zwahlen was elected to the Modesto City Schools Board of Trustees in 2009 and is serving her second term. When the school board discussed a dress code several years ago, Zwahlen redirected the conversation from fashion choices for young women to focus on teaching all students to be respectful to each other. Zwahlen supports women and children’s right to a safe education, free of bullying, discrimination and harassment – sexual or otherwise. Elsewhere in the community she is in her 19th year on the Inter-Faith Ministries Board of Directors and takes time each week to mentor a Burbank School student. As the mother of six, she put in 27 years as a Modesto City Schools parent volunteer. A registered nurse for more than 40 years, Zwahlen has worked part-time in the emergency room for most of her career. 

Outstanding Young Women


Taylor Beckwith – Taylor Beckwith, a Turlock resident and Pitman High School student, is an active member of student leadership and tobacco prevention education, serves as president of the Interact Club, and maintains a high grade point average. Outside of school she collects 400 to 600 new or gently used blankets annually through her Blankets for Babies community project that she started when she was 11. The project was an outgrowth of volunteer experience with her mother at the Modesto Gospel Mission. Taylor realized that the blankets for babies were gone too soon to meet all the need. A number of local organizations benefit from her work, with more than 3,000 blankets distributed over the years. Taylor also volunteers at Jessica’s House, at Soroptimist International of Modesto events, serves on the Turlock Teen Advisory Council, and the statewide California Youth Advocacy Network.

Mahima Krishnamoorthi – Mahima Krishnamoorthi, a senior in Modesto High School’s International Baccalaureate program, is among the top-ranked students in her class and a National Merit finalist. Very active on campus, she is involved in student leadership (sophomore and junior class president), speech (has been to nationals twice), serves as president of the Panthers for the Cure and the Modesto Indian Kids Union, helped introduce incoming International Baccalaureate juniors to community service, and is a member of the school’s microbiology club, which partners with Lawrence Livermore Lab and Rutgers University. In the community, Mahima started the Jakshi Project in honor of her grandmother, who died of cervical cancer. The project raises community awareness about the HPV virus through presentations and provides vaccination opportunities for low-income families. An accomplished figure skater, she practices four days a week.

Sienna Samra – Sienna Samra, a 2013 graduate of Pitman High School in Turlock, is a premed student at California State University, Stanislaus, majoring in biological sciences. An active volunteer during her high school years, she continued at CSUS by joining the national sorority Alpha Xi Delta. Sienna is an avid advocate for Autism Speaks, the sorority’s partner charity. Last year the campus sorority raised $8,000 for autism awareness. Sienna is a tutor and mentor for a number of pre-collegiate programs sponsored by CSUS, including mentoring middle school students preparing for an engineering contest called the Future City Competition. Parents of the middle school students say she directs and keeps the children focused on their assignments while allowing them to enjoy the experience. They also note their children are impressed by Sienna, including the fact that she graduated high school early and works very hard to maintain a high grade point average.