Women overcoming obstacles to live their dreams – that’s what Soroptimist's signature program, the Women’s Opportunity Awards, make possible. Since 1972, Soroptimist has disbursed more than $25 million to help thousands of women triumph over domestic violence, poverty, drug abuse and other challenges to reclaim their dreams. Soroptimist awarded $10,000 to Gladyn Minzey, of Clarksville, Tennessee; and Emilia Menegasso of Curitiba, Parana, Brazil. Read the stories of these incredible women.
As a child, Gladyn E. Minzey lived in fear. Her father had abandoned the family, forcing her mother to work day and night and leaving Gladyn and her siblings in the care of questionable family members. Her mother, however, was unaware of Gladyn’s painful secret: She was being sexually abused.
“I was too young to realize that what was happening to me was sexual abuse,” recalls Gladyn of Clarksville, Tennessee. “The abuse lasted an entire summer. During the fall, my mother made other childcare arrangements. The abuse continued for many years but on a less frequent basis. My mother never knew.”
As a young adult, she became involved with an abusive man. Once again, she found herself living in terror. Many times, she thought she would not live. Not realizing at the time she had other options, she had a baby and was forced to remain in the violent relationship. She had hoped the child would “brighten things in the home” and that the abuse would stop. She was wrong, she admits.
Realizing she could improve her financial situation by attending school, she enrolled in a technical college. But her abuser became threatened by her desire for education and after her first class, he became even more violent, his abusive behavior following her to school and her job.
“Tears, depression and pain did not come close to describing my feelings,” she says. “I felt as if I could no longer breathe and my body was shutting down. When my minimal resources failed to get me out of the situation, I returned to the cycle of violence and was unable to continue school.”
Gladyn concentrated on basic survival for the next six years and began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with the emotional and physical pain of the abuse. Finally breaking away from that situation, she found herself in yet another abusive relationship and had another baby. She quickly realized she needed to escape, and fled to a homeless shelter, and then to a domestic violence shelter for women where she finally broke the cycle of violence.
“I walked out 30 days later in a new state of mind,” she says. “I finally realized that there was a life available to us without fear. From that day on, my life changed.”
Working part-time serving pizza during the day and attending Hopkinsville Community College at night, Gladyn had been struggling with paying for books, tuition and fees, as well as child care. As the Music City Nashville Soroptimist club’s recipient nominated by Soroptimist’s Southern Region, she is today using her cash grant to follow her dream of becoming a social worker.
Graduating in May with an associate’s degree, she already has begun online classes toward her bachelor’s degree at Austin Peay State University and plans to complete her master’s degree in social work online. Future plans are to work at the Children’s Services Department in Clarksville.
“I am a realist and understand that anything worth having is worth working for,” she says. “I plan to give back to my community in every way possible … and it will allow me to be a great example to my children as well as others.”
Her ultimate dream, she says, is to work at Fort Campbell military base helping soldiers and their families, especially the children. They are often the forgotten victims.
“Because of my father’s experiences in World War II and my own background with abuse, I feel a pulling toward Fort Campbell to help the soldiers and their families with domestic violence issues,” she says. “I believe that I can turn the problems I have faced into opportunities to help others.”
Of Soroptimist Gladyn says, “You are the reason my long-term educational goals have been born,” she says. “Also, you have taught me the key to living is giving. You will always play a part in my life as I reach out a helping hand to others as a social worker. I can now see there is courage in every crisis. It is time to let my life shine and really start living.”
From ages 11 to 36 Emilia Menegasso lived every single day in despair, trapped in a world of pain and secrets. When she was two years old, her mother abandoned their home, leaving Emilia and her brother to live with their father. At age 11, he began to sexually abuse her, and at 17, she became pregnant with her first child-brother. Three more children were to follow.
“My life consisted of just going to school and back home again,” says Emilia, of Curitiba, Parana, Brazil. “I did not have contact with other people. I was not allowed to leave my home. I thought my life would be like this forever.”
Her father continued sexual relations with her, threatening death if she told anyone. Emilia was sick and ashamed and had no courage to speak with anyone, she says. Her father would tell her, “I made you for you to be mine. I am your owner. You belong to me.” When she became pregnant the first time, she had to leave high school.
“I have four children with him,” she says, “two boys, now 18 and 19, and two girls, 12 and 14 years old. He would always force me to say that the children’s fathers were truckers that would come and go.”
Her father’s threats were constant, especially after the children were born. He told her if she said anything he would take the children from her. In case she did something wrong or rebelled, he always had a weapon and pointed it to her head telling her she was a “dead weight in his life, a cancer.” At night, he would lock her and her daughters in the bedroom with chains and a padlock. Inside the home, the boys received preferential treatment, while the girls received the worst of everything, she says.
“I really thought I was the scum of the earth, that I was dirty and always wrong,” she says. “I thought I was being punished for something. And if I died, what would become of my daughters? I was terrified that one day he would touch my girls. I had no money whatsoever. I had nothing. From ages 11 to 36 I didn’t have a single day that gave me any hope.”
As a result of inbreeding, her two sons have autoimmune hepatitis. Her 19-year-old son has had two liver transplants and is on medication for the rest of his life. Her 18-year-old son has a cleft lip and her 12-year-old daughter also must take medication.
“When I was 36, my sister-in-law asked about the children’s father,” she says, “and that day I finally got courage to tell her and she decided to help me. We first went to the Women’s Police Bureau and were sent to Protective Services. My father was subpoenaed but denied everything until they asked to do a DNA test on the children that proved he was the father of my children and I was taken to a shelter.”
Nominated by the Soroptimist club in Curitiba, Brazil, Emilia earns minimal wage at a manufacturing job and is taking a computer science course so she can have more opportunities for advancement. She has finished her high school education and winning the Women’s Opportunity Award is now helping her to develop her professional life. The award is also enabling her to have a more stable life with her children, she says.
“I can now offer them a better life and raise them with respect and dignity,” she says. “I was without hope, but now I can and want to start a new life. I have great will power. Now, I am free!”
Soroptimist is an international volunteer
organization for business and professional women
who work to improve the lives of women and girls.