Women Leaders Make Mahoning Valley Communities Better

By Josh Medore & Precious Battee
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Across the region, women are putting in the work to make our communities the best they can be. Their work may not always be the most high-profile, but it is invaluable nonetheless and shaping our future.

Below, we highlight the work – and stories – of four women at three organizations in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys. Their fields range from health care to community service to support to the care of animals.

Each makes an impact in their own way.

Leonard Leads UPMC Women’s Health Efforts

Throughout her decades-long career, Kimberly Leonard has dedicated herself to improving the health of women in the Shenango Valley. 

Today, she serves as regional director of Magee Women’s Health Services Line of UPMC Northern Pod with a focus on addressing racial disparities around women’s health care and access to care.  

 Leonard graduated in 1996, with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Penn State Shenango before earning a master’s degree in nursing with certification as a family nurse practitioner. 

Over the years, she has served as director for outreach programs and women’s health services such as: informational sessions, liver disease, gastroenterology, breast problems and wellness breast care.  

 When UPMC absorbed Magee Women’s Hospital in 2000, Leonard was named director. Her role was expanded to regional director in December. She is now responsible for the health care system’s Horizon, Jamison, Hemet and Chautauqua sites.  

 “My role is to communicate, collaborate and look at the women’s health service line across the four hospitals. Look at strategic planning and marketing, provide a voice, that I then report back to Magee,” Leonard says. 

 In that role, she’s looking to improve not just the quality of care but how women’s health care reaches those who need it most.  

 Leonard is working with the nonprofit agency Glimmer of Hope to schedule mammograms that will take place in the fall, while also looking for a partner organization to provide transportation to the screening events. 

One of the largest barriers to care is the lack of free transit services, she explains. Some offer transportation only for the women themselves, not their children. If child care can’t be arranged, a woman’s medical care can be delayed.

Leonard is also working to bring back an after-school program she previously worked with called Girls on the Run. This program, based in Charlotte, N.C., runs for eight weeks, and the final test is a 5k run. It was designed to focus on healthful behaviors, self-esteem, nutrition and anti-bullying. 

Leonard’s focus isn’t just on breast and reproductive care but also on whole-life care, from the time girls start school to when they are into retirement, when issues around bone mineral density and osteoporosis occur.  

She recently conducted a lunch-and-learn session where she talked about skin care, bone mineral density, arthritis, podiatry, and even wearing the right shoes. 

Women are known to neglect their health, especially when caring for others. UPMC wants to give women safe and convenient places for treatment, along with access to health care.  

To deliver that care, she’s examining how UPMC can best meet the needs of the community, an issue that often comes down to access.

 “For women in particular, it’s difficult to provide care for children, to work and to also get the appropriate health care that they need. It’s difficult to get appointments sometimes. That’s where the lower income disparity comes across,” she says. “I think it’s a better idea to go to where the people are, whether that’s a church or another facility or the schools, and be able to do a program like that.”

Experience Guides Mycap Leaders

Sheila Triplett and Marilyn Montes are keenly aware of the impact the Mahoning-Youngstown Community Action Partnership has on those the agency serves.

Triplett was part of its Head Start education program and was later a parent in the program. The counselors at Mycap were the first to encourage the young, single mother to attend college and get a degree, she remembers.

“They sparked that thought in my mind of doing more,” she says. “Once you’re involved in an agency like this, you’re always drawn to it or something similar because you know it changes people’s lives. It’s a passion and it’s something I do because I love the work and I love the people.”

Marilyn Montes and Sheila Triplett lead Mycap.

Eventually, Triplett started working at the agency and, in 2012, she was named executive director.

Montes, meanwhile, grew up in a family that relied on welfare programs and family support for food, clothing and other essentials.

She started working at Mycap as a clerk in 1979, moved up the ranks for 25 years before moving to other jobs then returning in 2013 as chief operating officer.

“At the end of the day, when you’re in an organization like this, you feel like you’ve done good and changed lives,” Montes says.

“It’s going to take a long time before we can impact everyone. But it’s through community action agencies that we can make change and I want to be part of a team like that,” she says.

As two of the leaders of the state-created nonprofit agency, Triplett and Montes say those experiences guide how they develop the organization. They’re able to draw on their experiences, knowing what roadblocks they encountered and what kind of aid would have been helpful.

The coronavirus pandemic introduced a new segment of the population to Mycap, they say.

“We’re not just seeing the poorest of the poor. We’re seeing folks who’ve worked hard their entire lives. They’ve had stable jobs. They’re not rich by any means. But they could take care of their families and live their American dream,” Triplett says. “And then COVID hit and their world was shaken.”

While workforce development has always been a focus for the agency, it was in 2020 that the need was pushed further into the spotlight. Through a partnership with Flying High Inc., Mycap helps to run the Professional Development Center, which provides job training and connects workers with employers.

“We know how to help with the immediate needs. But what’s there in the long-term that we can do?” Triplett asks.

“That’s where Marilyn stepped in to help us with workforce programs by making connections in the community for job training and putting people in positions to start a new career,” she says.

Community action partnerships such as Mycap were created in the mid-1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. They are tasked with addressing the specific needs of the areas they serve. No two are exactly alike, says Montes, who’s worked at such organizations in Canton and Columbiana County during her leave from Mycap. And that means that the agencies’ services are always evolving, she explains.

Today that means overseeing a suite of services that can help people in everything from getting food and housing to moving into a new career.

“We want to make people as self-sufficient as possible, but we have to remove those barriers,” Montes says. “It’s hard to talk to someone about getting trained for a job when they don’t have a place to stay or their kids are hungry. Don’t try to talk to someone about an eight-week jobs program when they don’t have enough to eat. We have to meet immediate needs and stabilize these families.”

Hejazi’s Passion Leads Tails of Hope

Soraya Hejazi, a native of Greenville, Pa., found her calling – and a way to combine it with her passion for animals – in Los Angeles. In her two decades away from home, she worked across the animal rescue and welfare field.

But returning home to the Shenango Valley a couple years ago wasn’t an easy transition.

“When I moved back here, I went through a grieving process of sorts, thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to have the opportunity here to work in this field,” she says. “But then I discovered that this place existed.”

The meeting with Tails of Hope was serendipitous: the organization had a booth set up at a community event that Hejazi attended. Now, she serves as executive director of the nonprofit.

She has been with Tails of Hope for a year and focuses on educating the public on why it is important to have animals spayed and neutered.

Tails of Hope was built and founded by Diane O’Brien in honor of Thomas O’Brien, who had a passion for animal care. Its mission is to reduce the neglect, abuse and suffering of animals.

“I wholeheartedly believe in their vision, purpose and mission,” Hejazi says. Tails of Hope “believes the world will be a better place when we value and ensure the well-being of companion animals, treating them with kindness and compassion.”

Soraya Hejazi brought home her passion for animals. 

Because of overpopulation, more than 3.7 million animals are euthanized in shelters each year, all over the country, she says. And 70,000 puppies and kittens are born in the United States each year.

“We’re constantly getting calls about somebody dumping kittens in their yard, streets, farms, wherever,” she says. “Now it becomes [that person’s] problem. Then those kittens start having kittens and then they start having kittens.”

Beyond the welfare of animals, Hejazi sees a community benefit in having strays spayed and neutered.

“When cats aren’t spayed or neutered, they do what they need to do to defend their territory. That’s what causes what a lot of people consider the nuisances: noises, wailing, fighting and other behavioral issues,” she says. “Once they’re spayed or neutered … they reduce their need to wander into other communities, which reduces fighting and the spread of disease.”

Cats are the most fecund animals, along with the most neglected. Once they are neglected, they become strays and reproduce. By spaying and neutering one male and one female cat, more than 2,000 unwanted births can be prevented over four years and 2 million in eight years, Hejazi says. Cats are most likely to be abandoned because, unlike dogs, there are no laws or regulations regarding the guardianship of cats.  

“The lack of spay and neuter is the root cause of why there is so much pet overpopulation, why the shelters are full, why the fosters are full,” Hejazi says. 

Tails of Hope offers neutering and vaccinations to all types of pets at an affordable cost. Mondays and Fridays are scheduled surgery days with Dr. Nicole R. Grable performing up to 30 operations a day.  

Instead of expanding and building more shelters, Tails of Hope believes the best outcome is to hinder the ability of cats and dogs to mate. On days when surgeries aren’t performed, Tails of Hope works on making appointments, donor and education outreach and raising funds.

Tails of Hope also collaborates with other organizations to expand two of its important programs: Trap-Neuter-Return and Spay and Neuter Angel.

Trap-Neuter-Return was created to boost community rabies prevention, and vaccinate animals in addition to spaying and neutering before returning cats to their owners.

Spay and Neuter Angel focuses on essential veterinary services. It is funded by the Glen and Jean Harnett Foundation.

Pictured at top: Kimberly Leonard is improving women’s health care.