Girls Inc. recognizes Susan Montalvo-Gesser with ATHENA Award
With record-breaking attendance, the annual ATHENA Awards were held Tuesday at the Owensboro Convention Center. Through a joint effort of Girls Incorporated and the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, the awards luncheon raised awareness for the “strong, smart, bold” message of Girls Inc. and recognized one Owensboro woman for her work empowering other women.
Event emcee Kirk Kirkpatrick presented the 2019 ATHENA Award to Susan Montalvo-Gesser, local attorney and newly appointed director of the Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Western Kentucky.
“I never thought it would be me,” said Montalvo-Gesser, who scribbled the names of her own “Athenas” — the women who influenced her — on a scrap of paper on the off chance her name was called.
Growing up in Owensboro, Montalvo-Gesser struggled through a childhood of poverty and being a Latina girl in Daviess County.
“Those experiences greatly influenced her and they helped to mold her into the successful woman she is today,” Kirkpatrick said of the University of Louisville law school graduate who returned to Owensboro to specialize in immigration law.
Kirkpatrick said, not only has Montalvo-Gesser led a successful career, but she has been a tireless champion and mentor for women, assisting some of the most vulnerable when she transitioned into a career as the managing attorney of Kentucky Legal Aid. There she served low-income clients facing domestic violence and visa issues.
“During this past year alone, she has handled 300 domestic violence cases,” Kirkpatrick told the audience.
With her new position at Catholic Charities, Montalvo-Gesser plans to focus the organization on social justice.
“I hope to set up immigration services and integrate the refugee efforts in our diocese,” Montalvo-Gesser said. “I hope to work to bring services for human trafficking victims, assist in efforts for adequate housing and serving the poor and marginalized in our parish communities.”
Nominated five times previously, Montalvo-Gesser jokingly told the audience she considered herself the Susan Lucci of the ATHENA Awards. (Susan Lucci was a soap opera actress that won her first Emmy in 1999 after 19 straight years of being nominated in the Best Actress category.)
“This is not recognition for me, but for the causes I believe in,” she said.
More than winning the award, Montalvo-Gesser said being nominated with 16 other successful female leaders and being recognized by an organization like Girls Inc., was the real honor.
The event also posthumously honored Louise Gasser Kirtley — one of the names on Montalvo-Gesser’s scrap of paper — with the Legacy Award for her trailblazing efforts for the women of Daviess County, particularly those in the legal community. Kirtley was the first female attorney to be admitted to the Daviess County bar, the first female trial judge, first female city attorney and first female state representative.
Running the ATHENA Award lunch with confidence and poise were the young ladies of Girls Inc., who kept the audience laughing. Girls ranging from third to eighth grades moved the 500 people in attendance with personal stories of what Girls Inc. meant to them.
Estes third-grader Dulce described coming to America with her mom from Mexico and how Girls Inc. has taught her about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Lakari who was born with one leg shorter than the other has experienced bullying, but said she has gained confidence through Girls Inc. and was able to have her first sleepover. Third-grader Kalli said she wants to be a scientist after meeting one at Girls Inc., and 14-year-old Kaliyah said Girls Inc. has been life-changing.
“I don’t know what I want to be, but I know I can be anything because of Girls Inc.,” Kaliyah said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Girls Inc. in Owensboro. In 1969, when Girls Inc. began in a single apartment in Rolling Heights, women made up 43 percent of the workforce, yet only made half the income of their male counterparts at the time.
“Women were underpaid, lacking in education and athletic and professional opportunities,” said Sue Napper of the Girls Inc. board. “A group of local visionaries sought to create programming for girls. They helped improve thousands of girls’ lives, giving them a voice and tools to succeed.”
Napper said a key component of that success is Girls Inc. CEO Tish Correa-Osborne, who has been with the organization for 37 of the 50 years they have been active.
The convention center ballroom gave Osborne a standing ovation for her dedication to Girls Inc.
By Ashley Sorce, Owensboro Times