BY ROBERTA CODEMO
Amanda Long truly believes in making a difference in someone’s life, and that passion shines through when she talks.
“I love waking up every day and asking what can I do to make things better,” she said. She has always held a special place in her heart for others. “Life is all about helping people,” she said, and lives her life by that guiding principle.
She credits her family, her best friend, Katie, and even her seventh grade English teacher for shaping her into the person she is today. At the center of it all is God. “I have a solid relationship with Him,” she said, and she believes He put her on earth so she could help make life better for others.
A Springfield native, she is passionate about giving back to her community and credits this to her parents. She recalls helping serve food during the holidays at St. John’s Breadline. “We’re a product of what we’re raised on,” she said, and has volunteered with several organizations, including the Parent Place, Springfield Jaycees and The Outlet, a nonprofit organization that mentors fatherless youth.
While serving as president of the Springfield Jaycees in 2014 and 2015, she learned leadership skills and how to deal with various types of personalities. “My tenure as president helped me learn how to walk into a room, negotiate and build effective relationships,” she said.
At the time she joined the local chapter, membership had dwindled. She worked to build it up from just one member to more than 60 members in two years. During her time with the organization, she watched it flourish and effect positive change in the community. “That’s a beautiful thing,” she said.
While on the board of the Parent Place, she helped organize the first Halloween parade, and in conjunction with other partners, turned the event into an annual fundraiser for the organization. Last year, the event raised more than $5,000. In 2017, the parade was named the best new event of the year by Downtown Springfield, Inc.
Long has seen firsthand the benefits that come with being involved in the community and encourages others of her generation to also become involved. She recalls a time when she brought sandwiches from Chick-fil-A by The Outlet one night during a group mentoring session. She stayed afterwards and talked with a few of the boys. One thanked her for the sandwich and told her it was the only food he’d had that day.
“It was a powerful moment,” she said, as she had always thought hunger was a Third World issue. “I didn’t know hunger was in our own backyard. It changes your life.”
Her passion for helping others also impacts her current career in state government. “My dad worked in state government for 37 years,” she said, citing him as a huge influence in her life. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I followed in his footsteps.”
She started her career at City, Water, Light and Power as a cashier before moving on to the Springfield Police Department. She first worked as an administrative clerk in the field operations division, an environment that was fast-paced and ever-challenging. The position taught her how to handle difficult people and made her realize her love for humanity. “People just want to be heard,” she said.
During this time, she was going to college and taking classes in accounting, statistics and calculus. “I’ve always been a numbers person,” she said, and earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Benedictine University. She then went on to earn her MBA degree in 2017 while volunteering, working full time and raising her daughter.
When a position opened up for an account technician, she applied, and during her time in that role oversaw payroll and learned to deal with union contracts. “It was a great experience that served me well,” she said, and credits it for where she is today.
From there, she went on to serve as the assistant to the police chief. “I saw the full spectrum of how things operated at an executive level,” she said.
However, after 13 years with the police department, it was time for her to move forward in her career, although she said it was a tough decision to leave. She was looking for a state job when she saw a post for a position for assistant director over budget and fiscal affairs.
“My work with the police department, rebuilding the Jaycees and school prepared me to step into this position,” she said, adding it’s been an interesting 18 months.
“I love serving people and making a difference every day,” she said. She said she works side-by-side with an incredible group of people who are invested in higher education. “It’s extremely humbling.”
She sees herself serving in the public sector until she retires. “It comes naturally,” she said. “I’m a chip off the old block.”
BY KAREN ACKERMAN WITTER
“In a world where there is so much hate, doom and gloom, I want to share the positives,” says Stacey Skrysak, anchor and reporter for NewsChannel 20. That reveals a lot about Skrysak, who is well known in central Illinois as a local television personality. She is also known throughout the world, and an inspiration to many, through her blog, “Perfectly Peyton,” named for her miracle daughter.
Skrysak knew she wanted to be a journalist at a young age. She grew up in San Diego, California, and later attended the University of Oregon, where she earned a journalism degree. Her first journalism job was in the small town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She says she likely could have made more money working in the fast food industry. As an anchor and reporter, Skrysak covered everything from the weather to farm markets. During the Iraq War, the first Nebraska soldier to die in the line of duty was from that area. At the age of 23, Skrysak found herself knocking on the door of his family’s house. She describes it as one of the hardest stories she has ever done, but a transformative experience. Instead of focusing on the young man’s death, she provided a glimpse into the soldier’s life and his legacy.
Before landing in Springfield, Skrysak moved from Nebraska to Michigan and then to Boise, Idaho. She lugged around a heavy camera and worked 10-hour days for little pay. She says in her industry, women face extra challenges and are always being judged for their appearance. Her male colleagues can put on a suit and tie and wear the same suit multiple times without any reaction. In contrast, women frequently hear from viewers about their hair, weight, makeup and clothes. Social media has exacerbated cyber-bullying, and many comments come from people who don’t even live in the local area. “People forget that journalists are human, too,” says Skrysak.
As a journalist, Skrysak enjoys telling stories about others. She didn’t expect to cover her own story. In 2013, after years of infertility, Skrysak delivered triplets at 22 weeks gestation, each weighing about a pound. Tragically, Abby died two hours after birth and Parker lived for just two months. Peyton, the youngest baby to ever survive at St. John’s Hospital, came home after four months in the NICU and is now almost six years old. This was a life-changing experience for Skrysak and her husband, and she has become a passionate voice for others experiencing infertility, premature birth and loss of a child.
Tens of thousands of people all over the world read Skrysak’s blog and follow her on Facebook and Instagram. The stories she writes about her family, child loss and infertility have been featured by major news organizations. It is a way for her to honor her triplets and help others.
“Stacey is an inspiration to women across the world,” says Gemma Long, who nominated Skrysak for the award. “You can’t help but be in awe of her.”
“I never thought life would go in this direction, “ says Skrysak. “Our children gave us new purpose.” She says her outlook on life changed; she became more compassionate and realizes tomorrow is never guaranteed. It is rewarding when someone contacts her to say, “Thank you for writing what’s in my heart.”
When in isolation in the NICU, her babies were too fragile to touch or hold. A nurse suggested she touch her children through her voice. She took books to the hospital and read to her babies. That led to creating the nonprofit Triple Heart Foundation in 2016. The foundation has donated over 4,000 books and care packages to NICU units in central Illinois and beyond.
In March, Skrysak broke the news to her TV audience and online followers that she is pregnant again and due in August. She has her same team of doctors and says she can’t imagine living anywhere else than Springfield, although she acknowledges her supporters and cheerleaders around the world. She laughs, saying that at nearly 40, she’s considered a “geriatric pregnancy.”
Some criticized Srkysak for reporting about the loss of her children, but by sharing her journey overcoming obstacles she is helping others deal with their profound grief. She says her followers help her as much as she helps them. Using her visibility, Skrysak speaks to women and young girls about self-confidence, self-worth and loving yourself inside and out.
Skrysak remembers how impressionable she was when she was younger. “The older I get, the more confident I am in my skin,” says Skrysak. She is committed to mentoring young reporters. “Stacey is one of the most caring people I’ve ever met,“says NewsChannel 20 reporter Rachel Droze. “She’s a mom, wife, TV news anchor, blogger, nonprofit founder and so much more. Yet any time I need advice, she makes it seem like answering my question is the only item on her to-do list. I’m thankful to have a mentor as knowledgeable and genuine as her.”
BY ROBERTA CODEMO
After 35 years serving in Springfield District 186 public schools, Leuwania Baker retired in July of last year. “I’m missing it a little bit,” she admitted. “I’m not ready to let go.”
Married for more than 35 years, she’s proud that her three children went through District 186 schools. “That’s pretty awesome,” she said. “District 186 is a very powerful, caring district. I’m sometimes saddened that all people don’t think of it as being a caring district.”
When she moved to Springfield in 1983, she didn’t know anyone but said people wrapped their arms around her and befriended her. Her husband is from the Chicago area and she’s from Centerville, a small town in southern Illinois. “Springfield was midway between our families,” she said. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
Education has always been important to her. Her mother wanted to be a teacher and instilled in her children the value of an education. “There was no doubt we were going to graduate from high school and either go on to college or the military,” she said. “We all went to college.”
Although she enjoyed school, it didn’t come easy for her. She had trouble spelling and struggled with reading. “It was embarrassing not to read that well,” she said, and she didn’t like to read out loud. After elementary school, she noticed that she was placed in different classes than the other students.
She recalls a teacher telling her she could do better and offering to help her. By the following year, she was in a different group than she was the year before. She credits Mary Soul, her eighth grade language arts teacher, for making her feel good. Baker published some poetry and discovered a love for reading and writing.
“It’s a pretty powerful memory,” she said. “Everybody needs someone to celebrate them. It gives them self-esteem. Sometimes family isn’t enough.”
Baker recalls watching a TV movie called “Lovey” about a teacher helping a child with disabilities. After watching it, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. “I sought out the book the movie was based on,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do work around special education.”
After high school, she attended Belleville Area College before transferring to MacMurray College in Jacksonville where she received her bachelor’s degree in social-emotional disabilities and learning disabilities. She received her master’s degree in special education administration from Illinois State University.
After college, she started teaching for the Sangamon County Special Education Co-op that served the smaller school districts around Springfield. The program director knew Mary Logan, who approached her when a teaching opportunity opened in District 186.
Baker’s career then progressed from teacher to guidance dean to principal’s assistant to principal to Title I director to student support services director. She said while she hasn’t always gotten things right, she has always had the best of intentions at the forefront for each student and family.
During her tenure as an educator, she made sure she knew the families of the students she worked with. “I would go to students’ homes,” she said, and would keep the lines of communication open with families. At the time she didn’t know this wasn’t the norm; it was something she had learned growing up watching the local school principal visit families. “He knew everyone’s name,” she said.
Baker grew up knowing that giving back to your community was just something that you did. “It’s truly the way I live my life,” she said and hopes that her actions have had a positive influence on others around her.
Among the community activities she’s been involved with are Family Engagement, the Memorial Mosaic Project, Pre-Kwanzaa committee, EMBODI program and La Petite. She is a member of The Council for Exceptional Children and the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education and served on the board of trustees for MacMurray College.
One of her greatest accomplishments was the creation of the Disabilities to Possibilities Conference held annually in conjunction with the Springfield Parents of Students with Disabilities group. Parents and educators come together and learn together, and it is open to everyone.
She’s also served on the Springfield Coalition for Dismantling Racism. “People don’t always know that the things they do are racist,” she said, and these things need to be brought to light. “If you know better, you’ll do better.”
Her faith and sorority work are also very important to her. “I believe Christ was a teacher,” she said, and she belongs to Abundant Faith Christian Church. An active member of the Christian-based Delta Sigma Theta sorority, she continues to be active with the Making the Grade program in some of District 186’s schools and is active on several community committees.
She credits her husband, Keith, for always supporting her and Diane Rutledge, Mary Logan, Jennifer Gill and others from District 186 with helping her grow and become who she is. “I look at their dedication to the work and their love for it,” she said. “They give of themselves every day.”
Baker reflects on the lessons that her parents, ministers, educators, colleagues and children and their families have taught her. When she sees the faces of the kids she’s helped, it makes her happy knowing she’s had a positive impact on them.
“I’ll accept whatever God’s plan is for me,” she said.
BY HOLLY WHISLER
Abby Sgro, an attorney who is also a wife, mother, tireless volunteer and advocate for the vulnerable and less fortunate, had a woman of influence in her own life many years ago. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, her good friend’s mother, who was an attorney and later became an appellate judge, would have a major impact on Sgro’s future. She said that her friend’s mom always fought for what was right, no matter what other people thought.
Sgro recounts, “I had this unique opportunity to watch an exceptional attorney who was unwaveringly ethical, and it really helped form a foundation for my own beliefs, both personally and professionally.”
It was in the seventh grade when Sgro realized that her friend’s mother had been such an inspiration that she herself wanted to become an attorney.
While earning her law degree at St. Louis University, Sgro interned at St. Louis University’s legal clinics and clerked in a wide variety of practice areas.
Originally from Belleville, Sgro has lived in Springfield for nearly five years and says, “This community has become my home. I am overwhelmed by the amazing people and organizations in Springfield, and I am just happy my path brought me here to be a part of this community.”
Until recently, Sgro was the only female attorney at Giffin, Winning, Cohen & Bodewes, P.C., where she practices civil litigation, criminal defense, collections, family law and contract disputes.
Sgro said, “Giffin Winning is comprised of an incredible group of attorneys. They have made me feel welcome and bent over backwards to accommodate me with special needs I had associated with my maternity leave.”
“As a female in the legal field in general, however, I always feel added pressure to make sure I am taken seriously because I am a female. I always put in extra effort to act professionally, prepare more and present myself in a way that my abilities as an attorney are respected in the community,” Sgro explained.
When she began working at Giffin Winning, Sgro said she wanted to find an organization where she could use her legal degree to help correct injustice. She became involved with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and reform the criminal justice system.
“I think everyone can agree, regardless of political views, that a person who has been wrongfully convicted should not be incarcerated. Again, I try to put myself in these peoples’ shoes. It is an easy decision in my eyes, when you look at it this way. I have been lucky enough to meet many of the exonerees, and I just feel fortunate to be able to converse with them and help them in any way I can.”
Sgro has gained respect in the community by becoming a part of the fabric and building her reputation as a credible lawyer in Springfield. She received the Springfield Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 award in 2016 and was named an emerging lawyer in 2017, 2018 and 2019 by Leading Lawyers. Sgro is also a member of the Criminal Justice Action Panel, where she gets appointed to act as defense counsel in federal matters when the federal public defender has a conflict. In her first year on the panel, she presented a four-day jury trial in federal court. She is a member of the Inn of Court, which is comprised of local attorneys who have a presence in the courtroom and participate in litigation.
Sgro’s fundraising efforts have benefited The Hope Institute and the new St. John’s Hospital NICU. She devotes much of her community involvement to causes that help support women and children. Sgro is a wish grantor for the Make-a-Wish Foundation and has previously helped plan three trips to Disney World for three local children and is currently planning two more wishes. Sgro sits on the board of directors for Compass for Kids which provides academic and social-emotional support to empower at-risk children and families. She also provides legal support for victims of domestic abuse that are clients of Sojourn Shelter.
Sgro said, “I have always had a passion for advocating and helping those who either don’t have a voice to help themselves or don’t have the means to do so. I have been lucky enough to have the support of an amazing husband, parents and mentors to get me to where I am today, and I want to be there for those who haven’t had that. There are too many women and children in dire situations that have nowhere else to turn.”
Six months ago, Sgro and her husband welcomed their daughter, Eliette, into the world. With such a busy life, they still make a point of having dinner together almost every night.
When asked what she does for herself, Sgro replied, “Quite frankly, I think the time I spend helping others is really for me. The feeling you get when you help someone is just the best.”
BY CINDA ACKERMAN KLICKNA
After a short conversation with Vernessa Glover, it is obvious how her career path led to the position of executive director of the Carol Jo Vecchie Women’s and Children’s Center, for she glows when talking about her three daughters and her own role as a wife, mom and nurse. She is now the business manager of surgery at HSHS St. John’s Hospital, a position she also held prior to serving as executive director.
Glover, 36, grew up in the Chicago area and knew in the 4th grade that she wanted to go into nursing. By 8th grade she was a candy striper (junior volunteer) at a hospital, and beginning in high school and continuing throughout college, she worked as a pharmacy technician.
She also knew that she wanted to live in Atlanta, Georgia, a place her father had often taken the family since he had grown up in nearby Alabama.
A first-generation college student, Glover attended Georgia State in Atlanta and earned her degree in nursing in 2005. She held several nursing positions in Atlanta and then became interested in pursuing an administrative position within her field.
“I didn’t really know how or what all was involved, but I had been given the role of charge nurse and then a seat on a nurse practice council and saw that I wanted to pursue more in the administrative area. I needed more education,” Glover explained. In 2008, she began a graduate program and earned both a master’s in health care administration and an MBA in 2010.
While in graduate school, Glover worked full time as a charge nurse on the night shift and later in a supervisory role in a clinic devoted to liver and kidney transplants. Glover says, “The work was so rewarding. We were arranging liver and kidney transplants and to see such ill patients come in to be evaluated, and then to see them after a transplant, was amazing.” She was proud to be part of the care that gave so many patients a second chance at life.
While attending graduate school and working, she was also planning her wedding. She met her husband, Richard, in college when they had lived across the hall from each other during her freshman year. However, it wasn’t until they were both involved in the student government association during their senior year that they had much interaction. Later that year, he was named Mr. Senior and she was named Homecoming Queen. A friend paired them up – he was to escort her at the coronation dance. Glover says, “The rest is history.”
Her husband, an OB/GYN, applied for his residency in three cities: Atlanta, Chicago and Springfield. “He got Springfield, and so here we are,” Glover laughs, “and I never thought I would return to the Midwest.” Although she had grown up in the Chicago area, her first time visiting Springfield was when she was preparing to move here.
Six months into her husband’s residency, she gave birth to their first daughter, Kennedy, who is now 6 years old. Glover’s husband participated as part of the doctor team.
Nearly two years later, they were expecting their second child. Within a few weeks she experienced a miscarriage, which made her confused and concerned about future pregnancies. But within a couple of months, Glover was again pregnant. To her surprise, during the ultrasound exam, she was told, “There is the baby’s heartbeat – and there is the second baby’s heartbeat.” Twin girls, Kai and Kori, are now 4 years old.
In addition to working in a hospital, Glover knows what it is like to be a patient, as she has dealt with Crohn’s disease. “I had intense pain, worse than labor contractions, and spent some time in the hospital. Dealing with the disease certainly prepared me for labor.” She continues to try to keep the disease under control.
Glover has served on the board of directors for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Illinois, United Cerebral Palsy and the Kidzeum of Health and Science. She has also been active in her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and has volunteered with other community projects.
She believes in helping her children learn about serving others. On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she took her daughter, Kennedy, to the MLK breakfast and then to St. John’s Breadline to help serve meals, followed by a visit to the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum. With tears in her eyes, Glover says, “I was so touched by my daughter’s reaction. She said the Breadline was her favorite part of the day. She started by handing out silverware, but soon she was serving water, coffee and helping to make sure everyone was well-fed. I was so impressed by her servant’s heart. She will be a woman of influence some day!”
Glover is enjoying her career and her family. “I know my girls are at an impressionable age; the biggest lessons I’ve learned are to trust in God and prioritize family.”