ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Bravery. Courage. Determination.
Those three words — the theme for Ohio University Eastern’s Celebrate Women 2019, sponsored by EQT — are qualities the event panelists share with keynote speaker and former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.
More than 120 people attended the forum, held in the theater inside Shannon Hall on Thursday evening. Attendees included many area women, a few men and several teens, including members of the Shadyside Lady Tigers basketball team, who were invited in recognition of their recent trip to the state tournament in Columbus.
The panelists included Amy Gamble, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Wheeling, who described her own struggle with mental illness; Loma Nevels, a longtime Wheeling resident who discussed racial discrimination; Stephanie O’Donnell, educator, mother and breast cancer survivor; and Vivienne Padilla, a native of Puerto Rico who has worked as an industrial and graphic designer while raising a family in Wheeling.
These women shared personal stories of the obstacles they have faced and overcome, included heartbreaking accounts of loss and recovery.
Gamble hails from Marshall County and told the crowd that, as a former Olympian who excelled in three sports, she could not accept that she was ill when she began to show signs of bipolar disorder. Because she did not seek treatment, her condition worsened until, convinced her family was poisoning her, she left home and drove across the country. Stopping in Montana, she entered a cabin that she believed belonged to her and then went on to Idaho to get supplies. There, she got stuck in the snow and wandered into a national park, where she became lost for three days.
After being rescued she was hospitalized, and a nurse she encountered told her she had a brain disorder that was not her fault. She was jailed on her release from the hospital as a result of entering the Montana cabin and began to journal while behind bars. At that point, she said she had a choice — give up or use what she had learned to help others. So, she set out to heal and has since spoken to more than 7,000 people, battling the stigma against mental illness.
Nevels, an African-American, told the audience she has experienced a good deal of bias and discrimination in her 70 years of life, noting that as an employee of Wheeling’s water department she was yelled at, cursed at and “called the ‘N-word.’” She also described her run for a Wheeling City Council seat in 2016 and said she believes some of her opponents ran only to prevent her from being elected. When the results came in on Election Day, she had lost by eight votes. The official vote canvass reduced that number to five; and after a recount the number became four. Despite the fact that she served as a poll worker for 27 years, Nevels said she is not confident in those results.
“But here’s the bottom line,” she said. “You don’t always get what you want in life.”
She added that she lives by two basic principals: “It’s never right to do wrong, and it’s never wrong to do right.”
O’Donnell, a special education teacher in Ohio County Schools, said she thought she was on top of the world when the greatest challenges of her life began. She was married with a 3-year-old daughter and a son on the way. That baby boy arrived early and, during the eight days he spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of a Pittsburgh hospital, her autistic nephew burned down her sister’s home. Two months later during a visit to her doctor, she mentioned that she believed she had a clogged milk duct. That led to a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy at age 33 — and then a diagnosis of aggressive Stage 2B breast cancer.
A double mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy followed.She lost her hair, and her immunity was compromised. Then, just as she was about to complete her treatment, her husband committed suicide. She said at that point, she decided she had hit rock bottom and had nowhere to go but up.
Padilla, the last panelist to speak, said her challenges paled in comparison to the stories shared by the other women. She described growing up poor and having a father who often told her she couldn’t do things she wanted to do — especially if they were activities he thought more appropriate for a boy. She attended private school on a scholarship and later was accepted at Notre Dame, where she completed her college studies. Along the way, she became involved in athletics, learned to cook, participated in after-school activities and secured an internship in Puerto Rico’s capital.
“It doesn’t matter what obstacles you face … ,” she said. “Figure out a way to get back up and keep going.”
After the panel discussion, Ginny Favede, executive director of the Ohio Valley Construction Employers Council and Project BEST co-chairwoman, introduced Lynch, terming her a “real woman.”
“Real women define who we are by how we react to what happens to us,” Favede noted.
And Lynch has quite a story that defines who she is today. The Wirt County, West Virginia, resident entered the U.S. Army at age 18 in the summer of 2001. She and her older brother signed on at about the same time, thinking they could save their parents the expense of paying for college. Lynch said she knew she wanted to be a teacher.
In August 2001, her brother left home for Basic Training. Before she could follow suit on Sept. 19 that year, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. Lynch admitted she and her family were afraid of what might happen to her and her brother as a result. She described her reaction as, “Yikes! Now what?”
Lynch progressed through her training and service and was deployed to the Middle East in February 2003. Then, on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq.
Four days later, Lynch was part of a military convoy that was ambushed. She was seriously injured and captured by the Iraqis; the other soldiers in her vehicle, including her best friend Lori Piestewa, were killed.
Lynch told the crowd about her terrifying experiences in an Iraqi hospital, including a trip to the operating room where she believed her leg would be amputated. She described being held for days as a POW without food or water. Then, on April 1, 2003, Lynch began to hear the sounds of combat and approaching vehicles. She believed American forces did not know she was in the building where she was being held and planned to bomb it. She heard men enter the building and became even more frightened when she heard one call out, “Where’s Private Lynch?”
The next thing she knew, men were all around her, though she remained unable to move on her bed. She said one of the men ripped an American flag from his uniform and handed it to her, saying, “We’re American soldiers, and we’re here to take you home.”
Lynch said she replied simply: “I’m an American soldier, too.”
She then played a video of her rescue for the audience. Many wiped tears from their eyes as she recounted her experiences, and she became a bit choked up herself. But Lynch told the people there that perseverance was key to her recovery and her ability to rebuild her life.
Lynch endured multiple surgeries to repair her many injuries, and she still wears a brace on one foot today. But she completed physical therapy, went on to college and obtained a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from West Virginia University as well as a master’s degree in communications studies. Today, when she isn’t speaking about her time as a POW, she works as a substitute teacher and spends time with her 12-year-old daughter.
Lynch urged the audience members to think about what motivates them. She pointed out that we all go through good and bad things in life, and that willpower and determination are keys to overcoming all sorts of challenges.
“Hard work and patience will get you where you want to be in life,” she said. “Nothing comes easy.”