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Strong women inspire little girls.

I’ve been blessed with many mentors of both genders, but it’s the strong women who laid the foundation of the elder I am becoming.

I am forever grateful to Stella, mom of one of my best childhood friends.

Stella and me

She’s been an influence on my life for so long, I can’t remember when Stella wasn’t a presence.  When I was a child, she was a quiet, modest woman with a large family at our church, and she led girls’ club.

Because of Stella, this girls’ club was liberating.  It had achievement badges similar to its secular counterpart, Girl Guides.

I had already flunked Brownies (pre-Guides). It was boring and I couldn’t understand why girls had to camp indoors — in the gym, using a fake fire, while Boy Scouts had all their adventures outdoors. (Plus ca change …)

At Hagerman Church, we were taught that Mennonites help others without glory or gain; don’t seek attention for doing good; and give generously of themselves.  At girls’ club, this meant learning to cook for your family, and other traditional tasks.

Sewing, for one.  Stella did not once lose her trademark optimism over my struggle to understand the mystery of needle arts.  She was encouraging, helpful, always smiling.

Girls’ club also taught us about service, to one’s church community and to the greater community.  Stella lived the selflessness we were taught at church, summer Bible school, and at girls’ club.  I’ve never doubted the value of service;  Stella taught girls’ club that it’s fulfilling, that it’s part of the greater purpose of our lives.

I remember Stella as always being happy (although this wasn’t the case; she was widowed young.)  As an elder, she still has a glow that only comes from self-contentment and a certainty about her peaceful place in the world.  She’s as curious and kind and calm as I remember her from girls’ club.

Like other strong women in my life, Stella always inspired me to try harder, and to be a better person.  Seeing Stella’s kindness with others just made me want to be good, even though I knew at an early age I was unlikely to be “Christian enough” to be baptized as a Mennonite.

I can’t recall all the achievement badges I earned at girls’ club, with Stella’s guidance.  (My Mom still has the banner with all the hand-stitched badges.)  I was an over-achiever who tried everything; an under-achiever in everything I didn’t like.  Sewing, for one.

Stella encouraged me in photography, for which there was no money or equipment.  My parents somehow managed to share a camera, and I shyly experimented with styles.  Years later, photography became part of my journalism career — the weakest part, I admit.

Stella and my parents encouraged me in story-telling, and I was never so proud in childhood as the day I told some of the Christmas story, at a special church service.  It was the first time I spoke in front of a public audience, and I was very nervous.

Yet it was so empowering — learning that story-telling could move hearts — that I later became a journalist, and succeeded in my goal of social justice reporting, at home and overseas.

It was so powerful that even my dad, an atheist, came to service that day.  Not sure if Hagerman Mennonite Church ever got over that.

Second of a series of “real thank you notes”