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Joanne Lenhardt portrays Ann Gilham, an early Riverbend settler. Gilham and some of her children were kidnapped by the Kickapoo tribe and brought to Illinois from Kentucky.
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More than 16 organizations were represented at the event.
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Gay Bryant (left) was one of two women given the "Women Who Make a Difference" award at the 33rd anniversary of the Eva. A. McDonald Women's History Coalition brunch at the Atrium Hotel in Alton. Bryant is seen with her daughter and grandchildren.
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Debra Pitts was one of two women awarded the Women Who Make a Difference award during the 33rd anniversary of the Eva A. McDonald Women’s History Coalition brunch at the Atrium Hotel in Alton.
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A crowd of more than 200 attended the event.
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Alton Mayor Brant Walker reads a proclamation.
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Gigi Darr entertains guests.
ALTON — The Eva A. McDonald Women’s History Coalition celebrated its 33rd anniversary March 5 at the Atrium Hotel.
As March was declared National Women’s History Month, the theme for 2016 honors women who have shaped America’s history and its future through public service and government leadership.
The coalition’s namesake, Eva A. McDonald, was a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights, a leader in the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and one of the founders of the National Organization for Women in Alton. In the 1970s, she helped organize a silent vigil outside the General Assembly in Springfield as lawmakers considered and declined the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment was introduced in every session of Congress until it passed in reworded form in 1972. McDonald helped establish the Oasis Women’s Center in Alton in 1976 after retiring from a 39-year teaching career in the Alton School District. Born in 1917, McDonald died in 1997 at age 80.
“The national project of the Women’s History Coalition began in 1980 and the Eva A. McDonald branch began in 1983,” Chairperson and Executive Director of Oasis Women’s Center Margarette Trushel said. “This is our 33rd year to hold the annual brunch where we honor the accomplishments of women. Each year we give two awards to local women who have made a difference. Both women have given so much to the community throughout the years and have incredible accomplishments.”
The 2016 Women Who Make a Difference awards were presented to Gay Bryant and Debra Pitts. Joanne Adams and Barbara Koontz presented the awards and read the winners’ resumés of community service.
“Making a difference can be defined in so many ways,” Bryant said. “Receiving this award is an honor; it’s humbling and it’s also embarrassing. People who volunteer to work toward a cause do it because they like it. No one makes them do it. I feel a little guilty getting an award for something that I enjoy doing.”
In light of Women’s History Month, Bryant said women have made amazing advancements over the years in politics, business and the military.
“We are no longer housewives in high heels and pearls,” Bryant said. “Women continue to push for an idea that betters people. You might say a woman is like a dog with a bone ... don’t tell them no; you’ll just make them fight harder.”
Retired Civic Memorial High School Principal Debra Pitts has spent the majority of her life as an educator, leaving a legacy of strength and perseverance.
“This award means a lot to me,” Pitts said. “I’m not just accepting this award for myself, but also for all the women in this room. Women do so much. We are not where we want to be, but we’re not where we used to be. We need to continue to be persistent and confident in ourselves enough to know that we can stand and do anything and everything.”
“I think it’s important to give back to the community,” Pitts said. “Being a mentor to a younger generation is probably my biggest priority. I think we need to take time out of each day to make sure our mission is to do something for others. We look around this room and we don’t need anything, but there are so many women out there hurting and in need. If we could reach out to them through volunteering at the Oasis, the Caravan, the Boys and Girls Club — there is always something that needs to be done.”
More than 200 women gathered for the 33rd anniversary brunch, which featured book presentations and a re-enactment from Joanne Lenhardt as early Riverbend settler Ann Gilham.
“Ann Gilham lived in Kentucky with her husband when she and some of her children were kidnapped by Kickapoo Indians and brought into Illinois,” Trushel said.
James Gilham searched for more than five years to find his wife and two children and retrieved them after paying a hefty ransom. The Gilhams loved Illinois’ rich soil and decided to stay in the state after Ann and the children were set free. They received a land grant of more than 150 acres in return for her time in captivity near Long Lake.
Lenhardt explained that several of James’ brothers and nephews also moved to Illinois, homesteading between Greater Alton and Chicago.
“There were so many Gilhams in the area that you could travel from Alton to Chicago and stay with a Gilham every night between here and there,” Lenhardt said.
Each year the Eva A. McDonald Women’s History Coalition honors a different group member at the brunch. The 2016 event honored the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. More than 200 members attended this year’s brunch.