Introducing Our Exemplary Advocate Cohort

Introducing Our Exemplary Advocate Cohort

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Christine Woody

Christine was born and raised in Florissant, MO. She has always lived in the St. Louis area and was the fifth generation to get married at her family’s church. She went to Saint Louis University for her undergraduate degree and after graduation she became a full-time volunteer with the Vincentians, a catholic order of priests. During that year, she worked at St. Vincent DePaul Church in Soulard and it was there that she was first exposed to policy work and social work. After that year, Christine went back to Saint Louis University to get her Master of Social Work degree and did a summer internship at MASW, now Empower Missouri. After obtaining her MSW, Christine worked at the Guardian Angel Settlement Association in South St. Louis City as a case manager. Since 2006, Christine has worked at Empower Missouri on hunger and criminal justice issues. Working at Empower Missouri allows Christine to pursue her passion for social justice work as well as maintaining good work life balance to be able to spend quality time with her husband Paul and their two sons, Brendan and Alexander.

Sarah Owsley

Sarah Owsley is a data lover from Kansas City, Missouri. She started her career in operations and logistics but yearned to do more good in the world. Sarah returned to school to earn her master’s in social work from the University of Kansas. Learning about oppression and structural racism from some of the best grassroots organizers in Kansas City, she knows the power of people standing up to institutions. She currently uses her special skillset for Empower Missouri.  As Policy and Advocacy Director, Sarah helps coordinate campaigns on criminal justice reform and expansion and protection of the social safety net. Passionate about housing as a human right, she leads Empower Missouri’s statewide affordable housing coalition.

 

 

Nichole Murphy

Nichole Murphy is from Edgewood, Maryland (Baltimore-side). She originally came to St. Louis to attend Washington University for architecture. As part of a community that experiences systemic oppression and injustice, she was drawn to studying our history and the conditions of how we got here that she felt were more relevant to her life and that would lead to some change. When she graduated in May 2014 and was away from St. Louis at the time of Michael Brown’s murder, she realized St. Louis was home. She returned to St. Louis to pursue her Master’s in Social Work in 2016 and began working with The Ville neighborhood. In her current role with Forward through Ferguson, she strives for a model of community engagement that builds community ownership after initially building connections among community members.

 

Jamie Rodriguez

Jamie Rodriguez is an attorney from Joplin, Missouri. Shortly after law school graduation, her hometown was devastated by a tornado. She returned home to help with response and recovery as an Equal Justice Works Legal Fellow, representing low-income individuals impacted by the disaster. The experience showed her how legal representation is an essential tool for people in crisis, whether the crisis is an F5 tornado or merely living every day in poverty. She now works at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri helping low-income Missourians gain access to healthcare and essential nutritional supports like food stamps. In addition to direct client representation, she engages in both administrative advocacy and litigation.

 

Amanda Schneider

Amanda Schneider grew up in a small town in Indiana. Early on, she saw becoming a lawyer as a way to make a better life for herself and her family. It wasn’t until later, during her time studying at Indiana University – Bloomington, that she realized her role as a lawyer (and her role in the world) was to change the conditions of people impacted by systems of oppression. Her own experiences, including witnessing her nephew attempt to navigate the educational system at the intersection of race and disability, and an evolving racial equity lens guide her work at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri as a community lawyer, where she works toward educational equity. She continues to be persistent in finding ways to effectuate change in the educational systems in St. Louis City and County and state-wide even though it can be incremental.

Matthew Huffman

Matthew Huffman is a public health advocate and enthusiast from northeast Arkansas, but after 13 years, he now considers Missouri home. Matthew has a degree in Media and Cultural Studies with a minor in Sociology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. While in college, Matthew worked at the MU Women’s Center, developing outreach programming on sexual and reproductive health. Now, he works as the Chief Public Affairs Officer at Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MOCADSV). Matthew is passionate about the mission of MOCADSV and even turned down his Peace Corps placement 7 years ago to begin working at the Coalition.

Huvona Watkins

Huvona Watkins grew up in St. Louis and is married with four kids and a dog. She’s always been a helper and shifted into advocacy for survivors of domestic and sexual violence (DSV) after not feeling fulfilled in the medical field. Her own lived experiences and unmet needs led her to want to do more for others. She is doula trained and prioritizes work with pregnant survivors of sexual violence with a racial equity lens. Huvona was even a doula for her own sister! She previously worked at a non-residential organization supporting survivors and providing direct services as a Program Director and moved up to Executive Director. Now, she works at the State level to amplify and replicate DSV work across Missouri. Huvona is the Partnership Development Coordinator for Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She focuses on connecting the dots between health equity and Domestic and Sexual Violence prevention. She recently created a curriculum that bridges knowledge of social determinants of health with violence prevention work for community health workers at St. Louis Community College. Huvona believes advocacy can start anywhere even though it can be daunting. She uses her mentor Marissa Payne’s guidance, “Go afraid, but go anyway.”

Jessica Seitz

Jessica Seitz is a self-described political junkie since birth. Her lifelong passion for politics led her from her hometown of Oklahoma City to Waltham, MA to study political science at Brandeis University. Jessica started her career in state-level advocacy on the East Coast before realizing her dream of working in Washington, D.C. as a federal lobbyist for children’s issues. In her time there she served on the government relations teams of the National PTA and YMCA of the USA. In 2017, Jessica and her husband made the move to Missouri, bringing them closer to family and Jessica back to state-level advocacy work. Jessica now serves as the Executive Director for Missouri KidsFirst, the state’s leading voice on issues of child abuse and neglect. What really drives Jessica is being an effective advocate for children, the Child Advocacy Center members she represents, and the incredible work they do every day on the front lines to help children. When not testifying at a hearing or monitoring legislation, she has a love of baseball and museums, and, now residing in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband Ryan, she enjoys Cardinal baseball (and still rooting for her favorite Washington Nationals).

 

Meg Boyko

Meg Bokyo, is an O’Fallon, Illinois native who is deeply passionate about ensuring a healthy community where all of our children can live out their dreams. She holds a Bachelor’s of Arts from Truman State University where she studied business administration, marketing and psychology before going to New York University to earn a Master’s of Arts in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Since graduating and moving back to the Midwest, Meg has worked on programs statewide at the March of Dimes, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and the Teen Pregnancy & Prevention Partnership to support health and wellness for all Missourians. Meg has been active in the community as a Steering Committee Member of ThreadSTL, an Advisory Committee member of The Right Time Initiative, and a Cabinet Member with FLOURISH St. Louis, an infant mortality reduction initiative. In her current role, she serves as the Training and Education Program Manager at Missouri KidsFirst. This work is especially gratifying to Meg, because it allows her to support the professionals who are taking care of children and families impacted by abuse.

 

Iva Eggert-Shepherd

Iva Eggert-Shepherd was born and raised in a very rural area in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Iva was raised by a family of helpers who passed down their morals and values to Iva. Iva was determined to break the poverty cycle and prove to those that said, “you won’t succeed” wrong. Iva applied her Bachelor of Social Work and Criminal Justice to her role at the Family Support Division for seventeen years before moving on to the Health Care Collaborative and ultimately the Missouri Primary Care Association (MPCA). Iva currently serves as the Outreach Program Manager at MPCA where her primary role includes working one-on-one with frontline staff in their healthcare clinics to better understand Medicaid and Medicare. Beyond her work, Iva loves to quilt, sing at her church, and is a proficient bowler racking up a 298 as her highest score. Iva believes that “every person has the right to have the best quality and most affordable healthcare available.”

Kytrell Terry

Kytrell Marie Terry, originally from Albany, New York, attended college at Lincoln University of Missouri to study social work. Upon graduating from Lincoln University, Kytrell began her work with the Affordable Care Act at a local health center. Kytrell worked there for a couple years before finding her passion in serving the families at the Missouri Department of Social Services as a Children’s Service Worker, helping parents and caretakers overcome barriers to success, reunifying families, and giving children permanency and a sense of stability. Kytrell is inspired by the non-profit work of the health centers that she works with and strives to continue to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and root for the underdog. Kytrell is proud to be in her current position at MPCA as the Outreach and Enrollment Coordinator to support resources, programs, and policies that assure access to health care at the federal, state, and local levels.

Dina van der Zalm

Dina van der Zalm, originally from Greer, South Carolina, chose to go to college at New York University to study psychology and Italian. After studying in Florence, Italy and graduating, Dina joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English in northwest China. When Dina returned to the US, she went to graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia and obtained two Master’s degrees in Social Work and Public Health. Dina joined MRCC in 2016 as the health care organizer, where her work focused on the intersection of mental, physical, and environmental health and social and economic justice. She currently serves as the Community Engagement Director, overseeing healthcare and other programming, as well as leading fundraising efforts. Dina is constantly inspired by the resilience of individuals, despite the challenges they experience, and people’s willingness to stand up for what they believe in and need, especially in small towns where there is no such thing as anonymity. Dina wakes up in the morning to cat snuggles and a fire in her belly for teaching people how to hold their leaders accountable and build enough power to create sustainable changes for themselves and their communities.

Rhonda Perry

Rhonda Perry is a 5th generation Missouri farmer originally from Chillicothe, MO who has called Howard County home for 29 years. Watching her family and other local farmers stand up for their livelihood during the farm foreclosure crisis in the 80’s inspired her to dedicate her career to amplifying the voices of rural farmers and communities. After receiving her degree in Psychology, she joined Missouri Rural Crisis Center, where she serves as the Executive Director. In her role, she manages staff, directs on the ground programs and initiatives, and drives their state policy advocacy. Rhonda is especially passionate about the organization’s environmental justice work, sustainable farming and food programs, and emerging projects that are bringing rural and urban youth together around agriculture and healthy food. As a cattle farmer herself, she loves to ensure that the statewide advocacy of MRCC is grounded in the everyday experiences and voices of rural families. Rhonda believes that rural Missourians must be a big part of the solution to make our state even better, stronger, and healthier.

Cate Hensley

Cate Hensley (they/she) is from Skokie, Illinois. She has lived in St. Louis for three years and enjoys reading and spending time with her adorable cat, Toast. Cate has advocated for healthcare equity and access since they were a teenager. Their own lived experiences, along with those of other community members, helped illuminate the vital need for healthcare reform and increased healthcare access. Given this experience, stepping into a policy space felt completely necessary for Cate. They were destined to be part of efforts on a systems change level to close the gap of health disparities and address systems of oppression in healthcare. It is a top priority for them to work with and continue to advocate for anti-racist, Queer-centered, disability affirming healthcare for all. Cate is the Coordinator of Advocacy and Community Engagement at Operation Food Search. They are excited to be working on community engagement initiatives and food is medicine policy. Cate loves the quote from Mariame Kaba, “Hope is a discipline.” She is dedicated to the discipline of hope for all Missourians.

Nancy Spargo

Growing up in a small, racially segregated town in central Illinois inspired Nancy Spargo to become the advocate she is today. Her passion for languages eventually led Nancy to study Spanish and sociology in college, including a few semesters in Spain. Armed with a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Chicago, Nancy served the Latinx and other immigrant communities as a mental health provider in Chicago while working to integrate the various systems of care. Shortly after arriving in St. Louis, Nancy, together with Ryan Lindsay, created Sparlin Mental Health in 2009 with the goal of providing specialized mental health services to underserved populations using evidence-based treatment modalities and a trauma informed approach. Upon the closure of Sparlin Mental Health in 2021, she was ready to focus on her passion for social justice and her unique experiences as a mental health care provider in a novel way as the Chief Innovation Officer at Operation Food Search. While the pursuit of social justice and creating sustainable change can be hard, slow, and at times frustrating work, she believes that with realistic expectations and a strong network of people with similar values we can muscle through!

Aimee Wehmeier

Aimee Wehmeier grew up in St. Charles, MO with a belief she could change the world. While attending the University of Missouri, she found a shared sense of culture and empowerment and, for the first time, didn’t feel ashamed of her disability. After advocating at the state level about her personal experiences, she realized the power of her voice. Currently Aimee is the President of Paraquad, one of the first grass roots Centers for Independent Living in the United States. To this day, Aimee believes that by working together and standing up for what you believe in, we can create meaningful policy change and make the world a better place.

 

Gabi Jacobs

Gabi Jacobs is a stylishly dressed track and field star from Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. She proved to be anything but normal as she excelled in discus at University of Missouri, where she received a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a Master’s degree in education focusing on positive coaching. While working at a local grocery store, she noticed Local Motion’s mission on the dime token donation box. She followed up and realized how much Local Motion’s work applied to her life. Gabi now works for Local Motion as Community Engagement Coordinator, where she connects Local Motion’s mission and vision to the community. When she is not training, you can catch her at a local coffee shop jamming to some indie or cruising around town on her single-speed track bike. Gabi believes that when you get around town outside of a car, you connect with people and build relationships and that you don’t just simply move through a community but you become part of it.

Lawrence Simonson

Lawrence Simonson is a wingtips-wearing, cargo bike-riding, rad dad from Columbia, Missouri. He grew up as a military brat in small towns all over but dreamed of one day living in a big city and riding his bike to work. His first job out of college required a 40-minute drive that was a drain on his finances and his quality of life. He quit. This experience focused his attention on how transportation options affect our opportunities, and how many people are ignored and held back when having to own and drive a car is the only option. He felt compelled to do something. He took a temporary position with Local Motion and 10 years later he is Chief Executive Officer, advocating for walking, biking, and transit solutions to meet people’s everyday transportation needs. And he’s living his dream of riding bikes to school and work with his kids. Lawrence believes that when a transportation system serves the needs of the most vulnerable people in a community, it works best for everyone.

 

Stacy Sherrod

Stacy Sherrod is from Springfield, Missouri, where she still resides. Her first meaningful work was as support staff for a ten-year-old autistic child, during which she became an ally of the disability rights community and found a passion for social justice. Volunteer work as a Court Advocate and with the Speakers Bureau of a shelter for victims of intimate partner violence aligned well with her strong feminist values. When the shelter received a grant to fund a full-time Court Advocate, Stacy was recruited for the job and built the shelter’s first Court Advocacy Program. Her passion for gender justice then led her to volunteer with Planned Parenthood, where she was later hired as a Grassroots Organizer. A highlight of that work was organizing the 2017 Springfield Women’s March, where 3,000 people marched and rallied. It was the largest crowd to ever convene on the City Square. Stacy has been agitating her local community to action around disability rights, victims’ rights, and reproductive rights for over two decades and now serves as Organizing Manager at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. A true heliophile, she loves spending time outdoors, and summer is her favorite time of the year.