Whitney Wyatt (Staff photo by Renee Bruck/rbruck@madisoncourier.com)
Whitney Wyatt (Staff photo by Renee Bruck/rbruck@madisoncourier.com)
Three Jefferson County women who have helped improve the lives of others through their work and volunteerism received accolades Tuesday during an annual luncheon.

Girls Inc. of Jefferson County honored Whitney Wyatt, Carri Dirksen and Joyce Graham during the 14th annual “She Knows Where She’s Going” event at the Livery Stable. The event also served as a birthday celebration for the local affiliate’s 45th anniversary this year.

The non-profit organization recognized the honorees for living the Girls Inc. motto of being “strong, smart and bold.”

Whitney Wyatt

Wyatt, who grew up in Louisville, talked about the search for happiness in life and the life lessons she hopes to pass on to younger generations – including her own daughter, Alaina.

“She knows where she’s going. Wow. I’m glad you think so,” Wyatt said, causing laughs in the audience. “I guess knowing where we’re going also means knowing who we are, which – I think – comes from a lot of highs and lows, many life lessons and a lot of soul searching.”

Wyatt spoke of blessings throughout her childhood. An independent child, she grew up as the only daughter of four children and was always playing with her brothers. She had parents who encouraged her to explore her interests and talents. She graduated from Indiana University before moving to Madison with her husband, Brian.

“It’s easy to take it all for granted,” she said.

While she had a safe place to grow up, a loving family and access to education, Wyatt realizes not all children grow up in the same environment. Still, Wyatt said she believes everyone searches for the same things in life – happiness and purpose – even though people may be looking in the wrong place for it.

“It’s really the quality of our relationships that drive our happiness, not our careers and especially not our things,” she said. “It’s kindness to a stranger, helping others – and most of all – nurturing the friendship and love in our lives that gives our hearts joy.”

Yet it’s more difficult than ever to live it or instill those life lessons because of the fast-paced world we live in today. 

She often thinks of how she will teach life lessons – that it’s people and not things that matter – to her own daughter in today’s society. Wyatt encouraged parents to remember to take time and teach their children what they deem important in life.

Wyatt also encouraged girls to know their own worth and treat others with respect.

“Girls, you are smart, talented and important to the world,” she said. “Don’t forget to be kind, even when it’s really hard to do.”

Carri Dirksen

Dirksen, who serves as the Healthy Communities Initiative Coordinator for Jefferson County, highlighted three words that she believes in – learn, lead and serve.

She encouraged young girls to learn from the community and place around them instead of depending on others to tell them what to think.

“Young ladies, I’m going to challenge you…to turn off your phone,” she said during the program. “Ask questions. Read the newspaper. Don’t rely just on social media. Learn all you can about the world around you.”

Dirksen asked girls to look and attempt to understand both sides of any issue, even though they may not believe in the other side. 

She also asked everyone to figure out one new thing each day and never stop learning.

Dirksen challenged the girls in the audience to be leaders and role models to those younger than they are.

“Be a mentor,” she said. “Give those younger than you a helping hand. Be an example.”

The best way to be a mentor is to have a mentor, Dirksen said. She encouraged girls to have someone they admire and learn from them by asking questions.

“If someone offers you advice, take it,” she said. “Ask questions of those you respect. Listen to what they have to say.”

Dirksen’s mentors provided her with several pieces of advice throughout the years. The encouragement and advice have led her to where she is today, she said. Those words of advice continue to help her through challenging times when they arise.

Dirksen – who has held several leadership roles in the community including president of Tri Kappa Sorority, board chair of the Community Foundation of Jefferson County and a founding board member of the Women’s Giving Circle – also implored the audience to find time to serve others.

Although many say it’s difficult to find time to give back, Dirksen said carving out an hour of time each week to serve others can make such a difference to that organization – and to the person who gives of their time.

“It’s so important to give back,” she said. “You will get so much more in return.”

Joyce Graham

Graham, a self-described Girls Inc. cheerleader, shared her memories while serving with the local organization and why she believes the Jefferson County non-profit is so important for young girls in the community.

The Madison native said she was “ecstatic” when she was hired to her “dream job” in 1985 as the local Girls Inc. program director. She always looked forward to going to work, Graham said, and that isn’t always the case when working.

“We had the best time,” Graham remembered, noting she, Executive Director Susan Stahl and Assistant Program Director Connie Leap always had a good time creating classes that would balance fun with learning.

“The best thing I liked about it was that we were trying to teach them to be creative, how to think for themselves. Look outside the box,” she said.

During her years as program director, Graham said the national organization encouraged local affiliates to work with girls in science and math. Programming often taught girls multiple skills at once, but they quickly learned a class title like a generic “science club” would be passed over for more interesting programs like “Super Sleuths.”

“The one thing that I love about Girls Inc is the fact that we’re trying to help them build life skills, help teach them things – even simple stuff like baking and cooking,” she said.

Although the girls may be learning recipes, each recipe included a math component. Without the right math, a recipe could have a negative outcome.

Programs also encouraged girls to question things and explore their world around them. Graham still encourages girls to look into an issue instead of simply following along.

“Ask questions,” Graham said. “Don’t just accept what everybody tells you. Try it. See if it works. If it doesn’t, try another approach.”

Girls Inc. allows girls to build lasting friendships, as well as positive attitudes too. The local organization doesn’t accept any girl believing they can’t do something, she said.

“Yes, you can. You can do it,” Graham said. “You can do anything. … You just have to achieve it and try it.”