Tampa Bay nonprofit The Centre for Women changes lives

Women’s empowerment icon Gloria Steinem, when asked on her 80th birthday about passing the torch of leadership to a new generation, said, “I'm keeping my torch, thank you very much. And I'm using it to light the torches of others …Together, we create so much more light.”

In the 1970s, the torch of women’s liberation was brightly lit in Tampa Bay by our own icon, Helen Gordon Davis, the first woman from Hillsborough County elected to the Florida House of Representatives and a vocal champion of women and minority rights. Davis, along with a group of volunteers, founded a place to help women deal with the emotional and financial traumas that occurred as a result of divorce, widowhood or separation.

Today, according to their website, The Centre for Women is a nonprofit organization that serves more than 5,000 women, girls, families and seniors each year with programs such as individual and family counseling, employment preparation, entrepreneurial coaching and training, leadership programs and home repairs and rehabs for low-income seniors.

Volunteer leadership

Ashley Nessler, The Centre for Women’s current board president and a senior vice president for Bank of America, says she joined the nonprofit organization to help women outside of her responsibilities at the bank. After six years of serving on The Centre for Women board, she is now in her first year leading it. 

Nessler says the board is a deeply involved group of volunteers dedicated to guiding The Centre into the future. Their focus is on strategic planning, creating innovative programs, bringing attention to The Centre’s many existing projects and raising its profile within the community.  

And there is an ongoing focus on fundraising. Nessler explains that the grants The Centre receives are earmarked for specific purposes or programs. Fundraising monies, on the other hand, are unrestricted and necessary for operations and innovation. 

“We hear from women all the time how we, The Centre, have impacted their lives,” she says.

It’s something Nessler understood intimately when she experienced her own health crisis. She was able to navigate that crisis with the help of counseling available to her. 

“The women on the board took me under their wing,” she says.”They practiced what we preach. Being part of The Centre for Women feeds my soul.” 

A holistic experience

Candace Williams spent six years in the U.S. Air Force, specializing in cybersecurity and computer support. After mustering out, she became an associate director at Raytheon supporting cybersecurity leadership. 

The urge to start her own business began in February of 2022 when she realized how few women, especially women of color, there were in the cybersecurity industry. Williams's first attempt at entrepreneurship failed. She realized she wasn’t prepared. She had no strategy and she found the tax structure confusing. Williams started looking for resources online. 

“I was about to pay a consultant thousands of dollars when I found The Centre,” she says. “I filled out an application and was approved. The first session I attended was Business Coaching. The coach was Danene Jaffe. I came away ecstatic. Danene gave me such positive encouragement. She sat with me and showed me how to leverage QuickBooks, to figure out how to be profitable, and how to categorize transactions. She helped me develop a sales funnel. At the end of five weeks, I had a website and new products to offer. Most of all, she gave me accountability. After the free Centre coaching was completed, my company, Cyb(H)er Ally, was up and running. Then I hired Danene.” 

Williams has stayed connected with The Centre in other ways, taking webinars and completing a four-week marketing Mastermind course. She describes her experience with The Centre as “intimate,” a feeling of being connected. 

“Without The Centre, I’d be stumbling, or I’d have paid thousands of dollars and not had as valuable an experience,” Williams says. “I didn’t have to piece it all together…It was holistic.”

Sweet treat

Terry White has always made something sweet to eat - growing up, through college and when she had a family. It could be cookies, cakes or her children’s favorite, hard candy. Eight years ago, a relative asked White to make peanut brittle. 

“I don’t like peanuts so I substituted cashews,” she says. “That brittle was good, but I thought I could make it better so I started tweaking the recipe.” 

That tweak was the beginning of Son'ni Boi and Petal, a confection business that, according to their website, produces distinctively unique, handmade in the USA, cashew brittle and other treats.

After fourteen years working for the State of Florida, ten of them in the Department of Health, White began to think about what was next. She loved making that cashew brittle and wondered if she could turn it into a business. 

She Googled “Where to find help starting a business” and found The Centre for Women. 

“The voice that answered the phone was so welcoming,” White recalls. “I knew I had to go there.”

“I met with a counselor who set me up with a series of meetings and put me on the right track to how to start and establish a business,” she says. “I created a unique name that people would remember, Son'ni Boi and Petal, a combination of my father’s nickname and mine. Julie, my Mastermind coach, was tough as nails. We met once a week for six weeks. I had homework. It was hard because I was still working full-time as a social worker.”

And then fate stepped into the picture. White saw a television news report about how St. Petersburg was looking for vendors for their new pier.

“I didn’t really have a business yet, but I filled out the application and submitted samples of my brittle,” she says. “Two months later I received a congratulatory email from the mayor.”

Son'ni Boi and Petal has been a vendor on the St. Pete Pier since July 2020. In that time, White has expanded her offerings to include several flavors of cashew brittle, spicy seed brittle, rock candy containing organic rose petals and branded merchandise, including sweat pants with the company tag line, “A Smile, Sunshine, & Sugah,” printed across the backside. 

White credits The Centre for Women for her success. 

“The Centre is a place where your dreams will get nurtured,” she says. “Where you’ll find direction and someone to walk with you. It is why I love giving back by helping to raise funds through The Centre’s Gourmet Feastival."

Blues, BBQ & Elvis

On September 21, beginning at 6 p.m., The Centre for Women will hold its biggest fundraiser of the year, Gourmet Feastival. The Centre’s Executive Director Ann Madsen describes it as the nonprofit organization’s “signature event.”

“We invite the community to join us for an evening of wonderful food and fun entertainment,” she says.

The theme for the 31st Gourmet Feastival is Blues, BBQ & Elvis. Presented by primary sponsor TECO, the event will be held in the beautiful grande ballroom at Higgins Hall, 5225 N. Himes Ave., in Tampa. Attendees will be transported into a foodie heaven featuring over thirty-five vendors, including Nothing Bundt Cakes, Yuengling Brewery, Latitudes, Mike’s Pies and Alpha Pizza. 

And yes, Elvis will be in the building. Billy “ELVIS” Lindsey, who has won many awards as a top Elvis Presley tribute artist, will be entertaining the crowd with his “Tribute to Elvis!” Tickets are available online starting at $25 for general admission and up to $100 for VIP admission, which includes entry at 5 p.m. and access to the VIP Room featuring Four Rivers Smokehouse, Cheese Please and ABC Fine Wines and Spirits. 

“The event is an important source of funding for our programs and operations,” says Madsen, who is in her twelfth year as executive director. “The proceeds from the event are essential to us being able to have an impact on the community. We are very grateful for the community’s support.”

For more information and tickets, go to Gourmet Feastival
83 Degrees Media is a media sponsor of the Gourmet Feastival.

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Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.