January 16, 2024

2024 Women of Achievement Honorees

Event Info | 2024 Keynote Speaker | Nominations |  Event Sponsorship | Become a Table Captain 


These 8 outstanding local women will be honored in the community throughout February and March, leading up to YWCA Spokane’s 42nd Annual Women of Achievement Awards Ceremony and Luncheon, held Friday, March 15th at the Spokane Convention Center from 11:00AM-1:00PM, where they will be officially recognized.

To be awarded a YWCA Women of Achievement Award, a woman must embody YWCA Spokane’s mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. The selected honorees listed below give generously of themselves to make Spokane a better place for all to live. Continue scrolling or click each name to learn more about each honoree.

The winners of the 2024 Women of Achievement Awards are:

For 42 years, YWCA Spokane has celebrated successful women in the community for their achievements, along with their commitment to giving back to the Spokane community. Established with the goal of increasing community awareness and appreciation for the diverse contributions of women leaders in Spokane, YWCA Spokane has honored over 260 women in the region. We are proud to add this year’s outstanding honorees to that legacy.

2024 Women of Achievement Award Honoree Bios

ARTS & CULTURE – Melody Chang Heaton

As a first-generation Taiwanese American woman, Melody Chang Heaton faced many cultural challenges that contributed to her determination to fight tirelessly for women, children, artists, and people of color today.  Melody’s contributions to our community are never-ending.  She is described as a trailblazer, a true “doer,” and a person who never sits idly by.  Ask a single person who has sat alongside her as a co-worker, board member, or friend – Melody is exceptional!  As a young woman of color, she blazes forward patiently, strategically, and gently.  

In high school, Melody led a clothing drive to bring attention to local domestic violence which was later turned into a documentary.  In college, she became heavily involved in Alpha Chi Omega’s national philanthropy for domestic violence awareness.  In 2016, she led the Spokane Symphony Chorale to raise funds directly for the YWCA.  In 2021, Melody established the Chang Heaton Scholarship for Music Excellence which provides unrestricted funds to first-generation students who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) in music and theater programs.

In 2022, at the age of 29, Melody became the first Executive Director of the Asian Opera Alliance (AOA), a national organization seeking to address the opera industry’s lack of Asian representation and the field’s systemic neglect of people of Asian descent.  In this role, her national impact cannot be understated; she is one of the top advocates doing this work and has helped make the AOA not only a safe space but an activated space for change.  As ED of the AOA, Melody is a leading voice for the organization consulting with an impressive list of artists and administrators nationwide in an industry where representation of Asian artists has been historically scarce. AOA partnered with Indiana University to launch a large-scale study on issues preventing persons of color from entering the pipeline to a professional opera career, the first study of its kind.  Melody has been changing the face of opera, one conversation at a time.  

Melody is an established leader in the region, as is evidenced by her 2021 Women in Business Leadership Award from CDA Living Magazine.  She is Board President of Communities in Schools of Spokane County, an organization dedicated to empowering disadvantaged children to stay in school and achieve in life.  At the age of 29, she became the first-ever Communications and Marketing Director for the Spokane Valley Summer Theatre (SVST) and Idaho Central Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center (ICSVPAC).  Melody’s national experience working with both the Broadway League and Opera America, lends a lot of credibility to both SVST and ICSVPAC.  Currently, Melody is helping lead the build of the new $48 Million performing arts center for ICSVPAC which will create a significant number of jobs in the arts in the area.  Melody continues to perform professionally with Spokane Valley Summer Theatre, the premier professional theatre in our area, and Inland Northwest Opera, making her the only multi-genre professional performer and administrator at this level in the Spokane area. 

Despite the obvious breadth of experience and the pedigree she holds on paper, Melody offers so much of her work as a volunteer, never turning down the opportunity to help another human being.  She volunteers at schools, helps friends of friends, and jumps in practically anywhere to make a positive impact on those around her.  When the Inland Northwest Opera wanted an Opera Truck to deliver music safely to patrons during the pandemic, Melody helped build the truck!  When a young singer needs help creating opportunities in the Inland Northwest, Melody is one of the first calls to launch that process by connecting them to the best professional opportunities, grants, mentorships, or instruction. She volunteers her time to help young music teachers with business models, budgets, and taxes while they are establishing their private teaching studios.  Every major arts organization in town knows Melody Heaton because of her extensive commitment to the arts community.  

Melody gives to so many communities in need: from victims of domestic violence to struggling artists and arts organizations during the pandemic and beyond, to young artists of color striving to break into the expensive fields of music and theater (Chang Heaton Scholarship), to underserved children in Spokane’s schools (CIS), to her national work with the Asian Opera Alliance advocation for AAPI artists, equality, representation and inclusion.  The national conversation in Opera for Asians is being shaped, directly, by Melody Heaton and the AOA.  She has been leading fundraisers and giving of her resources and time for more than 15 years, and she’s only 30!  For Melody, this is just the beginning of the communities that she will improve and impact through her advocacy work. 

YWCA Spokane is honored to present Melody Chang Heaton with the 2024 Women of Achievement Award for Arts & Culture. 

<<Back to top>>

BUSINESS & INDUSTRY – Colene Rubertt

The distinction of the Business & Industry award calls for a woman who not only excels in her profession but also elevates the community she serves. Colene Rubertt has made a remarkable impact as the Director of Special Projects for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, touching individual lives and enhancing the community as a whole. Colene’s dedication to leading the Kalispel Career Training Center (KCTC) in Cusick, WA, has made a profound impact on the Tribe through her commitment, passion, and influence. Colene has been instrumental in bridging educational gaps in rural Pend Oreille County, by providing Tribal and community youth and adults with access to educational opportunities right in their backyard. Her work not only instills a sense of belonging, it strengthens the bonds between community members, preserving the unique character of the Kalispel Tribe’s rural area. In giving the tribal and community members the opportunity to learn skilled trades right here at home, Colene’s work helps to preserve the familiar connections and prevents the diaspora of the younger generations by enabling them to learn skilled trades without leaving their roots.  

The Kalispel Tribe’s journey from limited jobs and educational opportunities to the remarkable success story it is today is a narrative of resilience and vision. The establishment of the Kalispel Career Training Center mirrors this spirit and is an emblem of the Tribe’s progressive vision, one that Colene has passionately championed.  The apprenticeship programs provide on-the-job training in skilled trades like welding, fabrication, and carpentry while paying the individuals a livable wage and removing the traditional barriers to education and advancement found in a rural setting. Colene’s invaluable influence over the program has allowed it to flourish in a location that faces significant socio-economic challenges, in addition to the inherent bias that inevitably surrounds tribal communities. The program has seen a substantial increase in enrollment under Colene’s stewardship, especially by local women inspired by her presence in the male-dominated fields of construction and fabrication.  

As a senior in high school, Madalyn Whitford, participated in one of the Tribe’s Youth programs where she learned carpentry skills that allowed her to complete the construction of her own home before graduation. Colene’s direct influence inspired Mady to apply for the pre-apprenticeship program and move into her current position as an electrician’s apprentice.  Colene works tirelessly to help her students find the best possible position when they complete their programs.  When asked about her career aspirations, Mady shared that she wants to become a director one day like Colene, whom she considers her mentor.  She also wants to inspire other women to learn and pursue careers in trades that are currently male-dominated the way Colene has inspired her.  

Colene’s mark on the community as a whole is profound. She has dedicated her life working to enrich the lives of all people, specifically on the Reservation and in Pend Oreille County.  From supervising a complete re-design and construction of recreational areas like the playground and basketball courts at the Kalispel Pow Wow grounds, to overseeing housing construction projects in Cusick and Usk, her transformative touch is evident. Following the COVID pandemic, she selflessly pivoted her role to expand the Kalispel Kupboard, a community food bank on the reservation, designed to help the most vulnerable in the area. The successful procurement of food and dairy grants, especially those for the Tribal Elders, is a testament to her dedication and foresight. Her tireless efforts to improve the community in which she lives makes her a remarkable role model not only for women, but for everyone.  

Colene’s steadfast dedication to every individual’s success under her purview, especially the apprentices navigating the complexities of adult education and skilled trades in a small, rural community, is awe-inspiring. To be a woman, continuously inspiring other women in traditionally male-dominated roles in government, manufacturing and education is reason enough to celebrate her! Through her leadership, she not only molds professionals, but also nurtures individuals to be their best selves. Colene is a dynamic woman who doesn’t say no, taking on every task to ensure the success of the Tribe, the KCTC program, and her small community in Northeast Washington. Her unyielding dedication is something that deserves significant celebration!

YWCA Spokane is honored to present Colene Rubertt with the 2024 Women of Achievement Award for Business & Industry.

<<Back to top>>


YWCA Spokane is honored to present Kristine Hoover with the 2024 Carl Maxey Racial & Social Justice Award.

Dr. Kristine Hoover is a practical visionary. A leader who rises to the occasion to answer the call to organize, collaborate, and convene to address racial and social justice. Dr. Hoover is a professor and chair of the Master of Arts in Organizations Leadership program where she leads the Change Leadership concentration at Gonzaga University’s School of Leadership Studies.  Her body of work in service to the Spokane regional community provides concrete examples and evidence of eliminating racism and empowering women through demonstrating leadership in programmatic collaborations that result in community enhancement, give voice to the voiceless, and bring innovation to educational systems.  

Kristine is a natural-born community leader motivated by eliminating racism, closing gender equity gaps, enhancing the quality of community life through a strong, healthy sense of belonging, and leveraging education to nourish an informed citizenship that understands the responsibility of democracy and freedom.  For over 7 years, while leading the Gonzaga University Center for the Study of Hate Studies, the Center convened an International Conference on Hate Studies.  The growth of the conference itself is a significant achievement, bringing leaders from different parts of the world to Spokane to critically examine the root causes of hate.  It is a showcase of leadership in peace and justice through the study of hate. 

In collaboration with Human Rights Spokane (formerly the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force) and 10 other local community organizations, Kristine helped to further connect a Spokane bias incident reporting system as a resource to the BIPOC communities in our area.  In addition, Kristine designed and is developing the Pacific Northwest MOSAIC, an online storytelling site with community partners, Mapping Othering, Strength, and Allyship In Community, with support from the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.  Initial pilot stories include the Best Asian Market, the Young Warrior Society, the Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience, the Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Jewish Community, and the Islamic Center. 

Under Dr. Hoover’s directorship, the Gonzaga Center for the Study of Hate has continued to publish the Journal of Hate Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal, and honored the legacy of holocaust survivor Eva Lassman through the Take Action Against Hate and Student Research awards. She designed new courses at the freshman, senior, and graduate levels to support students’ understanding of why people hate and leadership to counter hate. Her most recent publications include Countering Hate: Leadership Cases of Nonviolent Action, which explores the leadership of ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things to build inclusive communities and counter hate groups across the United States.

Kristine authored the GLORIE Benchmark Study: Government Local Offices Dedicated to Rights, Equity and Inclusion, research for the Spokane Human Rights Commission in support of the creation of the Spokane Office of Civil Rights which was established in the summer of 2023.  She facilitated the newly created Diana Gissel Digital Photo Archive housed at Gonzaga’s Foley Library, recognizing the significant contributions of this local female photographer who documented the demise of the Idaho Aryan Nations compound.  Kristine is currently co-producing a documentary honoring the lifetime achievements of the Dutch Resistance fighter Carla Peperzak, a Spokane resident whose leadership directly saved the lives of 40 people from Nazi extermination and who continues to educate the next generation about the importance of tolerance and inclusion.  

Kristine is the co-chair of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit Higher Education Working Group and serves on the faculty review committee of the National Conflict Resolution Center and UCSD Applied Research Center for Civility as well as serving with the Gonzaga University Office of Inclusive Excellence Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Her past commitments include chair of the Washington Legislative Ethics Board and trainer for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). For several years, she co-led the Gonzaga University Center for Teaching and Advising Productive Discomfort Faculty Initiative. Kristine was selected to be a part of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Curt C. and Else Silberman Seminar, and has been recognized for her work at Gonzaga with the Center for Career and Professional Development Faculty Fellow Award, Center for Community Engagement Faculty Fellow Award, Center for Community Action and Service-Learning Faculty of the Year Award, and Center for Teaching and Advising Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Initiative.

Dr. Hoover’s stellar leadership in bridging social and cultural gaps has created opportunities for reciprocal, mutually beneficial learning and growing opportunities through human difference.  Kristine has run the marathon in her tireless efforts to engage us all in greater learning about inclusion and allyship.  

<<Back to top>>


Samantha Clark moved to Spokane 4 years ago with the clear intention of expanding and enhancing behavioral health services in the region. She was quickly able to assess the needs of the community and existing gaps in service for our most vulnerable populations. Despite the challenges coming to Spokane during the pandemic, Samantha recognized the impact that COVID-19 had on the mental health of individuals already suffering from mental health challenges and the new challenges people with no mental health histories were experiencing.  As the Executive Director of MultiCare Behavioral Health and the only MultiCare executive in behavioral health in the Spokane Region, she began by promoting technological opportunities through partnering with a virtual behavioral health startup and bringing them to Washington to provide access to patients needing a connection to therapists and providers. During this time, Samantha raised money with the MultiCare Foundation’s support for further growth in behavioral health that would continue to ensure access to care.  

As Samantha’s role expanded, she was promoted to Assistant Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for the MultiCare Behavioral Health Network. She worked to engage local corporations and businesses to support her mission of enhancing behavioral health access.  Samantha advocated for bringing the first MultiCare Behavioral Health Clinic in Eastern Washington to the most socioeconomically challenged neighborhood in our community. This community-based clinic, which opened in October of 2023, is located in Hillyard, on the campus of the Northeast Community Center, and will provide access to everyone in that community including immigrants who desperately need to be connected to services. Samantha listened to residents and partners working with children, youth, and families in Northeast Spokane to understand gaps in service and tailor the focus of the clinic to fit those needs. She championed education to our community leaders and spoke with providers to understand where the greatest needs were based on waitlist requests. She collaborated with services at the Northeast Community Center to understand how the clinic can contribute to the holistic needs of residents who use the community center and how to best address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations in student populations. She understood that our working families often have 2 or 3 jobs, making it impossible to get their children to appointments after school, so Samantha intentionally cited a space that is on the same campus as a middle school, three alternative high schools, and a skills center. Now students can go to a therapy appointment during the school day with a hall pass. This clinic is the first step to stabilizing students so that they can reach their full academic potential and pursue their dreams.  

Despite Samantha’s busy agenda and aggressive goals, she makes time to mentor students through local universities to achieve their academic dreams. She has inspired her students to also dedicate their careers to changing the landscape of behavioral health in the region. Through her leadership, Samantha has created a network of individuals who share her passion for behavioral health and access for everyone.

Samantha’s career is focused on breaking down the stigma of mental health services and bridging between cultural and language communities within our neighborhoods. She is a laser-focused person who works tirelessly on her accomplishments and moves quickly to the next task at hand. She is kind, compassionate, and holds herself and others accountable to high standards. Most of all, she cares deeply about helping others and has found that she can do this most effectively through creating partnerships with other community providers to help create services to increase access to behavioral health services in our community.

YWCA Spokane is honored to present Samantha Clark with the 2024 Community Enhancement Award.

<<Back to top>>

EDUCATION – Stephaine Courtney

Stephaine Courtney is an educator by profession who knows how to inspire meaningful learning and is motivated to make a difference in our world.  She creates content, programming, and partnerships that explore and address challenging social issues impacting people of color, creating community resources, and making individual-change impact and systems-change impact.  Stephaine uses her knowledge, passion, and brilliance to help organizations and individuals address common issues and goals.  She builds relationships with government officials and nonprofit organizations to strengthen our community resilience, specifically through arts and education for black and brown families and children.  

As Executive Director and Founder of The Learning Project Network and nonprofit affiliate The Shades of Motherhood Network, Stephanie holds nothing back in her mission to advocate for the region’s overlooked minorities.  Both organizations collaboratively focus on assisting people of color and vulnerable communities to help them obtain health equity and social justice.  The Learning Project Network provides a collaborative platform for early childhood educators to improve the learning conditions for minority students.  It promotes social justice activism through everything from online training and workshops to art exhibits and pop-up meetings focused on healing and awareness.  Through The Learning Project Network, Stephaine is able to raise awareness, provide solutions, and cultivate leadership for people of color and vulnerable communities who are not receiving health equity and social justice. 

Stephaine’s unwavering passion is the force behind catapulting women’s health to the forefront, especially black women.   She started the Shades of Motherhood Network to ensure every Black mother and mother of an infant of color in the U.S. has a high-quality, culturally relevant childbirth experience.  Black women experience death and complications during childbirth in record numbers due to medical racism in the delivery room.  Stephaine utilizes both in-person and virtual platforms to spread her message of justice for black healthcare.  She is a local advocate who promotes women, no matter their stage of pregnancy, to get a woman of color doula or midwife to walk with them every step of the journey.  This empowerment has been inspirational and admirable and is the epitome of eliminating racism and empowering women!

The Step Alliance was revived under Stephaine’s leadership bringing step teams to area high schools helping students understand how through movement, individuals can embody and release emotions associated with trauma, such as anger, fear, or sadness.  Students learn how to connect and collaborate with the community and organizations while building relationships with peers who are similar experiences or interests.  This helps to foster a sense of belonging and community that is crucial for healing trauma. 

Stephaine is also an incredibly talented artist who uses art, music, and dance to address health topics such as mental illness, isolation, and lack of community support for families and youth.  She was recently awarded the Spokane Arts Award in honor of creating an in-person and online art gallery with art from BIPOC artists. In 2022, Stephaine released her children’s e-book, “Our Community Spokane,” in celebration of Spokane’s diverse community and the ongoing history being made by black Spokanites. Forty-seven members of Spokane’s community are highlighted in the book representing business owners, artists, healers, educators and other community members.  Told through the eyes of an unnamed black child, the book is sectioned off by encouraging affirmations: ‘I am smart enough,’ ‘I am strong enough,’ ‘I am kind enough,’ ‘I am brave enough,’ and ‘I am wise enough,’ and ends with the affirmation: “I am me.” 

Stephaine is a change agent who works tirelessly to transform systems of care to eliminate racism and oppressive policies and practices.  She is an active advocate for policy change and currently sits on the City of Spokane Equity Subcommittee, where she is eager to learn how she can contribute an equity lens to policies in our city, particularly around the black community.  She is passionate about amplifying the needs of the black community in Spokane and she fights, unapologetically, for the rights of women’s health.  With all the social issues that plague our city, Stephaine remains lighthearted, fun, and energetic.  Her contagious energy motivates anyone around her to excel! 

YWCA Spokane is honored to present Stephaine Courtney with the 2024 Education Award.

<<Back to top>>


YWCA Spokane is honored to present Vanessa Waldref with the 2024 Government & Public Service Award.

Vanessa Waldref exemplifies the call to protect, improve, and maintain the public’s well-being, health, and safety through her service to our community.  As the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, Vanessa works tirelessly to protect the district from pressing issues of violent crime, child exploitation, fraud, corruption, drug trafficking, and environmental degradation.  She has dedicated the majority of her legal career to public service, working as an attorney for the Department of Justice in various roles.  She is a public servant, a leader, and a trailblazer.  

Vanessa has expanded the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s civil rights practice and has led several of the largest fraud cases in Eastern Washington history, securing justice for vulnerable populations. She works to serve our community and keep our district safe by prosecuting violent offenders and targeting those whose distribution of fentanyl and other deadly opioids have devastated our community and shattered families.  She has fought to ensure justice for women who have been victims of domestic abuse and violence by prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence and establishing the Safe Homes, Safe Community Initiative to prevent abusers who have previously been convicted of domestic violence offenses from having access to firearms.  

Recognizing how Native Americans experience some of the highest rates of violence in the country, compounded by generations of trauma already suffered by Indigenous people, Vanessa has successfully advocated within the Department of Justice to increase the Office’s resources to prosecute those who perpetrate violence on tribal land and to address the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and people.  She launched the United Against Hate outreach program, which directly connects the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local and federal law enforcement with diverse groups of community organizations to increase understanding and reporting of hate crimes and hate incidents.  Vanessa partnered with the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force and Gonzaga’s Center for Hate Studies to conduct effective outreach corresponding with her creation of the Office’s first Civil Rights Team that responds to hotline and online complaints of civil rights violations in Eastern Washington.

Just as important as Vanessa’s work to keep communities in Eastern Washington safe and strong, is Vanessa’s passion to train and build up younger attorneys, especially women, to continue that work well into the future. From Vanessa’s senior leadership team, including the first woman Criminal Chief, to new hires throughout the district, Vanessa has worked tirelessly to build an office that is not only diverse in background, skill, and experience but also promotes a workforce that reflects the diversity of Eastern Washington.

Vanessa is a nationally recognized federal litigator and was the first U.S. Attorney selected to establish and lead the Environmental Justice Subcommittee that advises the Attorney General on environmental protection and public health issues. In this role, Vanessa has played a critical role in training Assistant United States Attorneys around the country to litigate cases that protect communities overburdened by pollution. She held the first Regional Summit focused on protecting Tribal Homelands, bringing Department of Justice leadership to Spokane to meet with Tribal leaders from around the region.

Vanessa has also received awards for her dynamic teaching and mentoring of the next generation of Eastern Washington attorneys. As an adjunct professor at Gonzaga University, she has dedicated herself to mentoring law students and lawyers. She has devoted hours to helping and teaching interns, demonstrating confidence in their abilities, and providing individually tailored opportunities for them to learn and grow. She is generous with her praise, constructive with her criticism, and invariably encouraging.

Vanessa’s life and career demonstrate her commitment to protecting, improving, and maintaining the public’s well-being, health, and safety – now and into the future. She is a role model not only because of her many accomplishments but also because she is invested in improving the lives of those around her. She is a strategic, proactive leader committed to building solutions to empower and protect our community. Vanessa understands how to build bridges and bring people together for shared goals of community health and safety.

Vanessa truly is an exemplary Woman of Achievement, dedicated to serving victims of crime and giving a voice to underserved communities in Eastern Washington.

<<Back to top>>


Award category generously sponsored by Kaiser Aluminum

Dr. Denise Smart is an extraordinary academic nurse scientist with a varied career as a  registered nurse, educator, and military public health officer.  She served more than 22 years in the military with the 141st Medical Group in Fairchild, WA, reaching the level of Lieutenant Colonel, and has been licensed for more than 45 years as a registered nurse.  Denise joined the staff at Washington State University in 2005 and has made it her professional mission to help nurses from a broad array of backgrounds discover their potential in scientific discovery, applied clinical research, and research that will improve the delivery of healthcare. This is particularly striking given that the nursing profession is predominantly female, but many are prepared only with a baccalaureate degree and are more focused on patient care than research and scientific methods.

An accomplished scientist herself, Dr. Smart has eight research grants funded by federal agencies (Department of Defense), state agencies (Washington Labor and Industries Safety), professional organizations including the National League for Nursing and American Heart Association, as well as local corporations. She disseminates her research widely with 42 published research papers and numerous international, national, and regional presentations.  She has received several awards and recognition for the quality of her work including the Tri-Service Nursing Research Program National Award, the WSU Research Excellence Award, and the Travis Air Force Base Research Excellence Award.  Denise has been engaged in research while at WSU and across her distinguished military nursing career.  She continues to produce significant public health research in her areas of expertise including maternal-child, military, and nursing workforce populations.  She has received grants to support research focused on exertional heat illness and sleep deficiency in military personnel along with investigating and promoting safe work conditions for nurses.

Dr. Smart helped mentor bedside nurses with little research experience at Kootenai Health System in Coeur d’Alene, serving as a volunteer to support a new Research Council that would conduct clinical research to address gaps and needs.  She devoted many hours of donated time meeting with nurses, teaching them about research designs, survey development, and statistics.  As a result of her outreach efforts, Kootenai Health received its desired ANCC Magnet designation award, the first in the region. Moreso, Dr. Smart helped the nurses at Kootenai Health reach a higher level of professional self-worth by helping them engage in conducting meaningful research and scholarship.

Today, Denise mentors WSU faculty and serves as the primary supporter for junior and teaching faculty who have yet to have their research published or funded. She makes the unfamiliar familiar, the insurmountable doable, and she empowers novice nurse researchers to reach inside themselves and achieve. Denise freely gives her time and talent to help others take that first step into a science career.  She advocates for their recognition, shares her spotlight and accolades with grace, and takes great pride in others’ accomplishments.  For students, this translates to success – passing a course, graduation, and that first research publication.

The downstream effects of an educator can be difficult to quantify, but one of the studies about nurses and compassion fatigue that Dr. Smart led was published in an international journal where it has been cited by other researchers more than 300 times.  Her generous outreach as a nurse and educator has extended to, inspired, and impacted scholars and communities worldwide. Nurses from around the globe have invited Dr. Smart to consult as a result of her research and publications.

Denise continues to work tirelessly to produce quality educational products whether it is a new course, a publication, or a presentation.  She makes new faculty at WSU feel welcome and always makes time to help when asked.  She has taken leadership roles to support the needs of the college and created numerous educational programs for faculty and students.  Notably, Dr. Smart has continued to practice direct care nursing through much of her time as an educator, most recently working in a corrections facility in her desire to keep current in her nursing practice and close to the public she serves.  Thousands have benefited from Denise’s dedication to her profession, both through the patient care she has delivered, the nurses she has taught and led, and the worldwide communities impacted by her research.

YWCA Spokane is honored to present Dr. Denise Smart with the 2024 Science, Technology, & Environment Award.

<<Back to top>>


Sindhu Surapaneni is a young cultural enthusiast who has pursued entrepreneurial ideas since early childhood. She’s both an international storyteller, 2x TEDx Speaker, art instructor, Bollywood Dance instructor, Henna Artist, a social advocate, change maker, and philanthropist – all by the age of only 14!  Having faced racism from the young age of 4 and struggling with a sense of belonging, Sindhu started creating art on diversity and inclusion so every kid could feel loved, valued, and accepted for who they are, regardless of any differences.

At the age of 11, Sindhu became an art instructor, guiding more than 400 free creative sessions on Zoom and Facebook Live as an outlet for kids during the pandemic.  She began offering workshops and selling her artwork, donating over $22,000 to local charities that support low-income families and the homeless including Blessings Under the Bridge and Giving Back Packs.  In an interview in May of 2022, Sindhu said regarding the issue of homelessness, “Whenever I pass through Spokane downtown, I close my eyes as it breaks my heart to see so many homeless people living on the street.  Then I realized closing my eyes doesn’t make the problem disappear.”  It was then that she decided to redirect her artistic pursuits toward lending a hand to those less fortunate.

Her online classes helped her grow and gave her the courage and confidence to deal with difficult situations.  She also finds strength in the importance of her projects and messages and has donated her time to local area elementary schools, having taught over 50 art lessons at schools that don’t have art programs.  She worked with her elementary school art students to create more than 1,080 cards to be sent over to Ukrainian refugees with positive messages.

Sindhu is the founder and president of Imaginations2Creation, a non-profit art page with a goal of producing art that embodies positivity and hope.  Her “Everybody is Loved Here” art project on inclusion is now in 22 different schools, businesses, and organizations in Washington, Idaho, and New York. The acrylic painting depicts the earth in the shape of a heart, which itself contains a diverse group of small silhouettes. These smaller silhouettes make up one larger silhouette of a face.

By age 12, Sindhu was the youngest person to be nominated for a Spokane Arts award for Inclusion.  She has won numerous honors for her volunteer work including the Gold Presidential Volunteer Service Award (twice), the title of Young Woman Leader, the Spokane Young Philanthropy Award, Social Advocacy Award, and the Most Inspirational Youth Award.  Other accolades include the Invite to Artists of Color Expo & Symposium and the “Be Strong” State of Washington Representative.

Today, Sindhu spends her time focused on helping organizations that help low-income families and foster kids while being a full-time student herself, tutoring math, and performing and teaching Bollywood dance with the Indian Youth Club of Spokane.  She’s recently started doing henna arts in the community and at private events to promote her culture, inclusion and diversity while donating all proceeds to local charities.  Funds raised through math-tutoring and henna arts have supported donations of bedding to Sleep in Heavenly Peace Spokane, pajama sets to Embrace Washington, and warm clothing and shoes to Jewels Helping Hands. She also donates her time and money to Toys for Tots and Family Promise of Spokane.

Sindhu has been featured on several local and international media outlets with her story being broadcast over 50 times around the world further spreading her mission and impact.  She plans to continue her charity work, bringing awareness and a path to advocacy under the message of helping others.  With high school on the horizon and juggling all of her interests, Sindhu doesn’t have a career goal in mind but is sure of three things.  She will be using her gifts to create change, take action to make a difference in the lives of others, and put people first by serving others.  She is truly an inspiration to all!

YWCA Spokane is honored to present Sindhu Surapaneni with the 2024 Young Woman Award.

<<Back to top>>

By: Claire Schueman

Related Posts

Apr 29, 2024 Jun 24 @ 3:30 pm

2024 Equity for All – Recap

Thank you for joining this courageous conversation! Last Thursday, April 25th, we hosted Equity for All at the Hive with a distinguished panel of maternal health community leaders. Over 120 people attended either in person or online, creating a powerful atmosphere. Before the panel, we had a musical duo perform…

Apr 4, 2024 Jun 24 @ 3:30 pm

Celebrate Mother’s Day with Hope Stones Jewelry

Custom Jewelry Made by Women at YWCA will be sold in our Lobby May 2nd & 3rd to benefit our Safe Shelter What: Hope Stones Mother’s Day Jewelry Sale – find the perfect Mother’s Day gift for the mothers in your life. When: May 2nd & 3rd from 9:00am –…

Mar 20, 2024 Jun 24 @ 3:30 pm

YWCA Spokane’s 2024 Women of Achievement Awards Event Recap

Women of Achievement Awards 2024 Honorees | 2024 Keynote Speaker | Event Sponsorship | Nominations for 2025 Update April 2024:  This year, we set a goal to raise $100,000 in the room the day of Women of Achievement – Something we’d never done before. At the end of the event, after we…