Women’s History Month: Sometimes Your Role Model Is Right In Front of You (The Ruth Rath Story)

As I think about all of the amazing women to honor for Women’s History Month from Susan B. Anthony to Frida Kahlo to Mother Theresa to Maya Angelou, and countless others, I think about the one who gave me life and set my path toward leadership, my Mom.

My mother was a truly beautiful soul inside and out; people often commented about her external beauty and grace; she had the manners of Jackie O, the beauty of Grace Kelly, and the voice of Marilyn Monroe, but she also had soul and smarts. She was deep, thoughtful, and introspective. And, she was also a survivor—a survivor of two alcoholic parents in a time when addiction was a family secret; a survivor of breast cancer when the “C” word was still whispered in public; a survivor of divorce when women spent their time raising children rather than building careers; and, ultimately a survivor of the cruelest disease, dementia, which robbed her of her voice and ultimately her life.

As a survivor, my Mom knew that in order to keep alive, she needed to keep growing and moving forward. Later in life, she went back to school for her Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University, ultimately working in hospital settings with the seriously and persistently mentally-ill. She believed strongly that each person needs to have his/her voice heard and someone to advocate with him/her.

Unfortunately, two and a half years ago, and after a long battle, my Mom passed away from dementia, but her life lessons and values have not been lost on me, rather they continue to shape me and help me understand how to live my life. For me, my Mom was my educational, my cultural, and my leadership guide in life. She played a big part in shaping the woman I am, and she continues to be an inspiration to me.

Today, I lead an organization dedicated to helping underserved youth on their journey to education and career success through enriching after-school programs and mentoring.

Just like the organization I lead, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), my Mom taught me the importance of education not only as way to develop my mind and my intellectual curiosity, but also as a way to ensure my economic independence. Just like HEAF, my Mom traveled with me while I was in high school; every summer, she took me to a different region of France to study the language and culture. She helped me develop my appreciation for others and realize that the world was much bigger than my small hometown. She encouraged me to be adventurous, curious, and open to the world.

And, just like HEAF, my Mom developed my leadership skills, starting me on my journey and helping me run my campaign for middle school president, many, many years ago, with a speech and a real platform made of two sawhorses and plywood. She loved the dramatic and inspired my love of public speaking and advocacy.

A love of education, travel, and leadership are the skills that we are looking to develop and build with our students at HEAF. It’s why 100% of our students graduate high school, 100% go on to college, and 83% graduate college within 6 years, and 1/3 of those go on to graduate school. It’s what inspires me to keep leading and expanding this organization to reach even more and more students throughout New York City.

And though in the years leading up to my Mom’s death, she lost her ability to speak, lost her independence, and lost her mobility, she birthed a daughter who would take on the next chapter of the work and continue her crusade of being an advocate. I appreciated my Mom before her death, but now I am beginning to truly understand her as a woman and value what she taught me. I love becoming more and more my mother’s daughter. I thank my Mom for being my role model and my HEAF.

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