GRAND RAPIDS — The Honorable Sara J. Smolenski said she feels like someone who scratches her name onto a trophy, when she considers those who have won the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce ATHENA Award before her.
“There are so many wonderfully talented, great community activist women that have won this award in the past. I feel proud and humbled now to be a part of that list,” said Smolenski, chief judge of the 63rd District Court in Kent County and recipient of the 2006 ATHENA Award.
Smolenski said she was surprised and excited to be honored with the award.
“I feel kind of like one of those ‘Queen for a Day’ things,” she said. “It was exciting. When I was working on the nomination form, I was thinking ‘There’s no way,’ and then boom! I got that call. I jokingly say that I think all the other nominees were out of the office.”
All joking aside, it will be Smolenski’s name that legitimately appears on the 2006 ATHENA award when she is honored at the luncheon tomorrow at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. The luncheon will feature keynote speaker Dawn Riley, an author and the only woman on the winning America’s Cup sailing team in 1993, as well as the only woman to manage an America’s Cup syndicate.
Jeanne Englehart, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce president, said Smolenski is a great volunteer and mentor, as well as an inspiration to others.
“She uses her position to educate and inspire young girls and women,” Englehart said. “She really just is the perfect example of what the ATHENA award is designed around.”
Englehart said Smolenski’s dedication to the community is evident in the time she spends helping others.
“If people were to read all the information about everything that she’s engaged in, they would be surprised,” she said. “She doesn’t do it for the recognition; she does it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Smolenski is involved with the YWCA, American Cancer Society, Resources Against Violent Encounters to Women of West Michigan, and the Kent County Literacy Council. She also is a member of the Michigan District Judges Association, Michigan Judicial Conference, American Judges Association, National Association of Women Judges, Grand Rapids Bar Association, Women Lawyers Association of West Michigan, the American Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan.
Smolenski said though she has no children of her own, she enjoys mentoring young men and women, showing them that there are options in legal careers.
“A woman judge is kind of a unique role model,” she said. “I think it’s a role model that is important for the kids to have, both the boys and the girls.”
Having decided on a legal career at a young age, Smolenski said she always saw herself as representing those who could not do it for themselves.
“I just loved the idea of standing up and speaking for someone if they couldn’t speak for themselves,” she said.
Smolenski said as one of 10 children — nine girls and one boy — she has always had support from her family, including her father, J. Robert Smolenski, a retired judge, and her brother, Michael, who serves on the Michigan Court of Appeals.
“They’ve both been great role models for me,” she said.
When asked what advice she has for those who may be looking up to her, Smolenski said she wants them to know that the options are limitless.
“If I were to give any advice to young women, I would say ‘Follow your dreams, believe in yourself. You can do anything you set your mind to. The sky is the limit.’”
The 10 other nominees and the ATHENA Scholarship winners will also be honored at the luncheon. This year’s nominees were Catherine Behrendt, community and local programming director at WZZM-13; Denise DeMeyer Sherwood, principal at Spectrum Benefits; Barbara DeMoor of AMBS Investment; Aletha Honsowitz, head of public services for Cooley Law School; Kimberly Hughes of State Farm Insurance; Pava Leyrer, president and owner of Heritage National Mortgage; Diane Kniownski, president and general manager of WOOD-TV8; Mary Ellen Rodgers, managing partner of Deloitte & Touche; Melissa Verplank, director and CEO of Paragon School of Pet Grooming; and Monica Verplank, executive director of instructional services for the Grand Haven Area Public Schools.
The ATHENA Scholarships are given to women over the age of 30 who have returned to college to complete degrees. This year’s recipients are Jodi Lendman and Bridget Moore from Aquinas College, Wendi McParland and Juliet Mutongerwa from Davenport University, and Yvonne Pavlovsky from Kendall College of Art and Design.