Photo project exploring local ‘female firsts’ raises more than $5,000 for girls’ education programs

CHAMBERSBURG – A reception for the exhibit “Franklin County’s Female Firsts” was held on the second floor of the Coyle Free Library (102 N. Main St.) on Friday, February 28 from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m.  

The exhibit, which will be on display through the end of March, is comprised of 19 photographs by photographer Phillip Whitley. Each photograph is accompanied by a description of the woman’s achievements written by collaborator Pam Anderson.

The project has raised more than $5,000 so far that will help two local organizations inspire the next generation of women to make history.

The first organization is Go Girls Go!, a health and wellness program created by Healthy Communities Partnership (HCP). Go Girls Go! will receive enough copies of the book “Gutsy Women: Famous Stories of Courage and Resilience” by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton for 50 participating girls and their mentors. The book tells the stories of over 230 women of all ages who are leaders in health care, athletics, science, journalism, the arts, religion, education and more.

The second organization is the Franklin County Library System, which will use the funding to launch a new Girl Power program to empower girls ages 12 to 18 through quarterly programs focusing on self-esteem, leadership, body image and life choices.

According to Jill Ann Yaich, senior director of information services, the program, which is set to launch in late spring of 2020, will be piloted at Coyle Free Library and made available for easy replication at other libraries and community organizations. If successful, there are plans to spin it out into other variations such as programs for boys as well as co-ed options to promote gender equality and understanding.

Said Whitley of his support for the library:

“The library has been there for me as a venue, as a support, and they have believed in me, believed in my projects. They have always been ready to share my work in a way that will help me bring people together. It brings me great joy to give back and do something for the library.”

“Franklin County’s Female Firsts” will be on display at the Coyle Free Library until the end of March.

“Franklin County’s Female Firsts” is a successful collaboration between photographer Phillip Michael Whitley and certified genealogist Pam Anderson, who devised the interview questions and wrote the accompanying text.

Anderson is also a participant in the exhibit. Her “firsts” include being the first female president of the Franklin County Builders Association, the first female Small Contractor of the Year for the PA Builders Association, the first certified genealogist in Franklin County, and the first full-time speech pathologist at the Chambersburg Hospital.

Anderson had initially approached Whitley about doing a project that focused on older women, a segment that she felt was often overlooked. Whitley was interested, and he proposed that they drop the age restriction and do a large-scale project for Women’s History Month.

From there, the pair reached out to women in their own circles who might be interested in participating, and then they asked those women for additional referrals.

From there, the project grew in scope and clarity resulting in the exhibit as it appears today.

Participants were asked four primary questions: what advice they would give to their younger selves or other young women today, what personal accomplishments they were most proud of, what man helped them achieve their goal, and what female ancestor’s legacy did they feel they had carried on.

With the last question in mind, the exhibit includes an “Ancestor Wall” consisting of pictures of the participants holding photographs of the female ancestors that inspired them.

Pam Anderson holds up a copy of “Gutsy Women: Famous Stories of Courage and Resilience.”

Whitley is no stranger to using his camera to draw attention to marginalized or otherwise obscured groups. A little more than a year ago, he opened an exhibit titled “Black Girl Magic” that featured African American women.

“It was my first time creating an exhibit of this kind,” he said of “Black Girl Magic,” “and let me tell you, I was scared for people to see it. I was scared to come out here and speak to a room full of you. They came to see something I had created.”

But he overcame his fears, adding: “That exhibit changed my life and quickly taught me how to share my passion in a way that is positive and brings people together.”

He followed that show with “Pose4Pride” last June, which celebrated National Pride Month, and then a Down Syndrome Awareness exhibit in October, which was staged in conjunction with WellSpan Health.

In December, he unveiled “The Power of ALICE” at the Coyle Free Library to educate people about United Way of Franklin County’s ALICE program. According to the Facebook invitation, “This exhibit featured stories of three local families to help shine a light on the hard-working people that are the backbone of our community, yet struggle to meet their basic needs.”

Dr. Linda L. Thomas Worthy poses in front of her portrait with photographer Phillip Whitley.

The “female firsts” that are represented in the exhibit include a county commissioner, a president of the Rotary, Chambersburg’s sitting borough council president, and a variety of leaders in business, nonprofits and the arts.

Many of the participants who posed in front of Whitley’s camera were in attendance at the reception including Dr. Linda L. Thomas Worthy, the executive director of the Franklin County Housing Authority.

Dr. Worthy contributes three “firsts” to the project. She is a first-generation college student, the first in her family to earn a PhD, and the first African American person to serve as executive director.

She chose to be photographed in front of the Housing Authority because it was a location that resonated with her, and she said that she appreciated the effort that Whitley and Anderson made to get to know and understand her.

“It’s informative,” said Dr. Worthy on the importance of exhibits that portray diverse experiences. “It’s highlighting some of the women we have right here in our county that are doing some awesome and wonderful things. I think it’s an exposure to what women can do, and I think it highlights and strengthens and gives voice to the contributions to our history.”

Courtney Neus, Phillip Whitley and Mallory Neus pose at the opening reception for “Franklin County’s Female Firsts” where they discussed their involvement with Go Girls Go!

Also in attendance were Courtney and Mallory Neus, mother and daughter, who shared their personal experiences in Go Girls Go! – one of the primary beneficiaries of the money that has been raised.

Courtney, a teacher’s assistant in the Life Skills department at Chambersburg Area Senior High School, spoke about mentoring girls in the running-oriented program and stressed that running is only one of the many benefits of Go Girls Go!

“We meet weekly with the girls, and we talk about things like self-esteem and bullying and hygiene, taking care of yourself, and being a good person,” said Courtney. “The goal of it is not just running, but to be a better person.”

They do do a lot of running, though: running every week, which culminates in a 5K run in May.  

Neus said that it “is just the most uplifting thing to see these girls finish. Some of them are crying. Some of them didn’t think they could do it. The whole time we’re practicing, it’s ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this’…and then at the end, they do.”

Mallory Neus, who is in eighth grade, spoke fondly of her time with Go Girls Go!, and she has since gone on to run cross country and track and field.

“Our daily runs weren’t always fun,” said Mallory, “but they taught me that if you practice and work hard, you can accomplish anything. It taught me how to be a better person and to be responsible.”

Adding, “At the end of every day, there’s a special motto that we say out loud: ‘I believe in myself. I can do anything I put my mind to.’ I believe this is true. If you work hard and you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”

Phillip Whitley concludes his speech with inspiring quotes from participants in “Franklin County’s Female Firsts.”

“Be brave enough not to worry about failure. Go for it. Believe in yourself.”

When Phillip Whitley opened his speech at the reception with these words, he was quoting one of the participants, which, at the end of his speech, he revealed to be none other than Pam Anderson. He concluded his speech with the rest of Anderson’s quote:

“Do what scares you. I’m always in awe of young people who try new things. Not worrying about what will happen if they fail or what others might think of them. Have the courage to be your true self even if it’s not what others think is traditional or expected.”

Adding one more quote for good measure, this time from Paula Hepfer, another participant in the show, whose “female first” was co-founding the Cumberland Valley School of Music:

“Don’t allow a job or a task to feel bigger than it is. Think it through, but don’t get stuck before you begin. Take it one step at a time, refine, and go girl.”

[Main image caption: Visitors view the photographs and wall text that comprise “Franklin County’s Female Firsts” during the opening reception at Coyle Free Library on Friday, February 28. The exhibit will be on display through the month of March in honor of Women’s History Month.]

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