From left, Suzi Youngberg, BPW president, holds a check next to scholarship winner Martha Loizeaux, who teaches marine science at Ocean Studies Charter School, and Jen Cappadona, BPW scholarship committee chair. CONTRIBUTED

My husband, Ryan, and I moved to the Florida Keys in 2009 after we both lost our jobs simultaneously. Does anyone remember what it was like down here? I can sum it up: quiet. 

It was the middle of the recession. We stayed in Fort Myers for three weeks before finding our place in Tavernier. When we were in Fort Myers, we didn’t see anyone for two days. When we landed in the Keys, it was October, off-season. Back then, The Island Grill had complimentary breakfast for locals, hoping the locals would tip their staff. Snappers had a free locals night buffet (Turtle Club) with a similar intention but layer in some drinks. 

To say shifting from a successful corporate career in major cities (NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis) to a small-town vibe in a recession was depressing would be an understatement. There were plenty of tears and I often asked, “Was moving to the Keys a mistake?”

Then some grace, and following the bread crumbs, led me to the Upper Keys Business & Professional Women (BPW). Thank you, Holly Raschein and Audra Hill. I finally felt like I found a female organization that was not only friendly and welcoming but organized and fun. 

Isn’t there a famous quote from Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Make sure they are good people.”

Vanessa Chamizo, left, owner and real estate agent with Lokation; Jen White, owner of Olive Morada; and Melinda Van Fleet. CONTRIBUTED

In honor of that vibe, I thought it would be fun to share other member’s thoughts on BPW, in case there are other women who would benefit from joining such an organization, and to share some gratitude.

Gina Boili, past president and owner of Doc’s Diner, said she joined BPW in 2009 when she moved back to the Keys.

“It was a friendly, welcoming group of women, who listened, wanted to have fun and worked together. It was nice to be able to have something to do that was outside of my job and everyday activities,” she said. “Being with other women, hearing their thoughts, ideas and brainstorming to create events working together has this beautiful impact to inspire women professionally in our community.”

Suzi Youngberg, current BPW president, said from the moment she joined BPW, she knew she had found “my tribe.” 

“I have felt welcomed, supported, nurtured and encouraged to grow and learn and become a stronger, more empowered woman. The power of women supporting women and standing up for women’s rights is a force I’m proud to be part of,” she said. 

Lauren Hoefert Dunn, BPW member and Realtor with Coldwell Banker Schmitt, said BPW is full of women from various careers, backgrounds and stages of life. 

“We all support and learn from each other. There is a great deal of acceptance and encouragement,” she said. “I joined BPW as a young corporate career woman and am now a mom and business owner. This organization is welcoming to all.”

Betsy Baste, BPW member and program director at The JOY Center, said she has a large group of women she can call on for support, knowledge and expertise. 

Suzi Youngberg serves as president of the Upper Keys BPW. CONTRIBUTED

“We are all willing to help each other in any way possible and are genuinely interested in the success of others,” she said.

The Upper Keys BPW recently gathered for a member expo and awards ceremony at Whale Harbor Seafood Buffet Restaurant. 2021 Woman of the Year was Youngberg, who was nominated for her “nimble and agile” leadership style. The 2021 Business of the Year award went to Boilini for its employment of women, family atmosphere and support for local organizations. 

Two scholarship awards were also announced to women in the Upper Keys by the BPW’s Scholarship Committee in partnership with the Holly Given Fund. The Adult Women Scholarship program accepts applications and makes awards twice each year, with individual scholarships of up to $1,500.

This fall’s winners were Martha Loizeaux, who teaches marine science at Ocean Studies Charter School and is working toward a master’s degree in biology from Miami University of Ohio through its Project Dragonfly program. Tiffany Zapeda, currently enrolled in a master’s degree program in educational leadership from the American College of Education, plans to pursue a position as a school-based administrator in Monroe County.

“We are so grateful to our members and the local community for stepping up to ensure scholarship funds are available to support women,” said Jennifer Cappadonna, scholarship committee chair. 

Interested in learning more about the Upper Keys BPW? Check out its Facebook page UpperKeysBPW, email at [email protected] or check out the website www.upperkeysbpw.org

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Melinda Van Fleet is a sales strategy and success coach/consultant, bestselling author of "Confidence Mastery for Couples and Life & Love Lessons," and speaker. Melinda is the host of two weekly podcasts, "The Good Karma Success Coach" and "Crush It In Sales." You can connect with her more at www.melindavanfleet.com.