Getting Jolene Mowry to talk about anything besides Back Pack Kidz can be a challenge. Such is her dedication to the program she founded through the Yah Yah Girls that provides free food to schoolchildren on weekends.

For her unflagging work with this vital program, Jolene was named the 2019 Woman of Distinction by Women United, a subsidiary of the United Way. She was honored at the third annual Women United Lunch on Jan. 29 at Carmelo’s Italian Ristorante in Punta Gorda.

Speaking at the luncheon, Kim Maddy expressed the feelings of many in the community.

“I am inspired by Jolene,” said Maddy, a member of the Yah Yah Girls and Women United who serves as branch manager of the Murdock office of Charlotte State Bank & Trust. “She puts her heart and soul into the Back Pack Kidz and works tirelessly to raise community awareness and keep the program growing.

“I can think of no more worthy recipient of the Women United Woman of Distinction award than Jolene Mowry.”

Jolene’s success in establishing the Back Pack Kidz is the latest chapter in her fascinating life story. She describes herself as “originally a Southern girl,” born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. She attended Appalachian University in Boone, North Carolina, majoring in political science and history.

After she graduated, her parents thought she should become a teacher, but she got a job with Eastern Airlines instead.

“I was what is now known as a hostess,” she recalled. “Back then, we were stewardesses. It was one of the loveliest careers one could have.”

Jolene flew all over the world.

“You didn’t have to spend a lot of money because you had such liberal flight pay,” she said. “This back when you could go sightseeing by yourself and never worry. It was just lovely.”

After three years with Eastern, she returned to Charlotte and accepted a junior buying position with Ivey’s, a major department store chain subsequently acquired by Dillard’s. As a buyer of jewelry and handbags, Jolene became a world traveler again, visiting Spain, Italy and other countries. She would spend several months in Italy having handbags made.

She met her husband, Ron, while at Ivey’s, and two of them decided to start their own business. They moved to Carlisle, Pa., and opened a jewelry company.

“Ron had an office in the Empire State Building and an office in Carlisle, and our factory was in Providence, R.I.,” Jolene recalled. “We had that business for 25 years. We raised three children, all of whom graduated from college.”

In their leisure time, the Mowrys were boaters. They moored their boat on Chesapeake Bay near Havre de Grace, Md., and go there with the kids on weekends. When the children went off to college, the couple realized they weren’t likely to come home again, and Ron said to Jolene, “Well, we’re moving where we can have our boat in our backyard.”

They chose Punta Gorda.

“I was 49 years old,” Jolene said. “That was almost 20 years ago, and I have loved every minute of it.”

The Mowrys did a lot of boating in Punta Gorda, and Jolene played lot of tennis, so much that she served two years as president of the Charlotte County Women’s Tennis League. The couple joined the Isles Yacht Club and Jolene became president of the Isle-ette’s, a group of female members whose goal is to “create an environment of hospitality.”

“After I finished there, there was a hunger to do something more for a community that I was growing to love,” she said.

She heard about a new group called the Yah Yah Girls. Despite what she thought was “strange name,” she joined. This was in 2004, when the club received its 501C3 charter.

The Yah Yah Girls was conceived as a social club that also raised money for area charities. Jolene became president two years after joining, and thought there must be something else the women could do.

On a return visit to the North Carolina Charlotte in 2010, she met with some of her college roommates who had gone into education. Several were working in Appalachia and told Jolene about the hunger children were experienced in the school districts there.

“That doesn’t happen in Charlotte County, in Punta Gorda,” she told a friend who served as a school superintendent in Appalachia. “We don’t have that problem.”

Jolene’s friend laughed and said, “Go home and check it out.”

Back home to Punta Gorda, Jolene went to Sallie Jones Elementary and sat down with the principal, who confirmed that the unthinkable was going on there and at other area schools.

Jolene was shocked. “When you live in Punta Gorda, you’re sort of in a little vacuum, and you don’t realize what goes on in all of the rest of Charlotte County. I started looking into it, and I said, ‘I’m going do something about this.’ ”

And the rest, as they say, is history. The road hasn’t been easy. Jolene lost Ron in April of 2017, and doubling her efforts with Back Pack Kidz helped her deal with grief.

“It fills a void,” she said, speaking for herself and the community. “If we can make a difference, if we can feed these children and they can think for a while that they’re actually loved, that they’re actually cared about, then it’s going make a difference with them. The teachers are going to be able to teach them, and they’re going to have a future.”

Comments and suggestions are always welcome. Call Dan Mearns at 941-893-9692 or email danmearns@gmail.com.

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