DRACUT -- The 19th annual Lowell Women's Week honors a legacy that dates to the early Mill Girls of the city's beginnings, speakers said Monday at a kickoff breakfast.
"Lowell is women supporting women," said JoAnn Marcos of the Lowell National Historical Park. "They are the strength of Lowell."
Other speakers echoed Marcos, calling on the women of Lowell to continue to provide a network for each other.
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"As a young woman, I benefited from the encouragement that I would succeed, from the support that building my confidence in leadership would lead to something better, from the belief that I was capable to take the lead and one day I could take the opportunity to pay it forward," said keynote speaker Linda Sopheap Sou, director of Lowell Community Health Center's Teen Block and executive director of Angkor Dance Troupe.
"Please take a moment to reflect. How did you get here today? I'm sure, just as I, you can think of at least one person who supported you. You, too, can provide that for a young woman."
Sou gave an emotional speech in which she thanked her parents, both survivors of genocide in Cambodia, for providing her a supportive, empowering childhood.
"Where would I have been without any of the supports?" she said. "Like so many young people, I was faced with choices -- healthy and unhealthy ones, smart ones and dumb ones, and, obviously, sometimes I chose the latter. I watched so many people around me fall victim to so many barriers and challenges facing our community."
Scheduled each year to lead into International Women's Day on March 8, Lowell Women's Week features a series of free programs honoring the achievements, creativity and traditions of local women today and throughout history.
The breakfast, held at Lenzi's in Dracut, featured addresses from U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, plus a video message from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Tsongas said "real changes" have occurred in the role played by women in Washington, D.C.
"Our numbers have grown modestly, but our leadership roles have increased dramatically," she said. "We're on a roll; let's not stop."
This year's Because of Her awards, presented to women who go above and beyond in their communities, were given to Jane Calvin, Rebecca Duda and Brandi Giles.
"They do work, not for the recognition or praise, but give their time quietly, unselfishly and are not typically recognized," said Katelyn Adams of Girls Incorporated of Greater Lowell, who presented the awards. "They truly are the unsung heroes."
Calvin, executive director of the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust, is a Westford resident who was recognized for her work on the Concord River Greenway, the protection of Hawk Valley Farm and other projects.
Duda, a teacher at Lakeview Junior High School in Dracut, wrote the book Dracut Revisited, proceeds of which will benefit the Dracut Scholarship Foundation. Her efforts at preserving local history also include cleanup efforts at the Claypit Cemetery and securing a grant for a portrait of Gen. Joseph Bradley Varnum to be hung in Dracut Town Hall.
Giles owns Body Destinations in Tyngsboro, as well as volunteers at Lowell General Hospital and in other fundraising endeavors. She provided massage therapy to victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and has helped the Hands for Hospice program with family home visits. Giles was ill Monday and unable to attend the breakfast.
Events the rest of the week include an open-mike night today at The Back Page, a Women's Wellness Fair Wednesday at the Lowell Community Health Center and a Radical Women Walking Tour on Saturday. For a complete schedule and event details, visit lowellwomensweek.org.
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