I don’t know what is about Kingston, but this city is fully loaded with super-strong women. Last week, I told one woman’s story of her Herculean battle with cancer and interviewed another on the challenges of being a mother, wife and a policewoman.
Charlene LaDay-Hill, a regulator for the state Gaming Commission, is also the director and founder of Kingston’s Summer Sizzle basketball program and preacher at New Jerusalem church. She explains that her female fortitude is genetic, being an “Arceneaux” woman from St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. LaDay-Hill, mother of a 23-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter, said her family’s females always had professional jobs and were high performers, not groomed to become brides as many other southern women were. One aunt was the deputy chief of police in her town. One cousin was the first African-American woman to graduate from Louisiana State University. LaDay-Hill’s town was so small and intimate, she said, that most of its other residents were relatives.
Opportunities in rural Louisiana were not easy to come by, so, straight out of high school, LaDay-Hill joined the Army in hopes to become a journalist and see the world. LaDay-Hill said she had originally contacted the local Air Force recruiter, but it was the Army recruiter who showed up at her door to respond. She was reticent. According to LaDay-Hill, the recruiter took one look at her behemoth “Cajun grandfather” and asked her, “Does he ever yell at you? What do you do?” LaDay-Hill responded, “I just ignore it and just do whatever I am supposed to be doing.” The recruiter said, “You’ll be fine.”
LaDay-Hill studied journalism at the notoriously challenging Defense Information School and served as the sports and leisure editor at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where she met numerous celebrities such as actor Danny Glover, rappers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Sir Mix-A-Lot and even basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
LaDay-Hill met someone else of importance and impact at Fort Campbell — the man who would soon become her husband. After they married, she was lucky enough to follow his transfer to Camp Casey in Korea, where she worked as the editor for the Indianhead, the 2nd Infantry Division’s weekly newspaper. One half of the paper was English, and other half was printed in Korean, so she worked with Korean college students and editors.
One might expect that an African-American female soldier might face racist or sexist issues on a near-daily basis in the Army. LaDay-Hill said she had a fellow African-American female soldier as a mentor who spelled out for her the secret to strength: “My mentor early on explained to me that there are no males or females—only soldiers — so just do your job to the very best of your ability.” LaDay-Hill said when she was pregnant in Korea that she still did the drills. “Being a female has not seemed to work against me, and being an African-American was a non-issue.”
LaDay-Hill’s high-energy, upbeat vitality and enthusiasm for life is evident within a few short minutes of speaking to her. Her military background and proper southern upbringing evidences itself in her professional presentation and willingness to take leadership roles and her work as a journalist sharpened her communication skills. LaDay-Hill takes her gifts to the pulpit at New Jerusalem church as well.
LaDay-Hill said she was “called by God at 19 years old to preach,” but ignored the calling and didn’t pursue it. “I was dating my husband, and he was kinda cute, and I didn’t want to answer that call yet.” LaDay-Hill says that she relates to young people, and will even watch the occasional reality show to ensure that she can still speak their language. (But she emphasized that she does not approve of “Bad Girls Club” and discourages kids from watching it).
Also, she said, she relates to the kids through music. “I love rap and I do ‘Holy Hip Hop’ and we rap about God,” she said. “One of the things I tell the kids is that God tells mamas everything. If you get busted with someone it’s because God doesn’t want to see you go the wrong way. God has a plan for you, you have no excuse. Honor your mother and father, especially the ones who work and do the right things … And if they don’t do the right things, because not every parent does, you pray and you tell someone.”
LaDay-Hill’s best-known contribution to the Kingston city youth community is through her formation and organization of Summer Sizzle summer basketball league, which hosts over 150 city youths between the ages 8-18 on 10 teams. LaDay-Hill said that she saw the immediate need when her family moved from Beacon where every court in the city is used by their summer basketball league, to Kingston, which had little to no organized basketball. When she whipped together some coaches, courts and placed kids on teams, she was asked to do it all over again for the next year as well. And so a league was born.
Longtime friend and fellow lay preacher Sandra Thompson-Hopgood described LaDay-Hill as, “very spiritual.” LaDay-Hill is motivated, she said, and “is concerned about her community and the well-being of the at-risk and underserved population.” Thompson-Hopgood said LaDay-Hill has essential leadership skills. LaDay-Hill recruited for her basketball program from the Everette Hodge Community Center, where Thompson-Hopgood was working at the time. “[La-Day-Hill] is a die-hard,” she said. “Whenever she comes into opposition or things start to fall apart it’s her faith in God that keeps her continuing and work to move forward because she knows that God is going to give her victory. She will take nothing, and make something out of it. [She will give] her personal time her personal money to make it work. She works a lot of hours, and she sat out at Wal-Mart in the freezing cold shaking a can to get donations so children can play basketball.”
Thompson-Hopgood said through the league, the kids learn vital life skills of teamwork, strategy, fair play and how to be courteous through the league. “A lot of the kids come from homes that are DSS or 200 percent [above the] poverty [line] and cannot afford to pay,” she explained, adding that they try to accommodate every child who wants to play, no matter their family’s ability to pay. Also, they appreciate it enough to stay on good behavior. “They are not going to fight curse scream. [If they do] they are off the team. So they settle it on the basketball court, they are not just hanging out on the street corners or at the corner stores. [LaDay-Hill] keeps going forward with it with her belief in God moving her.”
Cherie Hanson-Rodriguez: Tenacious, assertive, nurturing, empathic
Hanson-Rodriguez grew up in Kingston and left the area after college. She returned to the Hudson Valley 26 years later with her husband, Angel, and son Alex. She is presently the vice president of operations of Nistel, Inc. and served many years in administration of rehabilitation hospitals and skilled nursing facilities in Florida, Massachusetts and New York. She also spent several years in non-profit development and executive director positions in Delaware and Atlanta.
Carrie Jones Ross: Why would one say that you are a “strong woman”?
Hanson-Rodriguez: I think all women who are in any way successful at balancing their work and family responsibilities are strong women. Likewise, women who have the luxury of choosing one or the other, doing the best they can at what they do, are strong too because in both cases they’re going against what society says they should do.
CJR: How have you managed to be successful in a man’s world?
Hanson-Rodriguez: I’m a big believer that you can have it all, but maybe you can’t have it all at once. Early in my career I focused on my work in nursing home and rehabilitation hospital administration as a licensed administrator. My son was born when I was 41 and I was fortunate enough to be able to take four years off to spend time with him. The healthcare industry changes swiftly and dropping out for those four years impacted the kinds of positions I was being offered. By combination of chance and design I reinvented my work into fundraising and development for non-profit private schools with the added bonus of being on-site where my child was educated in his early years. That experience led to several years of serving as executive director of a non-profit in Atlanta. So my career life has been interwoven with the needs of my family life. It comes down to ages and stages and being flexible for what works for you at each juncture to what life presents.
CJR: What from your upbringing or background helped to form your strength, or were you always a strong woman?
Hanson-Rodriguez: My grandmother completely inspired me by example even though I didn’t realize it at the time. She graduated college with a teaching degree in 1929 and taught all ages combined in a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska, got her nursing license during the depression, worked actively as a nurse in a boys reform school until she was over 80. When I was small she would take me with her to work and all the nurses working with her were such strong women, able to care for these troubled boys and building great relationships with them at a time in their lives when they needed it so badly. Even as a child I thought only women could do that. She managed her own finances, traveled wherever she wanted and truly was her own person. She taught me to think independently, to be self-sufficient and that girls can do anything. I always keep the engraved sterling silver pickle fork that her college gave the two graduating girls in 1929 framed in my kitchen to inspire me. It’s clear that they had no idea how to reasonably acknowledge a woman graduating from college at that time.
CJR: What are some words you would use to characterize yourself as a “strong woman”… both positive and negative?
Hanson-Rodriguez: Someone recently described me as having “the tenacity of a pit bull” when I need to decide the best action to take as a parent. No disrespect to the breed, because I love all dogs, but I did pause for a moment to consider if this was a compliment or the opposite. Somehow when women are viewed as strong or tenacious simply the recognition of it can sometimes sound slightly negative.
CJR: What are some words others might use to describe that trait… both positive and negative?
Hanson-Rodriguez: Tenacity is a good word, because to be successful at anything women need more than their fair share of perseverance. When women are able to tap into the parts of themselves that have traditionally been subverted by society and labeled male traits: assertiveness, ability to take charge, handling confrontation directly and combine it with traits that have traditionally been considered female: empathy, compassion and nurturing, all things are possible. I think it’s true for men as well, when anyone is able to tap from a wider base of understanding to respond to situations it improves the outcome.
CJR: How do men react or treat you differently?