Reception celebrates achievements of six Topeka women honored as ‘Women of Influence’

Six Topeka women were recognized Wednesday evening during an event that celebrated their many achievements.


About 300 people attended the Women of Influence Awards reception, an event now in its fourth year and hosted by GO Topeka’s Entrepreneurial and Minority Business Development.

In a 10-minute address, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gwynne E. Birzer spoke directly to each of the recipients in turn, sharing words of encouragement and congratulations.

“These women have long understood that their opinions of this world is a confession of their character, and what they do speaks so much louder than what they say,” she said.

Women of Influence Awards were given to Shawnee County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, for community service; St. Francis nurse and Topeka Correctional Facility volunteer Cathy Harris, as a distinguished mentor; Washburn University professor Sharon Sullivan, for education; Stacks president and CEO Cheryl Creviston, as an outstanding entrepreneur; Let’s Help CEO Linda Kehres, as a rising star; and Pamela Johnson-Betts, director of the Topeka Public Schools Foundation, as a Woman of Achievement.

Birzer also issued a challenge to the award recipients.

“Because you were deemed women of influence here publicly today, you are challenged to now stand up for what is right, you’re challenged to take ownership and leadership for tomorrow and, for that to be possible, you would have to be challenged to widen your vision as a global citizen,” she said. “So, in Oprah Winfrey’s words, use your life to serve the world and you will find that it will also serve you.”

Birzer, who was appointed a U.S. magistrate judge in Wichita in 2015, earned a bachelor’s degree and law degree from Washburn University and practiced law in Topeka before moving to Wichita in 2004.

GO Topeka shared a short video of each award recipient before presenting the women with their awards. Each of them then spoke briefly on the stage.

Harris read a poem she wrote titled “Courage,” saying she hoped it would encourage men and women in the audience to mentor others in their lives. Creviston credited Chuck Karlan, the late founder of her company, for taking a risk and hiring her to run his business 11 years ago.

Kehres dedicated her award to the men and women “who work tirelessly every single day and never get publicly recognized.”

“Please know that you make a difference, your efforts make a difference, and we see you, so thank you for what you’re doing,” Kehres said.

Eugene Williams, chairman of GO Topeka’s EMBD, announced Lonnie Williams, a Topeka entrepreneur and philanthropist, as a Community Champion. Lonnie Williams founded L&J Building Maintenance Service, which he grew from a side business into a multistate operation with state and federal contracts.

Eugene Williams called the businessman, who died in July, a friend who had recruited him years ago to become a member of the EMBD.

“My guess is that he’s doing a business deal right now and planning to open up some type of new franchise of some sort in heaven,” he said.

Angel Zimmerman, chairwoman of the Women of Influence committee, tearfully donned a bright yellow hat with a feather to recognize Marge Heeney as the second Community Champion.

Heeney, known as Topeka’s “Hat Lady,” was a longtime community advocate with a passion for education and politics. She died in June.