“WOA held its first event in 1985 and only recognized women in New Hanover County,” Katie Nelson Tate, volunteer and advocacy program coordinator, says. “At that time there were six adult categories and one high-school senior was awarded a scholarship.”
Today, YWCA recognizes dozens of professionals across a multitude of categories, from business to arts, communications to volunteer, and more. They also have over 20 youth-leader nominees. Along with recognizing Rohler’s own contribution to Wilmington, encore editor Shea Carver ranks among the 2012 list of females. As the case may be, Rohler actually nominated her editor.
“Shea sifts through an amazing volume of events, issues and concerns that this community has,” Rohler says. “Rather than taking the path of, shall we call it ‘traditional media,’ she has continuously shone a light toward things which would not otherwise get coverage. Last year’s Pride Week is a good example; the amount of discussion generated by the cover and the story was huge for this community. The majority of it was about how Pride Week is represented here—not the backlash that we have it at all . . . When it comes to topics across the spectrum of race and economic issues, she makes sure encore has not shied away.”
Likewise, and unbeknownst to either of the two friends and colleagues, Carver was in the process of nominating Rohler at the same time. The editor says the choice was a no-brainer. “I can’t say I know another woman with as much compassion, strength, drive and intellectualism as Gwenyfar—all the makings of a great role model and leader,” Carver states.
Influenced and inspired by many greats, including Bernadette Devlin, Agatha Christie, Aung San Suu Kyi, Michelle Obama and Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, Rohler shares their spirited inner path of fortitude and self-awareness despite societal standards. “At a time that women of [Wharton’s] class were expected to be simple-minded and acquiescent, she chose divorce and life in another country over misery,” Rohler explains. “The French awarded her the Legion of Honor for her work during WWI.”
Rohler, too, lives according to staunch beliefs and ethos of doing right by self, family and the world at large. Barely in her thirties, she has accomplished more than most who have lived 80 years or more. She resided on a commune in her late teens and early 20s, living completely off the land, which inspired her early devotion toward the locavore movement. She graduated college while founding a tea company, which she eventually sold to Celestial Seasonings. She traveled the world and almost took a job as an international reporter in Israel before the opportunity to buy Daughtry’s Old Books arose. Rohler’s family, who shopped at the bookery their entire lives, saw the storefront important and vital to the community.
“It embraced the things my parents held most dear: literacy, historic preservation (a consuming passion for them both) and freedom of speech,” Rohler says. Now the family business, Old Books’ historic front at 249 N. Front Street is a haven for open dialogue—ever-changing and always entertaining. Conversations and debates arise frequently.
“It is probably the best job in the world because you spend all day talking with people about things they are passionate about,” Rohler states. Just last week Wisconsin tourists had her debating local mass transportation. “Our bus system’s problem is a catch-22—not enough people use it to produce revenue to improve it, but the system needs so much improvement that not enough people use it,” Rohler says.
She expressed how unfortunate it is that buses still have a stigma of poverty attached to them. The visiting gentleman asked, “Why do we hate the poor so much when they have such a tiny fraction of the resources? They have so little, yet we vilify them. Why?” The customer’s question really moved Rohler to think about the inequalities in society and how to change them. “Economic justice is everyday—it’s the choices we make that add up,” she says. Thus her own passion toward local concerns, especially economically viable ones that strengthen community, have become fodder for encore’s two-year-old Live Local column. During Rohler’s first foray in business, she found out how one of the restaurants that carried her tea line used a new Staples store in the place of a small, 30-year-old family-owned print shop located directly across the street.
“It killed me,” she states. “Small businesses should stick together and support each other—if we don’t take care of each other, how can we expect other people to choose us over the big guys?”
Once she made it her mission to go a whole year without buying anything from a big-box store, the Internet or a chain restaurant, Rohler was converted by her accountability. “Not only was it a lot easier than I expected, I have never been happier or felt more gratified,” she cites. “I no longer feel the disconnect that I used to; everywhere I shop now, I am greeted by name. It has been surprising and wonderful to rediscover time and again how small businesses can beat prices and offer superior service.”
More importantly, her desire to share this impact perpetuates a cause indicative to building a sustainable village. During a time when products are being sourced overseas and jobless rates are high, Rohler says the gratification is tenfold when readers tell her they have taken on the pledge. “These small, fledgling businesses owned by your neighbors are powerful instruments for people with few options to create real economic possibilities for themselves and their families,” she says.
When the conversation turns to her recent YWCA nomination, her cheeks flush in embarrassment. She questions her achievements, per se. “While it is flattering and I am honored, this should go to someone who has made a real and lasting contribution to the community,” she says. “I do hope one day to be worthy of it.”
Rohler doesn’t realize the transformative power she holds naturally and releases effortlessly. She listens without judgement, responds without belittlement and inspires through positivity, all of which carries forth everyday with everyone she meets. Her famed parting expression, “think happy thoughts,” indicates a person of enlightenment. Rohler sees a connection between the YWCA’s message of “eliminating racism and empowering women” and her own efforts to encourage others to shop locally. “Without economic justice, there cannot be social justice or, as Ghandi so eloquently put it, ‘Poverty is the worst form of violence,’” she quotes.
The YWCA continues to showcase ladies making strides locally to help mold a better people. More importantly, they continue offering programs to help folks live better lives by more thoughtful example. Amy Kilgore, member of of the YWCA board, says, “Our Y is one of only seven in the country to have a racial justice program selected by the YWCA USA Hallmark Initiative Committee as a model program. We offer tuition assistance, job readiness training, résumé and interviewing skill-building, workshops and so much more.”
Folks can attend the Women of Achievement Awards on May 10th at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $60 for the banquet and ceremony, with cash bar; deadline to purchase is April 27th at WilmingtonTickets.com.