Each year in January we start our Awesome Moms contest and each year, the nominations are more than inspirational. There were over 70 amazing nominations of mothers whom we didn’t previously know but are glad we got to know and honor. Congratulations to the winner and two finalists, Jennifer Smith, Audrey Longson and Druana Sanders-Forcha. And our sincere appreciation to the sponsors who made this project possible: Renaissance Hotel, The Spa at 10 North, Erin Meier Aesthetics and James Avery Artisan Jewelry. You’ll also find more nominee stories to inspire you this Mother’s Day month at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/mom-inspiration.
Winner: Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith’s greatest wish for her children is to enjoy a very different childhood from the one she experienced. Husband David, who nominated Smith, calls his wife’s strength and resilience “undeniable,” permeating her roles as mom and wife, and in her career and community life. Our 2019 Awesome Mom winner is an Air Force Reserve Veteran, accomplished human resources manager, a two-time winner of the Military Spouse of the Year for the 507th Air Refueling Wing at Tinker Air Force Base and an avid volunteer, though these accomplishments pale in comparison to being wife to David, stepmom to 9-year-old Braelee and mom to 2-year-old Emmarie.
As a mom, she prioritizes being both nurturing and adaptable, raising kids who are consistently assured they are loved and valued. Smith quips that her toddler has illuminated she and David’s true potential for flexibility and patience, squelching the notion of a “one-size-fits-all” parenting mentality. Though Smith says blending families can be challenging, she has found far more beauty in the process, particularly the joy of watching Braelee embrace her role as big sister to Emmarie. She’s grateful to have a great relationship with her stepdaughter.
“As a stepmom, it’s important to remember boundaries, try not to take things personally and put yourself in the biological mom’s shoes,” said Smith.
Though Smith was separated from her mom at a young age, growing up with her brother in various foster homes, she has a clear vision of how she wants to raise her kids.
“My only goal is to raise loved, respectful and kind human beings,” said Smith. “And I want them to remember all the fun memories we shared.”
Never adopted, Smith aged out of the foster care system at age 18. She grew up primarily in Guthrie with a strong support system from community members, who she says kept her focused on forging a bright future rather than becoming a statistic.
“Half of the kids who age out of the [foster care] system aren’t employed by age 24,” said Smith. “But those challenges encouraged and motivated me to be the best parent, mom and civilian I could be.”
A year after graduating high school, Smith joined the Air Force Reserve, providing structure, discipline and a growing confidence as she made a difference in others’ lives. During a deployment to Kyrgyzstan, Smith recalls hanging out with local high school students while volunteering at the embassy.
“While getting to talk to these kids in a pretty poor country, it was neat to realize they are so much like we are; they just want to learn and have fun,” said Smith.
Smith met husband David in the Reserve, they were married four years ago and she completed her enlistment when the couple found out they were pregnant with Emmarie. Smith was asked to become the Key Spouse for the 507th Security Forces Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, which entails connecting military spouses with information and resources, planning family events several times a year and collecting funds and donations to send holiday gifts to troops overseas. As a veteran, she provides unique perspective and insight to both spouses and the unit.
“I get asked if it’s harder to be deployed or to be the family member of the deployed,” said Smith. “Being at home with the kids alone and making sure bills are paid is difficult, but being the deployed member is not easy either because you can’t be at home to help and you have a job to do overseas.”
David has been deployed three times, most recently when Emmarie was just 4 months old. Being a first-time mom and without much family to rely on for help, the 7-month deployment was a challenge, but Smith says people don’t often realize that reintegration can be just as difficult as the deployed and his or her family find a new normal. In addition to her roles as wife, mom, volunteer and veteran, Smith is accomplished in the human resources profession, working full time, completing her master’s degree just last spring and serving on the board of the Oklahoma City Human Resources Society.
“Meeting so many knowledgeable HR professionals inspired and motivated me to want to know more,” said Smith. “I don’t have any family members with a master’s degree, so it was also for me to know I could accomplish it.”
Smith’s paper planner is key to her sanity, and she’s found it’s just as crucial to schedule family fun, time with a friend or date night with David as it is to detail her work, volunteer or school responsibilities. Smith’s in-laws have been a phenomenal support system, particularly when David was deployed, and she has learned to say yes when they offer help.
“For moms it can be difficult to leave your babies and spend time by yourself or with a friend, but it’s so important,” said Smith.
David says his wife’s most treasured pastime is making memories with her kids, clear in both her planner’s pages with scheduled trips to family favorites like the Myriad Gardens and Science Museum Oklahoma, and in her everyday life. Smith exudes a joy and zest for life that are contagious. Her discipline and strength of character are rounded out by a gentleness and flexibility in caring for her life’s greatest blessings. When overwhelmed by schedules, stress or a child’s tantrum, she repeats a mantra her friend imparted about the key to parenting: “Just love them.”
“That’s really the most important thing, making sure they know they are loved,” said Smith.
Next page: Our finalists.
Finalist: Audrey Longson
Audrey Longson approaches issues both large and small with the intent of making the world a better place for her children. Mom to Harrison, 4, and Olivette, 2, husband Adam, who nominated her, calls Longson a “modern day Wonder Woman.” A psychiatrist and political advocate, Longson is passionate about improving the healthcare system, encouraging transparency in the medical field and advocating for patients’ rights to be treated by medical doctors versus nonphysician providers.
“We rank among the worst in all civilized nations in terms of outcomes, general safety, accessibility and cost,” said Longson. “Corporations, hospitals, prisons or clinics get to pocket more money [when employing non-physician providers]. The patient and the insurance company are paying for a Mercedes and getting a Kia.”
To become a physician, Longson spent nearly 15 years in training. In her work in prison she watched care decline as non-providers without comparable training replaced physicians. She believes patients have a right to know upfront whether their providers received years of training like she did, or took a year-long online course to achieve a PhD. A recent Oklahoma House bill would allow psychologists to legally call themselves physicians and prescribe medication, though they have no medical training.
“You can’t become a medical doctor through legislation, only through education,” said Longson. “Corporate medicine is pushing people like psychologists and nurses to take quick online courses and put prescription pads in their hands. These patients, suffering from depression, addiction, people who are suicidal, are vulnerable and need strong advocates.”
Longson regularly meets with Oklahoma lawmakers to advocate for change, and she recently served as a conduit between several national online physician forums to encourage the creation of a database to connect unmatched medical students seeking residency programs with physicians around the country willing to train them.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day, but I have seen that effort pays off,” said Longson. “I’m starting to feel some hope. There is talk about creating more residency positions and Oklahoma is offering incentives to physicians who are able to go out to rural areas.”
Longson’s creativity and determination in her advocacy work is mirrored in her parenting. Rather than abandon pastimes they loved pre-children, the Longsons have embraced including their children on their adventures, whether through enjoying exotic foods, traveling, cooking or watching plays.
“If there is something you are passionate about and it’s not something kids are traditionally engaged in, that doesn’t mean your kids can’t,” said Longson, who laughingly calls a flight to Australia with a 2-year.old “as bad as you would imagine,” though the decision to tag along on David’s business trip is one they’ve never regretted.
Son Harrison loves Ethiopian food and making sushi with Longson at home and is likely to include Spaghetti-Os along with salmon. Longson has learned to give her kids straightforward answers to their questions, whether about a dog passing away or how the knee joint works.
“I’m surprised over and over what kids can comprehend, remember and apply to the future,” said Longson. “I don’t think it’s for adults to determine what children are or are not capable of understanding.”
Recent Oklahoma transplants, Longson calls Oklahoma City “the coolest place the rest of the country has never thought about visiting,” impressed with the variety of museums, festivals and art available to her family. A botanic garden buff, the Myriad Gardens ranks at the top of Longson’s list, and the family loves catching plays at the Lyric Theatre, the Civic Center or Shakespeare in the Park and visiting Science Museum Oklahoma, the OKC Zoo and Factory Obscura.
As Longson maneuvers parenting in a social media-driven world, she’s highly aware of the negative impact both it and reality TV can have on mental health, thanks to her own research and work with her patients. She believes in leading by example, monitoring her own social media usage and being present with her kids rather than watching life from behind a lens or measuring worth in likes. Key to her own mental health is getting together with other moms in person, often to discuss books, which the voracious reader listens to while doing dishes or folding laundry. The movie buff also keeps up with the latest films by watching 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
Longson leads by example when it comes to caring for the world around her, too, able to recycle or repurpose just about anything, from furniture on the side of the road to items they no longer need in their household.
“Much to my husband’s chagrin, my kids know you don’t throw something out just because it doesn’t work for you anymore,” said Longson, who laughs that she was in the Earth Club before it was the cool thing to do.
From filling recycling bins to bags of clothes, toys or food donations for those in need, Longson loves watching her children think through new uses for old things. While the challenges of parenting, political activism or preserving the earth might seem daunting for some, for Longson, there is great joy in empowering her kids to be world changers.
“I want them to know everything they do matters, even the little things,” said Longson. “It’s energizing when you see in real time evidence that taking a few small steps can make a huge difference.”
Finalist: Druana Sanders-Forcha
Druana Sanders-Forcha epitomizes grit and determination. In addition to mothering two adult sons, a son finishing high school and 2-year-old daughter and being wife to Eric, Sanders-Forcha is esteemed in her engineering career and passionate about providing nourishing meals to underserved children and families. As a young, single mom of three boys, Sanders-Forcha vividly remembers spending evenings at the library, all four doing homework together as she held both a fulltime job at an engineering company and attended college full time. When not at the library, her mom would keep the boys so Sanders-Forcha could study or attend class.
Though Sanders-Forcha dropped out after her first attempt at college after high school, saying neither she nor her mom realized the grants and resources available to her, memories of high school drafting classes and awe of the projects in her workplace inspired her to pursue her bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering.
“I wanted to be a provider for my kids because for a long time, it was just us,” said Sanders-Forcha. “I couldn’t afford not to work full-time, but I also felt like I owed it to my kids.”
In her family, she calls her pursuit of education the exception rather than the norm, and she wanted something different for her boys. By removing barriers she hoped to show them they could one day pursue college, too. A degree also paved the way to purchase a new home in Spencer, where she still lives, after her oldest boys were hit by a car in their old neighborhood, requiring middle son Darrick to be medevaced to Children’s Hospital. Soon after Sanders-Forcha earned her bachelor’s degree, her college adviser encouraged her to attain her master’s in performance improvement, which helped her earn her current position as senior lead engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton. She finds great fulfillment in helping clients bring products to fruition.
That same work ethic and positive spirit aided friend Lisa Blacknoll, who nominated Sanders-Forcha, in launching non-profit organization Filling Tummies in 2017. Focused on providing fresh, nutritious foods to children in local food deserts, the team takes a bus once or twice a month to local schools, as funds and requests align. The Filling Tummies bus creates a party atmosphere in school parking lots, cranking up music and welcoming 100 percent of students to grab a bag and shop. No questions are asked about need, income or family size because Sanders-Forcha remembers how dehumanizing that feels.
“When I was a child and my Mom needed help every once in a while, we’d go to the food pantry and you’d sit there half the day answering questions about your house size, income and religion,” said Sanders-Forcha. “You’d sell your soul for a bag of groceries, and it may not even be things you wanted and needed.”
Filling Tummies doesn’t give away food the volunteers wouldn’t want themselves, and while they stock kid-friendly snacks, they also educate kids on the variety of fresh fruit and vegetables available. Many have never seen a mango, cucumber or cherry tomatoes. Volunteers encourage kids to think beyond themselves and select choices family members will like, too.
“When you’re on a fixed income, you economize and get things you can afford, which is usually not fresh stuff,” said Sanders-Forcha. “But now they get to know what a real orange or pear tastes like, without preservatives.”
Sanders-Forcha loves watching kids feel empowered by making their own food choices and contributing to their families. The team gave away more than 10,000 pounds of food over Spring Break, and Sanders-Forcha dreams of doing more for underserved families. The hardworking mom also believes in the power of play and laughter. Sanders-Forcha finds immense joy in watching her kids play sports. She takes time for herself by playing in a women’s basketball league and making handbags and purses for her side venture.
She loves to travel, whether with Blacknoll and families renting out a cabin each year, visiting her siblings and extended family in Las Vegas, or exploring new destinations with husband Eric, most recently Canada and Africa.
Though Sanders-Forcha feels great pride in her boys’ pursuit of higher education, Darian a college graduate, Darrick in college and Denis attending this fall, her nurturing heart has had a hard time letting them go. After earning scholarships to a Connecticut high school, eldest Darian son left home even earlier than anticipated.
“I wasn’t prepared and thought I had a few years left to mother him,” said Sanders-Forcha. “But when I realized what a great opportunity it was and that he had earned it, I had to let him go.”
While Sanders-Forcha is grateful to have Dalynn at home to ease the transition, watching her boys find their own passions has fulfilled her biggest dreams.