More than 60 metro moms were nominated for our annual Awesome Moms contest, and we are inspired by the stories of each and every one. Congratulations to this year’s winner, Jessica Ganther, and our two finalists, Staci Howard and Gloria Palacios.
Also, read about 10 metro moms receiving honorable mention and celebrate the stories of all of our nominees here.
Thank you to our Awesome Moms prize sponsors: Wyndham Grand Hotel, The Spa at 10 North, udander, The Black Scintilla, Neighborhood JAM, Redrock Canyon Grill, Hefner Grill, Upper Crust Wood Fired Pizza and Painted Door Gift Boutique.
Jessica Ganther calls her 2-year-old son Michael Jr. her reason. He’s the reason she gets up every day and the reason she’s fought through unimaginable tragedy to keep moving forward.
Ganther’s partner, Michael, was killed just days after their son turned 1, and Ganther said Michael died doing what he loved — caring for others. Michael worked for a boys group home and was trying to help resolve a dispute by visiting one of the parent’s homes when he was shot as he sat in his truck to leave.
“He had a passion for working with youth, especially troubled youth, and he wanted to open his own boys home,” said Ganther.
In the 18 months since that unfathomable day, Ganther has sought to honor Michael by carrying on his legacy. She started the Michael Young Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, which provides scholarships, hosts a free basketball camp for youth and puts on a free Halloween carnival for families.
“It embodies who Michael was and everything he loved,” said Ganther. “We want to give back to underprivileged kids because they are our future. We want to be a positive light, not just to kids but to families who have lost a parent or a family who may not have the means to do fun activities.”
The foundation also strives to provide positive role models for kids and teach that violence is never the answer. The organization’s work is a tangible way for Ganther’s son to know his father.
“I will never forget him, and I want people to feel his presence through me, through my son or through things the foundation does,” said Ganther.
In addition to managing the foundation, Ganther works full time at Tinker Air Force Base managing contracts and says her team there is like extended family. She’s been with the organization for four years but started a new position just before the pandemic and then had to work from home while learning her new job and being a mom.
“Everyone on my team is a parent and they welcomed me with open arms,” said Ganther, grateful for the support especially during a difficult year.
Ganther also launched her own business just months before the pandemic hit, Party With Jess, through which she plans and styles unique, inventive parties in the evenings and on weekends. Using her creative eye to transform spaces that capture a child’s favorite character or personality is extremely fulfilling, and she most enjoys watching kids’ eyes light up when they see her creations.
Her work, her family and friends have been constant sources of support, and Ganther also credits counseling with helping her move through the stages of grief and challenges of working and parenting during a pandemic. In addition to a handful of supporters who nominated Ganther for Awesome Moms, she regularly hears from strangers who say she is an inspiration and motivation.
“People say how strong I am, even when I don’t feel like it,” said Ganther. “I hate that it has to be like this; I never thought I would be a motivation for other people because of this, but maybe this is my purpose.”
Even in Michael’s absence, Ganther says she doesn’t want to disappoint him and she constantly hears his voice in her head, saying ‘get up, Jessica’ when her strength is failing. She knows many parents can relate to some form of loss over the last year and that oftentimes there is no choice but to keep pushing forward.
“We have babies that need us and we can’t afford to give up,” said Ganther. “That goes for those who’ve lost a partner, parent, grandparent — anyone important. These babies feel that loss — they might not be able to communicate it but they can feel it, and it’s our job to make sure they are the happiest kids they can possibly be.”
It’s Michael Jr.’s sweet smile, his excitement to play and his joy in looking at photos of his daddy that motivate Ganther to be an intentional mom.
“I want to make sure the only void my child has is the loss of his father,” said Ganther. “I can’t change that, but I don’t want him to want for anything else.”
The lessons she most hopes to convey to her son are those her late partner and Michael Jr.’s dad taught her: love hard, forgive quickly, be a hard worker and treat others well.
“I don’t care if he is a doctor or manager at Chik Fil A or the next Lebron James,” said Ganther of her son. “Success doesn’t matter if you have an ugly heart. I want him to be a good person.”
Visit myoungfoundation.org to learn about opportunities to volunteer with or support the Michael Young Foundation.
Over the past year, Staci Howard has helped both her special education students and her six kids navigate a global pandemic, new ways of doing things and fear of the unknown. Finding space for her kids to complete schoolwork on virtual days while also teaching students virtually has been difficult. But Howard has long been equipped to deal with hard things.
In her fifth year of teaching special education with EPIC Charter School, Howard says flexibility and consistency are key to relationship development and finding what works best for each student to individualize their experiences.
With her children, ranging in age from 10 to 17, her biggest challenge has been creating a sense of normalcy over the past year. Even with the best-laid plans and supports, frustration levels have been high, particularly when coupled with a divisive election season and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“We’re very open with them and give them the facts they need to know but we’ve tried not to let the stress of the unknown get to the kids,” said Howard, who’s been intent upon infusing fun and connection into their days through family dinners and projects.
Those strategies are similar to what Staci and husband Keith employed as they fostered four of their children, beginning in 2012, with a focus on being open with them about the facts of their case to give them a sense of control and understanding. That open communication from the beginning has led to a home where the Howard kids ask questions and no discussion topics are off limits.
Now president of Circle of Care, Keith has managed foster care agencies and overseen shelters, adoption and transitional living programs throughout his career, but fostering their kids, a sibling set of four, was their first experience as a foster family. At the time, the family lived in Amarillo, next to the emergency shelter Keith managed that primarily housed teens and sibling sets, often difficult to keep together in foster care placements. The Howards developed a bond with the sibling set, and their 4-year-old daughter, who loved visiting children at the shelter, asked why their family wasn’t fostering, sparking a determination in all of them.
“When the kids first arrived, with their belongings in black trash bags and their fear and stress and anxiety, my heart just broke for them,” said Staci Howard. “We decided those four siblings needed a home — together — while their parents worked things out.”
Keith had often been a first-hand witness to sibling groups being split apart in foster care. When they’ve already lost nearly everything familiar in their lives — their parents, their home, their school and friends — taking them away from their siblings removes the one thing they have left. Staci Howard says older siblings are often very worried about younger siblings who they’ve been responsible for.
The Howards weren’t initially intending to adopt; they supported the kids’ biological parents and reunification efforts wholeheartedly, but it was not successful, and the Howards adopted the children in 2015. The kids see their biological parents several times a year, typically in person though during the pandemic visits have occurred via Zoom. Knowing their biological parents are safe and that they haven’t forgotten them is healing for the Howard kids.
“No matter what kids went through, that bond is still very strong and their bio parents are a part of them,” said Staci Howard.
The family had an opportunity to share their story on Good Morning America in 2019, in hopes that viewers would see that fostering or adopting a sibling group is feasible for anyone and that while big families can be chaotic, it’s a lot of fun, too.
“It’s not easy all the time but it’s not hard all the time either,” said Staci Howard. “We’ve had to adjust some things to make their lives better [because] you can’t expect them to adapt to our life. Fostering really isn’t as scary as it sounds.”
The same lessons Staci Howard has learned as a foster mom and as a special education teacher have proven vital during the pandemic, most importantly that quality time with and positive affirmation of her kids matter most and to give herself grace and lean on her support systems.
“There’s so much pressure on moms to look and be a certain way, and moms can be really bad at judging each other, but I think we all just need to understand that whatever we are doing is OK,” said Staci Howard. “We are surviving and thriving.”
Gloria Palacios vividly remembers sitting at her kitchen table, surrounded by homework for nursing school after a full day of work, class and caring for her seven children. Exasperated and overwhelmed, she looked at husband Rito and said, “I can’t do this. I need to quit.”
Before Rito could open his mouth, their young son Roger quipped, “Good. If you can quit, that means I can quit, too.”
Palacios laughs at the memory now and says that conversation comes back to her whenever she feels like quitting anything.
“I am my own worst critic, but you just have to do the best you can do,” said Palacios. “Our kids are watching everything we do.”
Palacios didn’t quit and has long been a much-revered VA nurse in south Oklahoma City. She also hasn’t given up on her patients or profession during the most frightening year of her career. She’s been afraid she would contract the virus and pass it on to those she loved, especially her daughter Mia who is pregnant. But she’s also been afraid for her patients, with whom she’s known for creating special bonds by truly seeing them and giving her undivided attention. And that dedication to her job and the veterans she serves hasn’t wavered, even though her masks and layers of protection.
“I pray with my patients and they pray for me,” said Palacios. “You never know what anyone is going through and the smile you give could truly save someone.”
Worse than the fear for her family, worse than changing clothes in the garage and immediately showering so as not to bring germs into her home, worse than when she contracted COVID herself, have been the times patients died alone.
“People need people,” Palacios said tearfully. “No one should have to die alone.”
The value and power of familial support are palpable for the Palacioses, even when they had to gather virtually instead of hosting their typical big Sunday dinners. “Glam-ma” to 23 grandkids (with one on the way!) and six great-grandkids, Palacios is a hands-on grandmother known for baking, crafting and encouraging mess-making. As her grandkids have gotten older, she’s also a trusted adviser.
Palacios is called “Glam-ma” because her motto is that she always feels better when she puts on mascara and lipstick. That mantra was passed down from her own mom and visually represents the importance of taking time to care for herself and summoning her inner strength against life’s most challenging days.
Remembering son Roger’s quip about quitting is bittersweet. Twenty-three years ago, he was killed in a car accident before he turned 16. Twenty-two years ago the family created the Roger Palacios Memorial Scholarship in his honor, raising nearly $20,000 in 2021 to provide 10 scholarships for high school seniors and anonymously help community members who need groceries, clothing or assistance paying bills. The 2021 fundraiser will be held July 31.
“He helped people all the time,” remembers Palacios. “He had a tender heart, would rally against bullying, give lunch to someone who didn’t have it, sit by people who didn’t have anyone, saved our neighbor’s daughter from choking … we’re carrying on his legacy.”
In addition to her faith, Palacios says it’s her 47-year marriage to Rito that bolsters her. Rito is her best friend who helps remind her who she is, supports her in every way and provides calm to counteract her tendency to worry. Palacios says the secret to a long marriage is to pick your battles, remember why you chose each other and make time for each other with regular date nights.
When Palacios considers her most important values as a mother and grandmother, she says she believes firmly in the value of kindness, not judging others and being respectful. Conversations always have been and still are very open in their family, and Palacios advises parents to consistently ask kids open-ended questions to engage with them, and while they’re living at home, require more time spent together than each retreating to their own spaces.
Especially when she speaks with female veterans who are overwhelmed with motherhood, particularly during the pandemic, Palacios first tells them to keep up the good work and then offers advice that’s been helpful in her journey.
“Forget about a clean house; you can do that later,” said Palacios. “You don’t need fancy meals. Do the best you can. Love your babies and give them hugs. Tell them and yourself that things are going to be OK.”
Learn more about the Roger J. Palacios Memorial Scholarship at pwp-12.com.