Women of Benchmark Who Have Made a Difference
International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate influential, ongoing achievements made by women and to raise awareness about the challenges women are still facing. The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquality. This means challenging everyone to build a more inclusive world, one where we address discrimination head-on and fight to provide every woman the opportunity to pursue whatever they’re passionate about.
This International Women’s Day, we’re proud to shine a spotlight on three extraordinary women from our Benchmark family. These women have broken down boundaries, challenged the status quo, and enriched the lives of those around them. It’s our honor to share their stories, and our sincere hope that others are inspired by their courage and resolve.
Virginia Whitcomb currently resides at Benchmark Senior Living at Hamden, but as a Duke University student in the ‘40s, she challenged convention with her love of science. Virginia was one of the few women at the university studying chemistry and physics. As she excelled in her studies, she was asked to participate in a classified research project. Years later, Virginia learned this research was instrumental in the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the first atomic bomb.
After she graduated in 1943, she continued her trailblazing path by taking a job at the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company. Virginia seized this opportunity to work in a field normally dominated by men but was vacant due to men fighting in WWII. On top of her successful career as a chemist, Virginia went on to raise four children, earn her master’s degree, teach, and even visit all seven continents. We recognize her today for building a space for herself where none existed and for blazing a path forward for other women to follow.
The late Dr. Dorothy Pieniadz was a former resident of Capitol Ridge at Providence and dedicated her life to the mentorship and education of young people. In 1956, she broke into the male-dominated arena of higher education and was named the first female Dean of Students at what was then known as the Rhode Island College of Education. Dr. Dorothy’s passion for creating opportunities for young people would inspire her to found the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island just ten years later.
At the BBBSRI, Dr. Dorothy worked to match boys and girls with older mentors to guide and support them. She recognized that having someone to look up to could make all the difference for a young person trying to map out their future. In Dr. Dorothy’s honor, Benchmark held a clothing and textile drive across several of our communities last December to raise money for the BBBSRI. In their 2022 year-end report, the BBBSRI cited how parents of “Littles” in the program have seen their children improve in their academic performance and social skills, and develop a greater sense of self-confidence.
Dr. Dorothy would no doubt be proud of the positive impact the BBBSRI continues to make. Making sure young people received the education they needed was particularly important to her. Dr. Dorothy believed that education was the road by which children could reach any destination they had in mind. In light of this, Dr. Dorothy never missed an opportunity to introduce young people to new cultures. Using her connections with friends from all over the world, Dr. Dorothy brought international education courses to Rhode Island College. She even facilitated visits from artists, speakers, folk musicians, and dance groups from all over the world. We remember Dr. Dorothy today for how she fought to make those educational resources available to everyone—regardless of sex, upbringing, or financial means.
We also applaud Melanie Barbieri, Senior Director of Community Engagement and Programming at Benchmark. Melanie and her family have fostered a total of 25 children over the last 10 years, for no other reason than “because we could.” Melanie exemplifies one of Benchmark’s core values: being Called to Care. Time and time again, she has opened her home to children in need and provided them with safety, stability, and love. Even though in many cases the goal of fostering is to eventually reunite children with their biological families, Melanie says she doesn’t mind getting attached to them: “The point is to get too attached – that’s what these kids need.”
Melanie’s passion for fostering children has also been an inspiration to others. She frequently hosts events for future foster and adoptive families, and at one such event, she met Ashley Meloy, a Program Director at Benchmark’s Village at South Farms. After meeting Melanie and hearing her advocate for fostering, Ashley and her husband decided to bring a child in need into their own home—the same child who they would eventually adopt. “It was a great connection. I never thought my career choice would connect me to my daughter,” says Ashley.
We hope that the incredible women of Benchmark have inspired you as much as they have those around them. Virginia, Dr. Dorothy, and Melanie are exemplary in their efforts to be the change they were longing to see in the world. They took ownership of what they were passionate about and dove head-first into uncharted territory, never stopping to look back or question if they had the will to achieve what they wanted. We commend their fortitude and encourage women and their allies all over the world to blaze their own paths forward. This International Women’s Day, may everyone feel empowered to #EmbraceEquality.