Libby Gardner, Dr. Rebecca Adams, Van Wert Police Sergeant Brandi Dershem, Judge Jill Straley, Prosecutor Eva Yarger, and CSL Contracting owner Candy Lammers pose with YWCA Director of Advocacy Kelly Houg. (DHI Media/Jim Langham)
Libby Gardner, Dr. Rebecca Adams, Van Wert Police Sergeant Brandi Dershem, Judge Jill Straley, Prosecutor Eva Yarger, and CSL Contracting owner Candy Lammers pose with YWCA Director of Advocacy Kelly Houg. (DHI Media/Jim Langham)

VAN WERT – Cougar Leaders from the 7th and 8th grade class of the Van Wert Middle School gathered in the lecture room at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center on Wednesday to listen to several professional women discuss the challenges of working in jobs that had originally been looked at as predominantly male professions.

Those participating in presenting a panel discussion of Van Wert professionals included veteran Libby Gardner, Dr. Rebecca Adams, Van Wert Police Sergeant Brandi Dershem, Judge Jill Straley, Prosecutor Eva Yarger, and Construction business owner and contractor Candy Lammers of CSL Contracting.

Kelly Houg, Director of Advocacy at the Van Wert YWCA, introduced the concept of “Equal Pay Day” to those present.

“On average women must work far into the next year to earn the same amount of pay that average men have earned by Dec. 31,” said Houg. “For 2019, on average, women have to work until March 31, 2020, to make the same amount of money that men have made by Dec. 31, 2019.”

The primary theme of Wednesday’s discussion centered around equal opportunities for all and focusing on the YWCA’s platform of Empowerment & Economic Advancement of Women and Girls.

“To the girls in the room, have you ever felt like you couldn’t do something because you’re a girl? Have you ever been told you couldn’t do something because you’re a girl? To the boys in the room, have you ever told someone she shouldn’t do something because she’s a girl? Ladies, let me ask you – how did that make you feel?” Houg asked the students.

Panelists took turns sharing their stories and experiences in their careers.

Libby Gardner spent nine and a half years drawing blood as an Army Tech.

Gardner said that what she had done prior to that was work as a correction officer in Lima and worked at Community First.

“I realized that was not what I wanted to do with my life,” said Gardner.

She noted upon entering the Army initially that some of the ineptness she felt as a woman was men not willing to be trained with women, but things moved along in other areas. She found men willing to work with women in the medical field.

“You have to have thick skin in the military. You’re going to hear all kinds of conversations, but I wouldn’t have chosen to do anything different,” said Gardner.

Dr. Rebecca Adams has been a physician in the Van Wert area for many years. She credited her father, Dr. Rob Adams, for much of the encouragement and strength that nudged her into the medical field.

Much of her undergraduate work came from Miami University in Oxford, followed by another four years of training at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton and an additional 3 years in residency.

“The medical world is changing,” said Adams. “The first thing that happened to me is when a high school guidance counselor told me that he didn’t think that I was smart enough to be a doctor. I felt just a little bit of that at Miami. Seventy-five percent of the medical students at Oxford were men.

“Mom and dad never let me give up in medical school,” added Adams. “And my husband always had my back.”

Brandi Dershem, Sergeant with the Van Wert Police Department, started out with the police department as a dispatcher 18 years ago. Her aspirations in high school were to be a wildlife officer.

“When I went to college, I didn’t apply myself,” said Dershem. “I didn’t work like I should have. I decided I wanted to go to police academy.”

Dershem said that she didn’t know anything about being a dispatcher at the time.

“All of this came by accident,” said Dershem. “Any challenges there were, I put on myself. I had one officer that was a little tough on me at the time, but I really think that he was trying to toughen me up more than anything.”

Dershem said that she was the first female police officer in the city. She felt at the time that another officer was pushing her, but really for her own good.

“I don’t want to be thought of as a female police officer,” said Dershem. “I simply want to be known as a good police officer. Nothing you really want is going to come easy.”

Other panel members were connected strictly with law enforcement. Jill Straley is currently a Judge in Van Wert County and Eva Yarger is the County Prosecutor.

Straley’s law career has divided into two segments, lawyer and judge.

“Law is changing to see more females involved,” said Straley, the second female judge in Van Wert County. “I’m loving my job. I see something different every day. Year after year, more women are getting involved in law like this.”

Yarger grew up in Kalida and went to Ohio State University. She then went on to Arizona State where she graduated with her education in 1989. The first job she went for was in Van Wert where she ended up as an assistant prosecutor.

Then she had the opportunity to run for county prosecutor. She is now the first female prosecutor for Van Wert County.

“I had a very supportive family,” said Yarger. “and I never paid attention to any negative things that were said.”

Candy Lammers was working at Central Insurance when her husband called her and hired her into construction work, doing bridgework.

“I poured cement; I was the only woman of 110 men at the site,” said Lammers. “Once I started that job, I never looked back – and I have worked very hard over the years to get where I am and I now own my own business.”

“It is so important for young women to hear these messages of dedication, hard work and perseverance as they head into High School. They need to know they can do anything they set their mind to,” stated Houg. “It’s equally as important for young men to hear this information as well – so they can support and encourage their female peers.”