By Keysha Drexel
When Teresa Zuniga Odom found out she was receiving a lifetime achievement award, the Hoover woman said her initial reaction was surprise.
Odom will receive the 2014 Mildred Bell Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award at the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama Women of Distinction Luncheon on March 7.
“I thought, ‘Whoa, I’m only 55. Is my life over?’ I really feel like I’m just getting started,” Odom said. “I’m not sure if I’ve done enough at this point to warrant a lifetime achievement award.”
But a quick look at Odom’s body of professional and community work quickly proves that the training coordinator for corporate marketing at Alabama Power and Hispanic community volunteer and advocate shows she has packed a lot of giving back into her life so far, just like the previous Mildred Bell Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award winners.
Odom is a founding board member of Fiesta, a Hispanic festival that started in 2001 to raise money for Hispanic students attending Alabama colleges and universities. She has been involved in Girl Scouts since she was a first-grader in Puerto Rico, has served in several roles in Over the Mountain troops and was the service area manager for Girl Scouts in Hoover for five years.
The Mildred Bell Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award is the Girl Scouts Council’s highest adult recognition for a lifetime of leadership and service to Girl Scouts in the Central Alabama area. Honorees are recognized for distinguishing themselves in their work, community service and humanitarian efforts.
Mildred Bell Johnson founded the first Girl Scout troop for African-American girls in Alabama and was a district adviser in Birmingham. The civil rights activist was the first African-American to be elected assistant moderator of the United Church of Christ.
Like Johnson, Odom has devoted herself to breaking down stereotypes about those in the Hispanic community and giving Hispanic students the opportunity to better themselves through education.
Odom, the oldest of four daughters, was born in Thailand to a father of Mexican descent and a mother from Oneonta. Her father was a civil engineer, and the family moved around quite a bit for his job, Odom said.
“We lived everywhere from Maryland to Thailand to Puerto Rico,” she said.
While her father grew up speaking Spanish with his family in Carlsbad, N.M., Odom and her sisters weren’t really exposed to the language or their heritage until the family moved to Puerto Rico when she was in the first grade.
“My father was born in the U.S. and even though he grew up speaking Spanish, he didn’t speak Spanish that much at home,” she said. “I learned to speak Spanish pretty quickly after walking into that first-grade class in Puerto Rico and realizing that no one spoke English.”
In fact, Odom was so adept at picking up her father’s native tongue that she quickly mastered Spanish and was able to skip the second and third grades.
But just because she had mastered her new home’s language didn’t mean Odom didn’t have her moments of feeling like an outsider.
“It can be intimidating when you walk into a room and you’re the only one that doesn’t know the language,” she said. “That was a feeling I never forgot and something I always told my own children about when they were in school. I told them if there was a new student at their school that they should always go up and talk to them and make them feel welcome.”
Odom said her advocacy for the Hispanic community in the Birmingham metro area was inspired by all the different people she met growing up and her own journey of feeling like an outsider in a new place.
“It’s funny because you don’t think all the things you’ve experienced will affect your life’s path, but it really does,” she said.
Odom became involved in the local Hispanic community in the 1990s when a co-worker at Alabama Power noticed that she spoke Spanish.
“I was in accounting then, and when my co-worker saw that I spoke Spanish, he suggested that I go to the vice president I worked for at the time about working with the growing Hispanic community that was coming into our area at that time,” she said.
From there, Odom started meeting local Hispanic community leaders like Isabel Rubio, the executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
“Now, Isabel’s my best friend,” Odom said. “Some of the best things that have come out of my involvement in the Hispanic community are the friendships and relationships I’ve formed.”
Next, Odom joined the Hispanic Business Council of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. In 2001, the group was looking for a way to raise money for Hispanic students attending Alabama colleges and universities.
That’s when the idea of Fiesta, a full-scale Hispanic festival, was born. The Hispanic Business Council decided to form a nonprofit organization whose sole mission was to organize and manage a yearly festival to celebrate and raise awareness about the diversity of the Hispanic community in the Birmingham metro area. Odom was a founding member of Fiesta.
She said the first year, festival organizers expected only about 1,000 people to show up. But word spread quickly, and the first festival in 2001 in Linn Park in downtown Birmingham attracted about 7,000 people.
The festival was held at Linn Park for its first seven years and then moved to the Hoover Met in 2010. The festival returned to Linn Park in 2012 and 2013 and will be held there again this October.
To date, Fiesta has been able to raise enough money to give Hispanic students in Alabama $50,000 in scholarships.
“It’s something that I’m really happy to be involved in and something that I think is doing a lot of good in our community,” Odom said.
She said she feels the same way about being involved in the Girl Scouts.
Odom’s career in Girl Scouts began when she was a Brownie in Puerto Rico.
“Girls Scouts was huge in Puerto Rico, and my mom, Barbara Zuniga, was always the fun mom that was doing crafts and getting involved. She was our Brownie troop leader, and so when my daughters were old enough, they also got involved in Girl Scouts,” Odom said.
Odom said she encouraged her daughters, 22-year-old Ann Marie and 19-year-old Emily, to become Girl Scouts because she remembered how much being a part of the organization had meant to her when she was a young girl.
“I was really drawing on my experience with the Girl Scouts and Puerto Rico and how much I learned from my friendships with the girls there,” she said. “I still have friends from the Girl Scout troop in Puerto Rico that I keep up with on Facebook.”
Odom said she wanted her daughters to be involved in Girl Scouts because of the skills and independence the organization teaches girls.
“It’s about a lot more than looking cute in your uniform and selling cookies,” Odom said. “Girl Scouts learn skills that they will carry with them throughout their whole lives. There’s a real emphasis now on getting girls interested in math and science, and the Girl Scouts are on the leading edge of that.”
Girl Scouts learn about budgeting and money management during their annual cookie sales and also learn teamwork and leadership skills, Odom said.
“And probably the most important thing they learn is about giving back and about the importance of getting involved in their community and doing everything they can to make things better for everyone in that community,” Odom said.
Odom said she is honored to be grouped with the other women who will be honored at the 2014 Women of Distinction luncheon.
“It’s an incredible group of women, and I’m honored to have my name next to theirs this year,” she said.
The other 2014 Women of Distinction honorees are LaVeeda Morgan Battle of Birmingham, an attorney at Battle Law Firm; Kate Cotton of Birmingham, vice president of community relations and executive director at Protective Life Foundation; Malena Cunningham of Birmingham, president and chief executive officer of Strategic Media Relations, Inc.; Helen Elkus of Birmingham, a community volunteer; Shirley Fagan of Trussville, director of communications at O’Neal Steel; Linda A. Friedman of Homewood, a partner at Bradley Arant Boult & Cummings LLP; Rosilyn Houston of Birmingham, the East Retail Regional executive at BBVA Compass; Debra Taylor Lewis of Birmingham, a partner at Balch & Bingham LLP; and Lissa Tyson of Birmingham, a community volunteer.
The Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama will present its Women of Distinction at the luncheon on March 7 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham.
Reservations for the luncheon are $60 for general admission and $45 for Girl Scout members.
Proceeds from the event will provide direct support to Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama, which serves more than 15,000 girl members in 36 counties.
For more information or to make reservations, call Kelly Connelly at 800-734-4541, extension 1030 or visit girlscoutsnca.org.