Meet our Women of Distinction 2017 Honorees

Women of Distinction Award

YWCA Women of Distinction Awards inspire others to achieve by recognizing the leadership of women in a variety of arenas. YWCA Women of Distinction have brought key issues facing women, girls and people of color to the forefront. The awards recognize outstanding women in Southeastern Massachusetts whose lives and accomplishments reflect the YWCA’s Mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. Honorees are recognized for their exceptional commitment to improving the lives of women and girls through their leadership, advocacy, and community service, while achieving success in their career fields.

2017 YWCA Women of Distinction Honorees are:

Marilyn Gonsalves

Marilyn Gonsalves was born and raised in New Bedford.  She is the daughter of the late Albert and Mildred Lopes.  She graduated from New Bedford High School and attended the Stenotype Institute of Boston, where she majored in Court Reporting, graduating with honors.

Marilyn worked as a Court Reporter and provided secretarial work for many attorneys in New Bedford.  She also worked as an Executive Secretary for the New England Floor Covering Company in Boston.

Marilyn served as the Confidential Secretary for New Bedford Mayor  Edward Harrington.  She also was appointed the first female Administrative Assistant to the Mayor.

In 1970, she was hired as the Director of Tenant Selection for the New Bedford Housing Authority.  She retired in June 2014 after 44 years of serving the City of New Bedford and her community with professionalism, integrity and compassion.

As a strong believer in community service, Marilyn has been active with several organizations throughout the years providing leadership and support in helping to enrich and empower the lives of others.  Her community service and special recognitions include:  Vice-President of the Cape Verdean Recognition Committee, Chairperson of the Cape Verdean Scholarship Committee, Member of the Whaling Museum Cape Verdean Advisory Committee, and Commissioner of the City of New Bedford Water Board.

Her recognitions include:  First recipient of the Tom Lopes Community Awareness Award in 2014, Recipient of the International Women’s Day Award by the Cape Verdean Association in New Bedford, Recognized as a Cultural Ambassador by the New Bedford Historical Society and selected for the Women of Vision Award by the Martha Briggs Educational Club in 2007.


Denise Porche

Denise Porche has held leadership roles in community activism, social service provision and philanthropy for over three decades. Currently, Denise is Executive Director of the Island Foundation, which she has led since 2009.

Under her leadership, the Island Foundation has increased its funding for basic needs, “DEI” grantmaking strategies, and educational and work opportunities for underserved populations. In addition, she founded the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network and the Women CEO’s Group.

Her leadership in philanthropy includes facilitation of the Greater New Bedford Funders’Network and Exponent Philanthropy’s Local Engagement Group where she works with colleagues to strengthen the capacity of foundations and nonprofits in the area, and she works with Boston funders to bring greater resources to New Bedford. She also teaches Social Justice Philanthropy at The Heller School for Social Policy & Management at Brandeis University.

Prior to joining the Island Foundation, Denise was a fellow at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, she worked on inclusion projects, immigration issues, and was a member of the Harvard Diversity Working Group.

Denise spent many years at Catholic Social Services (CSS) where she managed initiatives in response to the crisis of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, and she founded the National Safe Environment Leadership Conference. She also directed the local Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), and served as a member of the National Advisory Board for CCHD. Also during her tenure at CSS, she organized the humanitarian crisis response after the Bianco immigration raid in New Bedford.

Additionally, Denise is an advisor for the Criminal Justice Department at Bridgewater State University, The Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University, and the Leduc Center for Civic Engagement at UMASS Dartmouth. She is also the co-chair for programs at Associated Grant Makers, and a board member for the Environmental Grantmakers Association, where she is active with global distance learning programs in China, South Africa & Kenya.

Denise holds an MSW from Boston University and a BA in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Denise lives in New Bedford, is the proud mother of Alexandra, Gabrielle & Alana, and an ardent champion for the arts…don’t get her started about Hamilton!


Shana Silva

Shana Silva is an educator and a social justice activist who works to promote equal education for students of diverse backgrounds. Shana believes that every child has the basic human right to a high quality education, regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs, or area code.

Shana is the daughter of Portuguese immigrants and a first generation college graduate. Now, she is the Assistant Dean of Student Services at New Heights Charter School in Brockton, MA, where she dedicates her career to advocating for English Language Learners. Having been an English Language Learner herself, she understands the challenges that students must face on a daily basis in order to adjust culturally and linguistically in order to thrive in our public education system.

Shana was also an Ameri Corps volunteer and lead teacher at Our Sisters’ School in New Bedford, a tuition-free independent school for girls from low-income families, where she aimed to inspire and empower young girls through their educational experience. Prior to her work at Our Sisters’ School, Shana volunteered at the Immigrants’ Assistance Center, teaching naturalization classes to legal permanent residents in Portuguese and Spanish. Shana also spent time volunteering in Costa Rica where she taught English to indigenous peoples.

Shana lives to inspire young people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome all odds and reach their full potential. Shana holds a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish, with a minor in Portuguese, and a Masters of Arts in Teaching degree from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.



Spirit of Leadership Award:

The Spirit of Leadership Award, honors a young woman for her academic and career achievements, community service, advocacy, support of efforts that benefit women and girls, and commitment to the YWCA Mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.

2017 Spirit of Leadership Honoree is:

Milagros Sanchez-Gaton

Millie was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States with her parents in 2000 looking for a better life. They were very poor and struggled to make ends meet. Once she moved life was hard, especially for Millie because she had to start her life over. She made a lot of mistakes and met the father of her kids. She became pregnant with twins shortly after and was forced to live with him and his family. She was the family disgrace. Millie was stuck for years in that house being abused and maltreated by everyone, especially him and his dad.

One day she left after many attempts (with her babies and a couple of trash bags) and came to Massachusetts. She was scared and alone, but with an unexplainable peace inside.

Here is where Millie discovered her passion for helping and being involved in the community. She volunteered for YWCA Leading Ladies, Bristol Community College, Women’s Center, and even the Women’s Fund.

Mille wants to give back and empower women and little girls.

Millie obtained her GED in 2013, her Associates Degree in 2016 from Bristol Community College, and is currently at Simmons College, where she is two semesters away from becoming a social worker. Her focus is Domestic Violence. She wants to make policy and advocate.

Determination and perseverance is the key to success, Millie the proof.


Yvonne M. Drayton Award

The Yvonne M. Drayton Award is named for the former YWCA Southeastern Massachusetts Executive Director, who retired in 2007 after seventeen years of service to the YWCA Southeastern Massachusetts. This award recognizes a YWCA volunteer whose commitment to the YWCA and community at-large has been extraordinary.

2017 Yvonne M. Drayton Honoree is:

The Honorable Bettina Borders

Bettina moved to Bristol County in 1983 with her husband, Victor Mailey and five sons, Philip, Calen, Jason, Robin and Nicholas. She was appointed Associate Justice of the MA Juvenile Court ( first female Judge in Bristol County Juvenile Court) in 2000 by Governor Cellucci. In 2005, she was appointed First Justice of New Bedford Juvenile Court
( first female first justice in Bristol County Juvenile Court). Prior to being an attorney she started the first rape crisis center in the country at the YWCA Greater Hartford, CT.

During her tenure as a Judge in Bristol County, Bettina started a number of alternative sentencing initiatives to divert juvenile offenders from criminal justice and back to the community including, Changing Lives Through Literature, Second Chance Drug Court, Youth Opportunities, Juvenile Justice Behavioral Health Pathway, Reclaiming Futures Restorative Justice, Juvenile Detention Alternative etc, most of these initiatives funded by national foundations or community partners.

Bettina received her BA from Goddard College, her MA from Columbia University
and her JD from University of Connecticut School of Law.

Bettina retired in December 2015. Since her retirement she has spent time traveling, and visiting with pride, her accomplished sons and their families. She has four grandchildren and one on the way.

She bikes, hikes, snowshoes, does yoga, and meditation. Since November 2016, she has spent most of her time processing the current political climate and working hard to change what she sees.

She is currently focusing on immigration issues. Bettina is a fellow with the Access to Justice fellowship of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. As a fellow, she mentors new lawyers at the UMASS Law School Justice Bridge Center.

Bettina received the Standard Times Jacobs Award, Cranston Hall of Fame Award and the Standard Times Woman of the Year Award.

Bettina started the Women’s Fund of Southeastern MA and is a Past President and Board Member of the YWCA Southeastern MA. These are her two favorite organizations!


YWCA Man of Distinction

New this year is the “YWCA Man of Distinction Award”, honoring a man who truly embodies and supports our Mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.

2017 Man of Distinction
YWCA Ally Award:

Neal Weiss

Neal Weiss is the founder and former president of Fiber Optic Center (FOC), a 35-person international high tech distribution company headquartered on Centre Street in downtown New Bedford.

He is also the president of Whaling City Sound (WCS), which releases and distributes CD recordings of local, national and international talent. FOC and WCS also support live music, the NB Symphony, the YWCA, the NB Art Museum, the Whaling Museum, and Sine Nomine (see’-nay nom’- i-nay) Choral Ensemble, among other non-profit groups.

Neal is the co-chair of the New Bedford Education Foundation, which raises and distributes grants for innovative and effective programs that benefit New Bedford public school students and which are not funded by the school budget.

For 14 years, and until this year, Neal was the volunteer coach and teacher of the Whaling City Kids Wrestling Team, which brings Olympic style wrestling to children of the
New Bedford Public Schools ages 4 and up.

Neal was a member of the board of the New Bedford Art Museum, including a stint as chair.

Neal’s involvement with the YWCA began shortly after he moved to the area in 1985, a result of helping with jazz concerts and meeting then-Executive Director Yvonne Drayton. Since then, he has volunteered for the YWCA in many ways. Neal credits the leaders and staff of the YWCA as key influences and contributors to his character development, and he remains in awe of the significant community programs that the YWCA offers for women and men, as he says, “from before birth through after death.”

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