The eighth annual Blount County Athena Leadership Award will be presented on Jan. 23 to one of 10 women, all of whom are recognized for using their strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment to make outstanding contributions to their community.

The finalists — Keeli Boyce, Elizabeth Coffield, Willa Estell, Penny Ferguson, Sally Joines, Jan McCoy, Jackie Mills, Tracy Queen, Heather Ripley and Patsy Russell — will be introduced at a banquet in their honor beginning with a reception and cash bar at 5:30 p.m. followed by a meal and the awards ceremony beginning around 6:15 p.m. at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus. The event is primarily sponsored by The Daily Times and Lamon Jewelers.

Pistol Creek Catch of the Day will provide entertainment, and Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell and Lisa Skinner will be the emcees. Sullivan’s Downtown will cater the dinner.

Gigglebox Photo Booth, manned by professional photographer Jamie Weiss, will offer a free photo to any banquet attendee.

Tickets are $75 per person or $550 for a table seating eight. Contact Joi Whaley, advertising director for The Daily Times, at or 865-981-1152 for reservations.

Supporting local leaders

Whaley, facilitator of the Athena Program in Blount County, said, “This is a great event to come out and show support for these wonderful ladies who not only work in our community, but they are also volunteering, donating, getting out there working to make the community better. It’s a great way to honor those who serve the community above and beyond their jobs.”

Whaley, with the advice of past Athena nominees, has made some changes in the program itinerary this year. “We are literally rolling out the red carpet,” she said. “We will have a red carpet for the ladies to walk to the stage.” Each nominee will be escorted to the stage and receive a gift bag with their framed nomination story and a gift card to Lamon Jewelers, and will be seated on the stage rather than standing in front while emcees introduce each one.

Whaley said the 2020 Athena Leadership Award winner has been chosen by an impartial committee made up of local community members using a point system developed by Athena International. Although she would give no indication as to the winner’s identity, Whaley said, “It was a really hard decision.”

The nominees include:

Keeli Boyce

Keeli Boyce started her own company, Express Strategic Services, in 2016 after serving as vice president of human resources for Dentek, where she worked for 12 years. Her leadership qualities and concern for others are evident in her professional and personal life and as an active worker for community betterment.

Boyce, a graduate of Heritage High School and Maryville College, serves her community in a number of ways. Some of these include: co-founder of Beautifully Designed for More, an organization helping women live lives with purpose; Boys and Girls Club of Blount County board member; United Way supporter; Junior Service League of Maryville Sustainer; Kingdom Design Ministries board member and KDM fundraising chair; member, Blount County Chamber of Commerce; and member of Leadership Blount Class of 2014.

Elizabeth Coffield

Elizabeth Coffield is with LeConte Realty as a Realtor and shareholder, and she owns the Neighborhood Barre Maryville Franchise. She’s also a strong advocate of volunteering in the community. She is past president of Junior Service League of Maryville and is now a sustainer, and also is an active member and children’s volunteer at Foothills Church.

At LeConte Realty, she is on the board of directors of the LeConte Realty Foundation, which supports local nonprofit groups with a general focus on housing, health, and child and family services. Some of the organizations the foundation supported in 2018 include Blount County Habitat for Humanity, CASA of East Tennessee, New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center, Community Food Connection of Blount County and United Way of Blount County.

Willa Estell

The Rev. Willa Estell, pastor of St. Paul AME Zion Church in Maryville, has served the church since 2001, making history as its first female pastor. She is a graduate of Martin University in Indianapolis, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in religious studies and a minor in African American studies. She graduated from Christian Theological Seminary in May 2001 with a Master of Divinity, and in May 2013, she received the Doctor of Ministry degree from Hood Theological Seminary.

A sampling of Estell’s community outreach, past and present, includes serving as presiding elder of Maryville District AME Zion Churches; coordinator for the women’s ministry, Midwest Area, AME Zion Church; chaplain, Blount Memorial Hospital and Hospice; serving on the boards of Haven House, American Red Cross, Good Neighbors of Blount County, Family Promise and Blount County Ecumenical Action Council; graduate of Leadership Blount Class of 2010; president of Alcoa-Blount County NAACP; chairperson, Blount County United; and chairperson, Beloved Community Outreach Foundation.

Penny Ferguson

Penny Ferguson attended Fort Craig and Sam Houston elementary schools, Maryville Junior High and Maryville High, where she has taught since 1970. She received a bachelor’s degree from Maryville College and Master of Arts, Education Specialist and doctorate degrees from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Ferguson has been awarded numerous honors on the national, state and local levels.

In addition to professional excellence, she serves her community in a number of ways, such as leading National Honor Society students in more than 2,000 hours of community service in 25-30 ongoing events each year — including the Community Food Connection, Postal Food Drive, Good Neighbor’s Banquet, Laptop Deployment, Welcome Table, Starlight Banquet, Rebel Run and more; Leadership Blount Class of 2004; serving as an advocate for better education in Tennessee; board member of Reach Them to Teach Them, helping to create a dinner/speaker program for 1,600 teachers in East Tennessee each year; and as an AP College Board national advocate to open doors and provide funding for more students to have access to AP courses. At Maryville High, she is leader of Critical Friends Groups for New Teachers; sponsor of National Honor Society and Maryville Scholars; leader in Medal of Honor Program and Centennial Speakers Series; and leader in the Off the Map Youth Project to digitize historical sites in Maryville.

Sally Joines

Sally Joines had a successful career as a business travel center coordinator/group meeting manager until deciding to stay home with her children. As the mother of three, she is extremely active as a school and community volunteer, always willing to help spearhead any event to help the schools and the running community.

Some of her volunteer opportunities include director, Tour de Blount, a cycling event with the goal to raise money to support two local scholarships and other local charities; vice president, Foothills Striders; co-chair, Trot for Education 5K/One Mile Run, a fundraising running/walking event sponsored by the Blount County Education Foundation and Clayton Inc.; director, Dogwood Classic 5K/One Mile Run; East Maryville Baptist Church greeter, volunteer; previous Carpenters Elementary PTO president; Carpenters Elementary School Running Club assistant coach; and Carpenters Middle School parent volunteer.

Jan McCoy

Jan McCoy has worked as a parent volunteer at Maryville High School, devotes her skills and time to her church, Maryville First United Methodist, and has been involved with Family Promise of Blount County as a church coordinator and committee member for more than 10 years. But, after the untimely death of her beloved son, Dane, in 2014 ultimately due to addiction, she channeled her grief and focused her efforts on helping other families who have loved ones experiencing addiction.

McCoy led support groups for mothers and families through Celebrate Recovery at her church and is now a tireless advocate for True Purpose Ministries, a faith-based, long-term addiction recovery program. Dane’s House in Maryville, named in memory of McCoy’s son, offers transitional housing for men who have completed one year in the True Purpose Ministries recovery program. McCoy also supports Pregnant Woman’s Home at True Purpose in Vonore, which provides residential treatment for pregnant women and pregnant women with children.

In 2019, McCoy spearheaded the first “Hijacked: How Addiction Rewires the Brain and Poisons the Spirit” summit, which served to provide information and resources in the community, with a second summit held earlier this January. She volunteered to work with a group with the Leadership Blount Class of 2019 to establish a website resource for Blount County that provided direct links to local addiction resources for addicts and family members, and volunteers with Be Aware Blount, an organization committed to the reduction of substance abuse and its consequences to children, youth and adults.

Jackie Mills

Jackie S. Mills, a graduate of Maryville High School, Roane State Community College and Tusculum College, is a Realtor with Realty Executives Associates. She has received several awards in her professional career.

A sampling of her community involvement includes volunteering with Family Promise of Blount County; Kingdom Design Ministries volunteer and recipient of the Kingdom Design Ministries Legacy Award; Habitat for Humanity Women’s Build volunteer and committee member; Leadership Blount Class of 2014; Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival Committee member; has used her business and social media recognition to pinpoint families in need and provide them, through Cracker Barrel, a Thanksgiving meal; supports and assists women in obtaining their GED through Pellissippi State; has contributed/volunteered/supported a number of local charities, including United Way of Blount County, Empty Pantry Fund, Good Neighbors of Blount County, Special Olympics, Community Food Connection and Blount County Humane Society. She is currently working with Girls Inc. to establish a board for Blount County.

Tracy Queen

Tracy A. Queen is a graduate of Maryville College and a native of Blount County. Professionally, she is in her 10th year as general manager of ICC International, an industrial manufacturing company in Blount County.

Investing her time and resources in Blount County, both professionally and philanthropically, is important to Queen, especially those that benefit and empower families and children. Some of the organizations she supports includes Blount County Habitat for Humanity; New Hope, Blount County Children’s Advocacy Center; United Way of Blount County; Blount County Chamber of Commerce; Blount County Community Food Connection; Tom Hatcher Charity fundraiser; ICC International, co-chair Acts of Kindness Campaign; Kingdom Design Ministries; Jim Burnside Golf Tournament fundraiser; town of Louisville Fall Festival volunteer; Family Promise; William Blount High School Shooting Team, parent volunteer; and Boys and Girls Club of Blount County. She is a member of Leadership Blount’s Class of 2010.

Heather Ripley

Heather Ripley launched Ripley PR, a global public relations firm, in 2013. The Maryville native and William Blount High School graduate has 20 years of experience in marketing, sales, journalism and public relations.

Ripley said she also feels an obligation to reach out philanthropically, and after five years of success with Ripley PR, she was inspired by her commitment to animal welfare, the environment and plant-based nutrition to launch Orange Orchard. This division of Ripley PR is dedicated to promoting cruelty-free and Earth-friendly businesses and foundations, helping them build a brighter future for all.

Ripley believes that one person truly can make a difference not only by giving back on their own but by encouraging and teaching others how to give back, as well. For example, she mentioned her work with a Florida-based foundation that supported various charitable causes. The organization would donate substantially to a charity, usually in the form of a match, and Ripley’s role was to teach them how to manage social media and marketing. By empowering them to raise their own funds, they could reap the benefits of the match dollars from the foundation while learning to stand on their own, she said.

Patsy Russell

Patsy Russell spent her 32-year career as a teacher making an impact on the lives of her students. Although she’s now retired from that profession, Russell continues to serve students from middle school to college, now as an enthusiastic volunteer with the Maryville Kiwanis.

After her husband’s retirement from the Navy in 1998, they settled in Blount County, where he was born and raised. Russell began teaching at Eagleton Middle School and finished her career at Heritage Middle School, retiring in 2012. She now devotes her time and resources to volunteer work, including: past president of Maryville Kiwanis; co-director of Leadership Adventure Camp for Maryville Kiwanis; current adviser to Builders’ Clubs for Maryville Kiwanis, Circle K Club and Key Club; serves on Imagination Library Committee for Maryville Kiwanis; coordinator of the Reading Mentors Program; and being involved with Broadway United Methodist Women’s Group.

Contact Linda Braden Albert with story ideas at

Life columnist

Linda Braden Albert worked as a feature writer and editor at The Daily Times. She is now the editor of Horizon Magazine and a columnist.

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