Amanda Weisbrod

Because March is Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s Day, The Observer’s newsroom thought it would be the perfect time to highlight some of Union County’s strongest, smartest and toughest women.

We wish we could cover all of the many inspiring and empowered women in this area — unfortunately, we had room for only five, so we chose them based on prominence and tried to bring in a mix: Donna Beverage, Union County commissioner; Darcy Dolge, executive director at Art Center East in La Grande; Sandy Sorrels, owner of Ten Depot restaurant and bar in La Grande; Charity Walter, president and CEO of Dainty Jewells fashion boutique in La Grande; and Anji Weissenfluh, athletic director and women’s head basketball coach at Eastern Oregon University.

DONNA BEVERAGE / Commissioner, Union County
Donna Beverage just started her third year as one of Union County’s commissioners, and she said she’s excited for the opportunity to continue serving her community.

“My favorite part of the job is doing what I can to help businesses succeed and expand in Union County — that’s my passion,” she said.

Beverage is also dedicated to the county’s environmental concerns, such as forest management, natural resources conservation and wildfire prevention. She said her love of nature and the desire to protect it comes from her experience of being raised on a ranch in Union County, and now managing her own.

“I feel like it helps me understand how important water and our natural resources are, because we rely on them as ranchers,” she said. “It also helps me understand that ranchers and farmers care about the environment as much as other people, because we depend on it for our livelihood.”

Beverage flew home yesterday from Washington, D.C., where she and four other commissioners from the Eastern Oregon Counties Association spoke with the head of the U.S. Forest Service to petition an exemption for the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman national forests from the 2005 Travel Management Rule for motorized vehicle use in the Blue Mountains Forest Plan. The forest plan is an outline that “describe(s) the social, economic, and ecological goals of National Forests and provide(s) frameworks for future management decisions,” according to the U.S. Forest Service’s website. There will be more to come in The Observer on the details of this meeting in the near future.

The commissioner said she feels most empowered by the chance to give back to her community and work with the “passionate” people of Union County.

“The respect that I’ve received from others has been very rewarding,” she said.

DARCY DOLGE / Executive director, Art Center East
As the executive director at Art Center East, an art gallery and creative space in La Grande, Darcy Dolge “wears a lot of different hats.”

“I work with partnership heads, grant writing, fundraising, curating exhibits,” she said, listing off a few other roles including communications, team and organizational leadership and human resources planning. “Anything ACE is pretty much run by the four of us (board members).”

Dolge said she loves working in the arts because it makes her feel like she’s made a meaningful difference in the community.

“I’m honored to work in my field in a rural community and have its support,” she said. “It’s important our community has access to the arts or (the opportunity to) learn something new not offered in a college or high school class so we can be well-rounded, which gives exposure to new styles and ideas.”

ACE’s executive director lived in La Grande for three years while she was in high school, then attended a liberal arts college in upstate New York where she earned a degree in music performance and photography. She lived in Seattle for a year and a half after graduation, but eventually decided to return.

“La Grande has a way of pulling you back,” Dolge said. “I love interacting with the community, artists and students here — it’s all about the human condition, and I love how the arts can impact so many lives in all of its forms.”

For Dolge, being a female leader means encouraging and empowering other women to follow their dreams with their art, and offering support and guidance when needed.

“I deal with a lot of women of all ages who don’t think they’re artists or don’t think they can succeed (as artists) because they’re a woman,” she said. “They just need someone to say, ‘You can do this thing.’”

SANDY SORRELS / Owner and operator, Ten Depot Street
Back in 1982, Sandy Sorrells decided to open Mamacita’s, the first Mexican restaurant in La Grande, and boy, was it a hit. Five years later she bought the Woodshed Steakhouse from a bankruptcy auction and turned it into Ten Depot Street, a bar and restaurant in La Grande serving a unique dinner menu every week with mostly organic food and regularly featuring live music.

“I was looking to start a restaurant and chose La Grande because there was nothing here,” she said, laughing. “I love food and was always interested in nutrition, and working in the restaurant business is almost like theater — you put on a show every night.”

Sorrels sold Mamacita’s 10 years ago because once other Mexican restaurants began rolling into town, the competition made things harder on business and it was difficult running two restaurants at the same time in the first place. She decided to keep Ten Depot Street instead of Mamacita’s because of the wide range of food options she had at the restaurant, and the ease of serving only an evening meal.

The restaurateur said the most empowering aspect of being a female business owner is making her own decisions and having control of something she worked so hard for.

“It’s different usually with men and women with this position because women have a lot of compassion and empathy for their employees,” she said. “One reason I went into business for myself is to work with people I like. My employees have become my family.”

Sorrels is also on the board of directors for Anthony Lakes Ski Resort, where she can often be found “getting the best workout” while cross-country skiing.

CHARITY WALTER / President and CEO, Dainty Jewells
Like Sorrels, Charity Walter is a strong businesswoman in the area. Walter started her fashion boutique business for “modest women,” Dainty Jewells, when she was only 16 years old in the bedroom of her parents’ house in North Carolina. Over the next 10 years, the entrepreneur built a successful empire out of her passion for fashion and designing clothes.

Now, every year, Dainty Jewells ships more than 30,000 pieces of clothing worldwide, with Canada and Germany being the top international buyers. Walter got married and moved to La Grande, her husband’s hometown, in 2013 with one rack of clothing. Today, she has a 6,000-plus-square-foot warehouse that was specifically built for her business needs with funds from an urban renewal grant. The warehouse and storefront, decorated in a minimalistic femme style with dainty chandeliers and lace tablecloths, opened last year in the La Grande Business Park on U.S. 30.

“It almost doesn’t feel real — the past 10 years have been a whirlwind,” she said. “This is my literal dream. God has given me huge opportunities, and I feel like I take it for granted sometimes.”

Walter said her family, her employees and her faith make up her support network, which she needs in order to keep thriving.

“As a woman, having a great support team has been empowering, and my faith has kept me grounded and given me a purpose to keep going,” said Walter, who also teaches choir and music at Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City. “It’s also empowering to connect with the other women entrepreneurs in Union County who you can throw ideas at, get feedback from and be there for each other.”

ANJI WEISSENFLUH / Head women's basketball coach and athletic director at Eastern Oregon University
As Eastern Oregon University’s athletic director and head women’s basketball coach, Anji Weissenfluh is a force to be reckoned with. Her longtime relationship with the Mountaineers began in 1989 when she enrolled as an undergraduate and reinstated the softball club. Then, in 1994, she came back to EOU in a full-time capacity to coach the softball team, and did so for 11 years.

For six of those years, Weissenfluh also coached the women’s basketball team. Then she decided to put all of her focus on basketball. She became EOU’s athletic director six years ago, and 2019 is her 19th year as the women’s coach.

“Eastern has been a big part of my life the past 30 years,” she said. “You give up a lot of time as a coach and athletic director. Eastern is my family and has been for a long time.”

EOU’s women’s basketball team celebrated a win in the first round of the NAIA national tournament Wednesday, and played a second round game this morning. On Feb. 26, Weissenfluh was named Cascade Collegiate Conference coach of the year for the third year in a row, and the seventh time total during her time coaching women’s basketball at Eastern.

The all-star coach said her passion for sports stems from her time as the quarterback of the football team during elementary and junior high school, and later her time playing volleyball, softball, basketball and running track at Long Creek High School in Grant County.

“I’m extremely competitive, and I love all the intangibles that go along with sports like the values, working through adversity and teamwork,” she said. “Basketball specifically is a very tenacious, high-intensity sport with lots of action. It fits my personality and my temperament. You have to have a ‘get up and get after it’ kind of approach and that’s who I am.”