June Van Wingerden stood in front of the California State Senate holding a large plaque as she was surrounded by women who knit clothes for poor infants, conserved Native American culture and provided mental health services for returning vets.
But Van Wingerden was there because of her tireless work to preserve a sacred heritage of agriculture. Her outstanding achievements and results-driven attitude earned her another title besides advocate, educator and preservationist. She is now Woman of the Year.
“The agriculture program at the local high school was really going downhill, but we built them a new barn and greenhouse,” Van Wingerden explains. “We” refers to California Women in Agriculture, a group where she serves as co-president for her local chapter. She also sits on the board of the California Cut Flower Commission, as well as being a member of its Government Relations Committee. “Whew! I've been on just about every board possible for agriculture,” she said.
Van Wingerden and her husband, Rene, own Ocean Breeze International, which grows fresh cut flowers on 45 acres in Carpinteria, Calif. She has seen urban development and housing sprawl, as well as increasingly strict governmental restrictions, threaten local agriculture. And she is concerned that young people should be educated about and have the opportunity to participate in the age-old industry.
Van Wingerden has been involved in agricultural practically her whole life, growing up in a cotton-raising family in the Central Valley in California. She works closely with her local FFA chapter and is vice-president of the board of the Carpinteria Valley Water District.
The day of the awarding began with a breakfast reception in California’s Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante's office. Then it was off to see Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), the District 19 Senator who nominated Van Wingerden. There she was presented with a cymbidium orchid corsage, as were many of her fellow recipients. District 19 is home to a large percentage of the California cymbidium crop.
After their meeting, Sen. McClintock walked Van Wingerden onto the red carpet of the Senate floor, where she received her award and took her place among the pantheon of honored women.
California’s First Lady Maria Shriver then came out to join them and gave a rousing speech recognizing their contributions toward making the state a better place to live. But first, she kicked off her shoes and looked at the women gathered in front of her. “If your feet hurt in those high heels, go ahead and take them off because I am,” she said.
“You were singled out of millions of women,” she continued. “You are ground breaking innovators and through your incredible achievements, you represent all of their trials and struggles.”
Each Woman of the Year was additionally honored by an exhibit at the California State Museum. Their pictures and brief summary of their actions that got them chosen for the award were displayed. “If you put all these women in one room,” mused Van Wingerden, “you sure could get things done right!”
During the reception, Shriver stopped by to welcome them to the new exhibit, which will be on display through April 30 and become a permanent part of California's Archive collection.
“Your pictures, your stories, will become a part of California's archives,” Shriver, a tireless advocate of California women, said. “They will inspire generations to come. I was just blown away when I read about all of you!”
The California Woman of the Year ceremony is an annual bi-partisan tradition started in 1987. Each year, members of the Legislature bring women to Sacramento to honor the work they do in their individual districts and their contributions to their families, communities and the state.