Women we love

So many women. So much to say. We interviewed eight incredibly diverse local women about life, work and family—their challenges and their successes.

Michonne Ascuaga

Michonne Ascuaga

Photo By David Robert

Michonne Ascuaga
Chief executive officer, John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel Casino

Michonne Ascuaga worked for her father, John Ascuaga, for 14 years in various capacities at Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel & Casino. She worked the front desk in high school. She worked in the cage and credit arena. She did marketing and sales for the casino. It was back in 1984, though, when she was selling conventions, that her direction in life began to feel certain.

“It became pretty clear that I was going to stay at the Nugget for a while,” Ascuaga says.

In 1997, she became the chief executive officer of John Ascuaga’s Nugget—one of very few women running major casinos in Nevada.

Overseeing the casino during the economic swell of the late 1990s was a good experience. But this year, Ascuaga—along with so many others in the tourism industry—is facing some bumps in the road.

“This last year, the economy took a dip—and add to that the events of Sept. 11—that shakes everyone’s confidence,” she says. “Not only customers, but employees. The last month or two definitely have not been the easiest.”

This hasn’t diminished her optimism, though.

“You can’t always be riding the crest of the wave,” she says. “It’s part of the economic cycle that you’re going to have good times and challenging times.”

Ascuaga credits the Nugget employees for coming up with creative new ideas, different approaches and interesting ways of doing business.

“People always say that, in your personal life, the challenging times are when you grow,” Ascuaga says. “I think the same applies to a business. You’re challenged to look for ways to do things better, and a lot of positive change comes out of this. … Some people have a tough time looking at it that way. But we’re going to get through it, then look back and say, ‘Wow, we’re really stronger.’ “

Since the birth of their daughter, Rosie, almost two years ago, Ascuaga and her husband, heart surgeon Dr. Kevin Linkus, have been juggling the new responsibilities of parenthood.

“That balancing game is a tough one,” Ascuaga says. “I want to make sure I give enough to my daughter. My priority is definitely her. … But I don’t think I’ve mastered that balance yet. It’s a work in progress.”

Rachael Beers

Photo By David Robert

Ascuaga also sits on boards for the Forum for a Common Agenda, the Sierra Arts Foundation and the Santa Clara University Board of Regents.

“When you live in a place and realize you’re going to live in a place for the rest of your life, you want to see things prosper and improve,” she says. “When I see where I can help, I get involved.”

Still, there’s always time for fun. Last week, Michonne Ascuaga was, like many parents, thinking about a Halloween costume for her daughter. Rosie dressed up as Snow White—mom’s choice.

“I might as well do that now,” Ascuaga says. “I figure she won’t be letting me dress her as she gets older.”

Rachael Beers
Jack-of-all-trades, Brüka Theatre

Meeting Rachael Beers for the first time, the first thing that will probably catch your eye is her smile. She has the kind of big, honest, infectious smile that makes you wonder: What has this woman got to be so happy about?

“I’m just blessed with a lot of cool people,” she says. “They keep me up, inspire me, challenge me and love me unconditionally. That’s, like, the key to life. I just find that out more and more every day.”

Beers found this nurturing support system at Brüka Theatre, and has in turn made a huge impact on those around her, though she often underplays her importance. The 31-year-old often forsakes the bright lights of the stage for menial but necessary tasks.

“The daytime stuff, it’s a struggle for us,” she says. “To run the business, and not make it more of a priority than the art—and to not make the art more of a priority than the business, because the business supports the art. … It’s funny to try to get volunteers to do the job, because … it’s not the glamorous part. It’s answering the phones. It’s getting the money and cleaning the toilets. It’s hard to find people who will have pride in that and treat it as a job.”

Beers is no stranger to the stage. The Reno native took four years of drama classes at McQueen High School; she acted with several local theater companies before meeting her husband, Scott Beers, when auditioning for a role.

“I just lucked out by meeting Scotty and getting involved with Brüka, because it was an opportunity for me to not just be an actress, but to work production and learn how to make money off of art,” she says. “Everybody always told me that’s the silliest thing to do, that [theater] should be a hobby, that it should not be something that is a career.”

Though she’s never made much money at her art, she says being poor isn’t so bad.

“I think poverty makes you need your friends,” she says. “There’s a lot to be offered by that. If you don’t have something, someone else has it, and then you can return that favor.”

Dawnne Ernette

Photo By David Robert

But the biggest benefit to being a working artist, she says, is that she gets to spend more time with her 5-year-old son, Logan.

“He’s pretty much the best thing in the world,” she says. “He’s one of the nicest guys I know. It’s neat that he can be raised and work with me, rather than me working more hours for someone else. Being self-employed, I take him to work with me and try to balance those two worlds.”

Dawnne Ernette
Student, teacher, survivor

“Career.” Such a simple concept. Go to school, study something and then land a full-time job earning a passable income or maybe even a sizable one. In return for a mere eight hours of your day, you can buy houses and cars, and perhaps fill your leisure time with leisurely activities.

But some people find this highly popular way of life problematic. For those who have a passion for art, or a physical disability, or a general dislike of our much-heralded system of production and consumption, the standard definition of “career” simply doesn’t fit.

Like most of us, Dawnne Ernette frequently gets asked what she “does.”

“I always tell them I cook, and I work in the garden, and I listen to music, and I write poetry,” Ernette says. “And they end up getting frustrated. They want to know what I do to produce income, as if that would define who I am. For instance, if I tell people I drive the bus for Citifare on Sunday, they go, ‘Oh, you’re a bus driver.’ “

Ernette, 47, is in fact many things, including a nature lover, an environmental activist, a teacher and a tutor. She is a survivor as well, having emerged with grace and strength from a difficult marriage, family death and a major injury.

After 12 years with Greyhound, Ernette found herself out of a job after a workers’ strike. She enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno, and began studying a brand of environmental science that deals with what she calls “genetically engineering groceries.” Upon discovering that she “could actually write,” as she puts it, she shifted her focus to environmental writing. Then a major back injury disrupted her plans.

“I can’t go out there jumping around, climbing trees, sleeping on the ground, but that’s OK,” she says. “Whenever we have plans and they fall through, there’s always something else. And to be fair, I ended up in the exact place I really wanted to be at the very beginning.”

And that place, Ernette says, is helping adults with literacy issues. Ernette now works at Truckee Meadows Community College in the English as a Second Language Program and also at the Writing Center. After she graduates from UNR next year, she plans to enter the university’s Teaching English as a Second Language program to receive a master’s degree.

Yet even now, Ernette is still reluctant to describe herself as a teacher or tutor. These things, she says, are no more important to her than her extracurricular writings, her nature walks or the unofficial feral cat rescue mission she has set up in her neighborhood.

“I’m just like a coyote. I follow this idea and that idea,” she says. “My mother was raised by a woman who believed that women were nothing in this world, and my mother worked very hard to make people understand that she’s just as capable as anyone, male or female. I think some of that rubbed off on me. I got this idea it was really important to do things, to have that list of 100 things to do before I die and complete as many of them as possible.”

Toni Harsh

Photo By David Robert

Toni Harsh
Reno City Councilwoman

If you want to see Reno City Councilwoman Toni Harsh get excited, just talk to her about her vision for downtown. She sees green space—a buffer between Reno’s entertainment district and its arts and culture zone.

“I believe very strongly that the Mapes [lot] and the midtown blocks between the theater and the AT&T building should be open space,” she says. “It should embrace the river. That even helps our flood plan, to have terraces down to the river.”

That space has the potential, she says, to become a significant landmark—to epitomize the city of Reno.

“This would be the place you would go—this is Reno,” she says. “That’s where the pictures would be taken. It would be the essence of our community. Can you think of another community where people can walk out of their hotel rooms in downtown and go fly fishing, kayaking … see a musical event or skate at the ice rink?”

Harsh, who campaigned and won her office by promising to open government up to citizen input, is pleased with much of the progress made in downtown so far.

“I’m really proud of the flowers downtown,” she says. “I’m excited about the ice rink. That’s cool—in more ways than one.”

And to show her support for new downtown developments, she eats at the Siena Hotel Spa Casino once a week. She especially likes the Siena pollo at Lexie’s.

Being on the City Council is not, however, all about fine dining for the mother of four grown children.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she says. “It’s overwhelming to have so many issues going on, so many projects.”

Harsh decided to run for office in Reno at the insistence of her children.

“I believe strongly that you give back to your community, “ she says. “That’s certainly something I’ve instilled in my children. “

She traces her experience with city government back to her daughter, who as a teen wrote a poem about the Mapes.

Edwina Hughes

Photo By David Robert

“I thought that if a 15-year-old could feel that passionately about a building that she’s never been inside, and has only seen from the outside, then as an adult, I could do something about it,” Harsh explains. “I became involved [in the quest to save the Mapes], and it started snowballing from one thing to another.”

Harsh is also one of a few elected officials calling for a public vote on the ReTrac train trench issue. Why vote on this project and not on, say, every single road or building improvement in Reno?

“This is a very large public works project that is very controversial,” Harsh says. “It needs to be analyzed in terms of costs and benefits. We don’t have the controversy going on with other projects—the Spaghetti Bowl, the flood plan. Certainly, when I’m out walking door to door, I don’t hear people talking about those projects. They’re talking about the trench. People are telling me they’re concerned. And I must be responsive to them.”

Edwina Hughes
Executive director, Center Street Mission

Edwina Hughes moved to Reno 10 years ago from Berkeley, Calif., with her then-roommate. A divorced mother of three, she wanted to start over. Not long after arriving here, however, her roommate decided to leave. Without the money or resources to support herself in the new city, Hughes was left homeless.

She thought of returning home, and then decided against it.

“Pride kicked in,” she says. “[I said to myself], do you want to go back and tell everyone you failed?”

Until that point, Hughes’ life had been marked by struggle, but not by failure. As a political activist in the 1960s, Hughes frequently engaged in protest. In 1968, in fact, Hughes led a walkout at Berkeley High School, demanding that the school adopt a black history studies program. Two weeks later, the board of education met and decided to implement the program.

So here in Reno, Hughes didn’t give up. She got a job at a casino and discovered the Center Street Mission. And it is there that the current chapter of Hughes’ life begins. The mission helped her get back on her feet—and she never left.

“I’ve done some of everything,” Hughes says. “I’ve picked up food. I was the case manager, house manager. I … developed the programs. I’ve done everything here. I don’t know what would have happened if Center Street Mission hadn’t been here. Places like this are such a blessing.”

Hughes is now the mission’s executive director. A beautiful, spirited and deeply spiritual black woman, Hughes directs such activities as a search-for-work program, a freedom-from-addiction program and a prison-to-work program.

“One of the problems we have is we see [the homeless] as wanting to be there,” she says. “They want a hand up, not a handout. [They are saying], ‘Give me a chance to get a good job. Give me a chance to change my life.’ “

And Hughes seeks to offer that hand.

Susan Robinson

Photo By David Robert

“Most people feel hopeless, and this gives them hope,” she says. “After people have been hurt along the line, they think nothing can change. Most homeless don’t know what it is to feel love. They know more rejection than anything.

“I’m a 53-year-old black woman who has struggled all her life. I just thank God for the chance he gave me to change my life … [Now], I have a strong desire to see others change their lives.”

Susan Robinson
Regional executive director, American Cancer Society

Both her parents smoked. Both died of smoking-related illnesses. It’s no wonder that Susan Robinson, regional executive director of the American Cancer Society, doesn’t dig hanging out in a smoke-filled room.

“I hate the smell of cigarettes,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I just can’t stand them.”

She grew up breathing second-hand smoke in her home and on long car trips with her family. Her mother died at age 61.

“Her birthday is Saturday,” Robinson says. “She’d have been 70. People always do that. They say, ‘She’d have been … 120 by now.’ “

Even when her life was threatened, Robinson’s mom didn’t quit.

“She was one of the people you hear about who smokes even with the oxygen in,” Robinson says. “She never could quit.”

These days, Robinson oversees the American Cancer Society’s prevention and support services in Reno. The organization offers free classes to help people stop smoking. It also offers free wigs, bras, prosthetic devices and nutritional supplements to individuals undergoing cancer treatment. You don’t need to qualify for these services.

“Everything we do is free to the public,” Robinson says.

The group also helps cancer patients and their families find needed information about their illness and resources to help.

Helping people is something that seems to come naturally to Robinson. Earlier this year, she shaved her head during a fund-raising effort for Richie Shannon, a Sparks boy with a rare cancer: Rhabdomyosarcoma.

Sandy Rodríguez

Photo By David Robert

Before joining the American Cancer Society, Robinson worked for years in marketing and advertising. In 1987, Robinson found herself a single working mother of two. Even with a bachelor’s degree, she says it was hard to make enough money to cover childcare and bills.

“You’re constantly stressed,” she says. “You feel like you’re failing at everything you do. You’re exhausted. Just getting to work—getting the kids up, getting them ready, dropping them off—is exhausting. Then you spend the day at work, leave, pick the kids up, and they’re cranky and tired. You go home, make dinner, clean up after dinner, help with homework, give them a bath, put them to bed. That’s exhausting.”

To make ends meet, Robinson thought it might help to get a better-paying job.

“So I went back to get a master’s in business administration,” Robinson says. “I was the only single parent working full-time in the MBA program at that time, as far as I know.”

The balance was hard to pull off.

“There’s always the tension between wanting to succeed professionally and wanting to be the perfect mother,” she says. “If I had it to do over again? I’d say concentrate on the children while you have them. You’ll have the rest of your life to work on yourself.”

Sandy Rodríguez
Assistant director of student activities, University of Nevada, Reno

As the saying goes, you’ve got to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you really understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes, though, you may not even realize there’s a difference to be understood. For a glimpse into Sandy Rodríguez’s world, just ask her to spell her name.

“Accent on the ‘I,’ “ she says, and then begins laughing. “As a matter of fact, I had to go through something to just to get it on my [office] door. Which is OK—I’m walking into your world, and I can accept that as a decision, as long as you can work with me to fix it.”

That an issue so minor can be yet another obstacle to overcome is typical of Rodríguez’s life. But her approach to these problems—working together to fix them through compassion and education—is also typical of her life.

The 37-year-old has been the assistant director of student activities at the University of Nevada, Reno, for three years. Rodríguez assists and advises undergraduates involved in student government.

“I advise them on their decision-making processes, at all sorts of different levels, from legislative process, fiscal management process,” she says. “I guess for me, more importantly, as a student affairs professor, it means that I’m a teacher within the co-curricular classroom, which is really an experiential laboratory.”

But though one could get bogged down in the nuts and bolts of administration, Rodríguez never loses sight of her role as an educator—and a life-long learner.

Angela Giffhorn

Photo By David Robert

“It’s not just about teaching,” she says. “I believe it’s about teaching and learning, and that both of them are fluid. … If we’re to create actual, authentic, legitimate knowledge within the walls of the institution of higher learning, we have to be willing to take on the role of being both learner and educator simultaneously.”

To understand why Rodríguez is so passionate about education and equality, you have to look at her roots. Rodríguez was born and raised in a small town in South Texas, 15 minutes from the Mexican border.

“The ability to go from living in the U.S. to a Third World situation within a 15-minute span—on a weekly basis your whole life—while you’re growing up, kind of gives you a handle on extremes,” she says.

Having only second-grade educations, Rodríguez’s parents struggled to eke out a living for her and her five siblings.

“My dad basically painted other people’s houses for a living,” she says. “My mom worked in packing sheds, like on Cannery Row. These tin buildings that, I mean, in South Texas, you’re looking at temperatures of 120 degrees, 16 hours a day packaging fruits and vegetables.”

But despite their hardships, Rodríguez’s family felt blessed.

“My brothers and sisters and I felt very fortunate, because a lot of the kids we knew, we started losing touch with from the time we were in third grade, because they were migrants,” she says. “They’d leave to go pick potatoes in Idaho, strawberries in Oregon. And we felt privileged, because we could stay still.”

Rodríguez’s mother wanted something better for her children, and her children have made her proud.

“The only thing she ever asked of us was to get an education,” Rodriguez says. “So all six of us graduated from college. We all worked our way through school, and we had to give money back to the household. … When I came to higher ed, it wasn’t about surviving. I didn’t come to higher ed to survive—I came here to thrive. … I was always taught that as long as we get an education, we could do whatever we wanted to do.”

Angela Giffhorn
Owner, Black Hole Body Piercing and Venus Envy

The 600 block of South Virginia Street is a Mecca for shoppers in search of items that one simply can’t find at the local malls—or can’t find without fending off herds of other shoppers who are making their way through the sterile mall halls. After a visit to the South Virginia Street shops, you might walk away with an underground punk album, a persimmon-colored wig, a nipple piercing or two and feelings of peace and sanity.

Angela Giffhorn, the 31-year-old owner of Black Hole Body Piercing and Venus Envy, a unique clothing boutique, can’t help you with the punk album, but she certainly can outfit you with a funky wig, a new body piercing and a variety of kitschy duds. Black Hole, which Giffhorn has owned for nine years, is one of the premiere piercing establishments in the area, boasting a subversively hip and devoted clientele.

Giffhorn has been in the piercing business for just under a decade—making her quite a veteran in what she calls the relatively new “art” of piercing.

“I’m a firm businesswoman,” says Giffhorn. “I’m good with people. I really work with people to provide [them] with a new piercing, and them leaving happy makes me feel good.”

Two years ago, Black Hole—then in its seventh year of business—had met with so much success that Giffhorn decided to open her second business, Venus Envy. While Giffhorn calls piercing her “profession,” she says Venus Envy is her “hobby.”

“It doesn’t make a huge amount of money," she says. "[It’s] my happy store. I see things that I like, and I say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have that, and so does everybody else.'"