By Sharon Ricks
Eighty-five women dressed in cool blue left an Atlanta airport hotel, each holding a rock in her hand. On each rock was a note that read, “I am phenomenal!”
They had just attended the Cool Blue Tea hosted by Phenomenal Women’s Health, Inc., (PWH), a nonprofit organization founded in May 2007 by Cheryl Burnside. Cheryl, a physical therapist living in Tyrone, Ga., founded the organization to positively influence women’s lives by promoting healthier lifestyles. Teas for Health are the signature events.
“These women are the rocks of their families,” says Cheryl. “We wanted them to take these rocks, and whenever they get a little down, just remember that they are phenomenal.”
PWH has raised funds for causes like multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and blindness prevention. They have also donated clothing medical equipment and funds to shelters, clinics, and patients. This is all possible thanks to the annual fundraiser teas, which change color depending on the theme.
At each event, PWH presents its Woman of the Year award to someone who is doing extraordinary things to foster healthy lifestyles for women in the community. They also present the Katherine H. Peterson award to a woman who has overcome challenges to give back to her community. The award is named after a deceased PWH volunteer who ‘had her hand in everything’ despite her struggle with lupus.
“We discover gems. We call them phenomenal women, but they are jewels, and jewels are something you have to find,” says Barnetta Sanford, who has worked with Cheryl since 2007 and is Katherine Peterson’s sister. “These are women who say, ‘no matter how I feel or if I’m hurting, when I get out of the bed, it needs to be done.’”
Cheryl knows about that kind of work ethic. Raised in Bel Air, Maryland, she was the middle of six children. Her father worked for the federal government and ran a business to support them and send them to college. He had asthma, and at age 6, Cheryl remembers being asked to push on his chest so he could breathe better — what he called “artificial respiration.” He died at age 61. Growing up around illness helped her understand the importance of empowering people with health education and hope.
“My goal is to give people as much knowledge as I can for them to make reasonable decisions about their health,” says Cheryl. As a physical therapist, she’s also witnessed the mental component of illness. “Every time I treated a female, I saw that she had so many concerns besides the physical, and I wondered what I could do to help these women but also get them to relax.”
At the November 2012 Cool Blue Tea, relaxation was mandatory. Guests were immersed in a spa-like atmosphere, surrounded by smooth jazz, river rocks, and orchids. The smell of the ocean was everywhere, and there was sand, sea shells, and candles. The theme was“Purging your life for good health.”
At every event, there are tears. “Mostly it’s the joy women feel when their hard work is recognized, and it’s also when they realize the impact they have on others,” Cheryl explains. “If, after each event, I’ve found that I’ve touched at least one woman, I’m satisfied. I may not have been supposed to touch everybody’s life, but that one person was supposed to be there, and that was the person I was supposed to touch.”
Cheryl is married to Michael Burnside, and they have two adult sons, Mike and Wade. “They are a power couple. They have a true heart for people,” Barnetta says. “She’s strong-willed too. She says I’m gonna do a Tea for three or four shelters, and we say, we don’t have the money, and she says it’s gonna happen. And she makes it happen.”
In December 2011, PWH hosted a Red Tea for 60 women from domestic abuse shelters. The theme was women’s empowerment and the prevention of heart disease. Residents from the shelters received gift cards and new clothing, provided by Belk, as well as a renewed sense of confidence.
“We brought all these ladies and made them feel like a queen for a day. We did their make-up, had a fashion show, and they got to strut up and down the runway with new clothes,” says Barnetta. “They came in walking with their shoulders down and left walking with their shoulders back.”
PWH’s work with the domestically abused inspired them to establish an eight-week program for girls aged 11 to 14 to prevent teen dating violence. Loving Me Phenomenally has grown from 12 girls the first year to 22 in 2012. According to a parent poll, girls who complete the program have better social and academic skills, are more confident, and have a clearer career path.
“A lot of girls feel they don’t have purpose and won’t amount to be much,” says 15-year-old Leah Newson. “This program inspired me. I want to be a writer. I also want to do what Miss Cheryl is doing. I’d like to be inspirational. I’m just one girl, and eventually I have to go off to college, and I want to write something that has purpose.”
Cheryl is leaving a legacy, not just for the girls and women served by PWH, but also for her sons, Mike and Wade, and for hundreds of women and girls who are touched by those she touches and who have discovered that they are worthy and precious and phenomenal.