DARIEN — In an effort to look to the future, the YWCA Darien/Norwalk focused on the past and present of several local women.

Three Darien women, who epitomize leadership and have used their skills to make the community a better place to live, will be among the honorees for the YWCA Darien/Norwalk 2017 Women of Distinction Award.

On May 4, Darien residents Catalina Horak, Lisa Koorbusch and Leslie Pennington Cohen will be recognized for their “outstanding achievements.”

The Bridge Builder

Social service has always been a passion for Horak.

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Other honorees

Kara Nelson Baekey, of Norwalk, and Mindy Garcia, of Norwalk, will also be acknowledged.

Darien High School senior Katie Schorr will be honored as a Young Woman of Distinction, recognizing the outstanding accomplishments of a woman under 21 years of age.

This event is open to the public. Tickets for the luncheon can be purchased at ywcadn.org/wod.

For further inquiries about this event or to become a sponsor, contact wod@ywcadn.org.

When she came to the United States from Colombia at age 23 to get her master’s degree in genetics and plant breeding, her goal was to innovate weather-resistant crops for developing countries. After she moved ffrom Michigan to Darien in 1997, Horak decided to pursue nonprofit management while serving on the board of Person-to-Person, which provides emergency assistance to local families in need.

“My interest and the reason I went into this field was social services,” she said. “I decided if I was going to work in nonprofits, I had to learn.”

Horak quickly realized how much of the population in neighboring Stamford was made up of immigrants. Thirty-three percent of Stamford’s population were born in another country immigrants, almost as high as New York City’s 37 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

Inspired, in 2011, Horak opened Building One Community (formerly Neighbors Link), a center that helps educate and provide resources to Stamford’s immigrant population.

“Before, there was no one single-entry point in the area for immigrants to help them navigate the system,” she said. “Having this point of entry, you could go here and we do it or refer them.

“That was one big gap,” she added.

Horak wanted to avoid an office environment with scheduled appointments, so Building One Community strives to be a flexible community space. Visitors can drop into classes to learn English and job skills and there’s a babysitting center where parents can leave their children. There’s also a “cafe” area with a pool table where visitors can socialize, free books and a computer station with internet access. The center is open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. until around 8 or 9 at night, depending on the needs that day.

Many of Building One Community’s employees are former volunteers and speak at least two languages. Most are also immigrants or the children of immigrants themselves.

“For all of us who work here, our own immigrant experience shaped our involvement,” Horak said. “My own experience is different, but I am an immigrant. I know what it is to have barriers and knowing the support needed at all levels gave us credibility.”

Building One Community faces spacial restraints, as well as fear from President Donald Trump’s administration. The center has been working to improve community relationships by working with politicians, holding info sessions with police and hiring an immigration attorney.

“We’re bridgers,” Horak said. “We build bridges.”

In being honored by the YWCA, Horak hopes to bring attention to this cause that relies on the volunteers from the community.

“This is by no means about me,” she said. “It’s a tremendous group of people who are very dedicated. One person alone can’t do it. It’s teamwork.”

The Alzheimer’s Champion

When Koorbusch’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease almost a decade ago, there weren’t many fundraising events for Alzheimer’s in Connecticut. But in the past five years, Koorbursch, an Old Greenwich native, has thrown herself into the cause. She works closely with the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and, in 2013, helped form the association’s annual gala, “Celebrating Hope.”

By the time Koorbusch’s mother passed away last month, she had raised over $800,000 for Alzheimer’s research with her efforts.

“It’s a really helpless feeling when you have any family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” she said. “I felt I got my mom into a good place. At Maplewood in Darien, the care was excellent. Alzheimer’s is so frustrating and scary we sort of founded this annual event which has grown and grown.”

Koorbusch’s goal for this year’s “Celebrating Hope” gala is to raise $500,000. She also participates in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s and the Paint the Town Purple initiative where participants plant purple flowers throughout town to spread awareness about Alzheimer’s. In her time working with the association, Koorbusch said she’s seen funding and awareness increase like never before.

“It’s an amazing thing to be involved with,” the Darien resident said. “It always feels great to see everyone come out and how many champions there are for the cause. We see people come from all the different towns in Fairfield County.”

Alzheimer’s is not the only cause for which Koorbusch advocates. A 16-year Darien resident, she co-chairs the holiday Toy Store for Person-to-Person, which provides holiday presents to families in need and is also on the board of the Darien Depot, where her oldest daughter, Eliza, is on the student governing board. Both of Koorbusch’s daughters also help with the Toy Store.

“I think they really learned to enjoy charity work,” she said. “It’s not become something I have to force them to do. They realize they get so much out of it and there’s ways when you’re young you can make a difference. I hope it’s something I’ve instilled in them.”

Koorbusch is also a breast cancer survivor and advocates for other women to get annual mammograms after a mammogram at age 41 helped her get an early diagnosis.

“Being a champion is the one way I know I can make a difference,” she said. “Alzheimer’s was so much easier to immerse myself in. I felt I needed to do it for my mom and daughters. It might be too late for a cure for me but it could happen in [my daughters’] lifetimes and I have the time to do it. I have the time to give and I enjoy it honestly. It’s very empowering. You feel like you’re doing something.”

The Den Mom

Pennington didn’t have much experience with scouting when her sons joined as young boys.

Despite that, when her youngest son joined Cub Scouts in 2005, she became a den leader, starting out with helping a small group of boys in the program, before she ended up leading the whole thing and quickly got sucked in.

“Once I started doing it, I found there was so much I could offer,” she said. “There were times when it was hard to get people on board, but now it’s something people want to be a part of. Once they get involved, they really enjoy it and see the value of it.”

Pennington went on to join the operating board of the Andrew Shaw Memorial Trust, which owns and operates the scouting cabin and property in Darien and sponsors the two Boy Scout troops as well as three of the four Cub Scout packs in town. In 2012, she began leading the Boy Scout Tag Sale, the Scouts’ largest annual fundraiser, and has served on the operating board’s executive board as vice president and president. She currently serves as president emeritus.

During her time with the Scouts, Pennington has also led a celebration of Darien Scouting with a gala and a camporee to recruit more scouts. She also recently started a co-ed venture crew, which is based on the Boy Scout model, where Scouts and girls in town can join to participate in STEM-related activities. Participants can help with STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathmatics — summer camps and after-school STEM programs.

“This is a new thing for us that seems promising and popular,” she said. “I think is going to be a strong one because it’s a hot topic.”

Despite the fact that Boy Scouts is a boys-only activity, Pennington believes there’s value to having women involved in the organization. While Boy Scout troops are only led by men, women are able to help with Cub Scouts and work with the group on boards like Pennington.

“It’s fun in younger ages for moms to teach kids,” she said. “I think it’s very important for parents to be involved. Everyone has something to offer. I think moms have a different perspective, especially at a younger age.”

Both of Pennington’s sons have earned Eagle Scout status — the highest honor in Boy Scouts — with her oldest now a junior in college and her youngest a senior at Darien High School. Still, Pennington plans to stay involved with the Scouts.

“Our community here in Darien is very special and unique and is one of the things that inspired me, not only to get involved, but to stay involved,” she said. “Volunteering in organizations that promote character development in our youth and in turn pass on that passion for helping others and giving back is very important to me.

“I have stayed involved with Scouting and intend to continue, because I want to ensure that the future youth of our community have these same opportunities to experience the amazing character development and leadership training that has served my two boys so well,” Pennington added.

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata