You may not know them personally, but these female powerhouses are molding Bakersfield into a distinct city, one day at a time.
From health care professionals to cabinetry CEOs, the females featured in our Women’s Issue are the reason why role models exist. Every single one of them has the same goal: to serve as an inspiration to the youth and continue to make Bakersfield a better place.
Annette Mercado and Michele Waugh
One of the perks of working with your best friend is the loyalty and accountability that comes with the friendship.
For Blue River Cabinetry, Kitchen & Bath co-owners Annette Mercado and Michele Waugh, the compatibility is what still drives their business today.
“We both have our heart in this, and we both care about the final product,” Mercado, 44, said at a recent construction project in northeast Bakersfield.
Nearly seven years ago, Mercado and Waugh were complete strangers.
Waugh, 57, was working at a local “big-box” store when she met Mercado who was looking for materials for her next construction project.
The two hit it off immediately and after several “you guys need to start your own business” comments, they decided to take the leap of faith.
“When we started our business, I was in my early 50s and it got to the point where if I was ever going to make a decision, I had to do it then,” Waugh said.
Since 2008, the duo – along with Mercado’s husband and son – renovates 125 kitchens a year. Some projects are larger than others, but they can have between 18 to 20 projects running at a time.
And with the kitchen being where the heart of a home is, both Mercado and Waugh make sure to spend the time to get to know their clients.
“We want to design kitchens where you can bring family into the space, and it’s not solely a space for the cook,” Mercado said.
Although some may see a renovation as another item on a to-do list, for the owners of Blue River, it’s about restoring a flow in the home.
Mercado said they receive letters from prior clients, thanking them for the work they have done.
“We are changing their lives, really,” she added. “When it fits the house better, it fits their lifestyle better and that means more time with the family.”
The attention to details is where Waugh says the team stands out from other local cabinetry and construction businesses.
“I think as women, we are more patient and more detailed,” she said. “Not to disparage men, but as women in this business we see things differently and we can relate to customers’ needs.”
And the best part of the job, as Mercado said, is spending time with people who love each other.
“You don’t decide to do a kitchen remodel with someone you’re not in love with,” she said. “I don’t know of another job where you can see so many people in love.”
Neither broken bones nor torn rotator cuffs force Jymme Ahl to call it quits at the Kern County Fire Department.
The 52-year-old captain duty officer spent 28 years out on the field and is coming up on her one-year anniversary at the dispatch center on Panorama Avenue.
Ahl spent most of her career at Station 65 on Roberts Lane and North Chester Avenue.
It was there when she had to have a disk replaced from her back after a medical aid situation went wrong.
The person they were trying to help wasn’t compliant, so she pulled Ahl down to the floor, forcing a lot of pressure on Ahl’s back as she fell down.
“My disk popped out 2.5 centimeters,” Ahl recalled.
Looking back at the start of her career – Ahl was 22 when she started at the fire department academy – she knew she had the will and passion to always push forward, regardless of any pain.
A daughter of a retired fire captain, Ahl was one of only three females who graduated from the academy at the time.
“I was stronger than the average female and I stayed a firefighter for a longer period of time because I had a great start,” Ahl said.
As much as she misses being out on the field, Ahl enjoys being at the dispatch center as a liaison between the dispatchers and firefighters out on the field.
Although the fire department dispatch center doesn’t take first-hand 911 calls, they are on the phone an average of three to four minutes on a medical aid call.
“I’ve walked into that room and heard one of our dispatchers giving someone CPR instructions for more than 30 minutes,” Ahl said.
And let’s not forget the one dispatcher who has assisted in five births over the phone, she added.
Now that she’s getting close to 30 years on the force, Ahl wants to leave with a record.
“The two gals that I graduated with back when we started have retired and I’m pushing for 30 years so that nobody can catch up,” Ahl said laughing.
Working at the Kern County Coroner’s office is not for the faint-hearted.
The list of pending cases on the board at the morgue is never ending. There is at least one body in a freezer every day of the year.
For Supervising Deputy Coroner Annette Olague, the thrill of her job dates back to her time as a volunteer in the autopsy area.
She was in her early 20s when she started at the coroner’s office.
“I’ve always been intrigued in the human anatomy and the science,” the 40-year-old Bakersfield local said.
When she wasn’t assisting in autopsies, Olague was out in the field, side by side with investigators, learning.
Eventually, Olague got the experience she needed from working at the morgue to qualify to become a deputy corner.
In October 2014, she was promoted to her current position.
So what exactly does the coroner’s office do?
The coroner’s job is to determine the manner and cause of death of an individual. There are only five manners of death that California recognizes: natural causes, accident, homicide, suicide or undetermined.
“We use fingerprints or dental, where we literally take out someone’s teeth to help us identify them,” Olague said.
The morgue is where all the learning takes place, she added.
The body can tell you a lot by the injuries sustained during a shooting, stabbing or car crash. And as Olague puts it, every case is like a giant puzzle.
Most cases can take between 90 to 120 days to determine the cause of death.
Although she is now in a supervising position, Olague still goes out in the field when a call comes in.
Because Kern County is the third-largest county in the state, there are always deaths that require the coroner’s attention.
“The hardest calls are child deaths,” Olague said. “We have a job to do and that’s to bring closure to families, but I’ve learned that it’s okay to be compassionate at such a difficult time.”
As she thinks back to when she started her career — Olague was one of only three women in the department — she can’t help but realize this was her calling.
“This job isn’t what the TV shows you,” Olague said. “It’s about fact-finding, science and bringing closure to families, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Working in the medical field was a calling for Camille Cowne.
After graduating from medical school at 27, she earned a scholarship to work with the United States Navy for five years.
Cowne, 37, was stationed on a ship for two years and one of her humanitarian missions led her to Central and South America.
“It was great because we were able to help people in those countries that didn’t have strong medical programs,” Cowne said.
More than 200 medical staff set up clinics in Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru. People were treated at the clinics and any surgical patients were flown to the Navy ship where they were treated.
Today, Cowne works as an emergency medical physician at Mercy Southwest Hospital, Mercy Downtown Hospital and Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.
“A good day in the ER is when we save someone’s life,” Cowne said, “which we do frequently, but sometimes it’s not as obvious as others.”
Through her years in medicine, Cowne said she has never looked at herself as being underserved for being a woman or a minority.
But there are patient perceptions she has had to change occasionally.
Because she’s a young doctor, some older patients can’t grasp the idea that she is qualified.
“I’ve had some tell me they were waiting for an old man in a white coat to walk in,” Cowne said. “But when you let them know you know what you’re doing, they accept it.”
As she manages her time between three different ERs, Cowne can’t imagine doing anything else.
The variety of patients at each hospital is never the same.
Although working in an ER is challenging and time seems to run faster than usual, Cowne said she tries to find those extra minutes to actually sit down with a patient and talk to them.
“Showing them that you care and are offering hope, those are the moments that are so special,” she said.
Lorna H. Brumfield
Practicing law was not on Lorna H. Brumfield’s to-do list.
The third-generation Bakersfield local was studying to be a preschool teacher at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the 1980s. Although her father was a successful attorney in Bakersfield, Brumfield had her eyes on education.
But that plan took a turn when Brumfield learned that preschools were closing left and right, and she would probably not have a job after graduation.
At the time, Brumfield, 58, was taking a children and the law class and decided to take the Law School Admission Test.
“I did really well on the exam so I said, ‘Let’s give it a try,’” Brumfield said.
After working for a law firm in Sacramento, she moved back to Bakersfield in 1987 with her husband, also a local attorney.
In March 2009, Brumfield was appointed to a Kern County superior judge by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I was in my car on my way back home from a seminar in Los Angeles and I pulled off I-5 near Gorman and took the call saying the governor had appointed me,” Brumfield said. “It was very exciting.”
There is a big difference between being an attorney and being a judge, something Brumfield didn’t realize until she was sitting on the other side of the bench.
As a public servant, Brumfield has to be careful of what she says because no matter where she is, she is a representative of the system.
In her office sits a judicial conduct book that details the rules she has to follow.
“As a judge, you have to show everyone that you are impartial and not biased so that the system has credibility,” she said.
On any given day, Brumfield can be dealing with a case whose value is set at either $10,000 or $20 million.
“You have to be very patient and deal with a lot of different people and issues,” she noted. “But that’s why I really enjoy what I do.”
As a woman, Brumfield said she has seen the number of females practicing law grow significantly.
She remembers a time when some judges would call a female attorney by her first name but turn around and address a male attorney as “mister so-and-so.”
“There has been a lot of progress and there are more female attorneys now,” Brumfield said.
In Kern County, the district attorney, the county counsel and the city attorney are all females.
Michelle Burns-Lusich comes from a family of engineers. As much as she wanted to explore other careers in college, the engineer DNA just called her name.
As an engineering technician with the Kern County Roads Department, Burns-Lusich, 40, works with construction engineers and contractors in the field and is present at all bid openings in Kern County.
Born and raised in Bakersfield, Burns-Lusich started in the construction world in 2002, working with Ernie Martinez Concrete Inc. as a bidder.
“The two biggest projects I worked on were the two Costcos in town,” Burns-Lusich said.
Sadly, the concrete business took a dive and went out of business when the housing boom ended, prompting Burns-Lusich to apply to the roads department as an engineering aide.
In 2011, she started working in the materials laboratory and worked her way up to her current position.
“Working out in the elements really made me appreciate the work that gets done,” she said.
While out in the field at the Hageman Road overpass, Burns-Lusich tested concrete during concrete pours, did compaction tests and made sure the project was being done properly.
“Seeing that part of the job, I really learned so much that it has made me better now,” Burns-Lusich said.
But she does admit that every time she passes by the Hageman Road overpass, she says, “I spent time there!”
Burns-Lusich is also a Board of Supervisors liaison.
When Kern County residents call the Board of Supervisors with a road problem, like a pothole in the road, for example, Burns-Lusich takes the call and sends the maintenance group to patch up the hole.
“Communication is a big deal,” she said. “Between supervisors and locals, we just want to keep everyone happy.”
Throughout the year, the roads department has multiple projects going on at a time in places like Rosamond, Lost Hills, Maricopa and, of course, Bakersfield.
Some projects can take between 25 and 60 working days to complete.
“We always have a county engineer on each project making sure everything is done correctly,” Burns-Lusich said.
Walking down the corridors at the Kern County Roads Department on M Street, the male to female ratio is striking.
“There aren’t many women engineers working in the county,” Burns-Lusich said.
There is one female engineer, one female assistant director, one female engineering technician and one female working as an engineering aide.
“I think, as a woman, you have to be prepared and know what you are talking about,” Burns-Lusich said. “If you have the right answer, you are going to receive more respect.”
With a passion to focus on more than a medical prescription, Dr. Amira Ayad sought out a way to improve a patient’s health.
“A lot of the times, handing out a prescription is not the answer to everything,” Ayad said.
She acknowledges the benefits of pharmaceutical options but said they are not always the right answer.
Ayad, 36, is a family practice physician and board certified in bariatrics medicine at the Adventist Health Physicians Network in downtown Bakersfield.
Ayad focuses on obesity, anti-aging and regenerative medicine – the only woman in Kern County to practice this kind of medicine.
“It’s a great achievement knowing that you didn’t help a patient by adding more chemicals in their body, but through a different route,” she said.
Ayad focuses on vitamin deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and poor diet choices.
Although she treats patients who have cardiovascular problems, she also sees patients who are beginning to show signs of memory loss.
Memory loss can be caused by an imbalance in estrogen or testosterone levels. Or as most patients later find out, a nutritional deficiency.
“Things that are artificially added in the diet can affect your memory so we modify their diet,” Ayad said.
Although it can take several months before a person notices changes, Ayad said she has had several patients tell her they feel a difference within weeks.
Another passion of Ayad is educating the community in obesity and the health impacts it can have in the long run.
According to recent statistics from the Kern County Public Health Services Department, Kern County ranks highest of all counties in California in deaths from heart disease and second highest in deaths from diabetes.
“Our predictions for 2020 are that one in every three kids will be obese,” Ayad said.
But it can all be prevented if the support comes from the community.
Keeping a family motivated on eating healthier options will play an important role in a child’s life, Ayad noted.
“If you are treating the parents, we know we are delivering the healthy message to the kids,” she said.
When asked what her favorite part of her job was, Ayad said it was the patients who return feeling happier and healthier.
“I’ve had patients tell me that I’m changing lives with what I do and it really gives you a lot of satisfaction seeing that all of your hard work is paying off,” she said.
Liz Kern knows cars.
She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty under a car hood and tweak a few wires here and there to get a car started.
Growing up with her brothers in their garage, Kern learned a few tricks and it was no wonder she tested mechanically inclined when she took the service aptitude test at 21 years old.
“I joined the Navy to see the world as a jet engine mechanic,” Kern said.
At the time, Kern, 61, was the only female working as an engine mechanic on the ship. She worked on A-7 jets, side by side with nearly 50 men.
“It was great working with the guys,” Kern said.
After four years in the military, she worked part time at California Pretzel in Visalia as a janitor and part-time packer. Kern worked her way up to a machine operations job, again the only female to do so.
While she worked in the food manufacturing job, a few of her close friends had started working for Southern California Edison. They insisted she apply and eventually she gave in and sent in an application.
She was 27 when she started at the garage at Southern California Edison.
“I started doing mobile fueling, so I filled the trucks every night,” Kern said. “I washed cars, swept the garage and whatever they needed me to do, I did it.”
She spent 30 years at Edison before retiring as fleet regional manager.
But she soon realized she was too young to retire, so five months later, she joined the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in Bakersfield as the service center supervisor.
“It was a pretty easy transition,” Kern said. “I went from white trucks to blue trucks, basically.”
Although she doesn’t spend much time getting her hands dirty under the truck hoods at work anymore, Kern said she is glad she has guys in the shop to depend on.
She supervises 18 male mechanics and one female mechanic. She is still the only woman in a regional manager position for PG&E.
“My biggest fear coming in was trying to get the guys that were going to work for me to trust me,” she said, “especially because I’m a female and I’m in a male-dominated work.”
One of the biggest changes Kern did when she arrived was in-house repairs.
“We used to send all repairs out to vendors,” Kern said. “But it didn’t make sense to me so we started doing our own tire work and other easy jobs that we could do here.”
When she isn’t splitting her time between different PG&E garages around the area, Kern is usually at the Wible Road and White Lane service center.
“I know there are times when the work will be tough and hard, but I tell my guys that we need to work hard and get the job done so we can enjoy those better days,” Kern said.
It took one piece of advice for Nicole Shihrer to realize that she wanted to take on a career in law enforcement.
“If there is any part of you that wants to do it, do it.”
That is what one female Bakersfield Police Department officer advised Shihrer at age 22. Shihrer was a 911 dispatcher at the time, following in her mother’s footsteps.
“I grew up in this department,” said Shihrer, a BPD detective and also the only female in the BPD SWAT Crisis Negotiations Team.
During her BPD academy, Shihrer, 32, was one of three females who made it through the nearly yearlong process of becoming a sworn police officer.
Shihrer said that because there were only three females, they all seemed to click immediately.
“We definitely stuck together but we were fortunate to have a big group of strong, supportive men that encouraged us,” she said.
In February, Shihrer was promoted to police detective and works in the burglary unit. She has been with the SWAT Crisis Negotiations Team since 2013.
The negotiations team has monthly trainings with real-life scenarios to prepare for a crisis.
In a recent training, Shihrer was the lead negotiator and worked with four other team members to figure out how to get the hostage to safety.
The negotiations team is usually made up six BPD officers and callout times vary. On any given week, they can be called out once or even three times.
Shihrer remembers her first real-life scenario as intense.
“It was nerve-wracking,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure to do your job well and you ultimately seek a safe conclusion.”
When asked how long a negotiation can take, Shihrer said she personally has spent seven hours on a call, which ended with a good outcome.
Although Shihrer is the only current woman on the negotiations team, she said she has grown used to working with just males.
“I’m lucky because they are supportive and we all work together as a team,” she said.