Martha Pheneger will tell you she is excellent at connecting people to resources. Others will tell you Pheneger immerses herself in countless social causes in order to make a difference. Either way, the Laramie community feels Pheneger’s impact. She seems to be everywhere, all the time, seeking out opportunities to work for social change.
Pheneger, who was born in New York and spent much of her life in California, grew up surrounded by people attuned to social issues. “My mom was a social worker and a lot of her friends were as well. My dad was a labor attorney who fought for workers’ rights,” she says. “I was surrounded by women who were all strong and worked outside of the home. I know my situation was unique.”
The influence of these people is clear. Pheneger worked as a social worker in Laramie for eighteen years. She also served in the University of Wyoming’s social work department supervising BSW and MSW students, teaching classes, serving on a state committee focused on school social work, and she served on the Social Work Department Advisory Committee. Additionally she trained as a dispute resolution hearing officer for Wyoming and was also active in the Albany County Resource Confederation.
Social work and supporting her community is Pheneger’s passion. She says that when she first moved to Laramie in 1981 she joined “everything” so that she could meet people and make contacts for herself and her family. Pheneger was a member of the Laramie League of Women Voters, coached kids’ soccer, and as a self-described “urban girl” co-led a 4H group. Pheneger also helped organize the first Bowl for Kids’ Sake, an event for Big Brothers, Big Sisters and Wyoming’s Race for the Cure.
Pheneger also supported the development of Whiting High School, an alternative program in Laramie. While working for the school district Pheneger learned about the program and recognized the importance of its place in the community. As a member of the site council, a PTA-like group made up of staff, parents, students, and community members she provided valuable input. Her contacts in the social work department also allowed her to introduce several of her social work students to the program. Many of them spent time during their internships there and created various groups including a teen dad group. As a resource person she introduced Whiting to the Anti-Defamation League of Denver and it soon became the first “No Place for Hate” school in Wyoming.
Through her work in the Albany County School District, Pheneger sponsored programs which recognized cultural diversity. An example was her inviting international UW students to talk about their countries, their way of celebrating holidays, and a taste of traditional food. Pheneger was also part of the original group that helped the school district implement a cultural diversity committee and training program.
Her work did not stop there, though. She was also part of the hospital’s wellness program that focused on cultural diversity, bringing together UW, the community and the school district. The group hired an Americorps volunteer to produce a newsletter letting teachers and parents know about activities on campus along with creating a bibliography of resources about different cultures. These two groups were later involved in the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, which was established in 1999 following the murder of Mathew Shepard.
Despite being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1996, Pheneger’s involvement in the community is more than the Average Joe can even begin to imagine. A board member of Laramie Reproductive Health, Interfaith, Ivinson Memorial Hospital’s Community Advisory Committee, and Laramie League of Women Voters, Pheneger’s impact is far reaching. And nothing seems to slow her down.