BEHIND THE COVER: Photography by Brandi Stage Portraiture | Hair and makeup: Brittney M. Johnson and HD Hair and Makeup | Wardrobe/accessories: Capri and Jewelry Box, Beau Rivage (Mary); Aloha Glamour (Alexis); Cynthia and Heather Dubuisson(Cynthia); Cynthia’s jewelry, Jewelry Box.
One launched a fashion brand to heal from a devastating loss. Another is an invaluable voice for abused and neglected children, and the third is a communications powerhouse who makes a point of giving back. All are risk takers who have changed the Coast for the better. Meet Cynthia Chauvin, Alexis Williams and Mary Cracchiolo.
‘Live life in color’
Alexis Williams spreads aloha through fashion, giving back
Her bright, bold designs have graced major media platforms like GQ and Oprah.com, and she can count several celebrities among her fans.
But when she founded her fashion brand, Aloha Glamour, Alexis Williams had no thoughts of making it big; she was simply desperate to heal. While the U.S. Air Force veteran was stationed in Hawaii in 2015, her daughter, Lauren Taylor, died before birth. Within the same 60-day period, Williams also endured a divorce and had to relocate to Mississippi with two young children — her son, Kaileb, and daughter, Laila.
“It was a lot to deal with,” Williams recalls. “I felt like I needed something to bring me back to myself. That’s where Aloha Glamour came in; it helped me commemorate my daughter and find joy again.”
So much hardship in so short a time drained the color from Williams’s world, but it also fueled her resolve. Gradually, her life became vibrant again. Aloha Glamour’s playful, eclectic patterns, inspired by both African and Hawaiian culture, reflect her mantra: “Live life in color.”
“I am driven by the desire to support and empower women who have experienced loss or felt isolated with their loss,” she says. “Hearing stories from women who have been impacted by my story and work keeps me going. I want to ensure that no woman ever feels alone or unsupported.”
HER CUP OVERFLOWS
Although she’s a self-described “shy person” who prefers to stay hidden, Williams’s accomplishments have propelled her out of the shadows — and showed her how to lead. Some might get a big head if celebrities like film and TV star Nico Santos wore their designs, as he did Williams’s for a recent magazine photoshoot, but she takes none of her good fortune for granted.
“It’s important to stay humble and grateful for the blessings in life, as well as to help others along the way,” she says. “When we give to others, we receive even more in return, keeping our cup overflowing.”
To that end, Williams partners with Fresh Oil Ministries Food Pantry once a month to help the underfed and underserved. As a speaker, she often shares her knowledge of topics including mental health, brand building and the importance of connection.
During the darkest time of her life, Williams found solace in her community, which prompted her to create the Mississippi Gulf Coast Black Owned Business Network. In her role as founder, she connects entrepreneurs and consumers, provides resources and facilitates connections with entities like The Small Business Administration and Google.
“As a black business owner, I understand the challenges that come with a lack of funding and opportunities,” Williams says. “By providing a space for these businesses, I hope to make a positive impact in the world and create a source of income for those who have been historically marginalized.”
TRUSTING HER INTUITION
As the only female African American female air-traffic controller in her class and operational tower, Williams says her experience of racism helped her develop resilience and determination. Her time in the military also taught her the value of discipline, hard work and perseverance. While there’s no single “secret” to her success, Williams maintains that prayer is key.
“I always ask for guidance and strength to pursue my goals, and I also trust my intuition and take risks even when I’m scared; nothing will ever be perfect,” she says. “I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe in, even if it means being different.”
Although she’s won numerous honors, including the Top 50 Black Women in Business in Mississippi award, the Lighthouse Business and Professional Women’s Young Careerist award and a Top Influencer award at the Success Women’s Conference, what matters most to Williams is waking up each day and doing what she loves. She dreams of eventually seeing Aloha Glamour flagship stores around the world, and in the meantime, she has plenty to keep her busy. She’ll be heading to Phoenix Fashion Week in October, spending a few weeks in Los Angeles with a celebrity stylist and then traveling as a guest to Paris Fashion Week if she can raise the funds.
Locally, Williams wants to partner on fashion-related projects with casinos, Gulfport-Biloxi Airport, The Mississippi Aquarium and other establishments. She’d also like to host an annual “Live in Color” fashion show, which would help support a free school in Ghana that she visits every year. Yet another idea involves collaborating with shopping centers on a program that would allow small business owners like her to operate a storefront and grow their companies without the stress of high overhead.
“Additionally, I am passionate about developing an African American Studies program within the school district to educate young men and women about the importance of our history and heritage,” she says. “Of course, we would have a fashion show to celebrate.”
The children’s champion
Cynthia Chauvin helps give abused, neglected kids a voice
Many people slowed down during the COVID pandemic, but not Cynthia Chauvin.
The hard-charging executive director of CASA of Hancock County went back to school after 25 years and earned a master-of-jurisprudence degree, all while working a full-time job and acting as her mother’s caregiver. During that time, she also went through an unexpected divorce.
Chauvin could have played her hand any number of ways, but she chose to “let go and let God.”
“I dug in and persevered; for that, I am incredibly proud of myself,” she says. “Overcoming adversity is a part of life. It’s our individual response to it that is unique.”
NOT JUST A JOB – A VOCATION
Passionate and determined, Chauvin has a career in child welfare spanning over 23 years. The nonprofit she heads, CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates), supports children in need.
“Problem solving with our volunteers and staff keeps me connected to our mission and armed with real-life scenarios that speak to why CASA advocates are necessary in cases of abuse and neglect,” she says. “I often refer to this work as a vocation, as I feel that God led me to CASA.”
The Marrero, Louisiana, native is a trained educator and taught middle school for five years – an experience that showed her how important an adult can be in a child’s life. She’d intended to teach until retirement, but in 2001, she came across an open position in juvenile court that interested her.
“Working within the juvenile court system on behalf of kids was the perfect fit; it blended my civics and government interest with being concerned about the wellbeing of children from hard places.” Chauvin says. “The icing on the cake was really the volunteer component. CASA advocates are volunteers who stand in the gap for their kids and absolutely make a profound difference in their lives.”
TAKING THE LEAP
She continued working for CASA with the Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court until 2013, when increasing crime and declining quality of life caused her to look elsewhere. Her plan was to buy a second home on the Gulf Coast to serve as a weekend getaway for a while, and before making a purchase, she’d learned the CASA Director position was open in Hancock County.
“Simultaneously, the county was facing a crisis, having over 300 children in foster care,” Chauvin recalls. “The challenge intrigued me, and I took the leap.
“The decision to relocate homes and jobs has blessed me in countless ways. The Hancock County community embraced me, and they embraced CASA.”
Ever since her first job with the organization, an entry-level position recruiting, training and supporting volunteers, Chauvin knew she’d found her calling. Since then, she’s seen thousands of children grow up in difficult circumstances and beat the odds.
“Working alongside everyday people who take time out of their own lives to help children navigate the overwhelming CPS and Youth Court systems and ensure their voice is heard truly humbles me …,” she says. “There is nothing better than seeing one of your former children breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect.”
SERVICE ABOVE SELF
Heading an organization that wouldn’t exist without volunteers, Chauvin feels compelled to give back. She’s president of the Rotary Club of Bay St. Louis and a member of the all-female Krewe of Nereids and the Bay St. Louis 2045 Community Planning Steering Committee. Her efforts have led to recognition as 2022 Rotarian of the Year from the Rotary Club of Bay St. Louis, Nonprofit Woman of Achievement from Lighthouse Business and Professional Women, National CASA Association Executive Director of the Year from Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity, among several other honors.
Chauvin attributes her service-above-self philosophy to her father, a longtime Rotarian in South Louisiana who modeled integrity and a strong work ethic. Like him, she feels a deep commitment to her role: protecting kids.
“Honestly, I can’t think of any type of work that is more important than safeguarding children who have already experienced trauma in their lives,” she says. “CASA has made me a better human.”
THE BEST IS YET TO COME
Serving as her mother’s caregiver for six years also had a profound impact on Chauvin, making her realize how fleeting life is and motivating her to cherish every moment. It also caused her to reflect on what makes her happy and pursue a healthier work-life balance.
“While I am deeply committed to securing the resources and leading an organization that truly impacts the lives of children in need, I also recognize that I need personal satisfaction,” she says.
Personally and professionally, Chauvin has never been happier. To celebrate her recent 50th birthday, she treated herself to a trip to Greece and has plans to travel more in the coming years.
With so much going for her, the tireless children’s advocate believes this next decade could be her best yet.
“In terms of hopes and dreams, while it may seem cliché, I am right where I want to be, doing the work I was meant to do,” Chauvin says. “I’m just ready to keep it going.”
Striving for excellence
Mary Cracchiolo finds success in service
Some may mistake kindness for weakness, but Mary Cracchiolo views things a bit differently.
“I see kindness as a superpower; it is the difference we make in this world,” says Cracchiolo, director of communications for MGM Resorts International’s Beau Rivage. “It can affect change. Being patient, being kind, is truly empowering. Kindness is a beautiful gift that we can offer each other.”
Given her penchant for friendliness and courtesy, there’s little doubt that the 30- year veteran of the hospitality and tourism industry is in the right profession. From her college years working for Marriott to her years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, her connection to the hospitality business runs deep.
“My father worked for Eastern Airlines, so my love for travel and tourism began at an early age,” she says. “For three decades, I have served as a regional tourism and gaming/entertainment industry resource and am passionate about educating and driving visitors to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and MGM Resorts properties.”
EMPATHETIC AND OPTIMISTIC
This month, Cracchiolo is celebrating 22 years with MGM Resorts International and Beau Rivage. In that time, she has contributed to thousands of print and broadcast stories promoting the company’s properties and the Coast as a tourism destination. She also played a significant role in communicating during times of crisis, including Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am an energetic and enthusiastic person who strives for excellence,” Cracchiolo says. “I am far from perfect, but I always try to be empathetic and optimistic.”
Judging by the results, Cracchiolo doesn’t miss many targets she aims for. She graduated magna cum laude from Park University in Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in business, emphasis in marketing, and has racked up a host of honors throughout her nearly three decades on the Coast, including Southern Public Relations Federation’s Professional Achievement Award, One Coast Award Community Leader award, Mississippi Gulf Coast’s Top 10 Business Leaders Under 40 award, Mississippi’s 50 Leading Businesswomen recognition from Mississippi Business Journal, Mississippi Tourism Association Governor’s Award, Outstanding Community Leader recognition from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues Commission, Woman of Achievement nomination from Lighthouse Business and Professional Women, Top 40 Under 40 Women in Business recognition from The Bay Press and several others. Additionally, she’s a graduate of graduate of Leadership Mississippi, Leadership Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast Business Council’s Master’s Program, MGM’s Marketing Senior Management Development Program and the Southeast Tourism Society’s three-year Tourism Marketing College.
With such an impressive track record that speaks for itself, Cracchiolo defines success as “doing what you say you are going to do.” She advises other women professionals to have confidence in their abilities, take time to laugh, develop relationships with the people around them and never stop learning.
“Always treat people with dignity and respect, even when they don’t deserve it,” she says. “Let go of the guilt and self-doubt. Do the best you can with what you have, and be comfortable with it.”
She applies that approach to the many responsibilities of her work role, in which she spearheads national, regional and local media relations, manages community marketing sponsorships, supports community relations efforts and participates in social impact and sustainability initiatives.
But no matter how powerful they are, even the strongest superheroes need support.
“Beau Rivage is truly a family,” Cracchiolo says of her team. “There is tremendous pride, dedication and focus on customer service. We want people to come to the Coast, stay with us and leave relishing great experiences and our world-famous hospitality.”
‘GIVE THEM SOME GRACE’
The committed volunteer takes service as seriously as her job, devoting approximately 20 hours per month to community activities. She especially enjoys working with nonprofits that focus on youth and serves on the board of the directors for the NASA-inspired Moon Tree Foundation and volunteers with the Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum and St. Patrick Catholic High School Parent Teacher Organization.
She is also an active contributor to the American Red Cross, Public Relations Society of America, the American Heart Association. In the past, she’s served as a mentor for the Gulfport School District and member of the Gulfport Planning Commission, and she recently completed a five-year appointment on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau’s board of commissioners, acting as board president. She currently serves on the Mississippi Tourism Association Political Action Committee Board and the Coast Chamber of Commerce’s Military One Coast Board.
As a member of the all-female Krewe of Salacia, which financially assists the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence and the South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center, among other charities, Cracchiolo helps support local women and children in need.
“If the post-COVID world has taught us anything, it is that we have to be kind to one another and kind to ourselves,” she says. “There are a lot of angry people in the world, people struggling, people in unhappy relationships, people concerned about their futures. You really never know what people are going through, so give them some grace.”
‘GOD LOVES MARY’
Although it’s hard to believe Cracchiolo has a moment to spare, she finds time for some of her favorite activities: travel, listening to a wide variety of music and spending time with her dogs, Gretchen and Gibbs. She and her 15-year old son, Logan, are both certified scuba divers, but he is even more passionate about aviation than his water-based hobbies.
“My father, Tony, had a 50-year career in aviation and was also enthusiastic about planes,” , Cracchiolo says. “I find it a true blessing and full-circle experience to witness my father’s passions being emulated in my son completely unsolicited.”
Logan aspires to be a pilot, and as for Mary, she’s looking forward to taking a six-week sabbatical later this year, during which she plans to rest, reset, pursue other interests and return to work rejuvenated.
“I consider myself blessed,” she says. “God loves Mary.”