by Women’s Division Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce Chesapeake

by Cristi Sanchez

Encouraging and motivating women to participate in building a better community. That idea is foundational to the mission statement of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce Women’s Division of Chesapeake. Each year the Women’s Division uses those criteria to select their Woman of the Year. This year that honor goes to Chesapeake Councilwoman Debbie Ritter.

“I was overwhelmed on being chosen Woman of the Year,” Debbie says. “It’s such an honor. Belonging to the organization for 20 years, I know all the great women who were chosen before me. It’s very humbling to be seen in the same light as those women who have done so much for the city.”

Born in Newport, Rhode Island to a Navy family, Debbie and her twin sisters learned the importance of voluntary community service from their parents. “We grew up understanding the importance of helping others. My mother had us all volunteering in some capacity when we were old enough,” Debbie smiles. “I helped in the naval hospital.”

Just as community service was a part of her childhood that followed her into adulthood, so too was the Navy. After graduating high school, Debbie attended the University of Connecticut where she met her husband, Ron. After graduating with a degree in business, Ron enlisted in the Navy at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967. “It was a surprise to both of us,” Debbie recalls with a grin. “Neither one of us ever expected that he would make the Navy a career.” But that’s exactly what happened. They married during Debbie’s last year of college, just before Ron’s  deployment to the Mekong Delta.

Navy orders brought the family to Hampton Roads in 1977. Instead of finding a home close to the Norfolk Naval Base, Debbie and Ron chose the Great Bridge section of Chesapeake. “We were pioneers of a sort,” Debbie laughs. “We were actually one of the first Navy families to live out here at that time. Most people thought the commute to Norfolk was too far.”

To be able to look back and say
that we have really been able to help people
gives us a wonderful feeling
that  really can’t be put into words.”

 —Debbie Ritter

They loved the area so much that when Ron retired, Chesapeake became their permanent home. Their three daughters, Courtney, Caroline and Hilary, all attended Chesapeake Public Schools. “We never would have expected to end up here and have things turn out as they have, but we’re very happy here,” she says contentedly. As previously in her life, the unexpected would continue to shape Debbie’s future.

Now a permanent Chesapeake resident, Debbie’s life-long desire to serve had her seeking ways to positively impact her community. She eventually served a term on the Chesapeake Planning Commission, making recommendations to City Council in all areas of planning. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there,” she states. “It was a wonderful learning experience.”

Debbie’s time on the Planning Commission would be the springboard to her most notable and public community service to date: Chesapeake City Councilwoman.

“It was a spur of the moment decision to run for city council,” Debbie explains. “I got my paperwork together and filed my petition two weeks before the filing deadline for the May election. I was one of the most surprised people in Chesapeake when I was actually elected!” she adds laughing.

Debbie Ritter, 2018 Woman of the Year
Photo courtesy Hobbs Studio

With more than 20 years of service to the City of Chesapeake, Debbie has introduced countless initiatives for improving the city. “It’s rarely individual accomplishments that we make,“ she points out. “I have to stress that the best of ideas need the support of the council and the people of the city.”

One of Debbie’s initiatives was creating the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, the former section of old Route 17 that’s now a beautiful multi-use trail for biking, walking, running, horseback riding and city-sponsored events.

Other initiatives that hold a special place in Debbie’s heart are the Poindexter Street project in the South Norfolk corridor, the City Call Center—which takes over 100,000 requests and complaints each year, and building the Campostella Square/Cuffee Receration Center. “These projects really improved the lives of people in those communities,” Debbie affirms.

In addition to her time serving the citizens of the City of Chesapeake, Debbie continues to give back by tirelessly spending her time participating in numerous civic organizations. Besides being a 20-year member of the Women’s Division, Debbie is actively involved in at least eight other community service organizations.

This year the Women’s Division has provided Girl Scout/ Boy Scout scholarships, funding to the HER Shelter and Chesapeake Area Shelter Team, and small scholarships for adult women to attend TCC. “They’re not full scholarships,” Debbie explains, “but they do provide them with something that can get them started on a better career or perhaps, complete their education. It’s very unique!”

Debbie is also active in the Central Chesapeake Republican Women’s Club, which has adopted Treakle Elementary School in Deep Creek. “We volunteer there. We help tutor and read to students, collect books to give to them, and ‘adopt’ students at Christmas. I really enjoy it!”

When she’s not busy serving the community, Debbie enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time with her family, including Happy, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who is a bit of a local social media celebrity.

Such an active civic life might seem daunting to some, but, like the Energizer Bunny, Debbie just keeps on going and giving. “I enjoy giving my time,” she says sincerely. “You get such a sense of making a contribution. To be able to look back and say that we have really been able to help people gives us a wonderful feeling that really can’t be put into words.”

Debbie and Ron Ritter with their children and grandchildren.
Photo courtesy Erin Meyers Hingley

February 9th at 6 p.m.
Chesapeake Conference Center

To order tickets
or for more information,
please contact Judy Hicks at
(757) 573-9658 or

Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce - Women’s Division