It is no accident my degrees from the University of Oklahoma are prominently displayed on the office wall directly across from my desk. That’s where I have all my favorite mementos—pictures of my children, grandchildren, various plaques and a couple of photos of George Clooney. On days when decisions are difficult and foresight is blurred, those framed diplomas serve as reminders of what brought me to serve as the executive director of United Way of Enid and Northwest Oklahoma.
While much of my professional career was in banking, I have long been an active community volunteer, serving on numerous nonprofit boards, the Oklahoma Community Service Commission and the National board of America’s Service Commissions.
I thought I had experienced some level of success with my volunteer efforts until I witnessed the post-CLS graduation difference. There really is no other explanation.
Even with 90 percent of my degree completed online, there were lessons learned, relationships established and collaborations forged that have since been the catalyst for programs created in the nonprofit community, whose rewards are more far-reaching than anything I could have ever imagined.
After receiving my degree, I began a new job search. My degree enabled me to apply for jobs that were previously unobtainable. I was hired as the executive director of a nonprofit youth development agency.
I look at my framed undergraduate and graduate degrees not as merely diplomas, but rather as divine encounters—leading me to a place where I was meant to be, doing the work I was meant to do.
My new position allowed me to work with Special Care, a school for children from all abilities—many children with autism. Working with my staff, we developed a camp for them; one we named Camp C.A.N.O.E.—an acronym for: Children with Autism Need Outdoor Experiences. The following thank you is from a parent whose child participated in Camp C.A.N.O.E.:
“First, allow me to say thank you. Not your average thank you, but one which stems from the whole heart of a mother! Thank you, all of you! This has been one of the most beautiful experiences for my son…I was in tears a few times this week thinking about how beautiful it was to have a week where my son was ‘just like everyone else.’ Again, thank you.”
There are many more testimonials just like that. Today, two national affiliates are looking to partner and have asked permission to use the Camp C.A.N.O.E. brand to make this concept available to children with autism across the United States. I would never have been in a position to say, “Nothing would thrill me more…” if not for my experience with the College of Liberal Studies.
Though I had experience working with United Way organizations across the state, moving to Enid as the executive director of a regional United Way was a bit daunting. Again, my experiences from CLS were the perfect preparation.
On two different occasions, I had the privilege of participating in Feaver-MacMinn seminars. I spent weekends with scholars who have consulted with Gandhi, Netanyahu and the United Nations. The man who wrote the cover article for Newsweek’s December 2012 issue–“I know him!” Because of the College of Liberal Studies, I know these people!
Whether you are sitting in your living room or a classroom or propped up on pillows in your bed with your laptop—my personal favorite—you simply cannot leave these experiences of working with others, even if it is through discussion boards and group projects, unchanged.
These learned methods of communicating, sharing ideas and teamwork translated into community alliances and collaborations that surpassed our executive committee and board’s expectations for our first few months together in Northwest Oklahoma.
Breaking the traditional model of fundraising, the entire Enid Fire Department—all 81 firefighters—were named as our 2013-14 campaign co-chairs. From the fire chief, the fire marshal and through the ranks, they took complete charge of our community kick-off, distributed packets and have been present and assisted at every event.
Again, our organization stepped outside its traditional funding mechanism when we realized a need in our community for more pre-K classrooms. Working directly with superintendent Shawn Hime (recently named executive director of the Oklahoma State School Board Association), we created an impact initiative, “Little Kids, Big Impact,” and as a result, this fall United Way of Enid and Northwest Oklahoma will host a reception for its donors and the Inasmuch Foundation (who provided a 50 percent match) for a newly renovated Early Childhood Education Center.
These great programs—and I highlight only a few—are possible only because of the wisdom, the insight, the talents, and gifts of many.
I could never have put together Camp C.A.N.O.E. without Pam Newby, who founded Special Care, and an expert staff who knew how to execute a camp.
I certainly couldn’t move to a new town where I knew NO ONE and raise money for an early childhood center without people like Dianne Juhnke, Dr. Bob and Betty Shuttee and Stan and Gail Brownlee—people who knew the community and were willing to help.
I mentioned earlier it would be impossible to be in a classroom with professors of the caliber we have at CLS and graduate the same person you were before. The conversations you have with instructors, and fellow students, who have travelled extensively, consulted with world leaders and advised diplomats on matters of ethics and public policy elevate the way you think and approach life. Indeed, it gives you the confidence to facilitate and lead conversations and public forums within your own community because you have participated in the highest level of civic discourse and global engagement.
I look at my framed undergraduate and graduate degrees not as merely diplomas, but rather as divine encounters—leading me to a place where I was meant to be, doing the work I was meant to do. Seeing them often is a source of continual inspiration—and an occasional smile from George doesn’t hurt, either.
The United Way of America, based in Alexandria, Virginia, is a nonprofit organization that works with more than 1,200 local United Way offices throughout the country in a coalition of charitable organizations. The focus of the United Way is the promotion of education, income stability and healthy living through partnerships with local organizations that are serving critical needs in communities.