- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
In 1999, Laura Wolf needed to adjust her life to match her goals and priorities. So she quit her job at a law firm to work for a breakthrough nonprofit where she had been volunteering.
In 2007, Holly Priestner found out that in Austin, if a newcomer to town shows up to volunteer, works hard and smiles, there is a valued place for her in this community.
In 2014, Vanessa Fuentes discovered that it was possible to volunteer for 80 hours over the course of eight months, but it required managing her calendar and knowing where she was in her career and with her family.
It is safe to say that all three leaders would volunteer even if they were not members of the Junior League of Austin. Yet the League has turned them into a species of supervolunteers of the kind that every charity in town craves.
While Wolf, Priestner and Fuentes are at different stages of the JLA’s training and development program, each is ready to share tips on how to volunteer, how to be highly productive and, just as important, how not to burn out. And how to handle it if you do.
Laura Wolf, 52, serves as executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Travis County, which provides advocates for children who have been abused or neglected. She grew up in Midland and studied psychology at Smith College and then law at the University of Texas.
After college, she worked for eight years in regulatory law while serving on the board of the former Austin Rape Crisis Center, which merged with the Center for Battered Women to become SafePlace, which itself recently teamed up with the Austin Children’s Shelter to become Safe Austin.
“Thanks to the Junior League, which I joined in 1991, I was learning more about Austin,” Wolf says. “I found that what I was doing as a volunteer was more exciting and rewarding than what I was doing for a living.”
She also quickly discovered that things are done differently here than in other cities.
“The culture of Austin is that people want to roll up their sleeves and get involved in a meaningful way and do something,” she says. “They don’t just want to write a check. For instance, our CASA counterparts in Houston and Dallas raise more money, but proportionate to population, they don’t have as many volunteers as we do. Austinities want to fix problems.”
At any time, CASA of Travis County, which was founded by the Junior League, is home base to 450 to 500 highly trained volunteers. More than 750 volunteer over the course of a year.
“You work with children and make a difference for children,” she says. “That’s one attraction. But there’s also the opportunity to have a professional type of role as a volunteer. You are going to be in court and speak to the judge and interact with professionals in the system. That appeals to a lot of people.”
She encourages people to figure out their passion and then find out what kind of volunteering experience speaks to them.
“If you are graphic designer, do you want to do graphic design for a nonprofit, or do you want to have a completely different experience?” she says. “How do you want to spend your time and with what kind of people?”
As an Episcopalian reared by West Texas fiscal conservatives, Wolf was ready to help out at an early age.
“Midland is so remote and small, nothing happens that the community doesn’t make happen,” she says. “Like the community theater that I joined. Mother took us on her Meals on Wheels route.”
The Junior League, which women usually join between the ages of 25 and 35, helped her experiment with different charities.
“We’ve got a solid vetting process, so I wouldn’t have to go out and vet 1,500 nonprofits,” says Wolf, who is now a sustaining member, which allows her to participate but doesn’t require voting or the other duties of active members. “The League gets it down to 25 to choose from.”
Wolf emphasizes that it is best for volunteers to admit when they have bitten off more than they can chew.
“I am a firm believer that it is better for all concerned if you feel you’re not going to be able to meet the commitment that you’ve made or the expectations of your role, say so and extricate yourself, as opposed to feeling guilty and thinking that next time you won’t be so busy,” she says. “It’s better for the volunteers and better for the organizations.”
At the same time, Wolf cannot exaggerate the rewards of volunteering if it works out.
“You get to take a risk,” she says. “To go out on a limb and really test yourself. And grow in ways that you might not have an opportunity to do in regular life.”
Holly Priestner, an active member at the peak of her Junior League experience, happens to be one of Laura Wolf’s proteges.
Priestner, 38, grew up in Portland, near Corpus Christi, and studied public relations at Texas Tech University and then earned her MBA at UT. She worked for the State Bar of Texas for 11 years, in various capacities focused on communications and advocacy.
Priestner’s membership in the Junior League, which she joined in 2007, brought her directly to the door of her current employer, Keller Williams Realty, a giant international real estate firm based in Austin.
She immediately found the company a perfect match for her bubbly personality and empathetic values.
“I’m a walking pep rally,” she says with a smile. “So I fit into this very positive, agent-centric culture. Gary Keller is generous and kind-hearted, and he has instilled those values in this company.”
After just three and a half years, Priestner has risen to the role of vice president at Keller Williams. Along the way, she helped create its young professionals group, a leadership training program, not unlike the Junior League in some ways.
A member of Chi Omega sorority in college, she had dabbled in volunteering and liked being around motivated women with high standards — who still knew how to have fun.
The Junior League placed her in some in-league volunteer efforts, but she chased others on her own. Among the groups she joined at a leadership level were Foster Angels of Central Texas, Partnerships for Children, CASA of Travis County and her company’s own Keller Williams Cares.
She was raised to volunteer by parents and grandparents.
“Don’t think, just do,” Preistner says. “People are intimidated and don’t know where to start. Where does your heart go? Right now, mine goes to foster children. Regardless of how much time you have and how much money you have, there’s a spot for you.”
Some needs of a charity might not be expected. Every nonprofit, for instance, needs help with social media. If you lack executive skills, can you do setup and takedown for events?
“You might have only one day a year, but there’s something for you,” she says. “Ask questions. For instance, ‘How can you put me to work?’ If you follow through and do what you say you’d do, you’ve found a new family.”
Like the other volunteer leaders, Priestner urges candidates to get their friends involved and warns against overextending themselves.
“Don’t be Superwoman or Super-Man,” she says. “I’ll be honest, I’ve more than one time overcommitted. Then I really a took a step back. For instance, I chaired the Junior League’s A Christmas Affair benefit. The following year, I should have taken a year off. I should have given someone else a chance to shine.”
Vanessa Fuentes, 30, is still in the early stages of her Junior League experience, which she joined at age 27. Yet she is no stranger to volunteering. Born and raised in Brady, about 120 miles west of Austin, she studied public relations at UT and graduated in 2009.
Before long, Fuentes got involved in politics and governmental relations. She worked on several political campaigns in hopes of snagging a Capitol job before landing as senior director of grassroots initiatives at the American Heart Association, where this innate volunteer works directly with many volunteers.
Her family didn’t push her in that direction, but she got the hang of it quickly.
“I was the girl in high school who was in all the clubs,” she says. “I wanted to be involved and a part of my community and to be an advocate. That’s carried on with me since my youth.”
In Austin, she got involved in the Young Women’s Alliance as well as the somewhat similar Junior League.
“The Alliance focuses inwardly on skills, networks and leadership,” she says. “While the League is more outward, looks at community needs, facilitates volunteering.”
She found many crossover relationships in Con Mi Madre — a Junior League-founded group that pairs daughters and mothers through the educational process — as well as in Leadership Austin, Dress for Success and the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas.
When she was a provisional Junior League member, her rotating commitment hours were tallied with the goal of putting in 80 hours in eight months. Once she reached active membership status, Fuentes settled on Dress for Success, which prepares women for the labor market in part through donated attire.
“It’s women helping women,” she says. “I became a career-center advocate. These women just need a hand up. You look at resumes, edit résumés, practice interviews. You are giving them a new lease on life while hearing their stories. They open up to you, tell you about their backgrounds. Some are sexual assault victims or domestic violence victims, and you are helping them on their journey.”
When giving advice to potential volunteers, she asks how hands-on they want to be.
“Are you at the animal shelter feeding kittens and walking dogs?” she asks. “Or are you the one helping with raising funds, putting on events?”
The Junior League trains its volunteers in how to run meetings efficiently, manage other workers, engage donors and ask for money.
“It’s OK to ask for help,” she reiterates. “We all understand. The worst thing you can do is go MIA or nonresponsive. In the end, you get out of it what you put into it. I came from a place of ‘Yes. Count me in.’ By saying yes and being open, you stumble on things you really love.”
She also insists that you look for the lighter side of your volunteering experience, even if the charity involves tough circumstances.
“Have fun,” Fuentes says. “Oftentimes, people lose sight of how fun it can be. I know it can be heart-wrenching at times. Sometimes it helps just being a listener. At the end of the day, hanging out with the other volunteers, we just have fun.”