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Lori VanAuken: Five Women I Admire

Lori VanAuken

Lori VanAuken

There have been plenty of men who have influenced my path in life—my dad who instilled a strong work ethic; my supportive husband who reminds me to keep a balance of work, family and fun; former teachers, bosses and co-workers who have all helped me develop various skills and perspectives. It is, however, the women in my life who have shaped every fabric of my being.

When I was in sixth grade we read the “Diary of Anne Frank.” She became my hero. This 13-year-old young woman made the world understand what it was like to hide her existence in exchange for a chance to survive the Nazi regime. Besides her bravery, I admired what Anne believed about people. In her diary she writes, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” It is extraordinary to me to that she was faced with such tragedy and was still able to see the good in people.

I am fortunate to have my own Anne Frank in my family. My Mom, Hannilore, came to the U.S. when she was just a young woman. She grew up in Berlin and as a young child lived through the daily horrors of World War II—searching for food in garbage cans for sustenance, hearing the cries of men, women and children being pulled off the streets by soldiers. Years later, she witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall, which separated her from family members. My Mom’s childhood could have easily soured her outlook on life, but she believes in the goodness of people and finds the silver lining in every dark cloud. She taught me to tap into my inner strength to weather the storms in life, just as she had done.

One of my high school teachers profoundly influenced my career and she is like my second Mom. Sister Mildred Schubert, Ph.D., and a Sister of Charity in Queens, is a remarkable woman with compassion for people from all walks of life. She has dedicated her life to caring for other people by nurturing and challenging them to reach their full potential. She truly lives a life of service, which is a value I’ve come to cherish. Sister Mildred encouraged me to volunteer during high school. Those opportunities introduced me to children with special needs and abilities, which set the stage for pursuing my undergraduate degree in special education and my work today on behalf of those with varying abilities.

Early in my career I met Jacque Cady, VP of Benefits and Compensation at Bausch & Lomb, who was also a volunteer at The Community Foundation’s Fiscal Program, Rochester’s Child. Jacque knew first-hand the challenge of balancing a demanding career and family. She worked within her company to advocate for quality child care and flexibility for working parents.

In her early retirement, she poured her energies into raising money, influencing policies, advocating for child care subsidies and high-quality care for families who were barely earning a living wage. She also helped to write the application to NYS Department of Education which brought Universal Pre-K to the Rochester City School District. Jacque led a unique collaborative initiative of early childhood funders, child care providers and other stakeholders called the Early Childhood Development Initiative that continues today to provide community direction, priorities and advocacy on behalf of young children. Just before her death in August 2017, Jacque secured funding for a summer learning program for city school students so that children would not lose the academic gains they made from year to year.

While Jacque’s accomplishments were tremendous and benefitted thousands of children in our community, it was how she went about her work that was captivating. She was fiercely passionate about young children and relentless in her advocacy and quests for funding to support innovative projects. She was good-humored and tenacious; it was almost impossible for anyone to say no to Jacque. Jacque knew how to utilize people’s strengths and engage them in the cause. Even as she faced her death, she was tenacious, brave, made others laugh and work harder.

In 2009 I came to know Carol Love, and I fell in love (pun intended) with her leadership style. After a successful career as a CEO for two nonprofits in Rochester, Carol started her nonprofit consulting work and became my valued executive coach. She is a highly skilled facilitator and helped me sunset a 15-year collaborative effort when the funding was eliminated. The result was a different collaboration, with more funding, more partners and better outcomes for parents and children. Here is what she role modeled: Process matters. Relationships are instrumental in bringing about change. Honesty and transparency are critical. Trust your gut. Celebrate your milestones and even your failures.

Carol has been and continues to be an exemplar for best practices in nonprofit leadership. She freely shares her knowledge and expertise with emerging and seasoned leaders through her consulting business and her continued involvement with the Center for Community Study at St. John Fisher College. Carol is a facilitator of change who values collaboration to achieve common goals, a careful listener who believes that every voice counts.

When Carol started her own consulting business she shared that of paramount concern to her was the cultivation of the next generation of leaders for our region. It became clear to me that this was a woman of genuine concern for the future of our community. I believe that Carol is instrumental in helping the next generation of leaders to lead with integrity, compassion and care.

Two years ago I participated in the Person to Person Program, which pairs people of different backgrounds to explore issues of race and equity. My partner, Myra Henry, has been someone I have leaned on and learned from over the past year. Actually, I think she is superwoman.

Myra is the senior director for administrative services at the River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester. In addition to a demanding job, she has a husband, four children, and is pursuing a doctorate degree in executive leadership. Myra is also a leader in bringing the topics of diversity, equity and implicit bias to critical community conversations. In her spare time, she chairs UR’s Diversity and Inclusion committee, is a facilitator for the UR Implicit Bias workshops and serves as an executive member of the University’s Diversity & Equity Council.

I admire Myra’s calm demeanor, ability to manage a very busy life and her drive for continuous learning and excellence in all she does. What I most appreciate about her is how easy it is to have conversations with her about matters of race and equity. These are tough conversations to have in our community and she is able to put people at ease, listen without judgment and welcome honest dialogue with understanding and respect. It is no surprise to me that she has recently been named a finalist for the University of Rochester’s Presidential Diversity Award.

These special women have demonstrated resilience, passion for their work and communities, leadership in their professions, compassion, strength, love and integrity. They view the world through a glass that is half full. They are and were giving, caring people who embrace their humanity and laugh at their imperfections. They are a gift to me and to society. It is truly an honor to share them with you.

Lori VanAuken is executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services.

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