Garner the Past, Change Today, Embrace Tomorrow

Newly elected NYS PTA president at podium

I am honored and privileged to stand before you tonight as your next NYS PTA President…and I have a vision. I ask that you drown out all the other noise in the room, in your head, and just focus on the thoughts I am about to share.

Let us begin with the children, because if you know me, then you know it is only about the kids. So take a moment and imagine if every child, regardless of gender, race, religion, socio-economic status or community had the opportunity to receive an equitable education. Now imagine each one of those children was loved, cherished, respected, did not wonder where their next meal was coming from or if they would be safe from violence at school or in their neighborhood. And now ask why?

When my oldest daughter was 4 she attended pre-school in Florida, where we lived at the time. Every day at pick up I would shutter when the teachers bragged about how much they loved her, because she was so smart that she could teach the class. Now most mothers would be proud, but I was sad. You see when I looked around at the other children I knew my child had access to more than she needed, and because her Dad and I were able, we moved back up North before she began Kindergarten. Not every child is so lucky. It can no longer be an option to not be in Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo or NYC. Those children need us desperately and we must not forget them in our journey.

Now we need membership to support those children, so imagine if every person in your school building and community understood the value of a PTA membership. We are not the PTA of yesterday. We are not about baking cookies and selling wrapping paper. We are a membership and advocacy association, and our existence depends on the support of our mission. We cannot advocate for children without your support. We owe our existence to three brave women from a time when women could not even vote, and because of what they envisioned we have grown to the largest child advocacy association.

Before moving from Florida to Pennsylvania, I researched the communities and schools. Education has always been a priority in my home, since a day not learning, is a day not growing. So I settled on a blue ribbon school and immediately asked how to get involved in the PTA. This was the spring before Kindergarten would begin for my daughter, and as a community member who saw value in the PTA, I joined. That was 20 years ago.

Let us take it another step forward. Imagine if every member that joined your PTA, asked you if they could volunteer. Our association depends on two things to drive our mission for children…membership and volunteers. Without one or the other, we would cease to exist and every child’s future would be less bright. What if it weren’t the same five or six of you attending monthly meetings and chairing every event? What if you felt appreciated for all that you do? What if you had leadership that inspired and mentored you to be more and do more?

I wanted to volunteer that May and with carnival as the final event of the school year, I jumped right in. It was not about my child, it was about every child. I learned quickly that if you leave to use the bathroom or happen to miss a meeting, you somehow became chair. It did not matter how much you knew or who you were.

We transferred work from Pennsylvania, back home to New Hartford, NY. I have served in just about every capacity at the unit, council, region and state level. I began attending state events just before Leatherstocking became a spin off from Central region. I have served on the Leatherstocking region since its inception, and my most enjoyable time were the years I served as Region Director. For all the other roles I have held at the state level, I cannot express how much I have learned and grown over my time on Exec. Having held so many key roles over the years and attended almost every state event since 2001, there is still so much to learn. We each have the potential to create a ripple so powerful, and interestingly enough; the biggest waves start with just one tiny ripple. At 17 our friend Aidan has already come to realize this.

Two years ago I was blessed with the opportunity to build a school in the Dominican Republic with my friends at Lifetouch. I cannot express how grateful I am to have been given the opportunity to serve in this way. It has changed my life. I joined 50 strangers from all over the country and from like minded associations, plus my friends at Lifetouch. By the way, I must give a shout out to those of them here, as I truly do love them and consider them my family. Together we built the first floor of this school in 10 days. More importantly, we built relationships with the children and families of Rio Grande. I went there thinking they needed me, but actually I needed them. Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I believe there are no accidents; we are all here for a reason and are given no more than we can handle.

Last month I traveled back to Rio Grande for the dedication ceremony of the completed school. To see the children I played with learning and growing in the school that I had my handprints on many bricks was overwhelming. As Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

I was raised in a family where volunteering was simply a part of life, and from my earliest childhood memories I remember volunteering. There was always time to give service to others. Volunteering is good for the heart and the soul. It is a passion that drives you. It is a calling. I have raised my four children to do the very same thing. For some people, volunteering is about giving. For my family, for me and for each of you, it is a way of living. And so the cycle continues. My oldest will graduate from grad school in May, my older son from college in May, my younger daughter from high school in June and that leaves Kai, my third grader, home with me. As a single, working mother my service requires a great deal of support from my children-they are my family, they are my world and I love them very much. Without their support I could not do the work I do. My family looks like many of yours. We need to adjust to make leadership opportunities practical for the volunteers of tomorrow. And we need to welcome them into our family.

I express my heartfelt thanks to all of you. The continued success of PTA rests with each of you. In the words of John Maxwell, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” I commend each of you for your service to children. I know it is not always easy, but it is always worth it. You all work for the cause, not for the applause. Often it seems as though your efforts go unnoticed or that it is always you that steps up. But the work we do is so important. A powerful voice for every child. NYS PTA is so grateful for your commitment, and our advocacy successes are because of you, the volunteers.

In life there are no sure bets, except that people like you will rise to the occasion and make the lives of children just a little better. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve; you only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” What you do matters and what you don’t matters more. I challenge you to stay committed when you feel like you have nothing left. I challenge you to inspire others, when you feel like they don’t care. I challenge you to remember every child’s life you have affected by your service. In the words of Elder Russell, “Great things are brought about and burdens lightened through the efforts of many hands anxiously engaged in a good cause.” There is no greater cause then our children. Max Lucado said, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” I know you are tired. I know you want to say no. I know you feel like you need a break. I’ve been there. I am there, everyday. But then I remember why we do it and keep clear the vision if we don’t, and so I choose to continue. But I need you, all of you. Luciano DeCrescenzo said, “We are all like one-winged angels. It is only when we help each other that we can fly.”

Valuable is the work you do,
Outstanding in how you always come through.
Loyal, sincere and full of good cheer,
Untiring in your efforts throughout the year.
Notable are the contributions you make,
Trustworthy in every project you take.
Eager to reach your every goal,
Effective in the way you fulfill your role.
Ready with a smile, like a shining star,
Special and wonderful, that’s what you are.
—Anonymous

There is one final piece, we lead this association, but we do not drive it. For that it requires dedicated staff working tirelessly behind the scenes. Imagine if that wheel spun effortlessly; each and every spoke in place, moving smoothly on this journey. That will only happen when that wheel becomes one with the rider. Embrace the value; we cannot do this work alone. Alexander Graham Bell said, “Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open.” Relinquish control and trust more. Focus on the end goal and do not micromanage the process. And remember, keep the kids right here.

Grace and my colleagues on Exec. have stepped up onto the bridge. We have come so far to get to where we are. The bond we have with each other is so incredibly powerful. The fun we had cannot be written about. But all good things must come to an end, in order to pave the way for new. To my new team, we have got to get across this bridge. We have got to be even more forward thinking to stay ahead of the curve. We have got to get creative and think out of the box, sometimes way out. There is absolutely no room on this bridge for personal agendas. This is only about the kids. There is no time to waste on the things that just don’t matter. Decisions must be for the good of the association and the children we serve, anything less is simply not acceptable. Everyone willing, able and coachable is welcome around this table.

Every great leader knows when to lead and when to follow, believes they succeed when they leave things better than when they started and in turn watches their successor do the same. This is not easy work, but when has something so important to reach been so easy to grasp. So I ask each of you to walk along that bridge with me, keeping kids in focus always. It is time for rebirth.

As the phoenix rises up, renewed to begin again, so shall we. In its wings it carries the children. In its colors it breathes diversity and relevance. We cannot know where we are going, unless we know where we have been. So look to your left and garner the past. We cannot expect different results, if we do not change today. Now look to your right and embrace tomorrow. My heartfelt thanks to Mary Sotomayor for helping me make my vision a reality. Go forth, be bold, be brave, be kind, lead with a smile, follow with a laugh, and always remember to keep kids first.