The senior vice president of convention sales and services at Visit Orlando- and a recipient of PCMA’s Best in Class speaker award- explains how she went from working meetings to lending a hand in Haiti.
When I was in college- I was actually studying psychology - I worked at a Hilton hotel, at the front desk for about a year. It was just going to be a part-time job at first, but I immediately fell in love with the hospitality industry. It got to the point where I thought, “Okay, I can leave the hospitality business and continue to pursue a job in the psychology field, ...but I really, really like what I’m doing.”
I reached out to my mentors and told them about this little part-time job that turned into a full-time job, and how I enjoyed it so much. Several mentors told me, don’t discount how much you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Here I am 25 years down the road, and I still love it.
I’ve had a bit of an unusual career in that the vast majority of what I’ve done has focused on meetings and conventions through sales and services. I had the opportunity to spend several years at an Embassy Suites hotel, and then moved to the airport Marriott in Orlando for about six years. I started in catering sales, then moved to convention group sales. After that I went to the Renaissance resort by SeaWorld. About 10 years ago, I transferred to destination sales with Visit Orlando. So I’ve been with them since 2002. Visit Orlando has remained my primary focus.
Throughout my entire life, I’ve always enjoyed doing some type of volunteer work. I’ve worked with the homeless. I’ve volunteered with animal shelters. I’ve always had some element of volunteer work and activism in my life. A few years ago, I got involved with Clean the World. They are an Orlando-based nonprofit that is really committed to helping with the hygiene revolution around the world. Many people in our industry know Clean the World because they do a lot of CSR work with them. One thing the organization does is recycle gently used soap products from hotels and distributes them to those in need. They’re currently distributing soap and hygiene products to more than 30 countries in the world.
It’s really about saving lives. I was really drawn to their mission. I had the opportunity to work with them as a Visit Orlando associate, and I serve on their board. They already were doing some work in Haiti prior to the earthquake. Then, in 2010, when the earthquake hit Haiti, the demand for soap and hygiene products escalated tremendously. They organized and said, “We need to help people who’ve been impacted by this terrible tragedy.” I let them know immediately I wanted to go with them. But my connection to Haiti actually supersedes all of this.
When I was at the Renaissance, a lot of our staff was from Haiti. Through them, I began to learn a bit about the Haitian culture and I saw how hard these employees worked and how many of them sent a portion of their earnings back to their family in Haiti. So when the earthquake hit, it already touched an emotional chord within me. So many of these people that I’d worked with for so many years - many of their families had suffered. One woman in Orlando, 14 members of her family were killed that day in the earthquake. That struck close to home. I thought, “I should go to Haiti and see what I can do down there.”
On my first visit, I stayed in an orphanage called New Life Children’s Home. There were 150 children there - it’s right in the middle of Port-au-Prince. As I started doing volunteer work in Haiti, I quickly heard the statistics: unemployment over 80 percent; 84 percent of the population doesn’t have access to basic health care; with a population of nine million, over one million are orphans. The statistics were mind-boggling to me. I knew it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but when I saw the devastation from the earthquake and the conditions these people were living in, it was unbelievable. The fact that they’re only an hour-and-twenty-minute flight away from Florida was also unbelievable.
I can’t do everything, but I knew there were specific things I could do to immediately improve the quality of life for this specific group of children at the orphanage. I knew I could provide bedding and wheelchairs and food and vitamins to help them. The short-term plan is survival, nutrition, and basic medical care for them. The longer-term vision is education, for them to really thrive and have a better life. I was also aware that the hospitality industry that I’ve had this wonderful career in is rich in resources, and full of great people that are so willing to help and so willing to give.
Two years ago, I started my nonprofit, My Neighbor’s Children, with two friends. Honestly, I didn’t want to start a nonprofit. I didn’t want to get into the business side of it. But in order to legitimize my efforts in Haiti, I needed to be a little bit more official than just this crazy woman from Florida who works for Visit Orlando and keeps coming to Haiti and tries to do things. I was well aware of the resources and spirit of our industry. Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed this emergence of people wanting to be involved in CSR, sustainability, and ethics. And then seeing this tremendous need in Haiti, everything came together at the right time.
I used to do a lot of talking about CSR, probably not doing as much, personally, as I could. I thought, if I’m going to talk the talk about how to incorporate CSR into the meetings and hospitality industry, I need to walk the walk a little bit more than I’m doing. Now I’m happy to say I walk the walk as much as I talk. I just got back from what I believe is my 17th trip; I lost count at some point. Ninety percent of my personal PTO goes to doing my volunteer work in Haiti. I knew with all of my connections and resources, and the heart and soul of the hospitality industry, I could help these children with these tremendous needs and be a liaison between the two worlds. That’s what I see has happened.
For more information: myneighborschildren.org