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Tenacious team athlete then, United Way leader now

The early nineties were a great time for Jeannine Vlasak Joy. Saint Leo College awarded a full academic-and-athletic-scholarship package to the young woman from St. Augustine, FL. That support enabled the 6-foot-tall athlete to continue playing volleyball and basketball competitively, while also providing her with the education she needed to become an English teacher, her career goal at the time. As an added bonus, she set some collegiate records that she enjoys reminiscing about today.

In the history of women’s basketball at Saint Leo, the name Vlasak is paired with the second all-time high in career blocks at 132—she was the all-time leader when she graduated in 1994. In volleyball, the alumna ranks second in all-time solo blocks with 124.

Today, Jeannine Joy seems to be in another career peak featuring some impressive statistics, even though her sphere of influence has shifted from college sports to community-based philanthropy. Since becoming president in mid-June at the United Way of her home area in southwest Florida, Joy has been the public face of a highly effective agency that has been the focus of her career.

The community-based United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee counties raises money within its region and distributes it, in accordance with local wishes. Member agencies receive the money and spend it in ways meant to improve the quality of life for residents. That could mean an affordably priced recreation facility for all ages, specialty services for children, or care for the aged, or veterans, among other services.

In all, the United Way contributed to the lives of 350,000 people in those counties last year; records show it invested more than $10.2 million in services. Further, the regional United Way has been highly rated by Charity Navigator, which provides advisory information to the donating public. Charity Navigator gave the local United Way four out of a possible four stars for financial health and sound management. Rarer still, Charity Navigator assigned it a perfect score (100 percent) for transparency and accountability in financial reporting. “We are very, very proud,” Joy said. 

She has been part of the team that built the regional United Way to its current level of success for two decades. Once Joy graduated from Saint Leo with academic honors, she followed through on her original plan to teach high school English. But she also became a volunteer at her area United Way. She had always been involved in fundraising functions for teams and other activities and was naturally drawn to the work of community building. 

Her enthusiasm sparked an offer to join the professional staff, and she was hooked. She was eager to tell people all about the work United Way was doing in Lee County, home to the resort community of Fort Myers. 

Her newfound career focus reminded her of lessons she had learned during the college Honors Program. Some of the readings focused on the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, a political scientist from France who toured America observations was that Americans had a way of coming together voluntarily to pool effort and resources when situations warranted—not something he typically witnessed in Europe. When Joy was a student, the Toqueville readings struck her, frankly, as abstract.

She laughs about that opinion now because once she got involved in the United Way, she learned that Toqueville’s observations on voluntary work are regarded as essential knowledge in the American nonprofit world. And she quickly discovered that the United Way national network encourages and honors leading donors and volunteer champions by recognizing them as members of The Toqueville Society.

Joy has learned much more over the years, as her United Way expanded and she took on new roles. Now, it covers three rural counties in addition to the more suburban Lee County: Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee. And Joy has become a veteran there with 24 years of service. “I have literally been here one half of my life,” she quipped. 

When the previous longstanding president retired during the summer, Joy was promoted to take his place.

Ever the teammate, Joy said she loves the collaborative network that her predecessor and mentor helped nurture: about 95 agencies are involved with United Way—Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee counties. Agencies often share ideas and work together in a variety of projects to make the greatest impact possible.

Still, there is more good that can be accomplished. If Joy had her druthers, the veteran fundraiser would have the local human services sector spending more management attention and collaborative energy on “long-term fixes” to quality-of-life deficits. Among these, she includes more affordable housing, greater resources for early childhood education, and financial literacy training for young people. Joy considers such investments “building blocks for a secure future” for individuals as well as for a stronger community.

But in some years and seasons, she said, emergencies take precedence over long-term projects, such as when Hurricane Irma hit the state in 2017. Some houses were damaged and awaiting repairs for more than a year, she noted.

Still, Joy maintains a long-term view of possibilities as she and her United Way staff advocate for the betterment of the overall community. “It’s really pretty easy to get out of bed and come to work when you are going to a place where everyone is affecting people in a positive way,” she said.

Jo-Ann Johnston earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University (NY) and her master’s degree from Bay Path University (MA). She joined Saint Leo University in January 2008.

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