Author’s Note: I’ve been an active member of The Junior League since 2004 but will soon “retire” and become a sustaining member. Not only will I take a back seat in my own League, but my three-year term as Board of Directors for The Association of Junior Leagues International or what is known as, “The Big Board,” ends on May 31, 2019. It’s been a very long journey with a lot of hard work and tears for work which felt thankless at times. However, I’m grateful for the many #Firestarters I’ve met along the way. In honor of their dedication to empower women, I share their stories with you.

White Ladies in White Gloves

Sandy Alcalá has heard the stereotypes about the Junior League. You know the ones. It’s just a bunch of white ladies socializing. They sip tea and wear gloves.

Actually, Sandy will tell you, there is something to all that talk about gloves.

“Yes, we do wear gloves,” she says. “But they’re not white gloves. They’re leather work gloves from Home Depot.”

Sandy disproves another one of those stereotypes as well. She was the first woman of color to become president of the Junior League of Austin.

Through the Junior League, Sandy changed the lives of the countless people she served. I was one of those people. I served as a board member for The Junior League of Lafayette before moving to Austin. But when I moved my Junior League leadership career had a reset and I basically had to start all over. It was under Sandy’s administration that I received my first Junior League of Austin chair position. That changed the course of my life.  And Sandy’s League journey changed the course of her own life. Sandy’s involvement with JLA led her to launch the nonprofit Con Mi MADRE.

Now that’s a #MovementMaker. To do justice to Sandy’s story, I’ll be bringing it to you in two parts. Today I’ll focus on her work with the Junior League. Next time, we’ll talk about Con Mi MADRE. I’m so excited to share all of it with you because I  know Sandy will become a major source of inspiration for you as she is for me.

Stepping Up to Serve

Sometimes our early experiences set the path that our lives will take. That’s definitely true for Sandy. She grew up in her family’s printing company at Sixth and Trinity streets in Austin.

“You work because it needs to be done,” says Sandy, who today owns a business herself (Epic Event Design). “I’m wired to think more like this than about pay per hour.”

She was also wired early on to help others, thanks to some neighbors. Back then, the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop was located near Sandy’s family’s business. She remembers hanging out with the nuns to fold donated clothes and clean donated toys.

“I liked the idea of knowing that someone would use what people brought in,” she says.

As she got older, Sandy’s desire to give back drove her involvement in extracurricular activities at school, especially the ballet folklórico group she joined in middle school. When she was in high school, the group lost its teacher, so Sandy stepped into the role.

It wasn’t the last time she’d step up to serve when she saw a need.

Keeping a Promise

Fast-forward to adulthood. You know how it goes: graduating, launching your career, getting married, starting a family. You get busy, and life feels like a blur sometimes.

But Sandy’s life came into sharp focus when her young son got sick and had to spend a lot of time in the hospital. She remembers praying to God that he would get well—and promising that she would return to the hospital to help other sick children when he did.

Sandy kept that promise, and it’s what first bought Junior League into her life. She volunteered at a children’s hospital alongside members from the League. She wasn’t familiar with JLA, but she knew one thing from firsthand observation: These women worked hard. Her experiences at the hospital were deeply meaningful for Sandy, and memories of the children she encountered there still move her to tears.

Coming ‘Back Home’

Meanwhile, Sandy was getting to know Tracie McMeans, a woman who would become one of her best friends. Tracie was a Junior League member and encouraged Sandy to join, serving as her sponsor.

Sandy began to learn what the group was all about. It provides members opportunities to be trained volunteers at nonprofits in Austin. And the nonprofits receive both funding and volunteer labor. In the JLA’s record, she saw the impact a group of committed women could have on the community.

As a new member, she was automatically assigned to the group’s main project for the year. And here’s where Sandy’s story comes full circle: That year, the project was the Junior League’s thrift store, just a couple of blocks from where the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store was located when she was a child.

“It was like God took me back home,” Sandy says.

Shaping the Future

The next year, Sandy switched gears to work on the League’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program. This eventually led to the creation of Con Mi Madre—which I’ll give you all the details about in my next story about Sandy. Other roles and projects followed. One of the things that she’s most proud of is working on the expansion of the League’s Coats for Kids program to Del Valle. She credits Julie Ballard, then the chair for the event, for identifying the need in that community and for finding a way to make the expansion happen within the existing budget.

That same year, Sandy added the Community Fair to Coats for Kids to bring other nonprofits and agencies on-site to help families with access to health, safety and educational resources. The fair has continued to grow and is still a big part of Coats for Kids today.

After accomplishing so much, Sandy was on the verge of shifting to sustaining membership, which basically means that a member continues paying dues to support the organization but is no longer obligated to volunteer. But, as had happened when she first became involved in Junior League, a friend gave her advice that shifted her direction. That advice? Get some board experience and then become the group’s first minority president.

Sandy wasn’t quite sure how she’d fit the presidency (and the hectic year before that as president-elect) into an already jam-packed schedule. She had a lot going on with Con Mi Madre, and her son was a busy high school student. But she knew it was a calling she could not pass up. Sandy is used to being a groundbreaker. She knew what it was like to be in meetings where she was the only woman or the only Hispanic person. She knew what it was like to be the only Hispanic family for a while at her son’s private school. Those situations aren’t always comfortable, she says, but they open doors for the people who follow you.

Knowing that she could be a powerful role model for others, Sandy became president of the Junior League of Austin for the 2010-11 term. Some of the reactions she got from others in the community were, well, interesting. She heard things like “I can’t believe you’re president of the Junior League.” She was told she could make more of a difference in groups in East Austin instead of the Junior League. When that happened, she would point out the impact of programs like Coats for Kids.

But it was all worth it. Today when she goes to open houses for women who want to learn more about the Junior League she sees more diversity than ever. She’s pleased that the League is getting the word out about inclusivity and that it has made changes, like eliminating the need for sponsorship, that makes membership more accessible for all.

She also helped shape the future of the League in another very tangible way: driving the creation of the new JLA headquarters, which will also serve as the Community Impact Center—a collaborative space for community engagements.

“My last day as president-elect, we purchased the 10.2-acre tract on Bluffstone Cove,” she says. “And from the very first day of my presidency, I worked to assemble the best professional team and launch a $10 million-plus capital campaign that would eventually carry this dream to a reality. JLA will be moving into their new home the summer!” I often feel that Sandy doesn’t receive enough credit for the game-changing move of buying land. She was a #Firestarter that saw something others ignored and let me tell you when you see that building you’ll understand why I call it game-changing.

If you’re interested in becoming part of The Junior League Austin, you can learn more about membership on the JLA website. We’d love to have you!

But no matter how you choose to give back to your community, Sandy encourages you not to pigeonhole yourself. And that’s something I co-sign for you, too.  Step out of your comfort zone and diversify your involvement. If they don’t have a seat for you at the table, bring your own folding chair and take a seat. 

Thank you, Sandy, for making a way for others and being an inspiration, trusted confidant and friend to me.

Copyright (c) 2019 Williams Strategies, LLC. All rights reserved.