ORLANDO – In a huge auditorium at the Hilton Orlando, the room was packed with spectators as Helen Donegon got up on the stage.
One thing that was unique about the crowd, though, was that the overwhelming majority of them were women. And they were not at the Hilton for a rock concert, fashion show, political rally or any other kind of commercial event. It was, instead, a fund-raiser for the Heart of Florida United Way Women’s Leadership Council, which has used this annual luncheon as a way to inspire and empower women to be as successful as they can be, while at the same time encouraging them to reach out and help other women in need.
It was, said Donegon – the co-chair of the luncheon event – an impressive number of faces for a council that started up less than a decade ago with just a few hundred people attending this event.
“We have 820 people in the room, so that is wonderful,” Donegon said. “Our impact continues to grow through volunteerism.”
The 5th Annual United Way Women’s Leadership Luncheon was held at the Hilton Orlando on International Drive, as hundreds turned out to hear the guest speaker, Kathy Ireland, the CEO of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, talk about her rise from fashion model to the head of a company that has earned more than $1.5 billion, designing and selling more than 45,000 products in 50 countries.
“It’s amazing to look out and see this sea of beautiful faces,” Ireland said, while adding that she was thrilled to be asked to take part in an event sponsored by the United Way Women’s Leadership Council.
“The work you do is so humbling,” she said. “You are great leaders. There is so much to learn from you. Everyone who is a part of the Women’s Leadership Council, you truly are inspiring.”
Following a luncheon that included chicken, mashed potatoes, spinach and chocolate mousse, the people attending the luncheon – and there were a handful of men in the auditorium – were also able to enjoy a two-hour speaking program that included a history of the Women’s Leadership Council and its central mission: to inspire successful women in Central Florida to assist other women who are still struggling, as well as their children.
“We have a terrific program for you today, and much to share on how we are helping women in need,” said Donegon, who is also the vice president of community relations for the University of Central Florida.
“Our goal was simple, to inspire one another and focus attention on the critical needs facing women in Central Florida,” Donegan said.
One of the women who attended the luncheon, spoke at it, and then agreed to become a member of the Women’s Leadership Council, was Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.
“As a United Way supporter, I’m proud to be a supporter of efforts to help women,” Jacobs said. “By helping the United Way, we really can make Central Florida a better place to live, to work and to play in.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer also had high praise for the charitable work that the United Way does, meeting the needs of families who often times have nowhere else to turn.
“United Way is advancing the common good of all of Central Florida,” Dyer said. “Together, we can accomplish remarkable things.”
Robert H. “Bob” Brown, the president and CEO of Heart of Florida United Way, took a similar view, noting that as much as United Way helps people in the community, it’s the people in Central Florida who help the agency carry out its mission.
“Normally, I would thank you for being here today,” he said. “But I really want to thank you for allowing me to be here today.”
The support that the people in the audience were demonstrating by attending this fund-raiser, he said, allows United Way to assist thousands of local families every year.
“Last year, more than 163,500 residents in the three counties sought help through our 2-1-1 line,” he said, a reference to Heart of Florida United Way’s emergency number that residents can call.
“The top three requests were for utilities, housing and food – basic needs, in other words,” he said. “This sad trend continues. Women and children are suffering the most. The calls for assistance continue to be at an astronomical high.”
One of the women helped by United Way in recent months was Gail Amaral, who said she never expected to be turning to this agency for assistance. She has a full time job with Publix Supermarket as a meals specialist, and her husband Jay was also gainfully employed.
Then came the day last year when Jay Amaral came home, experiencing shortness of breath … and was later rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a rare birth defect that almost killed him.
“Thankfully he came through the surgery fine,” Gail Amaral said, but the healing process took months and Jay wasn’t able to work in that time, so their income got cut in half.
“In addition to taking care of him, I had to work overtime to make ends meet,” Gail Amaral said. “Just before the holidays, things hit a breaking point where I couldn’t figure out how to pay the rent.”
A friend told her about Heart of Florida United Way’s temporary rent assistance program, and to Amaral’s surprise, she qualified for it, even with a full-time job. That assistance proven critical to keeping a roof over their heads during the holidays.
“It shows you how quickly things can change,” she said. “I feel that I am proof of how the United Way can make a difference in so many people’s lives.”
Karen Dee, co-chair of the United Way Women’s Leadership Council luncheon, said stories like that show the courage women have to reach out for help when they need it, if it means keeping their families together.
“Our council is a part of a larger initiative that is engaging and mobilizing women across the nation,” Dee said. “Throughout history, women have always come together to help and support one another. That’s what we do. We’re really good at that. Today we have a tremendous opportunity to continue that tradition.”
The council, she added, is always welcoming new members.
“I urge you on behalf of our council, on behalf of the United Way, to join us,” she said. “Good work is happening here.”
Ireland said seeing so many successful, philanthropic women get together in one place was inspiring to her, and exciting to see.
“Our life comes in seasons,” Ireland said. “In each season we need to prioritize. I was 40 when I learned that ‘no’ was a complete sentence. What really matters is what I see happening in this room here. You are all extraordinary. All that you give is all that you get. Here’s to life and dreams — and all your dreamers out there.”
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