Photographs by John Sykes Jr.
For Junior League of Little Rock president Amanda Richardson, helping communities through volunteer work and service is a longtime passion that runs through her personal and professional lives. She serves with a number of organizations, and her job at the Delta Regional Authority “is the only one that pays me right now.”
Originally published March 19, 2017 at 04:30a.m., updated March 20, 2017 at 04:30a.m.
"Women daring greatly" is the 2016-17 Junior League of Little Rock mantra, a call to its members to step outside their comfort zones and their own close-knit worlds and make an impact on the community.
With such a theme and goal, it's appropriate that Amanda Richardson, 35, is at the helm. She has spent her entire adult life challenging herself and moving forward, dedicating herself fully to encouraging volunteer work through national service. As the league president, she has made a conscious effort to improve the experience for members.
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 30, 1981, Little Rock
FAMILY: Father, mother, two sisters, “a sweet boyfriend” and “I have one child: Fancy. She is a 4 ½ -year-old Yorkie-poo.
PET PEEVE: When people say “can’t” and what they really mean is “won’t.”
FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MEMORY: My mom retired this past December from Hendrix College after teaching for almost 38 years, which means she has been commuting to Conway my entire life where she taught the Art of Public Speaking in the Mills Building. When I was a kid, she also choreographed several of the musicals. Among my favorite memories are watching rehearsals from the back row, far corner of Cabe Theatre or walking down the hallway of Mills while running my fingers along the carpeted walls. Both are still there, so I recently did both while attending her retirement celebration.
FAVORITE LEISURE ACTIVITY: I love to travel. I am also a retired karaoke regular.
LEAST FAVORITE CHORE: Laundry
FAVORITE CHORE: I checked with a couple of others just to confirm that I am allergic to all household chores.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Whole-hearted
As Sabrina Lewellen, the 2017-18 president who is shadowing Richardson this year, says, "We've benefited greatly from the fact that she chose to dare greatly to serve in this capacity."
Her focus on volunteerism and national service goes back to the two years she spent with City Year and AmeriCorps. It was that experience, she says, that gave her a new outlook and purpose in life.
Hands-on volunteer work started early for Richardson, as a first-grader and a Girl Scout. But the examples were already there.
"The idea of service runs in my family, from military to volunteer opportunities and not being afraid to roll your sleeves up."
Her grandmother, Elizabeth Richardson, got a degree in special education and started a school for special needs children in a Fayetteville church basement. The school grew and expanded to become the Elizabeth Richardson Center, which now offers services for children and adults at multiple locations across Northwest Arkansas. Amanda Richardson grew up knowing about the school, visiting there and even working there for a semester during college.
Richardson's military father serves the country in uniform. But he was also a professor of pharmacy at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and works as a clinical pharmacist at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System's Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center in North Little Rock. Richardson's mother recently retired after nearly four decades as a professor of speech at Hendrix College.
"Both of them, going beyond what the job was and focusing on the work they do outside those walls, all of those things are connected to what they do professionally, but it's more than just 'Oh, I go to work and I do my job.'"
Their example is one Richardson has tried to follow in every sphere of her life.
Richardson is a Little Rock native, "born and raised." After getting her bachelor's degree in communication at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, she returned to Little Rock. Her father was deployed at the time and she wanted to be closer to her family.
"I'm a product of public schools in Little Rock and lived here my whole life and wanted to do something for my own community," she says.
That's what moved her to apply to the City Year program and dedicate a year to its education-based community service programs. "I often tell people that volunteering in a classroom is one of the best ways to find out whether or not you want to be in a classroom professionally," she says. "Thankfully, City Year taught me I could do better for those kids by continuing a career to advocate for programs in national service."
THE TURNING POINT
After City Year, she spent a year as a senior corps member for AmeriCorps and a new realization and outlook took hold.
"In order for volunteer work to happen, whether it's at a [local] Junior League level or an AmeriCorps program or at the Delta Regional Authority, without national service as a way to deliver those opportunities, none of it happens."
The day-to-day service work that was City Year and the more conceptual leadership work in AmeriCorps helped develop, shape and focus Richardson's passions.
"I know this is not a small statement, but I have said many times that becoming a full-time volunteer in a program like AmeriCorps changed my life," she says.
Richardson and her childhood best friend, Mary-Lee Smith, both point to AmeriCorps and City Year as the real turning point for her.
"If you'd told me 20 years ago before she did City Year, I don't think I would have guessed that [she would be the league president]," Smith adds. "She'd always been a natural leader but I think that City Year really gave her a lot of the tools and confidence to move forward in being a leader."
Richardson went on to spend some time working for the Little Rock Marathon and then in Gov. Mike Beebe's office with Chris Masingill, Beebe's director of intergovernmental affairs. When he was appointed by President Barack Obama to co-chair the Delta Regional Authority, Richardson went with him.
The Delta Regional Authority works to improve conditions in the eight-state Delta region by helping create jobs and other economic opportunities. Richardson first joined the authority in 2010 and gradually moved from being Masingill's assistant to working in communications and public engagement, then to heading up the authority's Delta Leadership Institute Executive Academy, which offers a yearlong training course to help community leaders learn ways to maximize their region's potential.
As of last month, she's also serving as the authority's chief of staff.
"She's just one of those incredible utility players," Masingill says. "You give her a project and she sees it through until the end. She's proven time and time again that she can make things happen."
After her time with City Year and AmeriCorps, Richardson says she wanted to continue to serve the Little Rock community, even if in a part-time capacity. So, when Smith was invited to attend a Junior League open house, Richardson was happy to go along, attracted to the league's volunteer opportunities.
'A TRAINING OPPORTUNITY'
Richardson made a conscious effort not to get involved in the more community-based programs, which she felt might be a retread of what she'd already done in City Year. Instead, she focused on areas where she hadn't had as much experience, such as marketing and publications, where she served as vice president and chairman, respectively. She also worked in research and development, studying community projects and their impact and effectiveness.
Smith says, "Amanda was what we like to call a servant leader. She always wasn't necessarily in the spotlight early on in our career in the Junior League, but was willing to step in and do jobs that needed to be done. Wherever there was a void, they knew they could count on Amanda to jump in and that she would shine and go above and beyond."
Eventually, in 2014, she was invited to interview for the job of Junior League president, an opportunity that excited her, but also caused a bit of soul searching.
"I spent a long time thinking about what that would mean for me and my family and my job," she says. "One of the best things about the league is its ability to plan. When you know in October 2014 that you're going to be serving as president in 2016 and '17, that's the ultimate plan. And I love a plan!"
She talked to the people in her life, including supervisor Masingill, who gave her his blessing.
So, Richardson says, "I went into the whole process knowing that if the outcome were that I was asked to serve as president, I would really have a lot of community support from my village, if you will."
Her village is not the least surprised that she was able to step in as president of such a large organization or that she would be able to balance the various aspects of her life.
"She doesn't react to things without really thinking things through," Smith says. "She keeps a level head about everything."
Everyone points to her empathy, organizational skills and networking skills -- an ability to recognize, encourage and draw on people's strengths.
They're traits that Lewellen sees and observes as she spends this year shadowing Richardson and preparing to take the reins.
"It's impossible not to [learn from her]."
Junior League sustainer Sherrye McBryde, who has known Richardson since she was in elementary school with McBryde's sons, agrees.
"I see her leading in a very thoughtful way. I have watched [the board] and every decision they make, they weigh, 'How does this affect the members of our organization?'"
That has been one of Richardson's primary goals in her term as president: to be mindful of members' time and commitments and to make sure their membership experience is meaningful.
In an organization of more than 1,000 women, with more than 300 active members, it's easy for things to become "siloed." The women serve on their committees in their own areas and rarely cross paths with members in other departments. One may serve on Holiday House while another helps put together the cookbook. In a setup like that, Richardson says, "it's very challenging to know what the left side and right side are doing."
Richardson and the board instituted Leadership Week in August, "an opportunity for active members to sort of get out of their committee box and participate in another area of the league."
For several days that week, there were small group meetings where members could meet and catch up with members outside their usual zones and where they could learn about various Junior League projects and leadership opportunities.
The work has, Lewellen believes, really paid off.
"I would say the consciousness level of our membership experience has definitely been raised. We've benefited greatly from the fact that she chose to dare greatly to serve in this capacity."
"I think she cares about the Junior League in much the way she does about her family," McBryde says. "That's, I think, part of the reason she wants the members to have a good experience. She feels like they're part of her family and she wants to take care of them."
There have been challenges, Richardson says. "We have one year to move the needle on our goals and priorities."
She likens league leadership to cathedral building -- focusing on smaller annual goals but never losing sight of the big picture and what the league is trying to accomplish as a whole.
Right now, the Junior League of Little Rock is celebrating its 95th year and during the week of March 27, the national president will visit and there will be receptions and programs.
"We really see this as the kickoff to the countdown to 100 years. So we just want to mark that and celebrate where we are now, where we're from and where we're headed as we get closer to that century mark."
She hasn't gone into it half-way or half-heartedly, finding a way to juggle the various parts of her life while still giving 100 percent.
"One thing that's always struck me about Amanda is how committed she is," Masingill says. "She loves her home. She loves being an Arkansan. She loves working and being an advocate in the Delta region. You can tell that. When she commits to something, she follows through on that."
For Richardson, the leadership role does require some adjustment, particularly when it comes to the types of service she's able to engage in. She says she has always loved the real hands-on work.
"That type of work is more fulfilling than being in board meetings," she says. "The board meetings are vitally important. But actually getting to do the work is a big part of why I volunteer in any organization."
Richardson has also volunteered with the Little Rock Marathon (until 2016) and serves on the Governor's Advisory Council for Volunteerism and as a board member with the young professionals' volunteer organization, Think Big Little Rock.
"It is one of the easiest things to do to get involved. There are always opportunities out there to participate. I don't hesitate to tell people often about how service has changed my life."
High Profile on 03/19/2017
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