By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

Orginially published in The Florida Times-Union

Ashley Pratt knows first-hand how death and the adjustment to grief can change the direction of a person’s life. It is what guides her life and her giving back to the community. Several years ago, a car accident took the life of her 19-year-old sister on a highway in Orlando.

Ashley Pratt enjoys serving the community through United Way of Northeast Florida’s young-professionals group, Atlantic Circle.
Ashley Pratt enjoys serving the community through United Way of Northeast Florida’s young-professionals group, Atlantic Circle.

“She was with a group of friends, actually coming back from a funeral, when the accident happened,” Pratt said. “She was the only one of the five who lost her life.”

That tragedy brought home how tissue and organ donation can be a gift of life for others, even in the midst of sadness. It also compelled Pratt to do something to honor the memory of her sister.

“It made it really kick in for me,” Pratt said.

Growing up in Orlando, her parents always involved their children in volunteerism through their church, but after her sister’s death, Pratt focused her energies and career on the nonprofit and medical sector, looking for ways to help others move beyond their circumstances. Pratt is the operations manager for Mayo Clinic’s transplant department. On top of her heavy involvement with the Katie Caples Foundation and Give Kids The World – an event dedicated to the memory of her sister — Pratt is taking on a new role as co-chair for United Way of Northeast Florida’s Atlantic Circle young professionals group.

Pratt became involved with United Way’s Stein Fellowship program in 2014 and then with Atlantic Circle in 2015 because she liked connecting with others interested in giving back. United Way’s Stein Fellowship is a dual mentoring program where young professionals are mentored by local established leaders and then also mentor middle-school students.

“I like the tie between young professionals helping in the community and being professionally developed,” Pratt said. “And the relationship with my Achievers For Life [middle-school] mentee was really impactful.”

Being mentored in return by Connie Hodges, United Way of Northeast Florida’s former CEO, was a highlight of being a Stein Fellow.

“I’ve found my niche in nonprofits,” Pratt said. “It’s changed my outlook, my perspective on things. I’m looking forward to getting creative in how to engage people when there are so many competing priorities.”

Pratt holds up her experience with Achievers For Life as one way people can make a difference. Achievers For Life is an early-warning response system that identifies middle-school students who are struggling to stay on track to graduation. Stein Fellows mentor one of these middle-school students and have the option to continue mentoring until their student moves on to high school.

“At first, my mentee was really quiet and reminded me of myself,” Pratt said. “But over a couple of months, we were able to open up. We’d play board games together after homework — she’d love to play games all day, and I grew up playing board games. Halfway through our time together, she started playing softball, and I went to all of her games.”

Working with children directly is part of putting into practice her sister’s legacy and part of creating a better world for Pratt.

“People can go down a very dark path after a tragic moment,” Pratt said. “I took my grief and frustration, took that energy and pushed it into the community.”