By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
On a cold January morning, Sara Ley was out with her boys, raking up leaves and participating in United Way of Northeast Florida’s annual MLK Day of Service. It’s just one of the many United Way volunteer opportunities where you’ll find her year after year.
Ley thrives on jumping in, describing it as “part of her DNA.” But her greatest joy is in helping people find a way to develop themselves, whether it’s through her work in leadership development at General Electric or mentoring young women through United Way’s Achievers For Life and Upstream initiatives. It’s what makes her happy.
Ley became involved with United Way mentoring nine years ago, initially through the Atlantic Circle affinity group. She then became a Stein Fellow, United Way supporters who are mentored by local business leaders. In turn, the Stein Fellows mentor middle-school students through Achievers For Life.
“I was with my mentee, Gina, from sixth grade through graduation last year,” Ley said. “Gina was my mentee before I even had my own kids. She has grown up as family with us.”
And when her mentee landed that first job, Ley visited with her boys to cheer her on. Ley knows how important encouragement can be.
Growing up, Girl Scouts gave Ley that guidance and support to keep her feet on the ground. She’s come a long way from the young girl, rollerskating through neighborhood streets and pulling her wagon of cookie boxes door-to-door, but she credits those early experiences with giving her the foundation to give back now.
“My dad was in the Navy, and I was going to new schools frequently,” Ley said. “I joined Girl Scouts because it was there, no matter where I moved. Even when I went to high school overseas, the International Girl Scouts helped me stay connected.”
Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ley’s family moved around a lot before finally settling in Jacksonville. She attended Florida State University and anticipated becoming a physical therapist until a fellow student suggested she take a different path.
“I happened to run into her at the gym,” Ley said. “She told me about the Instructional Systems Design program at Florida State. Running into Chantal and making that choice put me on a career path to help others grow. I have a passion about helping others have a happy workplace.”
Connecting with her newest mentees through the United Way’s new Upstream initiative in partnership with the University of North Florida has brought newfound excitement.
“It was perfect timing,” Ley said. “Just as Gina was finishing up in high school, there was a need for me to mentor in a different way.”
She is proud of the way her UNF students connected with local nonprofits to fight the stigma of mental-health issues with middle-school students. Ley’s Upstream experience was one of many reasons why she continues to be involved with United Way.
“There are perks to being part of a great organization like United Way,” she said. “I want to do it because it feels good; they open doors to help me find new things to do. Even in my career, I love to work to help others grow.”
If you’re interested in becoming a United Way volunteer like Sara Ley, learn about opportunities available at www.unitedwaynefl.org/volunteer.