Episode 9: Philanthropist Melissa Prendergast, Professional Volunteer

In this episode, I speak with Melissa Prendergast. Melissa is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and mother of four. Melissa has spent a considerable amount of time invested in the lives of her children’s education–inside and outside–of the classroom. She juggles her career, her family time, and her volunteerism with joy and passion. As a young girl, she volunteered for Boy Scouts, and, “it became a passion inside her belly.” Her charge is for all of us to wake up and say, “I am a philanthropist!” As she explains, no one can wake up and be a scientist, psychologist, archeologist, or sociologist, but everyone can wake up and say, “I am a philanthropist!”

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Guest Info

Melissa has been a community volunteer for over 30 years. She has dedicated her philanthropy to children and organizations that give her the opportunity to promote leadership, diversity, and progression.  Melissa has led Girl Scouts for more than a decade and credits her devotion to serving in large part to her early years of volunteering with special needs Boy Scouts. She has served on the Village Green Preschool Board, the local and district School Improvement Councils, and has volunteered both inside the classroom and outside on the soccer field as a co-ed youth coach–to name a few. 

Melissa is an accomplished professional in high technology and real estate. She is a graduate of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, with a major in Marketing and holds an MBA from Babson College with a concentration in Entrepreneurship. During her free time, Melissa enjoys skiing, writing, yoga, nature, baking and spending time with her four beautiful children. 

Show Notes

Support Melissa’s charity of choice: Nurses for Hope.

Transcript

JK: Welcome to the You Are a Philanthropist podcast. This is episode nine, and today we’re hearing from Melissa Prendergast. Melissa is a licensed real estate agent, independent business owner, mom of four, and as she describes, a professional volunteer.

JK: Welcome to the show, Melissa.

MP: Jenn, I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me. I want to congratulate you on your podcast and all your endeavors promoting philanthropy in our communities.

JK: That’s so kind of you. And I’m so excited to be doing this podcast and sharing everyday stories with my listeners. And I love that you call yourself a professional volunteer. Can you tell me more about what that means to you?

MP: Sure. I feel like I’ve been volunteering since I was a small child. I remember as a kid being in a congregation at church and a family having a fire. And this family needed clothes and supplies. And I remember helping my parents gather things for this family that had this less-than-fortunate incident and devastated their family life. And I remember doing it and being inspired. It just lit something up inside of me and. As I got older and I worked with small children, even as a middle schooler, working with kids in the neighborhood, seeing them smile and seeing their joy and their happiness when I’d help them on the structure or do some artwork with them, again, that fire sort of lit up. It became a passion inside my belly, and I knew that being a volunteer and helping others was something that was very important to me.

JK: Wow, I really love that. And how old were you at that time?

MP: I would say probably around middle school. And as I got older and I got into high school, I had this opportunity to work with a Boy Scout troop in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. And it wasn’t just any Boy Scout troop, it was a special needs Boy Scout troop. And we would have weekly meetings, and I would go and volunteer and help the boys fulfill their badge requirements. And the excitement when I would walk in the door of these Boy Scouts excited to see me and what we were going to do that evening, again, ignited a spark. It was just pure joy and fun. And I felt like seeing their smile made all the difference for me.

JK: That sounds wonderful. I love how it’s a reciprocal relationship about how excited you were to be with them, but also how excited they were to be with you. How did that get started? How did you find that group?

MP: Well, there was a contact that I knew that had worked in Fitchburg, and she had recommended I do something with the Boy Scouts. She knew I was looking for a type of giveback situation, and she connected me with the troop leaders, and it just grew from there. And I think that initial experience, where it was on a weekly basis. And scouts is all about progression and especially working with special needs boys and teaching them progression and seeing what they could accomplish from the beginning to the end of a badge was just heartwarming. And to see their expression and their excitement over their accomplishment meant the world. And after that, I just continued to do volunteer work through high school and through college. And then as I became a mom, what I did was volunteer in the activities or the schools that my children were in, and it gave me the opportunity to be around my family and at the same time, give back to the community that was shaping my family. And it started with the Village Green Preschool. I was a chairman of the board of the preschool. And from there, I became a volunteer at the elementary school, the middle school. I think I might be the longest-running room mom in the history of Sterling real moms. And I also joined the School Improvement Council and worked with people in the community and the administration of the school to help improve policies and procedures at the school.

JK: So, how many years did you say you were volunteering at the village school?

MP: I volunteered at the Village Green Preschool for about five to six years. I was the communications chair and I would write articles for the newspaper of different things that the school would do and put pictures in the newspaper and promote the good and charitable activities that the school would do, like a food drive or raise money for some community endeavor.

JK: And how was that– you mentioned that you enjoy being closer with your children as well. And you mentioned you have four children. I’m curious how the way you’ve been involved in your children’s lives so intimately has affected their interest in any passion they have with volunteering.

MP: Well, you bring up an excellent point, Jen. I feel as though the kids get to see doing good. And when the kids see volunteerism as children, I feel as though it helps shape their philanthropic efforts as adults. My son, my oldest, is in college and he’s in a fraternity at UNH [University of New Hampshire]. And the first time he did his volunteer work with the fraternity was at a soup kitchen in New Hampshire and he couldn’t have been more excited. And it was so heartwarming to see him reciprocating these efforts that he had seen as a child. And my daughters have also been in Girl Scouts and most recently, we have done community service projects, donating money to the Sterling Animal Shelter that the girls raised from selling cookies. Cookie sales, when they come around for the Girl Scouts cookies is such an entrepreneurial venture. And it’s the biggest girl-led entrepreneurial venture, I think, in the country. So, it teaches a lot of good business skills, decision making, accountability, all sorts of good stuff coming out of Girl Scout cookie selling.

JK: That’s terrific. How many years have your kids been involved in Girl Scouts and are you a leader with the Girl Scouts?

MP: I am. I’ve been a leader with the Girl Scouts for multiple troops for over a decade, and it’s been great. It teaches girls so many things. They’re empowered to be leaders. And we lead a girl-led philosophy, so girls are making decisions. They’re making decisions for themselves. They’re making decisions for the troop. They decide what we do and who we do it for and how we’re going to do it, all great leadership qualities for girls. And being a leader of the Girl Scouts also gets the girls and myself as a leader involved in the community. We have to integrate the leaders, the parents, the different organizations in the community that we’re working with to raise money. It’s a collaboration, and the girls see that. And so it’s teaching them how to put together five or six different entities to come out with a final product, which is typically them helping or donating or serving for someone or something in their community.

JK: That is so interesting because when I buy Girl Scout cookies, all I really think about is how delicious those cookies are.

MP: Cookies teach a lot. They teach girls to make decisions on their own and as a team, money management, all sorts of good business, ethical skills and people skills. They create a budget and handle the money and handle all the accounting. It’s just great. In the beginning, when we’d sell cookies, I’d say, “Oh no, here we go. Pressure to sell cookies, pressure to earn prizes,” but having done it for over a decade with multiple troops, I’ve really learned how important this relationship building entrepreneurial skill is just in life.

JK: Well, you weren’t kidding. You really are a professional volunteer. That’s amazing, your commitment to organizations, especially the Girl Scouts. And I’m curious, is that your favorite piece of philanthropy you’ve done?

MP: Well, I really enjoy working with the Girl Scouts. I enjoy leading the girls and helping them to really live by a help-people-at-all- times philosophy. As leaders, we educate and inspire a positive attitude and help the girls to just become leaders in their communities. In our most recent philanthropic endeavor, we donated 200 boxes of cookies to the DCU Center Field Hospital here in Worcester which was handling all the COVID patients. And my daughter had an idea and a dream, and she wanted to give something back to the heroes, the healthcare workers that put themselves on the front lines and risked their health and their family’s health to help these patients with COVID. So she took orders. We raised money. She took orders. We ordered what the healthcare workers wanted for cookies. We organized the drop-off. It was pretty amazing, and she was pretty excited to know that she could thank those people that were selflessly helping others during this pandemic.

JK: Okay. Now you’re making me cry because that just sounds like what a light during such a dark time, especially for those front-line workers. And for a child to have that and for a child to lead that effort must have been really moving for those recipients.

MP: It really was. I think the people that I worked with at UMass– I should say, we worked with because Jessica, my daughter, was involved in every aspect of it. The people that we worked with were just so grateful and so excited that this was coming from a fifth-grader–

JK: I can imagine.

MP: –and that she had the vision to say, “Okay, I want to give a treat to these workers that are putting themselves at risk.”

JK: That’s beautiful. I love that. And I’m sure at 12 years old, this is just the beginning for her. And I can see her following in your shoes. Just as you mentioned, your son is already doing– with his fraternity. So it really excites me that you are raising four children to be inspired and be excited about philanthropy. They’re the future. And it shows how important philanthropy is, how exciting philanthropy is, that everyone can do it, as you said, and that these youth of today are going to bring us into the future of philanthropy. And my goal with this podcast is to really inspire more people to join the table, to join all of us. I’m encouraged, really, by your leadership and your role modeling for your children.

MP: Thank you, Jenn. I think what you’re doing is fabulous and, as I call it, a can-do philanthropy. You’re getting the message out there that anyone can do this type of work. I mean, there aren’t many roles in life, right, where you can just wake up, get out of bed and decide to change the world. You can do this here. Philanthropy is one of those things that you can wake up and get out of bed and decide, “I’m going to be a philanthropist, and I’m going to do something to change the world.” I mean, a botanist, a scientist, an archeologist, a paleontologist, all these things you need to go to school for. And not that you shouldn’t strive to be one of these things, but a philanthropist, you can wake up one day and say, “I can do it.”

JK: Oh, my gosh, I love that. No one’s put it so succinctly. And I love that I have this vision of waking up and having that can-do attitude, especially today when we’re all so isolated and the media is very negative and the politics are ugly, to be able to open your eyes first thing in the morning and say, “What do I want to do to change today? What can I do with the resources, either my time or my financial resources to make that change today in at least one person’s life?”

MP: Right. And when we were deciding what to do for the heroes that work with the covid patients, Jessica and I both thought because of the pandemic, they might not be able to take the cookies, right? We don’t know what the actual sanitation rules are with the hospital, and the pandemic changes things. But I think what we learned and what Jessica learned, especially as a middle schooler, as a fifth-grade child, was ask– reach out. The worst that they can say is no and then, we move on and we figure out. And when we reached out, the response was so overwhelmingly positive that we realized nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

MP: Yeah, so have no fear. Embrace it. Pivot when you need to. Keep going, right? Absolutely. For sure.

JK: We’ve talked about your role with the private school that your children went to it. Was it a private school or a public school? I just want to clarify.

MP: No, they’re at public school.

JK: Okay. So we talked about your role with the public school. We talked about your role with Girl Scouts and your childhood experiences. I don’t want to push you even further. That sounds like a lot. I’m just curious if there are even more ways that you’ve been committed to philanthropy.

MP: One of my most favorite volunteer efforts was being a soccer coach. I was a soccer coach for 13 years for my kids’ teams and sometimes coaching three teams at once. And let me tell you, that schedule was a little bit crazy.

JK: Wow.

MP: I enjoy working with the kids. I really do. I enjoy donating to shelters and donating to the healthcare workers and doing these types of community service projects. Absolutely. But I love working with the kids in the community and seeing a child who maybe didn’t like soccer when they started and then seeing their progression and smiling, loving the game, making new friends. I mean, there’s just so much that you get as a volunteer, as a coach, seeing the growth of a child. And I feel like that’s a whole another area. I haven’t coached for two years. And I have to tell you, I am definitely missing it. I can only spread myself so far. And I definitely spread myself very thin with my volunteer efforts. And that is one that I do miss for sure.

JK: Yeah, coaching is a really important role for teaching children how to be a team, how to get back into it when you’re injured or needing to persevere through any mental blocks you have. I bet you could give a good pep talk.

MP: Well, I will say, I think the importance of a good coach is knowing your players, knowing what each kid needs, knowing what motivates them and what gets them excited, and how they learn. And that’s not an easy thing to do. We throw volunteers out there in coaching positions, and it’s not easy to get underneath and inside and figure out what each kid needs. And I really feel like that’s what makes a good coach, and that’s how you get a winning team because you know what motivates each player to do their part and where they need to work on. And it’s a very rewarding role, I will say that knowing that you’re shaping the lives of these young athletes.

JK: That’s so cool. And I love how even though– it’s kind of a negative you mentioned that you wish you could do more with coaching over the last two years. It brings up a good point that we can’t spread ourselves too thin, even though there’s the interest and the love there. But we do need a balance with our lives. And certainly, COVID has hindered people from– I’m sure that probably played a role as well as you’re getting back into coaching– is the ability to interact with children in public schools these days. I know there’s one limits on who going to be attending programs and such.

MP: Yes, the pandemic has changed so much. And I and I truly believe that what we need to do as philanthropists with our children is teach them about empathy. We need to empower them with empathy. We need as adults in our communities to be able to have our children understand that there are people out there that are less fortunate than them or there are organizations that need help to run. When we teach these things to our children as children in the home, it creates philanthropic leaders down the road.

JK: I’m curious, you mentioned that early experience and your parents teaching you the value of philanthropy and, obviously, there’s a synergy with the people that you help and that feels really good. But I’m curious, is there any person in particular either in your personal life or in the public realm that inspires you in your philanthropic work?

MP: That’s a great question. I think it would have to be my parents, seeing my parents want to help others and do good and being there in the community and being good role models and being coaches and being leaders to say, “Let’s donate. Let’s do this to help someone else.” You just reminded me of an example. When I was in high school, there was a situation where I think I was a freshman maybe, and there was a senior who had fallen and had become paralyzed. And he now needed all this money for wheelchair accessibility and ramp and all sorts of things that were life-changing. And because of my parents and their support, I was able to plan a yard sale on our street and shut the street off from traffic, and everyone got involved. It was pretty amazing. And I want to say we raised 2 or 3 thousand dollars from that yard sale that we were able to say, “Here’s something to just help.” And I couldn’t have done that as a freshman without the support of my parents as role models. So to answer your question, undoubtedly, it started in the home with my family.

JK: Wow. That is so beautiful because we think we have to look to these celebrities and what they’re doing in these grand ideas and how much money they have. And what I’ve been hearing from my guests and what I call everyday philanthropists or like you call can-do philanthropist is that it is so simple as starting in the home and starting as role models as a young child.

MP: I couldn’t agree with you more, Jen. I think that’s where it begins. We model the behavior for our children, and what they see is what they learn.

JK: That is amazing. I am a mom of two boys, five and three years old, and I hope that this podcast inspires them some way. On Saturday, I’m going around to a dozen of my neighbors and picking up bags of food for the local food pantry and driving to the food pantry. And I have brought them both before. And they actually love doing that. And I remember the last time we went probably was in November because they skipped a pick up because of COVID. And my son asked one of the volunteers, he said, “What is this for?” And the woman said, “Oh, it’s for people who can’t have food to buy at the store.” And he said, “What do you mean?” He lives in a bubble. He has no idea about the hardship people face. And so at a young age, teaching them that they’ve been given so much, they have so much to be thankful for, and that we do need to help people. Less fortunate is a great thing to learn at any age.

MP: I agree with you, Jenn. And when the kids get to see the expression on people’s faces, right, you’re bringing them and exposing them to this light that they see– that they get to see a light inside of somebody’s eyes or their facial expression to say, “Thank you. You thought of me and you made a difference.” You might make all the difference for one of those people that you’re doing this good deed for. Jessica and I, my Girl Scout, who I refer to, we did a holiday meals drop off for the elderly and the disabled. We didn’t do it this year at Thanksgiving because of COVID, which was really saddening. But the exposure, like you just said, with your children, that she got to see how some people have to live, and they’re struggling to get to the door because they’re crippled. And they can’t go out for Thanksgiving. They can’t cook for Thanksgiving. But a local community, Catholic Charities, I believe, was the charity makes these meals and delivers to them is beautiful. It’s such a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing for our children to see the need so that they can make a difference when they get older.

JK: That’s beautiful. I have mentioned in my first episode that people have been more generous during COVID than ever before in the history of the world as Americans. And I’m curious, have you seen that reflected in your cookie sales this past year?

MP: I have. You know what’s funny is I’ve never been cookie mom, and I am cookie mom this year, so I am accountable for all the cookies that we take and get and receive money for. And it’s pretty interesting to learn how to be cooking mom. But what I have seen is we haven’t been able to do cookie booths like before where we’d go out and the girls would dance and jump into the cars that are driving by, and we’d sell cookies on the fly like that. And people aren’t seeing that. And when they do figure out that you have cookies, they’re excited to buy them. They’re excited to support the Girl Scouts. And I think cookies provide a normalcy in a time where it has been so abnormal with the pandemic. And it just goes to show that Girl Scout cookies are something that people expect at this point because of the repetition and how many years Girl Scouts has been doing it. So I have seen an increase in sales. I’ve never sold with my daughter– over 10 years of selling, we’ve sold the most cookies this year than we’ve ever sold.

JK: That’s beautiful. I love seeing the real-world reflection of the statistics that I read about in the news. And I’m guessing that cookie mom is better than being called Cookie Monster, huh?

MP: Yes. I’ve actually enjoyed the role. I think I was a little nervous to take it on, having the accountability for all the cookies that go out of our troop. But it’s been very rewarding. Like all of my volunteer endeavors, it’s always rewarding. You always feel good. It’s a feel good at the end of the day. You get to feel like you’re doing good for so many.

JK: Well, I can’t imagine all the lives that you’ve touched in your life with the many volunteer roles that you’ve done. And I know there’s probably more we haven’t even covered, as you have described yourself as a professional volunteer. I want to just take a commercial break. I want to share with my listeners about something that I did, so that they can be inspired to be volunteers and donors in their communities to both individuals and non-profits. So we’ll be right back.

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JK: We’re back. I want to thank you again for being here. And today we’re hearing from Melissa Prendergast. Melissa is a licensed real estate agent, independent business owner, mom of four, and – as she describes – a professional volunteer. I’m curious what you would say to our listeners who are either struggling to figure out what it is they want to do when they wake up in the morning or what it is they can do if they have limited resources in any ways, or if they’re trying to figure out how to get started. What would you say to empower them to make that difference today and tomorrow and the next day?

MP: Jenn, I think your question is very important, because I think philanthropists shouldn’t be held back by finances. I think philanthropists should be able to think about, “What is it that I can do?” And if you’re having trouble figuring out where you think you fit in your philanthropic world, start with your life. What is it in your life that you do? And for me, it was aligning my efforts with my children. That’s how I stayed involved with them, and also, was able to give back to the community. And it’s as simple as that is figuring out something that you’re passionate about. It doesn’t have to be– you don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and donate gazillions of dollars. If you have a passion for baking maybe drop off meals to new moms. Or you work with an organization that has needs for food and– there’s an organization that I recently saw on the news called Lasagna Love. Have you seen that?

JK: I have yes.

MP: Where they were baking lasagnas. It really starts from within. It’s your passion and what you’re excited about and where you think you’d– if you love animals maybe find your local animal shelter where you can volunteer. Or maybe all they need are old towels that you have laying around the house that you’re not– really the sky is the limit. And when you do it our kids are watching. And so involve the kids. If you have little kids involve the kids. If you have nieces and nephews involve them, let them know– ask them what their ideas were. When we were doing the cookies for the heroes we called it Operation Cookie 2021 and Jessica chose, she chose where we were going to get the cookies, who they were going to go to, how we were going to do it. It was completely girl led. And I think it doesn’t need to be an act of finances, it doesn’t need to be an act of giving loads of money it can be time, it can be old clothes that are gently used. It’s just a matter of making a difference.

JK: That’s beautiful. And one of the things I’m sure you could agree about is if you are very busy and you don’t have all this time just do anything you can.

MP: Anything you can. I have a friend who has been working with families of children who have cancer. And he just purchased a house on Cape Cod and it’s called Tommy’s Place. And he’s renovating the Elm Arch Inn which is in Falmouth and what he’s doing is providing a vacation home for families with children who are battling cancer–

JK: Wow.
MP: –that might not see next summer. Oh, my gosh.

MP: So he’s giving a vacation to these families that are struggling with medical bills and emotion and fear and doubt and hope. And people have reached out in all different kinds of capacities, whether it’s donating time or money or something– library books, like I have kids who no longer read these baby books. I could put together– which I intend to do. I could put together case loads of books to donate to the library at this home or vacation home I should say, for kids battling with cancer. So I really feel like just get creative. Be creative.

JK: Yeah it sounds like your friend just was like, “This is what I’m going to do, this is what I’m passionate about and I’m not going to let anybody stop me and I’m just going to do it.” And like you said the sky is the limit. I can’t imagine the joy that those families are going to experience when they get this beautiful vacation home on Cape Cod and remembering those memories as a family during such a hard time.

MP: It’s amazing. It’s really amazing. And there are so many people that want to do good.

JK: There really are. There really are and my children are watching Mr. Rogers yesterday morning, on Saturday morning, and I think we can always think about what he said is, “Look at the helpers.” And I want to thank you for being one of those helpers for your lifetime. And I know you’re never going to stop are you?

MP: No. More good to come. More good to come from us. I think this is a passion of mine and I will be doing these kinds of things for the long haul.

JK: That’s beautiful. And tell me, I usually like to ask my listeners if they would donate to a charity of your favorite choice. So can you share with us where our listeners could go if they are so inspired to donate to your favorite charity?

MP: Absolutely. The Girl Scouts from our troop are working on raising well needed items for a brand new organization called Nurses for Hope. And it’s out of the Worcester area. And there is a list of items that are needed for– it started out as needed items for COVID patients and the response has been so wonderful that they’re able to extend the giving to other areas of patients that don’t have very many clothes or are in need of certain things. And even children, even child patients are going to be benefiting from this endeavor. So there is a list of needed items and if you search Nurses for Hope on Facebook the information will pop up.

JK: That’s beautiful. And that’s another perfect example to end our session today of somebody who said, “This is what I’m going to do and I’m not going to let anybody stop me. I’m just going to ask and ask and ask people to join me.” And people are responding. And I hope my listeners will too.

MP: Absolutely.

JK: Thanks for coming today Melissa and sharing.

MP: Jen thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed talking with you. And I look forward to many future philanthropic endeavors. Thank you Melissa. Have a great day.
You too. Take care.

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