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In a year of unexpected surprises, the call I received from the Philadelphia Bar Foundation this summer has been perhaps the happiest. I was, and still am, taken aback to be receiving the Philadelphia Bar Foundation Award, but I am honored and humbled that my colleagues, Board members, and peers at sister agencies joined in nominating me.
My family has played an important part in this honor. My parents have always been behind me and supported my goals, never steering me in any direction except the one in which I was already heading on my own. My children have tolerated many a dinner conversation about their mom’s work and the events of the day, taking turns in sharing their own news so that I, too, could share mine. And my patient husband has, it seems, lived each of the last 15 years at VIP alongside me, from fielding legal questions when he was still practicing law to helping me brainstorm my way through tough issues.
Together, we have navigated the tricky business of having jobs we love and being there for our children, and I am blessed to have had him as a partner all along the way.
For me, receiving this award is about honoring the people who have made VIP a place that I am immensely proud to call my professional home. Collectively, my colleagues past and present have created an organization that draws out each of our strengths and fits them together in a way that makes the whole stronger than its parts.
I have seen this at the top, from the women who led VIP when I was a younger attorney – executive directors Sharon Browning and Sara Woods; managing attorneys Stefanie Seldin and Rainy Papademetriou; director of administration Tanya Rambert; and systems manager Terri Jett. Each of these women led VIP in their own unique ways and with a different set of skills. Sharon taught me to listen, a work in progress for me. Sara showed me the importance of a nimble organization that plays to each team member’s strengths. Tanya modeled how to lead with immense patience and grace for others. Terri exuded every day the spirit of what it means to be a supportive colleague. Rainy made sure that we took care of ourselves in and out of the office. And Stefanie showed me what it means to be an advocate and how to balance empathy with making hard decisions.
Each of these women shaped the culture of VIP into an organization where staff members are dedicated to our clients and volunteers, encouraged to take initiative, trusted to make sound judgments, and expected to take care of themselves and their colleagues.
I have also seen the impact of this collective effort from each VIPster I’ve worked with over the years. There are too many names to list here, but regardless of whether they spent two years or ten at VIP, I have been amazed each day over the last 15 years to see how driven they are to give their best to our clients and volunteers. At such a small nonprofit, they are asked to wear many different hats and master a sometimes daunting range of legal issues. They are asked to calm clients facing pressing deadlines, to keep calling volunteers until they find a “yes,” and to problem-solve logistical challenges on a tiny budget and a heavy dose of good will. They lean on each other when staffing is tight and caseloads are high, and they celebrate each other’s professional wins and personal achievements. They are, truly, a team of VIPsters.
I cracked open a fortune cookie last week, and as happens often with fortune cookies, it did not claim to tell my future. In place of a fortune was this line:
A leader is a person you will follow to a place you wouldn’t go by yourself.
That, it struck me, is what VIP is about. Sometimes, the leader is the one who manages the big picture and steers the team on its mission. Sometimes, it’s the frontline case manager who speaks with clients and volunteers every day and sees a way to make a part of the process better. Sometimes, it’s the colleague you go to down the hall (or these days, message in Teams) just to share your frustrations but walk away from with a renewed focus and a solution you hadn’t seen. Leaders tend to lurk around every corner at VIP. I hope I have inspired some of my colleagues over the years to follow me to a place they wouldn’t have gone by themselves. It is far too many to count the number of times I have followed them, and I’m grateful and in their debt for their leadership, in whatever form it took, and for making VIP the place that I am honored to call home.