February 27, 2014

Volunteers exemplify compassion, commitment

Fran Hardcastle still recalls her first volunteer experience — selling papers on Palm Sunday to benefit the Junior League Home for Crippled Children.

Fran Hardcastle still recalls her first volunteer experience — selling papers on Palm Sunday to benefit the Junior League Home for Crippled Children.

“The paper sale was something I grew up doing,” said Hardcastle. “We met really early to pick up our papers (which told stories of the children served throughout Middle Tennessee who were served at the home) and we sold them door to door. Some people stood on the street corners taking donations for the paper. Even the banks were open to accept and count the donations.

Fran Hardcastle’s volunteer work at Vanderbilt has spanned decades.

“Most every volunteer organization was involved in some way in the paper sale. It was something I was accustomed to doing every Palm Sunday.”

That initial introduction to the Home for Crippled Children, a place that provided free convalescent and rehab services for children with crippling diseases in a homelike atmosphere, led to additional volunteer opportunities for Hardcastle.

“As I got older, I began volunteering at the home, reading stories to the children, helping with lunches and organizing volunteers to transport the children to Vanderbilt clinics. My involvement progressed from there.

“When we were helping out as children, we just knew it was a good thing to do,” said Hardcastle. “As I got older I was able to see that what I was doing made a difference. I wanted to have more responsibility. I wanted to become more involved.”

As treasurer of the Junior League, Hardcastle was instrumental in the home’s move to the newly formed children’s hospital-within-a-hospital at Vanderbilt. She attended meetings to ensure that the voices of parents and volunteers were heard.

“They would call meetings at 4 p.m.,” said Hardcastle shaking her head. “Of course that was a horrible time for young mothers to leave home and drive to Vanderbilt in traffic, all while trying to see to their families and children. But I wouldn’t miss those meetings for anything.

“I was right there, each time,” said a smiling Hardcastle. “That is where I was making a difference — fighting for sleeper chairs for the parents and telephones in the rooms. We were there to be the voice of families and for the children. “That is when I really saw that volunteers have an impact.”

“Volunteers like Fran are the lifeblood of Vanderbilt,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “We are forever indebted to these special individuals who give their time so freely. Through their generosity they bring comfort and joy while playing an important role as ambassadors of good will. Our committed volunteers, Fran and so many like her, are a foundational element of the Medical Center and the entire University.”

A native Nashvillian and Vanderbilt University graduate, Hardcastle supports a variety of Vanderbilt-focused philanthropic activities.

Along with her involvement with the Junior League of Nashville, Hardcastle has been a member of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt Board since its inception, serving as chair of the board from 1992-1994. She was president of the Friends of Children’s Hospital board, past chair of the Iroquois Steeplechase and president of the School of Medicine’s Canby Robinson Society from 2003-2005. She is a past member of the Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association Board.

In 1998 she received the Junior League’s Sustainer Award. She also received the Mary Catherine Strobel Community Volunteer of the Year Award in 2002.

As a longtime volunteer, Hardcastle admits that the passion for giving must be instilled in a person while they are young and fostered throughout a lifetime.

“I always believe the younger the better when it comes to introducing volunteering,” said Hardcastle. “They get the notion that there are things they can do to make a difference. Then they will begin developing a willingness to want to make a difference.

“A person once told me that you have to learn to volunteer from your heart, not just in your head. You can’t just talk about it. You have to feel it and have a desire to make an impact.”

Robert McNeilly Jr., right, here with his wife, Betty Sue, and VUSM student Matt Stier, has been volunteering for most of his life.

Robert McNeilly Jr., echoes those sentiments. Also a lifelong volunteer, he too is dedicated to serving his community and Vanderbilt.

After graduating from Vanderbilt and Peabody College, McNeilly joined the U.S. Army and later spent 29 years in the printing industry. He switched to the banking and financial services industry and is now director emeritus of Pinnacle Financial Partners.

Throughout his career, McNeilly served as a member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, chair of the School of Nursing’s Julia Hereford Society, president of the Canby Robinson Society, co-chair of the Coalition for the Canby Robinson Society and president of the Vanderbilt University Alumni Association.

The Owen Graduate School of Management, Blair School of Music, the College of Arts and Science and the Athletic Department were also a part of McNeilly’s volunteer focus.

“I have been volunteering all of my life, just trying to be useful,” he said chuckling. “I think that volunteerism is one of the life bloods of a community.”

Today McNeilly spends two hours a week helping out at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. It’s an assignment he finds has helped him deepen his appreciation for the mission of the Medical Center.

“What I do is very ordinary,” he said. “I fix coffee and take the snack cart around to patients receiving infusions. It seems simple, but I sure hope it brings a little bit of brightness into patients’ lives.”

In 2010 McNeilly was honored with the Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award, given to a medical alumnus or lay individual who, through dedicated and distinguished volunteer service, has furthered the aims and goals of the Medical Center.

“It was a total surprise to me and I am so grateful for it,” he said. “But I must say, I really don’t think I have done any more than others. But I do cherish the recognition.”

Doug Arrington is the current School of Nursing Alumni president.

For Doug Arrington, the current School of Nursing Alumni president, he hopes his fellow classmates and other graduates will have a similar desire to give back to their alma mater.

As he approaches the end of his three-year term, Arrington wants to inspire others to become involved with the School of Nursing.

“By our very nature, nurses are very willing to help out and assist others,” said Arrington. “While we were in school, we all had a lot of passion for what the school provided us. I want to fuel that passion through activities that will keep the alumni connected. I see this as a lifelong commitment.”

Arrington is currently the director of the Office of Clinical Research Facilitation at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a pediatric and pain management nurse practitioner. He would like to see more School of Nursing graduates give more time to the school.

And there are multiple ways to achieve that, he said, including preceptorships, attending Reunion, participating in on-campus events and providing financial support. All gifts of any size are important to the students.

“The idea of sharing and giving back really is important to me. I am not sure I would ever be able to give back to the school to compensate for what I have gained through my education there,” he added. “Volunteering my time is a small way for me to contribute to my alma mater and it allows me to recognize what they have done for me.”

In a similar vein, Todd and E.B. (Emily Blake) Jackson wanted to focus a big chunk of their volunteer efforts at a place that heavily impacted their lives.

In 2009 the couple formed Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) Young Ambassadors, a group of young professionals with a shared interest in fighting cancer. The group aims to raise money for innovative cancer research, advocate for cancer patients and volunteer at VICC.

Todd and E.B. Jackson with their daughter, Allie. (photo by Daniel Dubois)

The 25-member group has raised nearly $400,000 — seed funding that turns innovative ideas into action — and awarded 10 Discovery Grants to groundbreaking cancer researchers who are early in their careers. Initial fundraising has garnered an additional $2.4 million in government research funding and industry support.

“In an era of declining NIH budgets, financial support for young investigators has become increasingly scarce. So the kind of funding provided by the Young Ambassadors is taking on even greater significance, ensuring there are opportunities for promising scientists to take their first steps,” Balser said.

In the first year, the group far surpassed their goal of funding a Discovery Grant. Each year the donations increased. With every financial benchmark met, another basic scientist was able to dig deeper into a research project.

The Jacksons take the mission of the group very personally.

Not only do they have family members who have been treated for cancer, but in 2003 Todd Jackson was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was surgically removed, followed by 30 doses of radiation therapy.

In 2013 another cancer surfaced, glioblastoma, a grade IV brain cancer. He is currently undergoing treatment to slow the progression. Presently, there is no therapy to stop it.

The pair said there is hope in knowing that brilliant researchers are working on the front lines creating innovative therapies every day. It is that hope that motivated them to start Young Ambassadors paired with their innate spirit to give back. They say they cannot imagine their lives without being active volunteers.

Todd Jackson stresses that despite having academic and professional experiences outside of the basic sciences realm, they felt they could bring a different perspective to the table when it comes to cancer research.

“We believe that engaging with organizations as volunteers can be mutually beneficial,” said Todd Jackson, 39. “We wanted to make a difference and help solve the problem of cancer. Young Ambassadors gives us a chance to bring the best of ourselves to be a part of that movement.”

The Jackson, parents to 11-month-old Allie, are very intentional with where they invest their time. Cancer is the top priority followed by families living in poverty and the environment.

“It is hard to put into words,” said 33-year-old E.B. Jackson, a business administrator with the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute. “Our core values are rooted in serving the greater good.

“No matter what heartache or challenge I may face, serving an important cause never fails to energize and inspire me. Volunteering fills the gaps that bottom lines can’t see. It doesn’t matter what effort you choose, just find what you are passionate about and do something to give of yourself toward that,” she said.

Her husband agrees.

“We have to be the change,” he said. “If you want things to get better, then take a position and do something. It first has to start with you.”

Todd Jackson, a 1996 graduate of Vanderbilt and a 2008 Owen School graduate, will receive the Vanderbilt Alumni Association Board of Directors’ new Alumni Volunteer Award for his work launching the Young Ambassadors program, as well as efforts to increase volunteer participation and contributions while president of the Owen Graduate School of Management Alumni Council.