Jennifer Willows is the Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer of the YMCA in Snohomish County. She sat down to talk about what it has been like working with Valley Electric on a charitable level.
Q. How were you introduced to Valley Electric?
I became connected with Valley Electric three years ago, when the president, Jeret Garcia, joined our board of trustees and we [YMCA] have been working with them in a variety of ways ever since.
Q. What was your first impression of Jeret?
So when Jeret joined our board of trustees, it was really clear from the way that he presented himself and his company that he’s really connected to the community. That being engaged with the community in a variety of ways is important to him, both on a professional level and on a personal level.
Q. How did that perception grow as you got to know him?
As I got to know him, he shared a little bit of his background in working with youth. He explained how he’s been a coach and a mentor for the better part of his life and he began to share how he wants to infuse that attitude of giving back into his corporate structure. And I was just so enthralled, because I work with a lot of different corporate leaders, and all of them express that philanthropy and giving back to the community is a priority for them, but with Jeret, I could tell that his selflessness came from an authentic place. That was immediately impressive.
So, we just began to kind of explore some ways that we can work with Valley Electric through the YMCA and the programming we do. Trying to match the people we work with to his vision of corporate philosophy.
Q. How was Jeret/Valley Electric able to associate that corporate philosophy with the YMCA?
Valley Electric and the YMCA became connected, initially, through their youth staff. I suspect, because of the work they do, that they bring in a lot of talented, but relatively young staff on board. Valley [Electric] wanted to move them into leadership positions, so that was a segment of the Valley corporate structure that became connected with the Y [YMCA] early on.
We wanted to explore how to engage these future Valley Electric leaders in corporate philanthropy and one way that we quickly identified was hands-on volunteerism. Valley’s employees have been particularly impressive in their instant seizing of any opportunity to get involved with the YMCA.
One early example was they just called me and said, “Hey, we want to do kind of a team-building/community engagement-type activity and we’d like to bring about 20 of our staff to a YMCA location and do some kind of a project with you. What do you need done?” Well, we have a YMCA Early Childhood and Youth Education Program at the Everett YMCA that needed new sandboxes built. And these 20 Valley Electric employees showed up ready to work, already wearing the YMCA t-shirts. I should mention that there’s no elevator in the building, so they took bags of sand and wood and schlepped it all the way up to the 5th floor. It was the first time I saw them all in action and it was just so impressive. They were joyful all day long, too. The kids at the Y went up to the windows to watch their sandboxes being built and it was just beautiful. It was a special time and it was a clear demonstration of the joy that Valley Electric gets from connecting to the community.
Q. Were you able to continue that momentum into some other notable experiences?
Sure, from there I did have another conversation with Jeret as we continued to kind of navigate this way of infusing his vision of corporate stewardship into his management structure. One thing we decided to pursue was a “Lunch and Learn” opportunity for his staff, where myself and another colleague would come around their lunch break and have a little bit of a workshop on something that’s going on with the Y. Issues and happenings that might be interesting to their middle to upper management staff.
The first one we did was with myself and my colleague, Pam Shields, who is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Snohomish County. You may or may not know this, but Big Brothers Big Sisters of Snohomish County is part of the YMCA. When we got to the room, there were 15 or 20 Valley Electric staff already there, ready and eager to learn more about what Big Brothers Big Sisters does throughout the county. Pam was able to really share with them what best-in-class mentoring looks like, how to work with youth, and the difference that that kind of program can have on the kid’s lives—as well as the life of the big or the adult that steps into that role.
But what was really impressive and unexpected, was we learned that two of the members of that Lunch and Learn event were already big brothers, they were connected through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization of Greater Seattle, which is a friend and partner of our Snohomish branch. It was really impressive to see them share their experience and really honor the work that the Y does.
Q. Have you seen any evidence that Valley Electric’s corporate mission is anything less than genuine?
I’ve been impressed with Valley Electric and really feel from the full breadth of their staff, from leadership to a new employee, how earnestly they show up in our community. Some corporations tend to give at a philanthropic level, you know, they’ll write a generous check and commit to that gift on an annual basis—that’s a beautiful thing, it’s a wonderful thing and often appropriate.
What I find to be different about Valley Electric is they do that [write a check] and they still want to give their time and their mentoring, and really, it’s a commitment that runs deep through Valley Electric, clearly.
Q. What has Valley’s support meant to you, as a YMCA leader?
Working with Valley is really kind of a high-water mark, in terms of the kind of corporate relationship we like to have with the YMCA. With Jeret on our board of trustees, he’s helping guide and shape some of the strategic decisions of the Y. Having the opportunity to engage with his senior leadership team is a beautiful step in terms of both their personal giving and personal commitment to the community. As well as a corporate vision for giving back to the community.
And, frankly, just having the opportunity to play with them, to have fun. Whether they’re coming to build the playground or listening to the impact of Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring, it really gets down to that granular level of how can we each show up in the community and be a partner to the YMCA. Valley Electric has done that, time and time again.
Q. Lightning round: Can you give a quick list of as many projects that Valley Electric has supported with the Y?
Everything that Valley does with us is pretty substantial and long-term, so I don’t have a ton of quick examples, but yeah, I do have a fun thing that I can share.
Every year at the YMCA, we have what we call our “annual campaign,” and in the annual campaign, we ask community members to make a gift to the YMCA on an annual basis, but also to join us in some significant community engagement. There’s different events and activities that we do to engage people with the work of the Y.
And the Everett YMCA has chosen to host a dodgeball tournament as part of this annual campaign. So three years ago, I mentioned this to some of the Valley Electric leadership. I had no idea where they would be in the world of dodgeball, is this something they would be interested in or not? And boy, were they interested!
They dove in, loving the competition and the, you know, the sporting aspect of it. It was very appealing to them. But also, the idea to have team-building and support the YMCA in a way that was really fun and unique was clearly something that resonated with them.
On the morning of that dodgeball tournament, Valley Electric shows up with three teams, which combined, came out to about 25-ish members of their staff. They came to play serious dodgeball and they had a ton of fun. It was fun for our whole community to see them playing and engaging with other teams, who all came together for the Y.
I believe that one of the Valley Electric teams ended up coming in 2nd and they… well, they were graceful—they had a graceful 2nd place, but they came back the next year ready to compete and win. And they have had three dodgeball teams every year for the last three years. It’s just such an amazing thing to have them come and be a part of it and engage with the community in that kind of fundamental way. It raises money for the Y and it really provides that kind of fun and playful aspect of Valley Electric. So, it’s great!
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Valley Electric is really setting the bar for corporate philanthropy throughout Snohomish County. I happen to see it working for the YMCA, but I know they also work with other non-profits throughout the region.
It’s just a really impressive organization, in terms of their willingness to give not only financial resources, but give their time, their energy, and their commitment. There aren’t a lot of companies that give in that multifaceted way and it’s clear that their support is heartfelt and genuine.