SVP San Antonio’s executive director Harriet Helmle sat down for lunch with long-time friend Priscilla Hill-Ardoin (pictured above), an avid philanthropist in the city, a board member to numerous organizations and the founder of The Aaron Ardoin Foundation for Sickle Cell Research & Education.
On this particular day, Harriet arrived at the restaurant with a book. “She said, ‘This is what I’m reading now, and John Eadie is really high on this,’” Priscilla recalls.
Harriet launched into describing Can’t Not Do by Paul Shoemaker, founding board president of Social Venture Partners International. On the cover, “NOT” blazed in red. While Harriet talked across the table, Priscilla pulled the book toward her and began to read the first pages. She was jolted.
There is a reason, a power, in why they all said something like can’t not do. These people have found a cause that grabbed them and won’t let go. They may face indecision and uncertainty many times along their journey, after all, they are regular people, not superheroes. But they dig deep for answers, sometimes unconventional, and ultimately find the conviction and dedication to jump in for the long run.
“Can I take it for the weekend?” Priscilla remembers asking, Harriet. “I’m going out of town, I’ll bring it back to you on Monday.”
Harriet agreed to let her borrow her copy. And over the course of lunch, SVP kept coming up. Harriet was launching an SVP affiliate in San Antonio with the support of her boss, John Eadie at Covenant. She said she would be inviting partners to join. She explained the funding plus skilled-volunteer model. Before they left the restaurant, Priscilla committed to being one of SVP San Antonio’s first partners.
“Whenever I have a chance to do a good thing, I try to do it right away,” Priscilla explains, citing Maya Angelou. “So in my season of ‘no,’ I did it to myself. And I’m glad I did.”
Priscilla’s “if you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking” stems from her upbringing and two working parents who instilled in their eight children that there is always room to count your blessings and giving isn’t always about giving money.
Rooted in Generosity
Her mother was a seamstress, and her father a truck driver. There was hardly enough money to meet their own needs, but Priscilla explains that their needs were met, and the model in their home was, there’s food, hospitality, and time to share in helping others.
“My parents taught us that it didn’t matter how much we didn’t have,” Priscilla says. “That our focus should be on what we did have, and there was always something to give.”
This deeply ingrained sense of responsibility to her community goes hand-in-hand with Priscilla’s own recognition of how others have played a role in her success. She’d be the first to tell you that the kindness of others has only pushed her forward. As a teenager, for instance, she received a full scholarship to attend college. With a sister exactly a year younger who would be college bound soon and other siblings to come, the scholarship made a tremendous impact on her large family.
“Some philanthropist somewhere made those scholarships possible,” Priscilla explains. “And in doing so contributed to my future, to the way I look at life, to what I was able to earn, to the quality of life that I was able to provide for my sons.”
Her upbringing and the underlying graciousness that developed with it shaped her community involvement professionally and personally. As a young adult, Priscilla served on the board of the Houston Area Urban League and was an active member of The Links Foundation and Trinity United Methodist Church, a historic African American church in Houston whose work in the community is widely recognized. A career employee at AT&T, she was hired directly on to the management team just months before their United Way giving campaign. Part of her role over her more than 30 years with AT&T was to support the company’s culture of good corporate citizenship.
Today, Priscilla serves on the board of Haven for Hope, Enterprise Holdings, as a trustee at Washington University, and as an external advisor for the Vanderbilt-Meharry-Matthew Walker Center of Excellence in Sickle Cell Disease. It’s part of Priscilla’s DNA to fill the gap.
“My whole life I have been involved in organizations that have as their mission, uplifting, advancing, improving and supporting the lives of the underserved, underemployed, economically disadvantaged in our community,” Priscilla says. “But I don’t see it as helping those people. I see it as helping the community at large. I recognize the unsupported potential of the community.”
The ‘Can’t Not Do’ Moment
Priscilla’s ‘can’t not do’ moment — the moment that, for her, Paul Shoemaker described so accurately — happened in 2004.
Just weeks after receiving his Master’s in Business, Priscilla’s son Aaron passed away due to complications with sickle cell disease. He was 23 years old.
The tragedy, Priscilla says, compelled her to reflect on their life with their older son. Aaron graduated high school an athlete and at the top of his class. He loved music and learning. Through college he held several internships, and he graduated with honors from Florida A&M University. He was just starting his adult life, but still he lived a happy life despite the illness he inherited at birth.
On the countless visits and extended stays at the hospital, the Ardoin family never had to think twice about health insurance, time away from work, or whether they had the support of family to help. At AT&T, Priscilla and her husband Jim had comprehensive benefits. What wasn’t covered by insurance, they were paid a decent wage that could take care of the difference.
“While we did lose our son, we recognize the quality of life that we had with him was nothing short of a blessing, because there was so many things that we’d been able to do with him,” Priscilla reflects. “And there was so many feelings we didn’t have about what was left undone.”
Other parents might wonder if their child could have stayed at the hospital longer, would things be different. They might ask themselves if their son or daughter could have had regular medical care with insurance, or if they had been able to take time away from work to drive their child to have blood transfusions, would things be different. The Ardoins didn’t have those thoughts. And for Priscilla, confronting that stark gap was what grabbed her by the arms and wouldn’t let go.
“Starting The Aaron Ardoin Foundation was something I couldn’t not do,” Priscilla explains. “It was not something I truly wanted to do. What I wanted was this mechanism and this vehicle for help to be there. I would be glad to support it. Nothing would do my heart better.
“But then there was such a big void there. There’s a lot of pain in doing this kind of work, because it’s associated with an enormous loss to our family. But the concept of ‘can’t not do’ so resonated with me, because it was a void that needed to be filled.”
In lieu of flowers, family and friends sent donations, which were used to seed The Aaron Ardoin Foundation. Establishing a foundation was just as intimidating as it sounds, and just after losing a son, no less. It was only natural, though, that what had been modeled for Priscilla growing up and what had been so much a part of making her family what it is, would inspire the Ardoins to respond to the loss of Aaron in a giving way.
“I had no experience with starting a foundation, and here I was, just in the middle of this new reality,” Priscilla explains.
John Eadie, the same person who nudged Harriet to launch SVP San Antonio, helped Priscilla and Jim find an outlet for their cause in the San Antonio Area Foundation where The Aaron Ardoin Foundation exists. There, they have access to a team of experts in philanthropy who simplify the grantmaking process so the Ardoins can focus on the heart work: connecting with families, social service agencies, hospitals and universities to help spread awareness, advance a cure and assist those suffering from the chronic and often fatal disease. So, while daunting at first, Priscilla says, the first real challenge was a psychological one, not an organizational one.
As donations began to come in, the question became when not how.
“I hoped to become substantial enough that we could make huge grants that would make a huge difference,” Priscilla remembers of that first year. But there was a Bible story she couldn’t get out of her head.
In Matthew 25: 14-30, a man prepares for an indefinite journey away from home. Before leaving, he entrusts three servants with his property. He gives five talents (a sum of money) to one servant, two talents to the second servant and one to the third servant. The first two servants put the money to work immediately and eventually double what they were entrusted. The third servant, afraid he will lose his master’s money, digs a hole and buries the talent. Many years later, the property owner returns. He is overjoyed with the first two servants and grants them more responsibility. He receives the third servant with contempt, however, and before banishing him the master gives the untouched talent to the servant with 10.
The parable teaches that those who work with what they are entrusted are rewarded for their faithfulness. Those who do not have faith, don’t just lose what they are entrusted but their stewardship.
“There’s good to be delivered at every level,” Priscilla says she realized. “People aren’t sending their contributions in just so we can get a higher balance.”
On her 60th birthday, Priscilla and Jim were presented with a check from former chair of The San Antonio Area Foundation, Reggie Williams, recognizing the contributions made by friends and family to The Aaron Ardoin Foundation.
Since 2005, The Aaron Ardoin Foundation has worked to fill the gap for families burdened by the weight of sickle cell disease. In that time, they’ve given grants as little as $1,500 and as high as $75,000.
“We just started looking for opportunities, getting our name out there and evaluating what came in,” Priscilla says. “You would be surprised at the difference we are making.”
At University Hospital in San Antonio they provided a grant that funded iPads for pediatric sickle cell patients to use for pain diversion during the hours of blood transfusions that prevent them from having strokes. The fund has also supplied the hospital with bilingual educational materials like coloring books to help children understand what’s going on with their bodies. With these kind of tools social workers and families can help children suffering from the disease distinguish a crisis from other pain.
“Kids are going to get bruised and banged up and have colds and sniffles and different things, but the most prominent impact of sickle cell to a person suffering from it is what’s called a pain crisis,” Priscilla explains. “You hurt from the inside of your bones.”
The Aaron Ardoin Foundation also established a crisis fund at the Sickle Cell Center at Vanderbilt Hospital in Tennessee that has bridged the gap in ways that some might take for granted.
“When you have a mother in the middle of Tennessee who can’t get to the resources at Vanderbilt Hospital because she’s financially prohibited, because the money is just not there to get the transportation,” Priscilla says. “To have a doctor say, ‘You get here. We will take care of that transportation cost,’ that makes a huge difference.”
The Foundation has helped fund medically supervised summer camps for children with sickle cell to give them an opportunity to socialize with others their age going through the same thing. It’s provided assistance to a sickle cell clinic in Flint, Michigan so they can conduct tests and determine the cognitive damage the water crisis potentially caused for children in the area.
Thinking back to how her work has benefitted from resources like the San Antonio Area Foundation and Covenant, Priscilla says, “I understand the multiplier effect that we can have in creating positive outcomes when the model is exactly what the SVP model is. It’s one of those things that I couldn’t find a way to say no to.”