Community projects a labor of love for Highland Lakes Service League

Highland Lakes Service League

Carolyn Sandlin volunteers at the face painting booth at the Special-Needs Christmas Party hosted by the Highland Lakes Service League. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Helping one nonprofit is not enough for members of the Highland Lakes Service League, a 30-year-old organization of women who work together to raise money and volunteer their time to a variety of groups and projects across Burnet and Llano counties.

The league also grants scholarships to women who had to drop out of higher education but want to return, and it hosts an annual holiday party for the special-needs community.

Members are proud — and loud — about their devotion to the league.

“We awarded $31,000 for twenty-two grants this year,” said member Linda Baker, who uses her marketing skills to promote the group and its fundraisers. “That’s something this community needs to hear about.”

The around 100 members also worked 7,100 volunteer hours in 2019 and granted six scholarships to women seeking to complete their career goals, including those finishing a master’s degree, becoming a vet tech, and earning a certificate in cosmetology school.

“When you listen to the stories of the women we’ve given scholarships to, it’s amazing how it was a lifesaver for them,” said Carolyn Richmond, a past president and longtime member of the league. “We started out giving scholarships to high school kids, but there are other organizations doing that. There were no grants or scholarships for women who wanted to go back to school.”

The scholarship program is one of two Highland Lakes Service League programs especially important to member Sherri Staley.

“Choosing scholarships is one of the many things that touches my heart,” Staley said. “I was a single mom with three sons for awhile. I went back to school. My youngest son and I were pre-med together.”

Staley is also chair of the annual Special-Needs Christmas Party, a heartfelt project to which league members are devoted.

“It’s such a beautiful, wonderful thing,” Staley said. “You can’t really describe it in words. You have to be there, and all of us want to be there to help out. We never have a problem finding volunteers.”

For the special-needs party, which includes about 250 adults and children from across the Highland Lakes, the gym at First United Methodist Church of Marble Falls turns into a Christmas village with activities, food, dancing, socializing, and photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“For many, this is their one big event of the year,” Staley said of the participants.

Holding a party of this magnitude fits perfectly in the Highland Lakes Service League’s wheelhouse.

“We really try to look at helping underserved populations,” Richmond said.

She and founding member Annette Ussery are two of several members who have seen the organization evolve over three decades.

“Our first fundraiser was to sell fajitas at Howdy-Roo when Howdy-Roo first started back in the seventies,” Ussery said. “We called ourselves ‘The Fajitas.’ Then, we decided we wanted to do more than just Howdy-Roo, so we branched out. Our goal was to help in any way we could; not just to raise money but to volunteer, too.”

What began as announcements on volunteer opportunities at the monthly luncheon meetings is now a smoothly organized process using a computer program that makes it easy to find just the right fit for each member’s availability, skills, and interests.

“You can be as busy and involved as you want to be,” current president D.J. Yows said. “There’s no pressure. It’s all up to your schedule.”

Yows calls the Highland Lakes Service League “a 911 for the community.”

“When requests go out from The Helping Center (of Marble Falls Area) or St. Frederick’s Church or the school or wherever, we are there to help. We are a real hands-on community.”

Examples include helping to purchase an automated door for the Marble Falls Senior Activity Center and a vein finder for the Marble Falls Area EMS, sending kids to a summer camp at the Science Mill in Johnson City, and buying a trailer for the homeless center. The group collects applications for specific grant requests in the summer and hands out checks in November.

Like many of her fellow members, Yows came to the organization with a background in volunteering and fundraising for different organizations. Joining the Highland Lakes Service League expanded her ability to make a difference.

“This is a really special group,” said Yows, her voice cracking with emotion. “It’s a real roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-in-there group. I know there are organizations that raise more money, but no organization gives more of themselves.”

The Highland Lakes Service League holds two major fundraisers a year. The Chuck Wagon Chow Down Dinner and Auction begins at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, January 25. The “For Ladies Only” Charity Golf Tournament is April 25.

Because of its growing popularity, the Chow Down has moved each of its three years to bigger venues. This year’s event, which will feature live music, barbecue, and silent and live auctions, will be held at the YMCA of the Highland Lakes at Galloway-Hammond in Burnet to accommodate more attendees. Country music singer-songwriter Wake Eastman will perform.

“Tickets are only $40,” Baker said. “If you look at other nonprofits, their galas are $150 each. You could buy an entire table for your friends at our price.”

The goal is to bring in a wide cross section of the community and to leave folks with a few dollars in their pockets to spend on auction items. The money all goes toward helping others.

“We operate on a shoestring (budget),” Baker said. “We try to give as much away as we can to the community.”

This group of enthusiastic, service-oriented women thrives on hard work and dedication.

“When we join together, we are all kinds of personalities and all sizes and shapes of egos,” Staley said “Some of us are charismatic, some of us are shy, but when we come together to help others, something beautiful happens. That’s what Highland Lakes Service League has afforded us the opportunity to do.”

Meetings are noon-1 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month (except July and August) at the Hidden Falls Restaurant, 220 Meadowlakes Drive in Meadowlakes. Membership fees are $30 a year; lunches are $16 a month.

“Our membership reflects the population in this area,” Baker said. “We are women at all stages of our lives. I like that it covers such a large breadth of nonprofits and we are not a formal junior league-type group with a set number of hours you have to volunteer. I think our new tag line says it all: ‘Together, we can do more.’”

For more information on the Highland Lakes Service League, visit hlsl.org.

suzanne@thepicayune.com

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