Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Shirley Holly of The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs Is Helping To Change Our World
I wish I knew the amount of writing I would be doing as President. There are emails to answer, the monthly newsletter, the weekly e-connection, chairman articles to review, etc. We thrive on communication — and a lot of that communication comes directly from me!
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shirley Holly.
Shirley Holly is the President of The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs (NJSFWC), the largest volunteer women’s organization in the state, founded in 1894 and headquartered on the campus of Douglass College in New Brunswick. The NJSFWC founded the New Jersey College for Women in 1918. In 2020, the organization, with a membership of over 6200, reported almost 16,963 community service projects involving over 320,119 volunteer hours and $2.3 million in cash and in- kind donations. The NJSFWC is a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), which is headquartered in Washington, DC, and is the largest and oldest women’s volunteer community service organization in the world.
Holly’s administration as NJSFWC President began in Spring 2022. Hailing from Barnegat, NJ, Holly has been a clubwoman for 33 years and served on the NJSFWC Board in various roles since 1998, as well as the national GFWC Board since 2002. Holly’s history of public service extends outside of the women’s clubs as well; she was President of the Barnegat Education Foundation for five years, PTA President for six years, and a 13-year Girl Scout Leader. Holly has volunteered for Emmanuel Cancer Foundation for 27 years and is a four-time puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence. She also works full time as a Media Specialist for Russell O. Brackman Middle School.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I joined the Dover Township Junior Women’s Club in 1989 when a realtor (I was her secretary) asked me to go to a district luncheon as a thank you for typing much of her women’s club federation work. I knew that the club did so many things for the community (like the spelling bee for 4th & 5th graders, the cheerleading scholarship invitational for local high schools, and more) that I wanted to see what the club was all about.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
After a local newspaper picked up the press release about my installation as President last year, one of the classes at school made a huge banner and hung it up above the library door where I am the Media Specialist. The students went to all of the teachers in the school and asked them to sign it for me. There were messages of congratulations and good luck that totally moved me. It truly was the sweetest thing and I was overwhelmed with emotion when I went to work the next day. They did this on a day I was out for a NJSFWC board meeting!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had an embarrassing moment when I first joined my local club years ago. I went to a meeting to help plan the upcoming cheerleading scholarship invitational. I was a new member and really didn’t know many members. The education chairman was to facilitate the meeting. I arrived at the meeting, which was at town hall, a few minutes late.
They were discussing high school sports and what they were going to do with the money raised from the last fundraiser. As they went through different sports, I listened intently waiting for the discussion on the scholarship invitational. It wasn’t until about a half hour later that someone asked what year my high schooler was in school? Now I had two small children at home and wasn’t sure what they were talking about. Turns out that I was at the high school booster club meeting instead of the women’s club meeting. I learned to ask specific details and was never late to a meeting ever again!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Every two-year NJSFWC administration partners with a different non-profit organization for our Special State Project. We put our efforts into fundraising, education about the organization, and hands-on projects.
During this administration, The Emmanuel Cancer Foundation (ECF) is that organization. ECF provides New Jersey families facing the crisis of pediatric cancer a place to turn for comfort and support through professional in-home counseling and a uniquely tailored package of material assistance and emergency financial aid — all free-of-charge.
Since we named ECF our Special State Project in May 2022, we held a luncheon and basket raffle that raised nearly $10,000 and provided over 1,200 backpacks filled with school supplies. Club members have fulfilled holiday wishes, and helped at ECF’s annual golf outing and holiday party for ECF families.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We hold Girls Career Institute, a four-day mini college experience for female high school juniors, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The delegates are sponsored by their local clubs. It’s held on the campus of Douglass College (Rutgers) and includes speakers, panel discussions, and time for sports, service projects, and talent shows. They get a true college experience — living together in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria, and learning about career opportunities from women professionals across fields — medicine, law enforcement, education, STEM, the arts, and more. It’s entirely run by club women who volunteer their time.
One particular young lady told me that she gained so much confidence after attending GCI. She was on the fence about attending college, not sure if she was ready to go away from home, not sure if she could handle the work, etc. After listening to women professionals give talks about different careers, she decided to go into law enforcement in college and pursue a career with the FBI. She is now in her senior year of college, ready to graduate this May.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
One of the things we focus on is legislation: bipartisan advocacy for laws that would positively impact women, girls, families, and the environment. When there is a particular legislative issue, we could use community support writing to our legislators to back a specific bill, such as VAWA (Violence Against Women Act).
This advocacy is a vital part of our legacy. The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs at the turn of the 20th century was integral in the preservation of the Palisades.
Women can join their local clubs to make a difference in their community — even at the state and federal government. There is power in numbers.
How do you define “Leadership?” Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership to me is the act of leading a diverse group of people, being the face of an organization, and moving our federation’s mission of volunteerism forward. We have 43 members on our Board of Directors, three office staff members, and nearly 6,000 members in 175 clubs across New Jersey. It’s a lot to coordinate — but an incredible honor to shepherd such an interesting, diverse, hardworking group of women volunteers.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish I knew the amount of writing I would be doing as President. There are emails to answer, the monthly newsletter, the weekly e-connection, chairman articles to review, etc. We thrive on communication — and a lot of that communication comes directly from me!
- Everyone has an opinion — and when there are so many active members, there are often a lot of opinions and I want them to be heard. But ultimately, we need a united front to move our work forward — so there has to be a balance.
- Silly but true — it’s such a challenge to remember sooo many women’s names in different clubs. 6,000 members across 175 clubs! They all know my name since I’m the President…so I’m working very hard to know all of theirs too!
- The number of times I would need an elevator speech because I had either the President’s pin on or a logo on my shirt when someone asked me what NJSFWC stands for! But I’m glad people are interested and I’m proud to talk about our work.
- Finally, no one could prepare me for just how rewarding this is. I was told it was fun and I also knew all too well that it would be a tremendous amount of work. But seeing all the women at our annual convention, hearing them reminisce about our nearly 130-year history…it is an honor and a privilege to be a part of NJSFWC’s legacy.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If only there was a way so that no one in the world would go hungry. There is a bounty of food in this country, yet there is so much food insufficiency. There shouldn’t be with the amount of food that gets thrown away every single day from supermarkets to restaurants to grocery stores.
For National Day of Service on January 16th, women’s clubs across NJ came together in eight different locations to put together kits for The Community Food Bank of NJ. Clubs had a list of specific foods for the “Dinner in a Bag,” “College Meal Kit,” “Healthy Lifestyle Meal Kit,” and “Snowy Day Meal Kit” given to us by the food bank. Hundreds of members worked to put these meal kits together, then Community Food picked them up from the eight locations across NJ.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Take one day at a time. Like everyone I’ve faced challenges in my life and can get overwhelmed. I learned that I am only one person and can handle each challenge as it comes, one day at a time.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I could only dream about meeting Dr. Jill Biden. Besides being First Lady, she is an educator and has always been active in her community. It would be such an honor to meet her and talk about how education has changed over the years.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We have a wonderful website, www.njsfwc.org, that gives overall information about the areas we work in and advocate for. We also have a Facebook page which shows pictures of projects we’ve been involved in and gets new posts daily.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Shirley Holly of The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.