For Good: Young professionals find community, greater good through volunteerism

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, one in four adults (25.3 percent) in America volunteered a total of 7.9 billion hours in 2014. 

The benefits to volunteering are numerous from both a personal and professional perspective. In addition to the altruistic benefits, research has shown volunteers have a 27 percent higher chance of finding a job after being out of work than those who don’t volunteer. It can even reduce stress and lead to improved mental and physical health. 

With over 10,000 nonprofit organizations in the region, Tampa Bay is booming with opportunities to get involved. Young professionals who call the region home have found community service enhances leadership skills, leads to lifelong friendships and has a tremendous impact on the lives of others. 

Here are four active volunteers working to make the Tampa Bay region a better place.

Ashley Ehrman

St. Petersburg Native Ashley Ehrman graduated from the University of South Florida in 2008. While in college, she became involved as a leader in the Alpha Delta Pi sorority and continued as a volunteer adviser after graduation while working as a traveling consultant for the organization. 

Ehrman furthered her love for philanthropy in her next role at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, where she worked with Leadership Tampa and Emerge Tampa Bay, a leadership and community development organization for young professionals. While helping others get plugged into services opportunities, Ehrman fostered her own passion for helping others.
Now 27, her volunteer portfolio includes Metropolitan Ministries, the Ryan Nece Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay and USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy (where she is currently employed). 

In addition to Emerge, Ehrman contributes her community involvement to the advice of several mentors she has been fortunate to connect with, including Colleen Chappell of ChappellRoberts, Joanne Sullivan, an independent fundraiser, and Kelley Sims of KKS Marketing + Development in Tampa. 

One such mentor, Jennifer Murphy from SunTrust, invited Erhman to a YMCA dinner at which she first learned about the organization’s program in Sulphur Springs. Shortly thereafter, she joined the Advisory Board for the Sulfur Springs Branch and was recently one of two young professionals asked to join the Governance Board of the YMCA. The forward-thinking initiative aims to bring young leaders into the organization to prepare for succession planning. “Leadership succession in our community is essential,” says Ehrman. “The earlier we get young professionals engaged in our community, the stronger our community will be.”

Ehrman has had so many helpful mentors, she created her own personal Board of Mentors, where she helps them engage with other young professionals.  

John Fontana

John Fontana, age 31, has had a service mindset since he was a child. A Brandon native, Fontana attended Jesuit High School in Tampa, where community service was not only emphasized, it was required. It was there that he first started volunteering, getting involved with Habitat for Humanity, Key Club and muscular dystrophy camps. 

After attending the University of Florida, Fontana returned to Tampa for a job in information technology, and later moved into Real Estate. Fontana currently owns a Bricks 4 Kids franchise, a national company that helps kids learn S.T.E.M. skills using LEGO bricks. Through this company, he is able to work with nonprofit organizations such as Make a Wish Foundation (helping a young child visit Legoland), as well as handicapped and autistic children. 

Fontana’s current service passion is with Big Brothers, Big Sisters (BBBS), where he mentors a high school student named Isiah. The time he has spent with Isiah has had a profound effect on the teen, increasing his confidence and improving his communication skills. Fontana has been affected by the relationship as well.
“You’re effecting people greater than you think you are, and you’re changing their life. My goal is to always make people feel better than [they felt before the time] when they met me.” Fontana encourages others to seek out volunteer opportunities, whether it be through organizations like BBBS or even a one-time event on a weekend. 

“You definitely walk away being a better person after volunteering, and who wouldn’t want to feel that way.”

Audra Milligan

After growing up in Polk County and graduating from the University of Florida, Audra Milligan moved to New York City with nothing but two suitcases, searching for arts, culture and life. After finding a job as a receptionist at a hedge fund, she worked her way up to become the VP of the company at age 30. In 2013 at age 34, she decided to cultivate her roots and move back to Tampa.

Upon arriving, Milligan once again found herself seeking community, as she didn’t know anyone outside of family. After taking a role at Northwestern Mutual in the Westshore area, Milligan noticed a community mindset among residents in the Tampa Bay region. 

“I fell in love with how community-minded Tampa is. I was intoxicated with how much giving back there is, and how much people enjoy it. That didn’t really exist in New York.” 

Milligan started meeting people one-on-one for coffee, and asked how she could get more plugged in. One common thread among young professionals was involvement in Emerge Tampa Bay. She immediately joined the organization and got more involved, attending mixers, joining committees and planning volunteer projects. 

An Emerge connection told her about one of her favorite volunteer opportunities, Give Day Tampa Bay, hosted in the first year by Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and Florida Next Foundation. The one-day event raises awareness by encouraging people to give any amount they can to a local nonprofit. Milligan was part of a group of volunteers who launched the project in its first year through grassroots canvasing. 

Milligan recently received the 2015 Deanne Dewey Roberts Emerging Leader Award from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which recognizes professional values, leadership, service and dedication to the Tampa Bay community. 

“I love Tampa. I’m really attracted to the sense of community that people feel here. It’s kind of got a big town, small town feel.” 

Rebecca Sterling

Imagine a playground designed by kids, for kids, that allows them to explore their physical environment while encouraging active play and brain development. Organizers from KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds playgrounds to enhance play for children, built such a playground along with 200 volunteers at the Fair Oaks Park Community Center in Tampa in December. 

The playground is one of the many projects Rebecca Sterling has participated in for Bank of America, where she works as Vice President and Business Support Manager. 

Sterling started volunteering at a young age, coordinating food drives, walks and fundraisers in high school and college. At the age of 19, she began working for Bank of America and was impressed with the company philosophy in giving back to the community. As her career progressed here, she was looking for a way to show her manager that she had leadership potential. A leader in the company gave her what she considers to be some of the best advice she has received – become involved in the company’s community efforts. Sterling immediately did just that, and now at the age of 36 is a former chair and activate participant in the Bank of America Community Volunteers, the bank’s volunteer arm.

In her volunteer role, Sterling has coordinated many community outreach efforts, including a recent group of 400 people that sent 10,000 holiday cards to Tampa Bay children’s hospitals through the bank’s Hearts for Holidays Campaign. The group also created over 15,000 paper booklets to benefit the Hillsborough Education Foundation’s Teaching Tools Store

A Seattle native, Sterling has found her home in Tampa Bay, partly because of her community efforts.  “I love the community. I love the people here. I love making a difference in the lives of those in need.” 

Her favorite service project was a collection of more than 10,000 school supplies for Backpacks for Hope to benefit Metropolitan Ministries []. All supplies collected go directly to children who would not otherwise be able to have basic supplies needed to be successful in school. 

“I am always thankful when I am able to help those less fortunate than myself, especially children who are unable to help themselves.”
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Read more articles by Megan Hendricks.

A Florida native and longtime Tampa Bay resident, Megan Hendricks graduated from the University of South Florida with a master's degree in business administration. She worked at the USF College of Business and has extensive community experience including the Tampa Bay Partnership's Talent Dividend Advisory Board, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Emerge Tampa Bay, Ekhos, and Bar Camp Tampa. She is a former board member and newsletter editor for Creative Tampa Bay. Megan enjoys telling the stories that make Tampa Bay a unique, diverse cultural experience.