When it comes to giving, the 173,000 members of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) — primarily speech pathologists and audiologists — aren’t inclined to do things halfway. “Many of our members work in school systems, hospitals, or with infants and gerontology,” said Ellen Shortill, ASHA’s director of convention and meetings, “so there’s this really heightened awareness of altruistic intent. They’re a caring bunch.”
Which makes the community-service aspect of ASHA’s Annual Convention, held each November, especially important — but also tricky. “For the last few years, we’ve been struggling for the right way to promote community service,” Shortill said. About half of the meeting’s 12,000 or so attendees pay their own way, so they might grapple with whether to arrive early for the service activity. “Previously, we tried to squeeze something in pre-convention. We’d find there wasn’t enough time, or we’d get 400 people to sign up and then only 40 would show up.”
And so, while ASHA’s attendees are deeply committed to “leaving a positive impact” on the destination where they meet, Shortill said, year after year, the challenge remained: How could ASHA make it easier for them to take part in CSR?
During a site visit to Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in advance of ASHA’s 2014 meeting — whose theme would be “Science. Learning. Practice. Generations of Discovery.” — Shortill and convention co-chairs Jaynee A. Handelsman and A. Lynn Williams peeked into the exhibit hall during another event. “People were putting together fleece blankets [as a service project], and that prompted us to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring this into the convention?’” said Handelsman, director of pediatric audiology for the University of Michigan Health System and ASHA’s president-elect. “Our goal has always been to give back to the community hosting the convention.”
After an RFP process, ASHA chose to partner with San Diego–based Positive Adventures, a firm that plans corporate retreats and team-building program (and was founded by Shortill’s younger brother), and that had worked with ASHA during its 2011 convention in San Diego. “We said, look, this is what we want to do,” Shortill said. “We want to make this thing happen in the middle of our exhibit hall, and we want projects that are going to resonate with our members.”
Positive Adventures identified three “client audiences” with whom every ASHA member had experience: children, veterans, and the elderly. Then they pinpointed Florida charities serving each of those populations, and built activities that would benefit each one, “smack dab in the center of the exhibit hall,” Shortill said. “We called it the Caring Square.”
During the meeting, held at the OCCC on Nov. 20–22, five Positive Adventures staff members and 10 ASHA volunteers guided attendees, who built dollhouses for children in need; customized wooden meal trays for Seniors First, which serves Florida’s elderly population; and stuffed care packages for the Florida Veterans Foundation to give out to homeless vets. “[The Caring Square] was open to anyone in the convention center who wanted to build, or just wanted to sit down and participate,” said Megan Gneiting, director of business development for Positive Adventures. “They could spend 10 minutes there, or two hours.”
During the three-day convention, between 800 and 1,000 attendees did just that — a staggering increase over participation in previous years. Attendees even worked for a time beside Gina Belafonte Biesemeyer and Rachel Blue, the daughter and granddaughter, respectively, of ASHA keynote speaker Harry Belafonte. A visit from retired U.S. Army Col. Claude Shipley of North Florida Homeless Veterans Stand Down kept attendees pumped. Some of them skipped sessions as they became immersed in the work. In the end, attendees put together 200 care packages for the Florida Veterans Foundation; customized 200 wooden trays for Seniors First; and built 40 dollhouses for children at the Florida Hospital for Children, the Orlando Day Nursery, Nathaniel’s Hope, and the Hillsborough County School District.
Although Handelsman’s convention co-chair duties have wrapped, she’d like to see the Caring Square become part of every ASHA convention. “I’m glad that we took the chance and did it,” she said. “People were stepping up and getting as many things finished as they could. Not only did you feel like you were giving to your groups, you met people you wouldn’t have necessarily met.”
Sure enough, when AHSA meets in Denver this November, the Caring Square will be front and center. Shortill said: “I felt like we hit upon something that really worked.”