Best Not Always in Reston

Best Not Always in Reston

When Randa Mendenhall first suggested that Booz-Allen Hamilton might be eligible for a Best of Reston Award, Barbara Haight, community relations manager with the consulting firm, was confused. Booz-Allen Hamilton has corporate headquarters in Tysons, but nothing in Reston.

“I said we’re not a Reston company,” Haight said. “[Mendenhall] said that was not a requirement.”

Every year, a new batch of businesses and individuals are given Best of Reston Awards for volunteer service. And Mendenhall, marketing director for Equity Office, the company that runs the Reston Town Center, nominated Booz-Allen Hamilton because of the work the company has done in the Reston area. Booz-Allen Hamilton employees are involved in the Reston Relay for Life, to benefit the American Cancer Society, and they are involved in the South Lakes High School Ethics Day. The company also runs The Neediest Kids, an organization that assists children throughout Fairfax County Public Schools.

“When you look at the largest programs we’re involved in, every one was started because one of our employees had a personal interest,” said Haight. “Then the company helped grow it, so it could go from one person involved to hundreds.”

AN EXAMPLE of this kind of growth is Booz-Allen Hamilton’s involvement with the Reston Relay for Life, which takes place yearly at South Lakes High School. In 1993, Noah Spivak, an associate with Booz-Allen Hamilton, found a football-sized tumor in his right leg. He was diagnosed with cancer and took off work for a year. He recovered successfully, but when he came back to the firm he was interested in raising funds to help fight cancer. He was approached by a friend who was going to hike the Appalachian Trail in an effort to raise money for cancer research. Spivak got his employees involved in the fundraising effort and used company resources to publicize the event.

Through his involvement with this Hike for the Cure, Spivak found out about the Relay for Life. The first year Booz-Allen Hamilton participated in Relay for Life, Spivak remembers that around 40 employees showed up. Last year, more than 200 employees showed up at the South Lakes High School track for the event.

Relay for Life participants form into teams of up to 15 people each. Those teams collect donations and then, on the day of Relay for Life, team members camp out on the high school track for 18 hours. At least one team member is supposed to be walking on the track for the duration of the event.

Relay for Life has several ceremonies as well. Cancer survivors walk a lap around the track to kick off the fund-raiser. Spivak said people surround the track, cheering the survivors on. “Even just thinking about it, tears come to my eyes,” he said.

Later in the day, after the sun goes down, is the luminaria ceremony. At that point, small sand-filled paper bags are placed around the track with a candle burning in each of them. The candles represent people who have either died from cancer or who have survived.

“It’s a quarter mile track, and the candles go around twice,” Spivak said. “Think of how many that takes.”

Susan Walker, an administrative assistant at Booz-Allen Hamilton, said non-exempt staff organized the sale of luminary bags at last year’s Relay for Life. Non-exempt staff are eligible for over-time pay and are mostly in support positions. Walker said she and her co-workers are suited for volunteer work because of their organizational skills.

“We are used to organizing and making events work,” Walker said. “There are a lot of idea people who can’t go through the details. Secretly, we run the world.”

Walker, who has been at Booz-Allen Hamilton for four years, started out her volunteer service by selling flowers at Relay for Life fundraising tables in the building lobby. The non-exempt staff organize a poinsettia sale around the holidays and a tulip sale right before secretary’s day. Now Walker helps coordinate the flower sales.

“If its a group you like, you end up doing more and more for them,” Walker said.

JANET CELLY, a senior associate with Booz-Allen Hamilton, has been volunteering with her church throughout her life. When Booz-Allen Hamilton developed their community relations department, though, and started publicizing volunteer opportunities throughout the company, it was “natural” for her to get involved. Haight regularly calls on Celly to participate in various volunteer opportunities.

“Once Barbara knows you,” Celly said. “She’s not shy about picking up the phone and asking you to get involved.”

Celly helped out at this year’s Ethics Day event with seniors from South Lakes High School. At Ethics Day, the students were presented with a series of ethical questions relating to the business world. Booz-Allen Hamilton set up an Internet ethics presentation, during which the students considered the ways in which the Internet might be used unethically. She said students’ reactions to the presentation “ran the gamut.”

“Some took it seriously, some just saw it as a day off from school,” Celly said. “But I think it will stay with most of them as they move on to college and into the professional world.”

Celly said her most rewarding volunteer experiences have been with Habitat for Humanity, the faith-based organization that helps build homes for needy families. Through her church, Celly has worked on several Habitat for Humanity projects.

“You work alongside someone who is going to get the house you are building,” Celly said. “You know that you are truly touching someone.”

As a member of the board of directors for Our Daily Bread, a Fairfax food-assistance organization, Celly has set up a few food drives involving Booz-Allen Hamilton employees.

“We distribute the food to needy families,” Celly said. “They’re not homeless, but they might be on the brink. If they didn’t get our support, they might become homeless.”

Celly credited her active volunteerism to her parents.

“I was raised that way,” she said. “My parents both volunteered in the community. My father was very willing and helpful. He couldn’t pass a car on the highway without stopping for help.”

BOOZ-ALLEN HAMILTON took over The Neediest Kids around a year ago when Paul Berry, a former anchor on Channel 7 News, came to Booz-Allen Hamilton as a part-time consultant. Berry had formed The Neediest Kids while he was at Channel 7, and employees of the television station helped him run the organization. The Neediest Kids was set up to help metropolitan area schoolchildren who may not have all the supplies they need.

“There is almost no bureaucracy,” said Charlie Givans, the director of operations at Booz-Allen Hamilton and secretary for The Neediest Kids. “A teacher says it looks like this kid needs help, maybe a new pair of shoes or clothes, and we find a way to do it.”

After Berry left Channel 7, though, the station decided not to continue The Neediest Kids. So Berry took it with him. Now the firm is supporting the organization, but Booz-Allen Hamilton expects The Neediest Kids to become self sufficient in two more years. Givans said Booz-Allen Hamilton is able to operate The Neediest Kids through contacts in the community.

“We get a phone call, and somebody says, ‘We’ve got 10 pallets of ‘X’ can you use them this week?’ The answer always is ‘yes,’” Givans said. “Then we have a local mover who helps us move furniture. If we need warehouse space we call up and say, ‘Can we keep this here for 24 hours?’ Then we call the schools and say, ‘We have this stuff, if you need it here it is, just make the arrangements to pick it up.’”

Haight said the employees in the community relations were excited when they heard the company had won a Best of Reston award.

“In Northern Virginia, people understand the Best of Reston awards and what they mean,” Haight said. “When I mention it to non-profit or business associates, they all say, ‘How great.’”