Sharon Rainey was not expecting the phone call that she received last month.
"I was very surprised — shocked is more like it," said Rainey, founder of the community e-mail network Neighbors Great Falls, now known as the FYInetwork, LLC.
John Quinn who works with community affairs and special projects at WJLA Channel 7 called Rainey to inform her that she had been selected as one of seven winners in its annual "Washington Area Toyota Dealers Tribute to Working Women." Rainey had no idea that she was even being considered for the honor, and as it turned out, two of her employees had taken it upon themselves to nominate her for the award.
"I was watching Channel 7 and Kathleen Matthews had a spot on about 'The Working Woman,' and Sharon fit the criteria to the tee," said Joe Schilling who works as an office manager for Rainey.
Schilling met with fellow FYInetwork employee Karen Bush the following day, and the two discussed the possibility of nominating Rainey for the contest.
"I was about to go away for a week's vacation, so I drafted it to start, and then Joe went back and updated it to reflect more of the specific things they were asking for, like newspaper articles that documented everything Sharon has done over the past couple of years," said Bush.
According to John Quinn, this is the 11th year that WJLA Channel 7 has done the promotional even with Toyota.
"They have to answer four essay-type questions," said Quinn of the nomination application. "They can nominate any woman in the community, they just have to demonstrate how the person has contributed to either their workplace or the community."
Rainey, along with six other women, was honored at a luncheon at the National Press Club on Monday, Nov. 14.
"These are some pretty impressive women who have accomplished some incredible feats," wrote Rainey in an e-mail to the FYInetwork. "I keep wondering if they have the right Sharon Rainey. I would not be receiving this award if it were not for each of you. That I know is for certain."
RAINEY, WHO MOVED TO GREAT FALLS IN 1991, says that she always felt that the community was lacking a source for detailed information on local services and events.
"I think part of why I did what I did was because I felt like there wasn't a level playing field in Great Falls," said Rainey. "You somehow had to be a secret member of the secret society to find out what was going on. You would see things in the paper but there was no simple way to find out about stuff that was just in Great Falls."
In 2000, Rainey was running the Great Falls Elementary School PTA e-mail network and wanted to announce the annual Village Centre Halloween Spooktacular trick-or-treating event, and the annual Village Centre Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony.
"They told me that 'it is not PTA related, it is community related, so you might want to start your own thing,'" said Rainey.
Rainey heeded the advice, and started an e-mail network that provided its members with local service referrals and community event information. She had no idea how huge her "own thing" would become.
"Initially I was spending 20 minutes a day on it, and by 2003 it was taking 4 and 5 hours a it," said Rainey.
Rainey had people approaching her and asking about everything from dance instructor referrals to dentist recommendations.
"I would have somebody say 'hey I'm new to Great Falls and I don't know where to put my kid in gymnastics,' and I would say, 'I don't know either, but somebody around here knows,' and I would ask for answers and collate them, and now there are over 800 lists," said Rainey.
THE RAPID GROWTH OF THE FYINETWORK made Rainey realize that she would have to change it from a volunteer organization into an actual business. Today there are over 1400 members of the Great Falls FYInetwork, and the organization has expanded to create FYInetworks for three more communities — McLean, Vienna and Reston. The FYInetwork also sends care packages to the troops in Iraq and has organized a multitude of relief efforts for victims of this summer's hurricanes in the south.
"One thing I've been really proud of is that we've been able to keep the community interested," said Karen Bush.
Bush started out as a volunteer a year ago, but Rainey ended up hiring her as a permanent employee.
"People ask for specific referrals all the time," said Bush. "The information doesn't get stale and I'm happy to see that ... I thought maybe we had reached saturation in Great Falls but we're continuing to get people because we are providing a service."
Both Bush and Schilling were ecstatic that Rainey was chosen for the WJLA Tribute.
"I don't think I've met anybody with a bigger heart," said Bush. "It comes through in her writing but I also think it comes through with anybody she speaks to, whether it's in person or on the phone."
Schilling says that people often joke that Rainey should run for mayor of Great Falls.
"She's very dedicated," said Schilling. "When I come in the office at 8 a.m., she's been there since 6 a.m., and she's always wrapping care packages, or organizing stuff for the charitable foundation, or pecking away at the computer writing an e-mail. She obviously cares a lot about the community."
After Rainey received the congratulatory phone call from John Quinn, she wrote one of her occasional personal e-mails to the network. She commended the community for coming together in the last year to amass more than 1500 care packages for the troops in Iraq, nine carloads of donations to Children's Hospital and Reston Interfaith and 20 tons of donations sent to hurricane victims.
"I can take credit for creating and developing this concept and this company, but clearly, it is not I who makes Neighbors what it is today," wrote Rainey. "It is each of you, beautifully attached to one another and to me through this organization ... when we come together in these contributions, it creates an unbreakable spirit."