The Alice O’Reilly Story

How a Lakeland girl learned that true self-worth comes from giving back

Photography by Tina Sargeant

The Lakelander:Many Lakelanders know you, but for those who don’t, tell us a bit of your history. Alice O’Reilly: I only have one claim to fame — I was the first baby born in Lakeland in the year of my birth. My daddy owned a number of stores in Lakeland, specializing first in feed, then in hardware, appliances, sporting goods, and housewares. What began as feed gently moved with the times. I loved being at the store on Pine Street, visiting with the customers, learning about the merchandise, and studying for my dream career in retail. My daddy really didn’t encourage that business pursuit for me, as he saw the long hours limiting to women. But, at 16 I secured a job at Maas Brothers downtown and loved the fashion side of retail. I was hooked. I went on to the executive training program for Allied Stores. This was a big deal since I was the first woman admitted to the program. It was me and the boys. I moved to Tampa, and my real retail career began. I stayed with Maas Brothers (Allied) until Saks Fifth Avenue offered me a job in San Francisco, and off I went! After 11 years, as my parents were aging, I came home to be part of their lives. When I returned to Lakeland, I went to work as a buyer for Rheinauer’s in Winter Haven. I stayed with Rheinauer’s until my volunteer job at VISTE got into my blood. It’s sad, but true, that I had always measured my self-worth by how much money I made, always having been paid on a bonus system. As past president of the board, I was asked to chair the search committee for replacing Betty and Bascom Carlton who were retiring from VISTE. When I made the presentation to the executive committee, they said, “Great work, but we believe you should take the job.” I was furious! The search committee had worked for months, the job didn’t pay much money, and I had a job I loved at Rheinauer’s. When I arrived home and expressed my frustration to my husband, Frank, my frustration grew as he thought it was a great idea, too! But, after talking with my daughter, I realized then [accepting the position at VISTE] was the right choice for me to make. You see, I realized that I didn’t need to measure my self worth by how much money I made. I came on board on January 1, 1994. This December I will complete my 20th year.

TL: What is VISTE? AO: VISTE began 31 years ago to enable the frail elderly to remain safely and independently in their own homes. Today our mission is the same. Our first program was transportation, still the mainstay today. By providing transportation to medical appointments, grocery shopping, and other necessary places, the elderly could maintain their independence at home. As the clients have aged in place, we have grown the programs to enhance aging in place. When I came on board, we had 32 commodity clients and a couple hundred clients needing transportation. Last year, we served 3,939 clients. We made thousands of trips, delivered nearly 1,500 monthly food boxes, 394 bi-weekly hot meals. In addition, 175 clients received housekeeping services; 87 clients received personal-care items. VISTE offers just about anything a client needs to keep them safe in their own homes. To be a VISTE client you must be 70 years of age or older and reside in Lakeland, Bartow, Ft. Meade, or Mulberry. All of our services are free to clients, made possible by the community’s generosity. VISTE receives funding from several sources: United Way, GiveWell Community Foundation, private foundations, cities of Lakeland and Bartow, individuals, businesses, and our own fundraisers, including VISTEBall and our letter-writing campaign. Of these contributions, 88 cents from every dollar donated directly benefits VISTE programs. We are so appreciative of the support we receive from so many.

TL: Tell us about your tenure at VISTE. AO:During my tenure, VISTE has grown in size, not only in the number of clients served, but in the types of services offered as well. Every day is different at VISTE. The work is so rewarding, and gives you the feeling of Christmas everyday. Over the last 20 years, I have done just about every job possible at VISTE. I have participated in every service we provide for clients and done every task I would ask a volunteer to do. One of my favorites is delivering birthday cakes to our clients who are 90 and older. They are so pleased to share their birthday with a real person! We bring a gift bag, balloons, cake, and smiling faces. As their birthdays approach, clients will call me and say “I’m still here!” They look forward to the event every year.

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TL: What are some of your favorite accomplishments from your time at the organization? AO: To see the growth of VISTE over the past 30 years is amazing. We have grown from a small organization that provided transportation to 30 clients into a very unusual organization serving more than 4,000 clients in a variety of ways to meet the organization’s mission. It wasn’t until I was asked to serve on the White House Council on Aging that I realized just how unique VISTE is. When I arrived in Washington, I was among the best of the best in the industry. What I found, though, was that these other organizations only did one thing. They didn’t provide comprehensive services. For example, a transportation organization drove huge numbers of miles every day, providing a valued and needed service to aging citizens, but that’s all they did. Another delivered hot meals, thousands daily; but that’s all they did. VISTE truly enables the frail elderly to remain safely and independently in their own homes by providing transportation, hot meals, commodities, personal-care items, birthday celebrations, and social interaction with the volunteers. One of my greatest prides is our Thanksgiving meal delivery. We began with just 100 meals delivered by 100 volunteers. I knew if I could get people (mostly families) to deliver a meal, they would be more willing to volunteer again for VISTE. This year, VISTE will deliver 1,350 meals with the help of 1,350 volunteers. Some of the volunteers have been coming since their children were very young; now they’re in college or older. It’s such a wonderful gift to give to our community and clients. I’m also very proud of my board. I remember when I was on the board in the ’80s, we begged people to let us use their name. Now, community members want to be asked to serve! Our board is very proactive in all areas of VISTE.

TL: What is your hope for the future of VISTE? AO:Lakeland is a very giving community. We are so fortunate to have such a well-rounded community in schools, businesses, and individuals who volunteer and donate at VISTE. We have many schools with which we partner within the four-city area. This is important because many young children today do not have grandparents in their lives. VISTE is proud to paint a little of that picture to their development, with the hope that as they mature they will give back once again, just as they did as a youngster. We are always building our volunteer base, so we host volunteer training once per month to encourage the community to come out and see what we do. At training, volunteers can select where they think they will fit best. I always remember one man who sat through the entire training and then said, “I don’t think I can drive those people.” I said, “Well, we have other areas. What would you like to do?” He said, “I’ll do small repairs on their homes.” Wow! That was great, because a handyman is a real prize! Our clients need assistance in changing light bulbs, leaky faucets, screen repairs, et cetera. There is something for everyone to do.

WE COULD NOT DO WHAT WE DO WITHOUT VOLUNTEERS… THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO DONATE YOUR TIME AND TALENTS OR YOUR TREASURES

TL: Would you talk about philanthropy generally (what we can/should do more of, inspiring young people to get involved, why we should do it, etc.)?
AO: Most of us grow up learning from others, and we then live by example. If your parents volunteer and are active in the community, you probably will be too, but you have to be asked. We are fortunate to live in such a giving community. I’m always amazed when I speak to groups and ask about volunteerism, how few volunteer regularly. We are so fortunate at VISTE to have many volunteers who come five days a week or three days a week to work in the warehouse or deliver hot meals. Many others have phone pals, or clerical responsibilities
at VISTE. Some volunteers drive clients to Publix or a medical appointment.
We could not do what we do without volunteers. We partner with many schools to introduce students to volunteerism in hopes they will make it a lifestyle for the future. Many speaking engagements have an end result of volunteers, clients, or money. The best would be all three! There are many ways to donate your time and talents or your treasures. Of course, we need all types of givers. Giving is something that comes with the “ask.” Very few donations come to us without an ask, and then it becomes our responsibility to spend those donations wisely. If we prove to be good stewards, our donors will continue to donate when asked. Currently, VISTE spends 88 cents of every dollar on program. We are very proud of that.
My soft spot is for the elderly. When I took this job, some friends were puzzled as to why I would change careers for “old people.” It’s because they need an advocate just like children do, but they aren’t as cute as children. I painted a story for my friends of their own futures, and, with time, they got it. That picture is vital. People want to help; they just need a vision of how their gift will make a difference.
I’m very proud of the fact that everyone still takes my phone calls after 20 years of asking this community for so much support. They never say no. That’s a treasure I won’t forget.

TL: What are your plans for your post-VISTE life?
AO: I’m not sure what my post-VISTE life will be like. I’ve always worked and enjoyed every job. I know my grandchildren will see more of Frank and I, and I won’t miss any events in their lives. I’m looking forward to the next chapter, whatever it is. I’m very confident that VISTE’s future is secure with the strong staff, volunteers, and supporting community.

TL: How can our readers get involved with VISTE? AO: To sign up for volunteer training, or to donate to VISTE, please visit viste.org.