Sell-Out Crowd Goes “Wild” for Cheryl Strayed at Women’s Leadership Luncheon

March 3, 2015

It was perfectly suiting that a crowd of nearly 1,100 women attended the Women’s Leadership Luncheon.

“1,100… One for each mile of the Pacific Crest Trail that I walked…”said Cheryl Strayed, keynote speaker and New York Times best-selling author of “Wild.”IMG_3562

More than 1,000 prominent Central Florida community leaders joined Strayed on Feb. 26 for the 8th Annual Women’s Leadership Luncheon hosted by Heart of Florida United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council. Strayed shared how hitting rock bottom led to an inspirational journey across the Pacific Crest Trail. The movie version of the book hit theaters in December and starred Reese Witherspoon as Strayed. The program highlighted the Women’s Leadership Council’s impact in local schools through videos (in case you missed it, click here to see the videos). Over the past year, 10 Title-I Orange County schools received an online reader program impacting more than 6,000 students. 163,000 books were opened and all schools made lexile gains.

“I was always poor growing up,” said Strayed. “I was one of those kids that United Way is helping.”

The event at the Hyatt Regency Orlando raised nearly $150,000, which will be invested in United Way’s local education and literacy initiatives. Luncheon supporters included gold sponsor Tupperware Brands Corporation and silver sponsors Fifth Third Bank, Lockheed Martin, Massey Services, Orlando Health, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, Publix Super Markets, Sorensen Moving & Storing, University of Central Florida, Wells Fargo Financial, Florida Hospital, and media partners WFTV Family Connection, Orange Appeal and The Orlando Business Journal.IMG_3293

The Women’s Leadership Council strives to improve the Central Florida community, as well as expand educational opportunities. Chaired by retired banking executive Karen Dee and Vice Chair Pat Engfer, area vice president and general manager at Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, the Council has more than 440 members who donate more than $830,000 annually.

“Each year, we’re grateful for esteemed speakers like Cheryl Strayed who advance our mission of supporting youth education,” Dee said. “We are also thankful that Heart of Florida United Way gives us a platform to raise awareness of critical issues impacting our community.”

Get a peek of all event photos on Facebook or Google+. Share using #WLL2015.IMG_3588



“Wild” author Cheryl Strayed to Speak at Women’s Leadership Luncheon

December 3, 2014

There’s no question the world is full of great stories. But sometimes we encounter a book that leaves us wanting to know more. Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” was that kind of book for thousands of people, including Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, who stars in the film adaptation being released December 5th. It may be one of the most dramatic examples of how a chance encounter with a book can change a life.

When Strayed was 22 years old, her mother died of lung cancer. It left her so devastated that she began questioning her marriage, turning to other men for comfort and using heroine. Her life was in a state of collapse for more than three years. Then one evening, while moving through a check-out line at a store, she spotted a book about hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. She bought the book, then made the radical decision to set out on the trail herself. Alone.

The Women’s Leadership Council is excited to announce author Cheryl Strayed as the keynote speaker for the 2015 Women’s Leadership Luncheon, February 26, 2015 at the Hyatt Regency Orlando. It’s a unique opportunity to hear first-hand how powerfully motivating reading can be. Strayed’s decision to pick up a book led to a life-changing event and then authorship. This compelling story led fellow author George Saunders to note, “Cheryl Strayed reminds us in every line that if defeat and despair are part of human experience, so are kindness, patience, and transcendence.” Every day, United Way encounters people suffering defeat and despair, as well as those stepping forward with kindness and patience. By continuing to support the messages of literacy and reading, the Women’s Leadership Council can continue to help women and children better their lives through the kind of determination exhibited by Cheryl Strayed.

To purchase tickets, click here. To learn about sponsorship opportunities, email

Cheryl Strayed - Joni Kabana

New York Times best-selling author Cheryl Strayed.


Women’s Leadership Council Fights Summer Reading Loss and Provides 10 Title-I Orange County Elementary Schools with Online Reading Program

May 8, 2014

myon photo for blog- DSC_0194_cropped“School’s out for summer!” But, that doesn’t mean that Central Florida students should slack. Did you know that students can lose up to 25% of their reading level over the summer? But, reading just four books over that time can prevent the summer slide, and can actually increase reading levels.

Access to age-appropriate reading materials is a major barrier to reading, especially for low-income students. In fact, a recent study found that in middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio of age-appropriate books is 13 books for every child, while in low-income neighborhoods, it is 1 book for every 300 children.

United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council recently announced a partnership with Orange County Publicmyon photo for blog- DSC_0089 Schools to bring the myON® reading program to 10 Title-I schools. Funds raised by HFUW’s Women’s Leadership Council at the annual Women’s Leadership Luncheon were used to provide the one-year subscription to select schools. In addition to giving approximately 6,000 students 24/7 access to a digital library of more than 5,000 books in over 50 categories and genres, myON® provides metrics that assess reading progress and project reading growth.

Schools participating in the myON® program include:

  • Eccleston Elementary
  • Fern Creek Elementary
  • Grand Ave. Elementary
  • John Young Elementary
  • Lee Middle School
  • Lockhart Elementary
  • Tangelo Park Elementary
  • Winegard Elementary
  • Wyndham Lakes Elementary
  • Zellwood Elementary

myon photo for blog -DSC_0122Watch a video from the announcement held at Tangelo Park Elementary.

In addition, United Way will be distributing books on June 23 as part of Day of Action, a community-wide day of volunteerism focused on fighting summer reading loss. There are many ways to get involved! See a list of impact projects for individuals or groups.

Erin Gruwell Praises the Power of Education at Women’s Leadership Luncheon

March 13, 2014

2014-Wordpress---WLL-Erin-GruwellIt was a packed house at the Rosen Centre on Wednesday as more than 700 prominent Central Florida business and civic leaders joined Heart of Florida United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council for the Seventh Annual Women’s Leadership Luncheon featuring keynote speaker and best-selling author Erin Gruwell. Thanks to the generosity of guests in attendance, the event raised more than $100,000, which will be invested in United Way’s local education and literacy initiatives. A video shown at the event demonstrates why the Council chose reading and literacy as its primary focus issue.

Gruwell, author of the New York Times best-seller The Freedom Writers Diary, described her journey as a teacher with 150 high school students who were labeled as “unteachable.”  Her inspiring true story was the basis for the film Freedom Writers. From her career as a high school teacher to being portrayed by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, Gruwell shared her experiences that led her to become an education advocate.

“When you look at the graduation rates we have been faced with across the country, it would be easy to get discouraged and lose hope,” said Gruwell. “But we have a great opportunity to improve that situation because of you. And Heart of Florida United Way is paving the way with their goal to create lasting, measurable change through a focus on education. It is truly a collaborative effort and every single one of us can help in some way.”

Thanks to our event sponsors, which included Tupperware Brands Corporation, Fifth Third Bank, Florida Hospital, Lockheed Martin, Orlando Health, Publix Supermarkets, University of Central Florida, BakerHostetler, Darylaine Hernandez Law Firm, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, McGladrey LLP, and Orlando Magic.

To see photos from the event, visit HFUW’s Facebook page

Volunteer Spotlight: Karen Dee

March 13, 2014

2014-Wordpress---Spotlight-Karen-DeeKaren Dee is a busy lady … in and out of the bank. An insightful banker with a passion for giving back to the community, Karen Dee is president of the Florida and Mid-South regions for Fifth Third Bank. In 2011, she was named “Businesswoman of the Year” by the Orlando Business Journal.  A longtime United Way supporter, she helped launch United Way of Tampa Bay’s Women’s Leadership initiative, has been a member of Heart of Florida United Way’s board since 2009, and has served as co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Council from 2010-2013.

Currently serving as chair of the Women’s Leadership Council, Karen is determined to improve education and literacy in Central Florida through the work of the Council. We asked Karen about the direction of the Council and her passion for giving back.

How long have you been involved with the United Way?

“I have been giving to United Way since my twenties and got involved with a workplace giving campaign at the beginning of my career. I’ve been a supporter ever since then, no matter where I lived or which institution I worked for.”

What’s the purpose of the Women’s Leadership Council?

“The Women’s Leadership Council does great things and you can see it in the local community. I think when you bring a group of women leaders together you bring inspiration. They are capable of really great things.

The work the Council is doing in education showcases this. We know that education is the single most important factor in making sure kids do as well or better than their parents. So, Women’s Leadership Council recently announced that it is aiming to bring the myON online reading program to 10 local Title-1 schools. This program will provide students with 24/7 access to nearly 4,000 e-books, as well as track metrics to show the students’ progress. My hope is that as the Women’s Leadership Council grows, we can reach even more students through our effort.”

What’s your vision for the Women’s Leadership Council?

“With the Council electing to pursue education as our primary focus for the next three years, my vision is to continue to invest in this area, primarily in literacy. The myOn program is great because it is something tangible and measurable, and it ties to United Way’s mission really well. We can use the results to generate awareness and even incorporate our focus on reading and education into volunteer events.

The bottom line is that education is critically important to making a better life for all people. It gives women leaders, and a community in general, a cause to rally around because it makes such a huge difference.”

Is there a specific story that motivated you to get involved with United Way?

“I got involved in United Way through workplace giving, but there’s a story that reinforces why I continue to be involved. One year as a part of Fifth Third Bank’s workplace giving campaign, one of our Financial Center leaders shared her inspiring story of her involvement with United Way.

As an organization, we were participating in United Way’s Day of Caring volunteer event, and she was volunteering at the BETA Center, which is one of the organizations that the Council supports. While she was painting a room at the BETA Center, she realized that she was painting the SAME room that she stayed in as a single teenage mother. Because of the help that she received from the BETA Center and United Way, she was able to go to college and now, successfully manage one of our financial centers. Without the help of United Way she would have never become what she is today. It gives me Goosebumps every time I tell that story. The year she shared her story with employees we had record giving. Stories like this continue to validate the work that United Way and the Women’s Leadership Council does.”

What is your primary motivation for giving, advocating, volunteering on behalf of United Way?

“Stories like that continue to motivate me to give, advocate and volunteer. But also because United Way’s work helps to improve lives and they continue to have a focused effort on issues in our community”

What does it mean to you to “Live United”

“When we come together as leaders and people in the community we can make a difference. That’s what it means to me.”

You’re a new grandmother. In what ways do you think the work United Way is doing now will impact your grandchild’s life later?

“I think it goes back to the fact that education is the single most important factor in making sure kids do as well or better than their parents. Who doesn’t want their child or grandchild to achieve their fullest potential? I want him to be the best that he can be. I also have two daughters and I want them to have all the opportunities that they can have and United Way knows that starts with a good education.”

Heart of Florida United Way’s Women’s Leadership Luncheon Hosts Best-Selling Author, Educator Erin Gruwell on March 12

January 22, 2014

2014-Wordpress---WLLTickets and corporate tables are now on sale for the 7th Annual United Way Women’s Leadership Luncheon, featuring educator Erin Gruwell, author of the New York Times best-seller, The Freedom Writers Diary.

The book chronicles Gruwell’s extraordinary experience with 150 high school students who were written off by the education system. This true story also attracted Hollywood’s attention with the release of the film Freedom Writers, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank.

The luncheon will take place on Wednesday, March 12 at the Rosen Centre Hotel located at 9840 International Drive, Orlando. The luncheon is the latest in a series of annual events that support HFUW’s advocacy of improving educational opportunities for children in Central Florida.

With another sell-out audience expected, now’s a great time to reserve your corporate table or purchase tickets for this inspirational event, which is annually attended by more than 800 of Central Florida’s most influential women. The event will take place at the Rosen Centre Hotel located at 9840 International Drive, Orlando.

The United Way Women’s Leadership Council, chaired by Karen Dee, President, Florida and Mid-South Regions, Fifth Third Bank and vice-chair Pat Engfer, Area Vice President and General Manager, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, combines the power of philanthropy, volunteerism and awareness to support local women and children in need.

So don’t delay! Click here to purchase tickets and learn more.

Don’t Miss Women’s Luncheon, Feb. 27, Featuring Emmy Award Winning Journalist Deborah Norville!

December 21, 2012

norville_deborah(300)Tickets and corporate tables are now on sale for the 6th Annual United Way Women’s Leadership Luncheon, featuring Deborah Norville, Emmy Award winning journalist and anchor of the top-rated newsmagazine Inside Edition.

An sought-after lecturer, author and health advocate, Norville will speak with candor and humor about handling life’s curves, juggling career and motherhood, and the rough road to achieving your dreams.

With another sell-out audience expected, now’s a great time to reserve your corporate table or purchase tickets for this inspirational event, which is annually attended by more than 800 of Central Florida’s most influential women.

The United Way Women’s Leadership Council, co-chaired by Helen Donegan, Vice President of Community Relations for UCF; and Karen Dee, President, Florida and Mid-South Regions, Fifth Third Bank; combines the power of philanthropy, volunteerism and awareness to support local women and children in need.

So don’t delay! Click here to purchase tickets and learn more.

%d bloggers like this: