Last year, Avery Dennison general counsel Sue Miller and her colleagues in the law department held a meeting in Queretaro, Mexico. As a team-building exercise, they volunteered at a local elementary school to help plant a garden. The day was fun and rewarding, says Sue - ”the kids were amazing and adorable" - but what she found even more gratifying was that, when one of her team members visited the school a year later, the garden, and the students, were thriving.
“The garden looked beautiful,” Sue recounts, obviously delighted, “and the kids were using it to learn about nutrition.”
Volunteering has been part of Sue’s life for most of the 28 years she has worked at Avery Dennison. And the idea of planting seeds for the future - of giving children and communities what they need to bloom into their full potential - is a notion that runs through virtually all of her community service.
Paying it Forward
Sue serves on the board of Families Forward Learning Center, a non-profit organization that provides education and social services to low-income families in Pasadena, California, near Avery Dennison’s corporate headquarters. Families Forward serves parents with children from birth to age five, using a two-generation learning model to provide early education to kids as well as parenting classes, mental health support, and leadership training to their moms and dads. Sue traces her involvement with Families Forward to her own childhood.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the family I had,” she says. “My parents were so focused on education, and sacrificed a lot to help me get here. Both were the first in their families to go to college; my father’s parents came from Italy and didn’t speak English as a first language, yet they were both very focused on education. My parents worked to give me every opportunity and I wanted to give that back.”
In addition to her board work, Sue volunteers at Families Forward’s monthly Early Readers’ Book Club, where children and their parents read a book, take part in related learning activities, and, at the end, take a book home.
“Being on the board is great,” says Sue, “but I also really love the hands-on work with the families. To me, it’s about, ‘What can we do to set these children up for success?’ Every child can reach their full potential if they’re given the right foundation.”
“Sue lives and exemplifies our organization’s values in all she does,” says Elva Sandoval, acting executive director of Families Forward. “She shares our founder, Mara Moser’s sentiment that a community of good can transform a person’s view of life and hope for the future.”
Sue has also been a volunteer with the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), which promotes the importance of civics education and participation. In addition to providing resources to schools and sponsoring a mock-trial competition, CRF connects high schoolers with internships.
“You read the letters these kids write as part of their internship applications, and it’s just incredible,” says Sue. “They are so hungry to learn, and so appreciative of the opportunity, and they have overcome so much. It’s powerful to help them learn important skills and open their eyes to possibilities beyond those to which they might otherwise be exposed.”
A Family Affair
In addition to being mindful of her parents’ example, Sue also instilled the value of community service in her two daughters, now grown. When the girls were young, Sue looked for ways the three of them could volunteer together. For the National Charity League (NCL), an organization that promotes mother-daughter volunteering, they made chili for clients of Union Station Homeless Services, and worked at a local thrift shop owned and managed by NCL. They collected books for students at an underserved L.A. school. And they shopped for Christmas presents for kids at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, where metal detectors at the entrance were an immediate reminder that not everyone comes from the same environment.
“Volunteering with my daughters was a great way to spend time together.” Sue says. “And I also wanted to show them that volunteering is important. If you want someone to behave a certain way, the best thing to do is to try to demonstrate that value yourself. That’s true for parents, and it’s true for corporate leaders.”
To that end, Sue says she appreciates working for a company that has made community service a “family value” of its own.
“It’s been that way since the first day I came to work here,” she says. “It all goes back to (company founder) Stan Avery, who cared so much about community and was such an inspiring man. And it’s only gotten better in the time I’ve worked here. Employees have many opportunities to volunteer and get involved, and our corporate philanthropy has really matured and become more focused. From the CEO on down, it’s not just lip service here. It’s something that is deeply embedded in the organization.”
Finding the Time
As a mother and general counsel of a Fortune 500 company—the Harvard Law grad is also a senior vice president and Avery Dennison’s corporate secretary, handling matters related to the company’s board of directors—does Sue have any advice about how to fit volunteerism into a life that’s already jam-packed?
“Pick things that fit with your schedule,” she says. “With National Charity League, for example, I volunteered as assistant treasurer for a couple of years because I could do it at night or on weekends. Or I’d choose things that I could do with my girls, so that I didn’t take time away from them.
“Take small bites,” she adds. “You don’t have to do everything. Every little contribution is important. For example, when our corporate office recently made lunches for Union Station, we made them in the office instead of going offsite, which made it easy for people to just stop in and make a few peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. That’s a great way to get involved. If you’re a leader, get other people on your team to help organize your volunteer project, so all the work isn’t on one person.
“It’s like anything else,” she says. “If it’s important to you, you’ll make it a priority.”
And, she notes, it’s a priority worth honoring, whether it means spending one day of the year helping school kids plant a garden, or making a weekly commitment to a nonprofit whose work you believe in. Because in addition to providing practical help for people in need, volunteerism lets us tend the garden of community and continually replenish the seeds of a common bond - among family members, among coworkers, and among neighbors.
“In an era when so many things divide us,” says Sue, “volunteering brings us together.”
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