In the 1500s, St. Ignatius of Loyola set out on a pilgrimage from his native Spain, eventually determining he needed to reach the Holy Land. • His travels and spiritual growth continued after he left Jerusalem, and the journey helped shape the man who would eventually establish the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. • It's a story Jane Younger knows well. • As coordinator of special events for Jesuit High School in Tampa, Younger spearheads the school's annual Gaudiosa gala, an event that raised a record $665,000 last year for grants for students who can't afford to pay full tuition. • Each year, the gala's theme comes from one of the pivotal places Ignatius visited during his pilgrimage. This year, decorations and presentations will center around the Holy Land, with students wearing fezzes. • Younger's journey to her position hasn't been as global as Ignatius' travels, but it has seen her transcend from volunteer in the event's first year — when two of her three children still attended Jesuit — to paid staffer the past four years. • She recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about why she didn't return to nursing, her chosen profession, and the challenges of staging a fundraiser some call Tampa's best black-tie event.
How did someone who worked as a nurse end up being an event planner?
It was probably the right place at the right time. It was an opportunity offered to me. I was looking for something more committed and more routine, and it worked right with my family because my kids were gone (had graduated from high school).
Did you ever imagine you would end up being the point person for this event when you started volunteering 11 years ago?
I would have never have thought that. I really thought I would go back into nursing because it's such a wonderful career. But I learned more about the school and I got the feeling of what it's all about.
A lot of parents volunteer for school functions, and when their kids graduate they walk away — understandably so. You have remained engaged.
We have a lot of volunteers who do remain engaged. Three of my chair positions are senior moms, and they've asked to do it again next year. And I've had to say no. They can come back and volunteer, but we want to provide the opportunity for chairs to our current families. But that doesn't mean they can't be part of a committee. I think that says a lot about the school. Once a Tiger, always a Tiger. Those are the people I love to work with. They give of their time because they really want to be there. They really do see the benefit.
You talk about "giving the parents the opportunity." So you're asking them to volunteer, but are they also getting something in return?
I think it's more emotionally: the fellowship, the camaraderie. They don't get a gift. Those are the ones that are lasting. Those are the ones that make this event special because of their sincerity. My position wouldn't be there if I didn't have that support.
What's the biggest challenge you face?
Probably keeping everybody happy, working with so many different personalities but achieving the right outcome.
You mentioned the importance of having an ambience that makes the guests feel connected. How do you craft that?
We put a team together that really buys into the event. They want to create the right atmosphere. If it's warm and inviting and they're having a good time, we hope they will give back to us. The biggest goal we have is people leaving there wanting to come back. If we can make them have a positive experience, maybe they won't give now, but maybe they'll be able to come back and give in other ways, give of their time.
If someone was starting a gala for their school, what advice would you give?
I think if you believe in the mission, it steers you in the right direction. That makes it so much easier. You can share what it's all about.
So you really believe in Jesuit?
I believe in the mission. They provided a world of leadership, respect, morality to my sons. I'm so grateful for that opportunity. I really believe in what Jesuit does.I believe in the school. I believe in the volunteers and I believe in giving students that opportunity. If it's in God's plan and we can help that plan by getting them that opportunity (to attend Jesuit) … that's why when I get up every day I'm excited. I feel that connection.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.