Labor of Love

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Posted At: March 23, 2009 12:27 PM
by Dianna Duffy

On July 24, 2002, the Pontiff family of Metairie, La., woke to find their lives changed forever. The Pontiffs’ 21-year-old son, Wally Pontiff Jr., had passed away in his sleep from sudden cardiac arrest caused by hyperthropic myopathy. Hyperthropic myopathy is a condition in which the muscle of the heart is abnormal in the absence of an apparent cause.

Wally was a promising young man who helped lead the LSU Tigers’ baseball team to the 2000 national title. To honor the life of their son and the many lives he touched, the Pontiff family founded the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation. The Pontiffs discovered through many encounters that his short life span touched and influenced many people. The foundation contributes all donations and gifts to charities and nonprofit organizations in the community.

When the Pontiffs started their nonprofit organization, they had no idea what they were getting into. They knew they wanted to honor the life of Wally in the greatest possible way. The Pontiffs had already discovered through many encounters that his short life span touched and influenced many people and with the help of friends and family, the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation was developed in the winter of 2002. The family knew that this was going to be a tough, but rewarding adventure.

Family-run nonprofit organizations exist all over the country. These organizations function with the love and passion of those involved, many of whom are volunteers. Family-run nonprofits are usually small, but the volunteers that surround them are extremely passionate about the organization and its purpose.

Connie Geneste, Wally Jr.’s aunt, acts as the public relations practitioner for the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation. Geneste had some experience from her previous jobs, but she admits that this foundation has been a definite learning experience for her. Working for the foundation is not Geneste’s only job. She is also employed full time, but out of her love and admiration for her nephew, she works extremely hard to keep his legacy going. “It truly is a labor or love,” she said. “It can be hard work, but the rewards are so much greater.”

Each year, the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation holds two annual events to raise money and increase awareness about Wally’s life and legacy. In April of every year, there is the Wally Pontiff Jr. Memorial Baseball Game where Wally’s LSU Tigers play in his honor. Friends, family, fans and supporters come from all over the Greater New Orleans Area to watch and remember. The Wally Pontiff Jr. Golf Classic takes place in the fall of each year. There is also an auction prior to the golf classic that hundreds of people attend and raise money for the foundation. The golf classic and auction in October 2008 raised approximately $100,000. These events would not be possible without the help of volunteers.

Geneste sends out invitations for the golf classic and auction, and she manages relationships between the sponsors and benefactors of the organization. The local Coca Cola company donates all banners made for the two events. Banners are hung on the office building where Wally’s family works, in the neighborhood where Wally grew up and at Pontiff Playground, renamed in his honor. Geneste also keeps the Web site updated with information for the two events. For the golf classic, potential golfers and sponsors are sent an invitation. This list is kept up-to-date by Geneste.

The labor of love that started six years ago continues today because of the dedication of Wally’s loving family. “We hope to maintain these events and relinquish some of the duties to our children, Wally Jr.’s first cousins,” Connie Geneste said.

Wally and Terry Pontiff Sr. are reminded every day of the lives their son touched and continues to touch through the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation. Geneste said establishing the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation has helped the entire Pontiff family deal with the loss of Wally by doing good deeds and acts of kindness which have been possible through the foundation’s fundraising events. “In addition, Wally is always present with us and forever in our hearts and minds,” she said.

While the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation has been very successful in their PR endeavors, there are many family-run nonprofit organizations that typically do not have the funds to consult with public relations practitioners. One of their many challenges is knowing what to do in terms of the public relations for the organization. As such, many organizations rely on instinct, experiencing incredible ups and downs and making difficult decisions reflecting the passion behind the organizations.

One solution to this problem is self-help public relations. For example, Steve Cebalt is a nonprofit communications consultant for Bottom Line Public Relations, a company assisting nonprofits that cannot afford to hire public relations consultants. Cebalt has established Do It Yourself Communications, which offers training workshops and  support services that coach and support foundations and small nonprofits. These training workshops and support services help organizations get on the right path so that they can “raise awareness and revenue, save money or foster clearer understandings between foundations and grantees.” Cebalt also has a blog called Nonprofit PR Forum that he updates regularly with advice for nonprofit organizations.

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