Troy Parker, Assistant Director of Corporate Relations at United Way of Greater Atlanta, shares with us his passion for United Way’s work in LGBTQ+ spaces, and why it means so much to him.

Tell us about your role at United Way of Greater Atlanta.

I work as a Development Officer supporting the engagement strategies of the Senior Director of Corporate Relations to ensure a smooth fundraising and auditing process for the over 600 high volume-low touch accounts. I also support the entire Corporate Relations team by securing, verifying, and auditing the fundraising results of third-party processed fundraising campaigns. So basically, I work with our corporate partners and educate them on the work of United Way and help facilitate their philanthropic workplace campaigns.

What is the OUT Georgia Impact Fund and what inspired you to champion it?

United Way of Greater Atlanta partnered with the OUT Georgia Business Alliance to create the OUT Georgia Impact Fund. This fund’s goal is for LGBTQ+ individuals, youth, families, and communities across the Greater Atlanta region. I am so grateful that my journey as an LGBTQ+ person was full of support every step of the way, but the fact of the matter is that is still not the norm in the world we live today. It is estimated that 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth aged 13-24 have seriously considered suicide; 80% of young LGBTQ+ people have expressed that they feel severe social isolation; and 42% of LGBTQ+ people have expressed that they are living in an unwelcoming or hostile environment. These are just a few of the statistics out there. It’s because of this that I have been so passionate about the work of this fund.

The OUT Georgia Impact Fund will be guided by a community-led advisory committee to make grants to eligible 501(c)3 non-profit organizations supporting LGBTQ+ youth to be stable, secure, and college and career ready. This fund will go to programs that support LGBTQ+ adults and families address urgent needs and secure resources….and this is only the beginning.

In my 35 years of existence, I have never worked for an organization where I have felt so comfortable to be my most authentic self. I am loved and valued for what I bring to the table, how I bring it to the table, and I don’t have to adjust how it is packaged to make someone else more comfortable. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me about my husband when they walk by my desk and see his pictures. What makes me even more proud is the fact they are putting their money where their mouth is with this partnership and fund. This is not something that only happens during pride month, the fundraising for this fund is ongoing because LGBTQ+ individuals and family need support year-round. United Way of Greater Atlanta has made great strides forward for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion with our United for Racial Equity and Healing Fund and they continue to further this work with the OUT Georgia Impact Fund in a space where this work has not been done before.

What does representation mean to you?

Representation is of the utmost importance. I recently had the pleasure of watching the new Netflix show, “Heartstopper,” based on the graphic novel by the same name. It tells the innocent young love story of two high school aged boys, and some of the challenges faced in coming out, bullying, etc. I was overwhelmed with emotion at how wonderful of a story it was, and it flooded me with memories from my own experiences. It made me wonder if something like this could have saved me and others a lot of heartbreak if it was available back then. You can’t change the past but I’m grateful for it now. It reminded me of the importance of representation for all. As a society, we are blasted with constant noise telling us what success, fun, joy, etc. looks like. If that “success, fun, and joy” doesn’t include proper representation, then it engrains in those not represented that they either can’t achieve or aren’t deserving of those things.

What other talents do you make use of outside of work?

I have been a performer since grade school, and it has stuck with me. I am currently the House Manager for Atlanta Lyric Theatre and I still perform whenever a project comes along that I am passionate about. My husband is a performer too, and we can put on a very entertaining cabaret if I do say so myself 😊.

As a newcomer to Atlanta, Josh wanted to find an organization where he could give back to the community while also growing professionally. Read on to find out why he chose to YPL and United Way! If you would like to be featured in our next member spotlight, please click here.

What inspired you to become involved with Young Professionals Leaders?

I’m relatively new to the Atlanta area, and when life started to get back to normal after the pandemic I knew I wanted to find an organization where I could give back to the community while also growing professionally. YPL provides me just that. There are so many service opportunities through United Way, and it’s great to be able to give back while also connecting with other like-minded young professionals.

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

I’m passionate about finding all ways to support underserved children through the Child Well-Being program. Being a dad myself, it’s tough to see a child without the resources they need to be all that they can be, and this initiative aims to provide those resources. I’m also passionate about supporting the College and Career Ready initiatives. I work in higher education, so I’m fortunate to see how powerful education is daily.

Do you have fun fact or a side hustle (entrepreneurship) that you would like to share with us?

I have two daughters, Nora and Molly, who are three and one respectively. While there’s a lot of hustle involved with them, they seem to be heavier on the expense side. I do love exploring everything our city has to offer, especially new restaurants and breweries, with family and friends.

Genevieve has a passion for advancing early childhood education opportunities for underserved children in Atlanta – read why she chose to join YPL and United Way to persue that passion! If you would like to be featured in our next member spotlight, please click here.
What inspired you to become involved with Young Professionals Leaders?

Atlanta is a huge city with many worthy causes, so I decided to join Young Professionals Leaders because I was looking for a way to use my skills to support causes that align with my values. YPL also appealed to me because it offers a structure through which to learn about Greater Atlanta businesses, non-profit organizations, and short & long- term initiatives that impact the local economy, cultural vibrancy, and growth of the city. Plus, as a devout Catholic, the exposure to volunteer opportunities at hundreds of different organizations was very attractive to me.

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

Through my role as PNC Bank Client & Community Relations Assistant Director, I have become most passionate about advancing early childhood education opportunities for underserved children in Atlanta. Studies have shown that 90% of brain growth occurs by age 5. United Way’s Strong Learners investment priority, which is part of the Child Well Being Initiative, aims to increase Atlanta families’ access to early learning experiences. These programs support growing minds and ensure students are prepared for kindergarten and on track to read at grade level by 3rd grade.

Do you have fun fact or a side hustle (entrepreneurship) that you would like to share with us?

My current side hustle is babysitting for family members since I enjoy spending time with children and learning about the ways they see the world. My slightly random fun fact is that many people have told me that I should be a hand model. If any nail polish or jewelry brands read this…hit me up!

Margaret Graff is a Private Wealth Advisor with Ampere Wealth Management, specializing in retirement, wealth management, and philanthropy.

Richard Higgins is a Retired Professor of Electrical Engineering, Georgia Tech.

What do you think is the most important thing United Way of Greater Atlanta does?

We love United Way’s high-level perspective on challenges facing our community.

When did you start giving?

We have always donated to charities, but our ability to give has increased in recent years.  We took our philanthropy to a new level in 2007 when we started a private foundation to really make a difference through specific projects. We closed our foundation in 2021 because we realized that simpler methods of giving were more fulfilling. Now we get to concentrate on the fun stuff – changing lives – instead of the details of running a foundation.

What inspires you about the work of United Way?

United Way supports many organizations that address different aspects of problems to find efficient and effective solutions. Rather than donate to individual organizations with which we are familiar, we can let United Way determine where resources can be used most effectively right now. We like specific projects where we can change lives, and United Way has become a valuable partner in helping us achieve our goals.

What prompted you to create your plans and include United Way?

I don’t remember how we stumbled upon United Way. It didn’t take long before we recognized the tremendous value of United Way’s perspective, and we evolved quickly to Tocqueville and Ivan Allen donors. The more we learn about United Way’s work in Atlanta, the deeper our commitment becomes. It was a natural step to include United Way in our estate plans.

What do you hope your gift will accomplish?

Our main focus with United Way has been reducing Atlanta homelessness, most recently through the Motel-to-Home initiative. Here we are helping households that are in a fragile situation – one nudge could drive them into homelessness or raise them into stable housing.  We love being able to help at this critical time in their lives. By including United Way in our estate planning, we can continue work on homelessness in Atlanta after we’re gone.

What would be your advice to others considering becoming Legacy Leaders?

As a Private Wealth Advisor, I encourage my clients to be deliberate about their estate planning. We brainstorm how much is enough and how much is too much to leave to their heirs. Once you’ve covered  your beneficiaries’ needs, it’s time to think about how to make the world a better place after you’re gone.

Thank you, Margaret and Richard, for being Tocqueville Society members!

To get more involved with the Tocqueville Society, please contact tocqueville@unitedwayatlanta.org.

Tell us about your role at Publix.

In short I have the responsibility of total store operations for a Publix location in Roswell GA. I get to work with a team of 15 dedicated managers to work on continuous improvement of our location. Together we staff, train and develop our store teams to execute the sales and marketing strategies we create. I also serve as the chief ambassador of the Publix culture at my location.

How have you seen your work change in the last 18 months?

The grocery business has been in a constant state of change forever. The biggest change over the past 18 months has been the level of uncertainty. The pandemic brought unprecedented increases in our business as people began to prepare meals at home more. Growth normally creates an opportunity to add staff and of course as we quickly learned there were more available jobs than workers. I have never spent so much time and effort on talent acquisition as I do now. Another transition I have had to make is toward supply chain flexibility. Just because we plan for a promotion does not mean we will be able to fully implement the plans as initially intended. My team has had to learn how to quickly pivot toward plan B (and even plan C sometimes). The past several months have really opened our eyes to the interdependence of links within our supply chain. We never had to consider that fact the manufacturer of sport drink would produce their products in advance of the warm weather, but staffing shortages or damage at the plant of a supplier of packaging can throw deliveries behind by months.

You have been supporting United Way for about 31 years! What inspires you to Live United?

I have the amazing fortune of working with an organization whose founder was passionate about supporting the communities that made us successful. 92 years later we are still growing a culture of associates that show they care the most about the people they serve. Very early in my tenure I was mentored by a Publix leader who invited me to what was then called “A Day of Caring”. I was hooked! Since then I have served on the Board of Directors of two United Way funded agencies and headed 23 annual fund raising campaigns. I have also had the privilege of guiding hundreds of Publix associates (through my experiences) to make the commitment to become Leadership supporters of United Way.

How do you incorporate giving back into your free time?

It is a family value I that was instilled in me at a young age and as I matured it only grew. My wife served on one of the boards I was on. We have served dinners at shelters together, volunteered our time on holidays and supported about every service event sponsored by Publix. As our family grew we began taking our young daughter along with us to community activities. Our family motto has been to give until it feels good. My proudest moment was one Saturday when my (then 10 years old) daughter woke up early and began baking before sunrise. She had decided to raise money for the local Humane Society. She caught the bug! Making a difference if a personal choice. Through her actions I’m even more inspired to make a difference through sharing my time, my talents and my resources.

We love the ready-made items at Publix, what is your go-to Publix deli treat?

I have to admit I am addicted to the Limited Time Only Boar’s Head Jalepeno Popper sub. It has 3 varieties of cheese, bacon and jalepenos. It’s decadent and delicious.

Meet one of our newest members, Markeitha McDonald! We’re excited to welcome Markeitha to the YPE family! If you would like to be featured in our next member spotlight, please click here.
What inspired you to become involved with Young Professionals Leaders?

I have been a part of United Way in some capacity since college and love the work that United Way does in the community. I decided to get involved with YPL to connect with like-minded young professionals who are passionate about community service, philanthropy, and networking. As a young professional, I feel that it is important to give back time and resources to the community that I live in so that those without the same resources can also flourish.

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

I am most passionate about supporting United Way’s work in Child Well-Being and Mentorship. The youth of our community are the future and equipping our next generation of leaders with the tools, resources and knowledge that they need to thrive is a mission that I believe is of the utmost importance.

Do you have fun fact or a side hustle (entrepreneurship) that you would like to share with us?

Atlanta is such a huge city with many hidden gems, so every month I try to Do/See/Eat. Do something in the city I’ve never done before, See something I’ve never seen before, and Eat somewhere I’ve never eaten before. Recently I tried KR Steakbar in Peachtree Hills and went to the Trap Museum for the first time!

Oko Buckle is the Vice President and General Manager of Burns & McDonnell in Atlanta. He leads more than 250 professionals, offering a full range of engineering, construction, design-build, program management, consulting, environmental studies and permitting services covering multiple AEC industries.

In 2006, Oko joined Burns & McDonnell as a senior electrical engineer. Later, he became the regional manager for the firm’s Transmission & Distribution Group in Atlanta. In 2015, Oko led the opening of the Orlando, Florida, office before being promoted to general manager of the firm’s Southeast Region. In 2018, he became the vice president and general manager of the Atlanta office.

How did you first learn about the United Way of Greater Atlanta?

I grew up in Ghana, Africa, and I am one of 12 children. My twin and I are the youngest of a large Catholic family. In 1983, a terrible famine swept over Ghana. Catholic Relief Services stepped in to ensure children and families in the area had food and support during this challenging time. Additionally, when I was 17, my family lost our father, and again Catholic Relief Services was there with the resources to help us survive and thrive. The support from this organization changed my life.

I first began contributing to United Way when I joined Burns & McDonnell in 2006 and experienced the benefits of the organization through our annual workplace giving campaign. During my first giving campaign, I learned United Way partnered with Catholic Relief Services. After learning this, I was even more inspired to give and grow my partnership with United Way because it supported an organization that I am extremely passionate about. Now, through United Way, myself, my team in Atlanta and the rest of our organization make significant contributions to help change the communities we live and work in through our annual workplace giving campaign.

In 2021, the Burns & McDonnell Atlanta team raised more than $78,000 for United Way. Nationwide employee-owners from Burns & McDonnell raised more than $4 million for United Way in 2021. Additionally, I am a United Way Tocqueville member and serve on the DeKalb Advisory Board.

What is your favorite part of giving?

Growing up in Ghana, my family home was always open to anyone who needed food to eat or a place to sleep. There wasn’t a time I can remember where strangers weren’t sleeping on the couch in our living room or joining us for dinner. Now, I do my best to pay that forward here in the U.S. My home is always open, and I have a strong desire to help others.

I have and will continue to sponsor and mentor students from Ghana to help them consider coming to the U.S. to pursue higher education at graduate schools such as North Carolina A&T and Georgia State University. In addition to these efforts, I enjoy donating to United Way and believe “through giving to United Way of Greater Atlanta, you are creating citizens that will be the engine to help others.”

Share something, we might not know about you.

I played the trumpet in high school and later discovered the alto saxophone, which I still love to play. I enjoy music, especially jazz, reggae and classical. My passion for music inspired me to work (at no cost) as a DJ in college at the local radio station.

I like to bring out the best in people. Coaching and teaching are very important activities to me—both in my personal and professional life.

Thank you, Oko, for being a Tocqueville Society member!

To get more involved with the Tocqueville Society, please contact tocqueville@unitedwayatlanta.org.

Tell us about your role at Southern Company.

I lead the accounting team at one of Southern Company Gas’ non-regulated businesses – SouthStar Energy Services. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the company’s sponsored credit union, as well as Treasurer of the Southern Company Gas Charitable Foundation.

How have you seen your work change in the last 18 months?

We embraced the new dynamic during the first few weeks of remote work in 2020 by ensuring personal connections for long-term and new employees remained strong. This included having dedicated time to connect in person or by video for purposeful conversations to celebrate together the milestones of life that we used to do in the office. I found that many of us actually know more about our work colleagues, as work and personal was blurred together on our screens. Clearly the future of in office work will be different than before and being flexible to a hybrid work model will be important to our success as many of my colleagues thoroughly enjoy less time in the office.

Southern Company Gas also embarked on meaningful and challenging DEI discussions, which I have heard others describe like climbing a mountain, and you look down and say we have come so far and we are proud of ourselves, but then look up and see how much further we have to climb and we have a long way to go.

You have been supporting United Way for almost 20 years! What inspires you to Live United?

One of Southern Company’s values include total commitment to the success of our communities. This is important in who we are as a company. I also recall my first United Way Campaign in 2001, and through each subsequent year the personal stories of those in the community that have benefited from the United Way motivates me to continuing my support. I believe one of the reasons for the success of metro-Atlanta is due to the United Way.

United Way recently launched the Unite for More campaign. What do you want to see more of in our community?

At this point in the pandemic, we need to advocate for more housing assistance for those who are at risk of losing their homes.

What is your favorite book?

Usually the last one I read, which happens to be historical background on Greece and the island of Santorini, which I hope to visit later this year.

Of the 4,500 people signed up for the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, hundreds are Cole Society members. We asked Beth Keller from Habitat for Humanity, Richard Tyler from Rollins, and United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Lauren Rock to weigh in about their impressions of the 7-week self-guided learning experience.

How did you find out about the 21 Day Racial Equity Challenge and what made you want to sign-up?

Richard: I heard about it through the United Way email. I thought it would be interesting to see what the topics were and that I could learn some things and possibly share with others.

Beth: I found out about it from Ginneh Baugh at a Cole Women United Cabinet meeting. It is a simple way to educate myself in order to be a stronger advocate, empathetic ally, and a compassionate human-being.

Lauren: I had the opportunity to collaborate with United Way of Greater Atlanta leaders like Kim Addie and Ginneh Baugh to share my perspective and contribute content ideas for a meaningful challenge experience. My first challenge experience was with the YWCA, however, I learned about it at a conference from Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and Debby Irving, the educators who originally developed the program. Any opportunity that fosters my continued learning and journey to promote equity I will always sign up.

What lesson have you learned so far that you want more people to know about?

Richard: It has reaffirmed the unfortunate reality that so many things have been baked into our society that have put those already disadvantaged in an even more disadvantaged position, but that good-minded people have been and are still working to correct the courses when and where possible.  But also, that the situation in these aspects is not static but rather are dynamic – that other not so good-minded people are also constantly working to push back progress.

Beth: Redlining in the United States. White Flight in Atlanta. The history of systematic/purposeful housing segregation by the government in the United States and its lasting impact.

Lauren: I am always moved by the moments in history, most recent and distant past, that my fellow BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) brothers and sisters have faced. This challenge elevates how generations in Atlanta have faced inequities and other discrimination that we often do not read about in articles or see on social media. I’m grateful that this challenge includes these experiences.

Jennifer Sparks is the Founder and CEO of Vacmobile Corporation.  She has been successful as a marketing and communications professional with agency, corporate, governmental and non-profit organizations.  Sparks graduated Cum Laude from the University of Chicago with a degree in European History. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Paris, France. She earned her master’s degree from Northwestern University.

Sparks began her professional career working at Young and Rubicam advertising agency in Chicago. Sparks later served as New Mexico Governor Richardson’s Public Information Officer for the 89 school districts managed by the New Mexico Public Education Department. Sparks was the creator and producer of a popular family travel and recreational segment for New Mexico’s NBC affiliate show, “Good Day New Mexico.”  From 2012 to the 2017 Sparks continued her career as a public relations and marketing consultant and legislative advocate doing work for Habitat for Humanity International, the Pew Center for the States, Save the Children and the USDA.  From 2018-2019 Sparks served as Director of Marketing and Communications for a Georgia based healthcare IT company, Clearwave Corporation.

As a parent of three children and stepmother to another son, the paper management of vaccination records had always been a source of aggravation to her. Following the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, Sparks is determined to bring vaccination records into the 21st century.  She formed Vacmobile Corporation, a Delaware Corporation, and filed a patent for her innovative suite of vaccination records solutions. Vacmobile is a mobile app that obtains digital vaccination records from state registries and enables individuals to digitally transmit those records or have a QR code generated from the app for on-demand proof of vaccinations or covid-19 test results.

Why did you decide to get involved with United Way of Greater Atlanta?

There’s great power in people uniting together as a community to help children and families cope with the challenges of poverty including homelessness and food insecurity. I got involved with United Way of Greater Atlanta because I felt our charitable dollars would have the greatest impact by giving to the United Way of Greater Atlanta. I was very moved by United Way’s Child Well-Being Campaign.

Who or what inspires you to give back to the community?

At a certain point in my life, I was a single mother raising three children on my own. Now that I am in a different place, I am thankful that I have the ability to give back.

Why did you decide to become a Tocqueville Society member?

People can’t reach their full potential unless they have their basic needs met. I decided to join the Tocqueville Society because I wanted to be part of a group dedicated to creating long lasting meaningful changes in the communities being served.

What is something unique about you that most people wouldn’t know about you?

I have a black belt in Tae Kwondo, and I speak four languages: English, French, Italian and Spanish.

What are the top priorities of your business/industry at the moment?

At Vacmobile, our top priority is helping people navigate the pandemic. We are bringing vaccination records into the 21st century. We are deploying our Vacmobile app solution to help schools, universities, and all types of businesses large and small create “safe bubbles” for their employees and their customers. The Vacmobile health pass allows individuals to get back to face-to-face interactions.

What advice do you have to navigate the COVID-19 crisis (from a personal and/or corporate perspective)?

The truth is, there are ways we can protect ourselves and our families. The good news is that companies like Vacmobile and others are developing new, innovative strategies to fight the virus. We have seen unparalleled challenges during this pandemic, but we have also seen astonishing scientific breakthroughs. So, my advice to navigate the Covid-19 crisis is the same advice I have repeated to myself throughout my adult life in both my personal and professional life—stay focused– let data not emotion drive decisions. I was a history major in college, so I tend to look for historical clues. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic lasted from 1918 to 1920. As time went by, people let their guard down and that pandemic fatigue paved the way for 2nd and 3rd waves of infections. Let’s not make the same mistakes. Let’s stay vigilant. In 2021, let’s leverage all the tools and knowledge at our disposal to bring our communities back together again safely.

Thank you, Jennifer, for being a Tocqueville Society member and a key leader in the healthcare community!

To get more involved with the Tocqueville Society, please contact tocqueville@unitedwayatlanta.org.