By Vivian J. Malauulu
Every year for the past six years, thousands upon thousands of women gather at the Long Beach Convention Center to attend the annual, and always sold-out, Women’s Conference hosted by California First Lady Maria Shriver. Women arrive from all over the country for a variety of reasons. Some attend just to see the celebrities– more than 150 famous and fearless newsmakers graced the various stages at this year’s three-day event that began on Sunday with a march for Alzheimer’s and ended on Tuesday evening with the Minerva Awards. Other women attend for the exhibits and workshops hosted by hundreds of businesses and organizations. Many women make it an annual road trip with their family, friends, or co-workers to mingle and network.
Pennsylvania native Alaina Howard attended this year’s conference for the first time as a volunteer with the sole purpose of witnessing first-hand what it takes to put on a conference of this magnitude. She plans to use this experience to launch her own conference-consulting business in the near future.
“I have volunteered at dozens of conferences for many, many years,” said Howard, “but this has to be the biggest, most incredible one of all. The energy at the Convention Center is electrifying. The logistics involved in executing a conference of this magnitude is amazing, and I am learning so much.”
This year’s conference theme was “It’s Time,” which certainly applied to Howard. Her imminent business, which she is just about ready to launch, is called Person-to-Person. It will target nonprofit organizations needing to host conferences to boost membership, publicity, and revenue. Years of volunteering at numerous other conferences across the country have given Howard valuable experience and a very unique perspective of what is involved in coordinating similar events.
“I am really focusing on how the special guests are handled at this conference,” said Howard, who served as informal security surrounding the main stage during Monday evening’s “A Night at the Village” event. She commended the conference planning staff on their treatment of everyone– celebrity, attendee, worker, or volunteer– with the utmost respect. As an added benefit of volunteering in this capacity, Howard had front-row seats for two of the most anticipated speakers of the night.
“Jane Fonda’s testimony was truly inspiring,” Howard said, “and I couldn’t believe Paula Deen started off with just $200. They, along with the other speakers, made me feel like I could really do anything.”
This year’s ticket prices for the different conference events ranged from $50 to 100 and sold out in less than one hour. Volunteers were admitted free.
Some of the most notable events for which Howard has volunteered include conferences for the Children’s Defense Fund organized by Marian Wright Edelman, the Momentum Awards hosted by the Women’s Foundation of California, and the National Head Start Conference.
“Volunteering at these events is truly empowering,” said Howard, who, with every conference she attends, strives to learn something new that will ultimately help her with her own business. “I am able to interact first-hand with positive, forward-thinking people who are committed to making a difference in our world in an extraordinary atmosphere.” Howard, who has never been compensated for her time as a conference volunteer, has to take time off from her job as an outreach specialist at Cal State University Dominguez Hills, in exchange for a T-shirt, a parking pass, meals while on duty, and an occasional souvenir. “But I always walk away with much, much more than just that,” she added.
Another first-time volunteer, originally from Northern California, was Long Beach resident Shirley Huling, who served as high-level security prior to First Lady Michelle Obama’s appearance on Tuesday. Huling has plans to launch a nonprofit organization to help women ease the transition between new motherhood and their careers.
“Day care issues forced me to leave a career I loved and excelled in when I gave birth to my son four years ago,” said Huling, who was an executive in fashion retail with Nordstrom. “I had to compromise between my new baby and my career, and no woman should have to do that.” Huling wants to help companies provide on-site day care for mothers who want to continue working after having children.
“This conference is definitely the place to be to meet the right people and to learn the ins and outs of forming nonprofits and other businesses,” said Huling. “I’ve met so many women who are excited about my idea and who have offered to help me get it off the ground.” Huling plans to volunteer at next year’s conference with her nonprofit, Plan-It, already operational. She encourages other women who have personal and professional goals to volunteer as a means of networking to realize those goals.
“I usually submit a letter of inquiry to an organization asking if volunteers are needed and expressing my interest in assisting them,” said Howard. “They are usually very receptive to and grateful for volunteers who want nothing in return but to attend.” Howard registered to volunteer for the Women’s Conference online in March and obtained the confirmation she was waiting for in June. She received periodic emails and updates, and last week was told where to check in on the date of the event. “This is a very smooth operation, considering the enormity of the conference.”
By Vivian J. Malauulu