Change Agent

Last spring, when Patty Avery felt overwhelmed by the seemingly sorry state of the world, she turned to someone she knew could relate — a friend who had started a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. When she wondered how she could possibly create a measurable improvement in people’s lives, her friend cut her off, saying, “That’s easy. You pick big problems — and solve them.”

It was a refreshing reminder of purpose for Avery, who has taken on a host of big problems, both in Evansville and beyond — homelessness, adolescent self-esteem, cancer, and AIDS among them. She has played an instrumental role in projects and organizations such as Art for Life, the American Cancer Society, Girls in Bloom, and the Homeless Youth Council. Her efforts may have garnered her significant recognition — including three Athena award nominations, a Leadership Evansville award, and a “Phenomenal Woman” award from the University of Southern Indiana — but at the heart of Avery’s life is a passion for social issues, a keen sense of justice, and a core belief that human lives are intertwined. “I’m a social entrepreneur,” she explains. “What I’ve always done is spot a gap and figure out how to fix it. I really believe we all have a responsibility to each other.”

Her values developed early in life, when she, her siblings, and her young single mother were taken in by her maternal grandparents. “They were a young married couple during the Depression,” says Avery. “Grandma talked about how they would go to bed hungry and how they could eat when (government-created Works Progress Administration) jobs were available. They could literally survive thanks to the programs (former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) started. Listening to their stories made me realize early on that people’s lives could be impacted by timely, positive action.”

Her grandparents’ stories sparked Avery’s own childhood hobby: writing letters to then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. “I wasn’t sharing any great policy advice in second, third, or fourth grades,” she laughs, “but he had an absolute commitment to answering every single letter.” When her letters (congratulating Johnson on the birth of his grandchildren, for one) were answered by pamphlets of information about the presidency and the White House, Avery quickly became fascinated with the political process and its impact on the lives of Americans.

But in later years, it was Johnson’s legacy of the Great Society that would come to resonate with Avery. The series of social reforms — including civil rights legislation, a war on poverty, and the authorization of Medicare and Medicaid — spoke to what she deeply believed in: the empowerment of people living on the fringes of society.

After marrying young and starting a family, she led a stable, comfortable life in Illinois. She still felt compelled, though, to serve, and that undeniable call prompted her family to sell their home and move to Amsterdam in 1985 with an interdenominational mission organization to help revitalize a long-neglected halfway house. Five years later, the family moved once again — this time to Sao Paulo, Brazil, a crowded, sprawling metropolis of nearly 22 million people, many of them affected by poverty, crime, and homelessness. There, they started a shelter for homeless teenage girls, some of whom were HIV-positive or unwed mothers.

After more than 15 years abroad, Avery moved to Evansville in 1999, where she started a new chapter as a change agent. She landed a job as a reporter and producer at WTVW FOX 7, earned a radio/TV journalism degree from the University of Southern Indiana, and then switched careers to work as an administrative assistant in the Vanderburgh County Commissioner’s office, where she organized many special activities and outreach events.

Being a newcomer to the city didn’t faze Avery, who jumped right in to such civic and charitable organizations as the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, a 24-hour fundraising event observed nationwide that honors cancer survivors and remembers loved ones who lost their battles with the disease — including Avery’s maternal grandparents. Avery’s introduction to the event came at a time when she was experiencing a degree of culture shock after returning from abroad, pondering national identity and what it meant to be an American. She found her answer in the optimistic, hard-working volunteers. “Relay for Life gives regular people a tool — I’m not a scientist. I won’t discover the cure,” she says. “It’s so uniquely American to believe that if we do what we’re capable of, we can change the future.”

Avery is now Indiana’s lead ambassador to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, which aims to further the fight against cancer by influencing public policy. In 2006, she traveled to Washington, D.C., with 10,000 other volunteers from around the nation, encouraging Capitol Hill politicians to vote for such pertinent issues as funding cancer research and regulating tobacco use. She visits Capitol Hill every year to lead the Indiana delegation, writes letters to newspaper editors, calls elected officials, and carries on the kind of grassroots action that makes Relay for Life such a success. “We do it because we believe that if we bake enough brownies and shake enough buckets, we’ll win this battle for a cure a few dollars at a time,” Avery wrote in her essay entitled “I Believe in Community,” which she submitted last year for Evansville’s One Book/One Community’s This I Believe essay project.

Another cause to which Avery is unwaveringly committed is AIDS awareness, support, and education. Even though she worked with HIV-positive adults in the Netherlands and children in Brazil, she never expected the devastating virus to affect her own family. But 16 years ago, on a perfectly normal Tuesday afternoon in Sao Paulo, she answered the phone call that would change her life: Her father called to tell her that her younger sister, Dida, had died that day at age 22.

Avery had visited her sister in the United States just weeks earlier, returning to Brazil brimming with hope because Dida — who had battled substance abuse problems — had found a job and made plans to go back to school. But on that Tuesday afternoon, she also learned Dida had been diagnosed with HIV two weeks before her tragic death.

Reeling with grief and outrage, Avery was wracked with survivor’s guilt. But in a moment of clarity, she realized that she could raise support and awareness for others living with AIDS. “It’s like a joyful responsibility to give back,” she says, and for four years, Avery has served on the small but fiercely dedicated committee that plans Art for Life. This annual art auction benefits the Tri-State Alliance and AIDS Resource Group, organizations that support area residents affected by HIV or AIDS. “There’s healing for me personally,” says Avery, “in taking on something that took something from me.” At last November’s event, she shared her sister’s story with the audience, which included her husband of four years, Indiana State Rep. Dennis Avery. “Since 1993, AIDS has been on my hit list,” she told the crowd before presenting event chair Wally Paynter with a $5,000 sponsorship check from her employer, Old National Bank.

Her boss, Old National Bank President and CEO Bob Jones, is one of her biggest encouragers. He enthusiastically nominated Avery for an Athena award (calling her “passionate about (her) community, a business leader, and a role model for all”) and applauds her efforts in serving as project manager for a new city initiative scheduled to launch next month: Bank on Evansville, an effort to make banking more accessible to low- to moderate-income families. It’s the kind of grassroots project that most inspires Avery — a partnership with local nonprofits to empower all members of a community. “When people in Evansville believe there is a true need for something,” says Avery, “they move heaven and earth to make it happen.”

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