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45 Years of Impact: Cara Mendelsohn

Cara Mendelsohn started as a volunteer and advocate, but became a volunteer leader and voice in the community for the most vulnerable.

She’s volunteered with many different organizations, from Cub Scouts, Plano Symphony Advisory Board, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, Dallas Anti-Poverty Coalition, Plano ISD, Jewish Community Relations Commission, Plano African American Museum, to Young Men’s Service League, but it is really three organizations that captured her heart.

The first is PTA, where she jokes she was a “serial” PTA president, serving at multiple schools, including as Council President for all of PISD. With 36,000 members, she recalls being able to show the district the impact that parents have that extended beyond parties and equated to millions of dollars in curriculum enhancements and staff appreciation. The council won many awards, including Texas Outstanding Council and the Texas Advocacy Award under her leadership, but she is most proud of helping parents see they can advocate for changes in their local school, district, and at the state level to help all children succeed.

Jewish Family Service, a social service agency serving anyone in need, will always be part of Cara’s life. She was adopted as an infant through the agency, so serving on its board of directors holds a special meaning, with an understanding of how important it is to have a high-quality agency that can assist with complex life issues. Cara is currently past-president of the board and says, “Life can be unpredictable. Certainly everyone will need a hand for themselves or someone in their family at some point in their life. Whether that is due to a job loss, marital discord, mental illness, the loss of a loved one, or other circumstances, having an agency like JFS available to assist is really a gift to the community.”

Through her volunteerism with PTA, Cara encountered a pressing, unspoken issue in the Plano community – homelessness. “It was quite a shock to discover that 3 PTA presidents in Plano were homeless. I knew I had to do something to help them.” As it turned out, she ended up chairing the Collin County Homeless Coalition, first as a volunteer, and later as a consultant. She is most proud of having raised awareness of the issue in the community, collecting data to show the increasing need, and the growth of the Coalition from about two dozen members to nearly 80. “It is part of my values to help the homeless. Seeing so many families in that situation, scared and with no options, just meant I needed to work that much harder and faster to try to get help for them. There were literally hundreds of children sleeping outside and in cars each night.” She currently serves on the Dallas Commission on Homelessness.

When Cara was ready to re-enter the workforce full-time, it was no surprise that she landed at The Samaritan Inn, Collin County’s largest homeless shelter. Today, she works at VNA Texas as Director of Community Engagement, helping raise awareness and dollars for Dallas County Meals on Wheels, hospice care, and private care.

Cara has been recognized for her extensive efforts with awards from many organizations including the Collin County Volunteer of the Year award from our agency, the Community Impact Award from Plano ISD’s Diversity Advisory Committee, two PTA Life Member Awards, the Board Leadership Award from JFS, and the Service Learning Partnership Award from Collin College.

So what advice does Cara have about volunteering? “Use your talents to help others, to do something bigger than yourself, to help your community. It is easy to find your passion and make a difference. Along the way, you’re likely to make some wonderful friends and experience your own personal growth.” Her favorite quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “Let your life be your message,” sums up her servant leadership philosophy that combines her strong voice and leadership to inspire others to join her in improving the community.