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Polk Vision Head 'Dynamic, Strong'

June 25, 2012

The Lakeland Ledger

LAKELAND | The story of how Polk Vision director Sara Roberts found her calling in nonprofit work began with an awful boss.

After graduating from Florida Southern College in 1993, Roberts interned at a large advertising and public relations firm in Orlando. Her boss there was a mercurial figure whom Roberts likens to Miranda Priestly, the infamously tough fashion editor from "The Devil Wears Prada."

"I blocked out her name, that's how bad it was," Roberts said. "I got yelled at for 45 minutes one day for saying ‘yes ma'am.' Just a scathing rip about ‘I'm not that much older than you!'?"

The experience led Roberts to take a job with the YMCA, which began a successful career in the nonprofit sector that most recently included becoming executive director of Polk Vision in April.

Before that, Roberts had used her skills for a project of great personal significance: creating a foundation in the name of her late husband, Randy, who died suddenly three years ago at age 36.

"It was a completely happy accident to land in the nonprofit field," Roberts said during a recent interview. "You like that feeling you get from helping other people or making something better. It's self- and community-serving at the same time."

DEEP COMMUNITY TIES

Roberts, 40, grew up in Davenport in a family with deep community ties. Her father, Peter Rust, is the city's current mayor and her mother, Harriet, formerly served on the City Commission. The family once ran a flower shop and Christmas store in town.

After graduating from Haines City High School in 1989, Roberts headed to Florida Southern College to study advertising and public relations. She initially struggled with her major and thought about teaching, instead — a too-safe backup plan that she had hoped to avoid.

An adviser at the college talked her out of it.

"She said, ‘You can teach Sunday school. You need to stay in communications,'?" Roberts said. "It was the best advice I ever got."

She eventually would begin her nonprofit career in earnest working for the Lakeland Regional Medical Center Foundation and then Best Buddies International, a Miami-based organization founded in 1989 that provides friendship and employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Roberts grew along with Best Buddies, managing high school programs for the organization and then becoming its director in Florida, opening offices in Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville.

It was exciting and humbling work.

"In the nonprofit world, you're kind of a jack of all trades and master of none," Roberts said. "When I was at Best Buddies, we would joke about it all the time. I was hired by (Best Buddies founder and nephew of John F. Kennedy) Anthony Kennedy Shriver. I met Eunice Kennedy Shriver on more than one occasion and sat with her at a conference table and talked about disabilities. That's kind of glamorous. But then at the same time, I'm moving all of the ice chests for the Buddy event."

In 1996, while living in Orlando and putting together an advisory board for Best Buddies, Sara found a volunteer in a Miami native and young PR professional named Randy.

"He was a big community service guy, too. He had grown up in an environment in his family of giving back and being engaged, being active. So it was kind of a nice fit," Roberts said. "We were friends for a while … and then we started dating. We were together from the time we started dating onward."

The couple married in 1999 and moved to Atlanta two years later when Randy became a lobbyist for Cingular Wireless. A daughter, Charlotte, arrived in 2002 and the family moved to Lakeland the year after for Randy's new job as a lobbyist for Publix Super Markets.

The Robertses had their second child, a son named Samuel, in 2006. Sara left Best Buddies International and worked as a nonprofit consultant. She gradually transitioned to being a full-time mom.

"But then in '09, obviously, the world ended," she said.

A LEGACY FOR HER HUSBAND

On a Friday morning in February 2009, Randy was getting up to go jogging when he suddenly collapsed from a heart aneurysm and died. He was 36.

"It was surreal. And he had just been to the doctor. Talk about the rug from being pulled out from under you," Roberts said. "You're in such shock … the first few days, you have to remind yourself to breathe, and that gets better and you start realizing the magnitude of it all."

Just days after her husband passed away, Roberts gathered with friends and started planning what would become the Randy Roberts Foundation, a Lakeland-based group that provides college scholarships for students who are active in their communities.

To date, the foundation has committed $160,000 worth of scholarships for 16 youths and also runs the Congressional Classroom program for U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.

"What started off as being an emotional outpouring to continue Randy's legacy has kind of grown and blossomed into something much bigger and broader than we thought it would be," said Clayton Hollis, a foundation board member and vice president of public affairs for Lakeland-based Publix.

The foundation was "one of those lights through the darkness," Roberts said. "Randy wanted to do great things like that. He loved this community, he loved Lakeland. He loved being in Polk County."

POLK VISION

Roberts said she and Randy always had a plan that she would return to work after Samuel started kindergarten. Things still turned out that way.

As executive director of Polk Vision, she oversees a partnership of businesses, government and other organizations that work on common goals concerning education, economic development, infrastructure and quality-of-life issues.

"I've told everybody I feel like a freshman in college because I'm learning so many different things all at once," she said. "You might be in the morning talking about education and Common Core Standards, and then in the afternoon, you're at a meeting about public transportation, so you really have to be fluid and accepting of whatever topic is at hand at the moment. But I love it. I've enjoyed every minute of it."

Friends say Roberts is well suited for the job.

"She's incredibly sincere and sharp as a tack. I think that's what makes her a perfect fit for Polk Vision and any organization she's involved with," said Callie Neslund, a public affairs manager for The Mosaic Company. "You know when she's in charge and trying to achieve an objective, it's done very thoroughly."

Hollis describes Roberts as a "dynamic, strong and capable leader."

"She has this innate knack for bringing disparate groups together and finding common ground, so you can build relationships from that," he said.

Still, Roberts said her professional development has included working on what she calls an Achilles heel: "really being thoughtful before I speak."

"I think sometimes I might offer up an opinion that in hindsight I'm like, ‘Ugh, maybe I shouldn't have said that,'?" Roberts said. "I'm very self-deprecating and I think sometimes that can be misconstrued as arrogance, or not knowing what I'm doing, or being very sarcastic. I have to temper that."

Outside of work, Roberts said she enjoys attending local events like the Mayfaire art festival in Lakeland, as well as going to Disney World with family or taking in a Gators football game at the University of Florida. She's also an active member of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland and likes to read about and follow politics.

After Randy's death, Roberts said, it took a good while before she began to feel like herself again. She recalls pledging to herself, and her children, that the family's pain would not cause them to live bitter lives.

And they haven't, she said.

"Everybody has a choice. You get to choose how you react to things, and what you do with circumstances," Roberts said. "Grief is a universal thing; we're all going to lose people we love. I think how you react and what you do with it is really up to you."


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