Oklahoma nonprofit's director follows her childhood dreams of volunteering
Relay for Life team captain.
YWCA Economic Empowerment program volunteer and project manager through the Junior League of Oklahoma City.
United Way of Central Oklahoma tutor program.
Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma Leadership Council.
Festival of the Arts volunteer in Oklahoma City.
On the surface, there might not be a quick link among these five events and programs.
But look a little closer and there stands devoted civic volunteer Paula Wackenheim, 32, of Oklahoma City.
It’s no cliche that Wackenheim’s list goes on and on.
But her heart, her time, her knowledge and her care continues to make a special stop at each effort. Whatever she is doing at the time is the most important.
“My parents always emphasized the idea of service as a civic duty and were firm believers that both my twin brother and I should somehow be of service once we graduated college,” Wackenheim said. “After our graduation from OU, I joined Teach For America and spent three years teaching in rural northwest New Mexico on the Navajo reservation. My brother became a commissioned officer in the United States Army.
“My parents didn’t give back to the community in big ways, but I have a lot of memories of my mother, in particular, doing a lot of charity knitting for various organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She was very involved in, and still is, knitting for organizations like Warm Up America and Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Knitting is a big passion of hers, and she has definitely used it in a way to benefit others.”
Also, when Wackenheim was 12 years old, she read a number of different news articles “about young men and women who were joining a new national service program called AmeriCorps, which was started by President Bill Clinton.”
“At the time, the opportunity to participate in something like a domestic Peace Corps just seemed so cool to me that I knew it was something I had to do,” Wackenheim said. “When I graduated from OU, I was very excited to join the AmeriCorps program Teach For America and have the chance to teach in a rural part of the country where I might not have otherwise gone.
“Throughout many different community service activities and my work in the education and nonprofit sector I have met countless people who are making an impact on their community and who’ve inspired me to do more.
“There are just so many people who are working at a very grassroots level to improve education and health outcomes, it really is exciting to see how service, no matter how small, can benefit others.”
Today, she is the executive director for Red River Community Corps, a local nonprofit organization that oversees two AmeriCorps programs: the Oklahoma Serves AmeriCorps program and the Oklahoma In Action AmeriCorps program.
Wackenheim worked as the program director for the Oklahoma In Action AmeriCorps program, “which engages Oklahomans in the fight against poverty,” for four years.
Last year she stepped into the executive director role. In her current position, she manages the Oklahoma Serves program, which partners with nonprofits to enrich youth and expand opportunity.
“Between both programs we have 93 AmeriCorps members serving at approximately 44 nonprofit agencies throughout the state,” she said.
Sometimes Wackenheim has the opportunity to help many at once. Other times, her assistance is centered on an individual.
“During my time as a volunteer tutor with the United Way of Central Oklahoma, I had the chance to read once a week, every week with the same second-grade student,” she said. “I didn’t know it when I started reading with him, but apparently he had entered second grade behind grade level and was struggling in reading.
“By the end of the year I was told he’d improved by two grade levels and was on track with the rest of his classmates. I like to think that I, in some small way, helped to contribute to his success. It was quite rewarding to watch his progress over the course of the year.”
At the time, the opportunity to participate in something like a domestic Peace Corps just seemed so cool to me that I knew it was something I had to do. When I graduated from OU, I was very excited to join the AmeriCorps program Teach For America and have the chance to teach in a rural part of the country where I might not have otherwise gone.”
Paula Butler Wackenheim,