by TRACY ZOLLINGER TURNER
Whether it’s ensuring that local elementary school children have winter coats or cheering up the Bloomington skyline with hot air balloons, Vanessa McClary cares that the work she does in the community has tangible results. A dedicated volunteer and leader in Kiwanis for two decades, “I don’t talk about me a lot,” she says. “I’m passionate. I’m committed. I think I encourage others in a lot of different ways to be more involved in their community … but ultimately, it’s not about me, it’s about the impact of what I do.”
McClary moved to Bloomington from the Evansville area a little over 30 years ago with her husband, Michael, who grew up here. She first encountered Kiwanis 20 years ago, when her daughter Victoria—the youngest of her three children—was a third grader at University Elementary School. “I heard about Kiwanis having a program for youth that would teach them about leadership while serving others,” she says.
As she began to witness her daughter’s growth from shyness to outspoken leadership through the elementary school arm of the organization, K-Kids, followed by middle and high school Kiwanis programs, “I started to learn about volunteerism through her,” she says.
McClary’s involvement expanded as she founded South Central Indiana Kiwanis in 2006, which created more equity in its opportunities for membership by offering lower dues and holding meetings in the evenings instead of at midday to better accommodate working people. She has since served as a lieutenant governor and governor for Kiwanis and was recently named the chair of its International Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
South Central Indiana Kiwanis has created programs such as the Kiwanis Closet at Arlington Heights Elementary School, which offers winter clothes and easily prepared foods to students, as well as a program called BUG at Templeton Elementary School that stands for “Bring Up Grades.” “It recognizes students that are normally not recognized, as long as they maintain all their grades without dropping any and bring up at least one over the semester,” she says.
McClary was also the impetus behind the annual Kiwanis Indiana Balloon Fest fundraiser.
Her commitment to community service has been recognized several times, through a United Way Spirit Award, a Black History Living Legend award from the City of Bloomington, and a Distinguished Hoosier Award from the governor in 2014, among others.
While the political landscape of the past four years has been rough, McClary sees opportunity for change in what it has revealed. “You have to know what you’re up against to move forward,” she says. “I heard something years ago that I share whenever I can, which is, ‘Commitment is doing what you said you would do long after the mood you said it in has left you.’ I think we all need to make some commitments to have as much positive impact on our city, our state, our country as we can.”