Name: Shawna Kathleen Abston
Role: Acts Proposal Officer
Location: Washington DC, USA
Shawna, in her newly created role of Acts Proposal Officer, is a relatively recent addition to Random Acts. Remember our profile with Acts Manager Laura Hewitt-Hales? At that time, Laura was the entire Acts department all on her own, and as Random Acts continues to grow and grow, it is imperative that our actual acts of kindness have all the hands-on TLC that they need. With the addition of Acts Proposal Officers, we are able to dedicate more specified attention and facilitation to every act proposal that comes our way, from our staff, patrons and supporters.
We are lucky to have Shawna on board giving her all to our cause, not least because she is an incredibly, almost unbelievably busy person. After a career moving around the USA for her jobs – first on a cruise line, then as an executive assistant in two huge global companies (Hilton and Mars) – this North Hollywood native is settled in Washington D.C. as a personal assistant for a high profile private household, and in her spare time outside of her full-time work hours, she fulfills commitments to no less than four volunteer roles!
Aside from her role with Random Acts, Shawna volunteers at two local theater companies as an assistant stage manager and follow-spot operator, at Mount Vernon (the historic home of George Washington) as an 18th-century-costumed interpreter performing demonstrations, and she recently became a volunteer with the National Park Service, with her first shift taking place at the Washington Monument. In addition, she also plays the saxophone in the LGBTQ+ marching band Different Drummers, who perform in various Pride parades all over the East Coast. “It’s insane, I’m never home,” she says. “I love it so much!”
Between the music, the costume reenactments, and the stage management it is safe to assume Shawna grew up doing a lot of performance and arts. It is her major passion in life.
“I started doing theater at age 5 and never stopped (I am 41 just FYI). When I was 12, I started playing the cello, then in college I switched to band instruments and learned them all except bassoon and trombone. I have played in every kind of ensemble you can think of. Drumline, string quartet, marching bands, orchestras, everything! My entire family is arts-oriented, I do acting and musical instruments, my mom is a singer, my sister is an artist. Arts are HUGE for us. When I was 19 I started getting into film and television, and began working as a background actor for several years. I was in everything… Charmed, Gilmore Girls, ER, lots of films such as L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights. My entire life has revolved around the arts. Then, I got involved in my early 30’s in film production and shot several independent films in Las Vegas. I started out as script supervisor, and then worked my way up to 1st Assistant Director. So, there really is not anything in film/tv/music that I have not done. It has been an AMAZING life.”
As a self-described workaholic who is always looking for new things to do – Shawna recalls begging her mother to give her some of her office work to complete, sitting in front of the computer formatting floppy disks that were bigger than her hands – and as someone who has been so heavily involved in making and creating various types of art, the line between working on a passion project and active volunteering can often become a bit blurred, but Shawna herself has a clear turning point in her journey of giving back.
“I’ve always had 24/7 jobs until I moved to Las Vegas in 2013. When I moved there, the job changed and I suddenly found myself with WAY too much free time. I volunteered to work on a student film with someone I met over Twitter, because basically none of the film crew had any experience on a set at all. I went in thinking it would be a fun weekend. It turned into two years and five films. I realized that volunteering fulfilled me in a way I had never been fulfilled before. It’s hard to explain. It’s basically this…
“We grew up having a lot of fun, yes, but we had no money at all. We benefited from random acts of kindness (many from strangers) up until I was a teenager. The biggest thing I recall is that someone we did not even know called a radio station’s charity line to ask them to install an air conditioner in our apartment while my sister was recovering from brain surgery. I have never, ever forgotten that. The other big thing was that I did not drive until I was 25, and I cannot possibly count the number of times someone went out of their way to drive me around to sets, and school, and all the other things busy young adults do. I never had a chance to pay any of that back.
“So when I moved to Las Vegas, and had all this free time, I realized I had a huge void in my soul because I now had money, status, and everything I had ever wanted. Except that I was not happy at all. Volunteering filled that void the moment I first showed up to “work for free.” I felt like I was finally able to pay forward my good fortune to someone who needed a helping hand…now I was the one driving poor college students around to their film sets, you know? It made me so happy to kind of repay my debt, so in Las Vegas my life went full circle. I went from the one getting rides to film sets, to BEING the ride to film sets. It was amazing, and it just clicked in me that day… To make a long story short, volunteering for me is basically paying forward all the good will I have received over so many years. It feels good, and it makes me happy.”
Random Acts, however, is the first time that Shawna has volunteered for a fundraising charity. After starting to work for a philanthropist last year, she realized that even if she could not throw huge wads of cash at a charity, she could give her time, like she did in Las Vegas, to help make what we do for others possible. So the other volunteer stuff she does is for fun, she admits, and she loves it. It helps communities, but it is basically for her enjoyment in the end. Random Acts, as she puts it, is for everyone else.
“I never really volunteered or looked into charitable organizations because I did not have the money. I assumed to ‘work for free’ you need to have money to do nice things for people. You do not. You need time, and a beating heart, and a soul. And that’s it. […] The biggest acts of kindness I have been involved with do not involve throwing money or things around. It has been people-to-people, fulfilling the need for human contact, looking someone in the eye and paying attention to them, validating them, letting them know they matter. That does not take money.”
And so with this mindset, Shawna is able to help the staff and supporters of Random Acts to make the most of what the organization is able to do. Her donated time – and that of all of our volunteers – allows us to raise the most money possible from supporters without high outgoing costs, and allows us to send that money onwards to the places it is most sorely needed.
Shawna discovered Random Acts in a rather interesting way. She first came across the organization when she was looking for a team-building event at a company. All the employees were fairly new and so Shawna was tasked with finding some kind of group activity for them to get to know each other better. They ended up not going with Random Acts because it wasn’t quite the thing they were looking for, but something about the organization stuck with her after she had first researched it.
“I kept going back to the website over and over long afterwards. The fact that it was all volunteer, that there was such a wide focus, that it was not limited to one or a few causes… It just grabbed me. I had never seen Supernatural. I just silently stalked the Twitter and the blog for a long time and eventually realized, hey, I have some free time. Let’s fill that right up! And then I clicked on vacancies and here I am! I read a story that was on the blog about Random Acts buying a full-size violin for a girl that had outgrown her half-size violin. So as a musician, that sealed the deal. I was like, okay, I need to be involved in this. Not want, NEED. And especially as a musician whose family could not afford my instrument when I was a kid. I was that little girl. you know?”
The versatility of what Random Acts can do and what kind of things we can achieve was a huge draw for Shawna. “I don’t like limits and borders and boxes. Random Acts has none of that. We do everything,” she explains. And as acts proposal officer she is perfectly positioned to help people action their best ideas for doing kindness. Her role involves behind-the-scenes coordination of the funding requests that come in from supporters. She fields lots of emails and calls to make sure the process moves along swiftly, and that supporters feel important, and valued and cared for.
“It takes time to think up something nice to do, time to figure out how to do it, time to figure out the forms, and even more time to actually do it. So whatever I can do to make it easier, I will do. I spent 40 minutes on the phone last week walking something through ideas of what to put in a care package for foster children. I do regional representative and staff acts, holiday acts, hunger acts… A few people who have reached out to me feel like perhaps what they are trying to do is too big, too cumbersome, too ambitious. Part of the fun is to say no, it is not too big at all, this is a cinch and here is how to get it done!”
We asked Shawna for some advice for supporters who might be stuck or overwhelmed in coming up with ideas to apply for funding to complete an act of kindness. And as much as we like to think outside the box in terms of what we can achieve on this planet, Shawna’s advice kind of pivots the other way – but it makes perfect sense and it is completely on the money in terms of recognizing certain ways to help people.
“I think that the more possibilities there are, the harder it is to get started. People (including me) tend to get frozen in indecision. The key is to aim small but go big. I would say start with a need that is already there, and then be creative. For example, I recently donated a musical instrument to a child in need. I started off saying ‘Okay, who needs a clarinet?’ Then I realized, ‘Hey. I am literally surrounded by musicians every single day because of the band I play in.’ So I am reaching out to each of them to see if they have any instruments laying around. Musicians generally tend to have at least one or two! And in January I am going to collect them all and donate to a local youth orchestra for at-risk children.”
“And I would actually say start inside the box if you are having trouble figuring out what to do. Remember that needs are very basic. We need to eat. We need to be clothed. We need to be recognized for a job well done. We need to have our souls filled with love and light. So identify what that basic need is, on a practical and logical level. Ask how you can help, if possible. Identify the solution, then get creative in solve it. I think starting outside the box is going the wrong direction. Climb out of the box once you figured out exactly what that person or group really needs on the most basic level, and make sure that you are aiming to fulfill THAT.”
In terms of a specialty subject, it is probably no surprise to hear that if Shawna could dedicate a special Random Acts project or campaign herself, it would be focused on supporting at-risk children, particularly teenagers, in the arts.
“I hate to think where I would be now if my mom had not listened to me when at 12 years old I said I wanted to play the tuba. Which was ridiculous, of course. But she listened, she called my school, and after laughing for about an hour my junior high school counselor put me into the music program. Incidentally, my mom ending up marrying him, so I am probably the only person in the world who can say a tuba lead to true love. Anyway, my entire life now would have been so different without that program. And not for the better.”
Arts, Shawna explains, keep kids productive, responsible, and fulfilled. The same goes for sports programs, but that’s not, Shawna notes, her particular area of interest. (Not to worry, Jade’s got that covered.) At-risk kids cannot afford musical instruments, acting classes, vocal coaching or art supplies and the idea that the arts are not a need but a luxury is a prevalent one under some governments, and funding is cut for it before any other school subject. The power of these programs often lies within the ideas of a child’s agency and control – the activity is something that they have chosen to be a part of, they have expressed autonomy in joining, and the responsibility and drive that comes along with it is not a burden but a choice.
“Every kid, at some point, is going to make a choice one day to join something big. Whether it is a sports team, the school choir, or a gang, they are going to make the choice. We have to ensure they have good choices, or else they are going to take the bad ones. If the arts are a choice, and are well-funded, and the materials are there, and they have good leaders to guide them, their likelihood of NOT making a bad choice diminishes. Kids in the arts, especially music, are instant team members. As we used to say, there is no “I” in orchestra or band. And that is where everything else begins…when you realize you are part of something bigger than just yourself. I am huge on big things all boiling down to basic needs. And for kids, that need is to belong to a group. And once that need is fulfilled, they can start to fulfill other needs. It is a foundation.”