Tucsonan Shari Gootter spends her time changing the lives of others in a wide variety of ways. Self-employed as a therapist and yoga instructor, she works daily to help people as they improve themselves emotionally and physically; however, her work as a volunteer for several organizations in Tucson is equally life-changing.
One organization to which Gootter donates her time is the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in collaboration with the office of Rep. Raul Grijalva. Although Gootter is paid to staff the program, over the last 11 years she has put in a number of unpaid hours with the JLTC, which she calls a life-changing program. “We work with students for a number of months on everything from diversity training, leadership, cultural awareness. It’s a combination of personal growth and bringing together and building bridges between two communities,” she says.
Every year, teenagers from all over Tucson apply to be part of the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition. Those who are selected after review of their applications and interviews are exposed to a variety of speakers and training around a topic selected by the group. This year, the students involved chose the issue of immigration as their focus. Gootter and her volunteer assistants, Lew Hamburger and Lisa Kondrat, accompany the teenagers on an advocacy trip to Washington, D.C., where the students meet with legislators and other officials to discuss their views on the issue and lobby for change. “It’s intense and amazing. It’s such a joy to be able to watch the kids, both collectively and as a group, develop. It’s beyond rewarding and touching,” says Gootter.
Working to help visually impaired individuals is also very rewarding for Gootter, whose own vision is impaired by uveitis and secondary glaucoma. Currently serving as the vice president of the board of directors for Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired (SAAVI), Gootter has been involved with the organization for close to 15 years. “The organization has grown. We now serve individuals in Phoenix and Yuma. SAAVI provides amazing rehabilitation, but takes into account the needs of the individual,” says Gootter. The organization offers a wide range of services to meet the needs of the diverse population that it serves. “It could be anything from learning how to cook again to preparing someone to be able to go to school, and they’ve started offering programs for children and families of the visually impaired,” explains Gootter. “It’s really amazing the work that is being done there.”
Gootter also volunteers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “It’s a guide dog school that I have received three guide dogs from. I do some work to help raise awareness for the organization,” she says. Public speaking to groups of children and adults about the importance of a guide dog in the life of someone who is visually impaired is one way that she gives of her time.
Although all of the organizations Gootter is involved with hold special meaning for her, one organization is closest to her heart. “My brother died suddenly 12 years ago, from sudden cardiac arrest, and in his honor and memory we started the Steven M. Gootter foundation with family and friends,” says Gootter, who is on the board of directors. According to the foundation website, “The Steven M. Gootter Foundation is dedicated to saving lives by defeating sudden cardiac death through increased awareness, education, scientific research and the distribution of AEDs [automated external defibrillators].” Gootter is proud of what the foundation has been able to accomplish. “We’ve endowed a chair at the University of Arizona, and we have donated over 200 AEDs to local organizations, churches, synagogues, and the various police departments to give AEDs to first responders.”
Crediting her parents, Paulette and Joe Gootter, for her belief in the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community, Gootter looks to them as role models. “Growing up, it was modeled for me by my parents. They were and are both active in a variety of organizations, but not in a showy way. It was just part of what we do, part of our core values.”
Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.