A Family Affair: The Adams Family at Swim With Mike
Many generous donors and volunteers have supported Swim With Mike over its 31-year history, but Gordon and Anne Adams made a donation of a different kind—their three daughters. Vanessa, Claire, and Ali—the Adams sisters—all followed in their parents’ footsteps by going to USC, and all three got involved with Swim With Mike.
The sisters are each two years apart. Vanessa and Ali served as back-to-back heads of student staff, each for four years, while middle sister Claire produced the newsletter and volunteered throughout her time at USC.
Gordon and Anne attended the very first “Swim For Mike” event in 1981. Gordon was Executive Director Ron Orr’s roommate in college, and his then-girlfriend Anne was also friends with Orr and Mike Nyeholt. The couple remained close with Orr, who was in their wedding and is Claire’s godfather, and continued to support the Swim With Mike swim-a-thon each year.
“We’ve been going as early as I can remember,” Vanessa says. “I’ve seen pictures of myself not even a year old in the pool.” The Adams family has only missed one out of the 31 Swim With Mike USC events.
All three girls were actively involved in high school activities and volunteering with the Red Cross Club. Even though they didn’t have to come to USC, growing up going to football games and swims influenced them enough that they all ended up as Trojans.
“We had always encouraged them to work while in school,” Gordon says. “They grew up with their ‘Uncle Ron,’ so he encouraged them to come by and Swim With Mike was a natural thing to get involved in.”
When Vanessa arrived in the Fall of 2003, the previous head of the student staff had just graduated. “It was overwhelming the first year because there was so much to know,” Vanessa says. “I have always loved the event and wanted to get involved because I’m inspired by the incredibly amazing scholarship recipients.”
With the help of Orr and board member Kathleen DeCristo, Vanessa quickly learned on the job during her first year. Once she was comfortable, she began to work on improving the organization through communication and increased student and corporate sponsor involvement.
“I noticed that so many students graduate unaware of Swim With Mike.” Vanessa says. “I wanted to hook them while we had their attention so they would be hooked for life.”
Vanessa’s favorite memories are reaching the million dollar mark during her senior year and she traveling to the 2nd Annual SWM Hawaii.“There were always challenges in planning large events there are always little hiccups, so I really learned to not sweat the small stuff” Vanessa says. “Getting to know the recipients and volunteers was what I enjoyed the most. The relationships that I formed made it the best work experience I ever could have imagined.”
During Claire’s time at USC she worked in the athletic department for the football team, and supported SWM through that and as a student volunteer. She took a one and a half year break from school and returned with renewed commitment to SWM, taking on the newsletter and helping her sisters whenever possible.
“I wrote the newsletter for a few years and I got to know more behind the scenes. I talk to a lot of recipients and learned about the wide variety of struggles they had gone through,” Claire says. “It was inspirational and brought a whole different perspective to the swim.”
Working on the newsletter allowed Claire to stay involved with SWM and support Orr without following exactly in her sisters’ footsteps. “I really enjoyed doing the newsletter because I felt like I was a part of Swim With Mike and contributing,” Claire says. “It was fun for me to watch my sisters work with Ron, we each have a different relationship with him. I loved going to the event and knowing my sisters had so much to do with its success. It’s a proud sister moment.”
Ali was a USC spring admit, so she spent one fall semester at the University of San Diego before immediately jumping into SWM’s busy season.
“I was so overwhelmed, Kathleen jokes all the time about how I looked like a deer in the headlights,” Ali says. “There’s so many little things that are involved in putting something so huge together.”Ali shared the job with Ron’s nephew Scotty Orr during her first three years. Together they continued to expand student involvement and streamlined logistics, and took SWM through its 30th anniversary and the related festivities.
“I think student ownership was brought because of the Adams girls, they took ownership of it, got friends to take ownership, and they all learned to pass it on to the next person,” Ron says. “They’ve brought a good legacy of student involvement that will continue when they’re gone which will help the program for years to come.”
According to Ali and Vanessa, working for Swim With Mike gave them invaluable experience for future careers. “You can learn so much from it, it’s more than a student organization or volunteer work, it’s like an internship because you get so much experience,” Ali says. “Whether it’s calling people for goodie bags, marketing, fundraising, you build real-life tools and experiences that you’re going to need for life.”
Being sisters doesn’t mean they’re all the same—each one dealt with things in their own way, and made their own special mark on the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund. “All three of us are very different even though we’re involved in a lot of the same things,” Ali says. “Our strengths are totally different, I think we handle things in different ways but we all get things done.”
One thing they all agreed on is that getting to know the recipients has been the most meaningful part of their experience. “I’ve loved getting to know them, especially the ones at SC because they go to the meetings,” Ali says. “Hearing their stories and getting to know them as people and seeing what amazing things they’re doing is just awesome. You feel rewarded for what you’re doing.”
As parents, Gordon and Anne watched their daughters learn and grow through their SWM experiences. “It was a huge source of personal pride and satisfaction that they found it in themselves to get so involved and to participate in such a deep way,” Gordon says. “It was something we introduced them to but it became their own thing.”
Ali graduated this May with her bachelor’s in business administration and a minor in occupational therapy. She is currently on the job hunt and planning to work for a few years before returning to school to continue her OT studies. Claire majored in communications as an undergrad, then immediately went into a master’s program for online communities. Vanessa studied business and worked in commercial real estate before taking a break to help launch McNelley Media, a social media coaching and consulting firm recently founded by Claire.
All three sisters agree that they will be involved with SWM for the rest of their lives. “It’s not something that you just do for a little while then move on,” Ali says. “It’s something that you’re involved with for life.”
For the Adams family, the annual SWM event at USC has taken on a meaning of its own. “We don’t all live near each other anymore or see each other that often, but it’s a day we all come together,” Claire says. “I look forward to it with my sisters and see how important it is to my mom and dad to be supportive of Ron.”
Ali agreed. “It means a lot to us because we’ve been close with Ron our whole lives,” Ali says. “Showing him how much we care about him and being able to support something that he’s really started, it means a lot to everyone.”
While Orr is confident that Ali has left him with a capable and prepared student staff for next year, he will miss having an Adams girl in the office. “It’s really created a family for me to have the Adams’s involved and I’m going to miss not having one of the daughters here that I can yell at to get stuff done and blame things on,” he says, jokingly. “I keep telling Gordon and Anne they have to have more kids.”
By Elizabeth Geli. This story appeared in the Summer 2011 newsletter. Download it here.