In she walks to Mozelle’s, well heeled with a warm smile. We are meeting for the first time after mutual friends sang her praises. As with any new encounter, I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that she is the Philanthropic Advisor for The Winston-Salem Foundation, a sustaining member of the Junior League and obviously well-connected.
Susan Elster exudes the type of style and grace one comes to expect from a southern sophisticate. She is a Longhorn by way of Houston. She came to Winston-Salem over twenty years ago with no real intention to stay. But then there was this guy and he proposed and it was here where her home came to be. She has grown to not only love this community but to put her stamp on its development over the years.
In the late 90s she served on the board that was charged with developing a gift to the city to celebrate the Junior League’s 75th anniversary in Winston-Salem. The Winston-Salem chapter is one of the oldest in the world established in 1923. Their first meeting was hosted at the then private home, now known as Reynolda House Museum of American Art. “We first thought maybe we could raise $7,500. But like with any group of smart, motivated women the idea just kept growing,” she recalls with a grin. “We met with countless local organizations of diverse backgrounds to identify unmet needs in the community. Conversations kept landing on a safe place for families and children. We felt that a centrally located Children’s Museum could do just that.”
Serving as the founding board president, Susan led a diverse group of Junior League members and local advocates to create a space not only for kids to learn hands-on, but an educational resource center for parents as well. After examining about thirty different sites they settled on a lot near Old Salem. “This was before the downtown revitalization began. No one was really going downtown but we knew we needed to be there on the busline for easy accessibility, no matter your neighborhood.”
“Every little detail was debated and planned for the project,” she shared as we exchanged knowing smiles. Through my own experience working in the Type-A laden world of event production, I knew exactly what she meant. It can be exhausting up until the end.
And it wasn’t as if the funding was just sitting there waiting to be utilized. “We spent so many nights pitching the concept inside the homes of potential donors and to local corporations. Children’s museums were a new concept at the time. We had to educate before we could get support.” Ultimately their grassroots campaign raised over $6 million dollars over the span of seven years.
“We hired professional designers to help us create different exhibits within the museum.” They had to think through how children play, their innocent roughness with objects and each element had to include an educational component in addition to being fun. “We had all kinds of creative ideas,” she laughs. “We wanted to build a giant slide where kids could slide down into a lower level play place. But then we realized parents would be stuck above without their kids.”
Cue the beanstalk next to grown up stairs.
“There are so many meticulously thought out layers to each exhibit,” she shares. There is an exhibit where kids run a doughnut assembly line sponsored by a “little” Winston-Salem startup called Krispy Kreme.
Food Lion, based in nearby Salisbury, also came onboard early to create a mini grocery store for educational play.
There is even an exhibit called Under the Stars featuring Moravian stars. “If you look closely they are positioned to form a constellation.”
I was in awe. The detail, the dedication, the determination. She clearly is a woman who gets things done.
Fast forward to today and you’ll find her over in the new downtown offices of The Winston-Salem Foundation. “We love being downtown. The visibility reminds people that we are accesible.”
The Winston-Salem Foundation is one of the oldest community foundations in the country. Founded in 1919, the foundation awards nearly 600 scholarships to kids within the Winston-Salem community, totaling around $1 million dollars annually. “We recently held our annual scholarship breakfast where students and donors get to meet. There are some amazing, mature teenagers today with a bigger worldview than I ever had.” She shared a story of a phenomenal young woman who was awarded a scholarship to go on to medical school; without these scholarships she would not have been able to attend college. In addition to scholarships the Foundation manages roughly 1,300 donor funds and community grants. Susan works with local donors to help educate them on non-profit initiatives in the community and help them turn their philanthropic passions into legacies. “Without these donations, nonprofits could not function.” It is something we so often overlook.
Here, at the Foundation’s new offices they are able to house multiple conference rooms available free of charge by appointment to local nonprofits. They also help connect startup charitable organizations with education and resources to support their operation and cause.
When I commend her on her work she is quick to transfer praise. “There are so many in this community who give so generously and chose to do so anonymously. They are not seeking recognition. You don’t often find that in other cities.”
I ask her for advice for those looking to make an impact locally and bring a social initiative to life. “It’s not just about having a great idea. You have to get out in the community and really identify the unmet need.” It takes time and patience so be sure you have an authentic passion to see it through. And she urges us all, no matter our circumstance, to take time to find the joy in volunteering. It is after all the backbone of a strong community. Winston-Salem is only as strong as its people. Lucky for us, Susan Elster lives here.