Charlotte communications exec plays key role at American Red Cross

By Laura Williams-Tracy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The dresses her mother had sewn for a family with three daughters were purple and yellow. But what Elaine Lyerly remembers more, as a child going along to deliver a gift to a much less fortunate family, were the home’s dirt floors and the poor mother’s evident appreciation.

“I was so stunned by what little they had,” she recalls, “and when the mother saw the dresses, I saw a transformation before my very eyes.”

The impact of that visit has led to career-long devotion to charity work for Lyerly, CEO of Lyerly Agency Inc., a Charlotte-based communications firm.

A 30-year career volunteering with the Red Cross culminated with her being named in May to the executive committee of the American Red Cross National Board of Governors.

In that role, she will have a say on how the global disaster-relief and blood-collection agency operates in the U.S.

Lyerly has also been elected to her second consecutive three-year term on the national board of the Red Cross.

After being named the first woman to chair the local Red Cross chapter in Mecklenburg County, she moved to a regional board and then to a national implementation task force in 1995 that worked to make the Red Cross’ blood-collection operations separate from its disaster-aid and chapter functions.

By 2001, when the Red Cross brought 2,700 delegates to the Charlotte Convention Center for its annual convention, Lyerly chaired the event.

A year later, she was elected to the national board and, as a communications expert, was immediately tapped to undo a widely publicized public relations snafu.

In the wake of emotions over the terrorist attacks of September 11th, then-Red Cross President Dr. Bernadine Healy said publicly that all money donated to the Red Cross’s Liberty Fund would be used only for 9/11 assistance.

“I walked in on the heels of that,” says Lyerly, adding that the Red Cross board had not approved such a restrictive use of the money that tied the agency’s hands in responding to other disasters.

“Turning around the media and the public’s perception was huge,” says Lyerly. “But now our studies show that confidence in the Red Cross is back to where it was before.”

                           Elaine Lyerly

Job: CEO, Lyerly Agency

Born: Charlotte, N.C.

Education: Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, N.C., associate degree, design and advertising

Family: son, Elias, 11; two sisters

Boards: American Red Cross National Board of Governors, executive committee; Belmont Abbey College, board of advisors; Child Care Resources, chair; Women’s Impact Fund, founding member.

Hobbies: Paints old furniture bright and funky colors with pictures of dogs, flowers. A favorite piece is an old dresser painted with taxicabs interspersed with quotes about life from taxi drivers.

Last book read: Classic children’s literature with son, including Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and the Time Machine. Also, “Winners Never Cheat: Everyday Values We Learned as Children (But May Have Forgotten),” by Jon Huntsman, multibillionaire founder of Huntsman Chemical and fellow National Red Cross board member.

Last vacation: Alaska

Proud moment: Her son and his cousin raised $62 for Tsunami relief in one Sunday afternoon in the neighborhood.

Lyerly now co-chairs a national task force on how to garner the public’s financial support when a national emergency hasn’t propelled the agency to the spotlight.

Not limiting her fundraising efforts to the national scene, Lyerly is a founding member of the Women’s Impact Fund, a two-year-old alliance of about 200 women from the Charlotte region who gave away $185,000 of their own money this past year to help area charities purchase a mobile dental clinic and help the disadvantaged get back into the workforce.

Lyerly, whose business partner is her sister, Melia, finds that being involved in charity has helped her bring in new clients over the years to their 11-employee agency.

“I don’t get involved to find new business but it often happens that way,” she says. “I think the difference between lucky and unlucky people in business is that lucky people have a bigger network.”

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