Mindi Axner’s volunteer journey started with a carnival. While growing up in Pepper Pike, a younger neighbor died from cancer, and Axner, her siblings and fellow neighbors decided to join forces to create a carnival in a neighbor’s house and backyard to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
“We decided on what games we were going to do and we got little prizes for game winners,” Axner said. “They had to pay for tickets in order to play the games. We promoted it at our school and people from the neighborhood came. This was still in the days where you didn’t really hear about cancer much, and if you did, sometimes people whispered it. We did it for a couple of years in a row, and if I had to guess, we raised maybe a couple hundred dollars. It was so much fun.”
It was this moment that middle-school-age Axner realized she had a calling, and she decided she wanted to make a positive impact to those in need.
Axner serves as the executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland, fund raises for Hawken School and serves on the board of Forever Children’s Home, a nonprofit family consortium home for individuals with severe special needs. She previously served on the boards of Gross Schechter Day School, Milestones Autism Resources and Connections: Health Wellness and Advocacy.
“When I think about why I got into nonprofit, it was because I needed to know that I was making an impact and not just an impact by creating widgets,” she said. “I wanted to know I was doing something that was really changing the lives of people less fortunate or people that just were in bad situations - people who needed a little bit of help, a little bit of encouragement and a little bit of care.”
One moment Axner will never forget that keeps her along her path of giving back is when she volunteered at a maximum security women’s prison when she was 21 with a psychologist to run group therapy sessions.
“After the first day, one of the prisoners said to the psychologist ‘That if that girl’ – that’s how she referred to me – ‘if that girl keeps coming, I’m not coming anymore.’ The psychologists said, ‘That’s your choice.’ So the psychologist told me about this conversation and she said, ‘You know, I think you still need to keep coming back.’ It was a little scary, since it was a maximum security women’s prison, but I said, ‘I’m going to keep coming.’ That prisoner kept coming, and on my last day, she came up to me and thanked me for continuing to come. And I said, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ And she said, ‘Because you showed me that people on the outside do care.’ And it made a difference in my life.”
While Axner is proud of the website livespecial.com she helped create as a resource for people who have a loved one with special needs search for things like local camps or activities just by typing in the activity or diagnosis and a fundraiser event named Celebration of Champions that awards individuals with disabilities for overcoming their struggles, her greatest accomplishment– or two, in this case – are her two children, 17-year-old twins, Sam and Emily.
From starting with Share What You Wear providing clothing, backpacks and school supplies to kids in the foster care system when they were eight to increasing their volunteer efforts by tutoring kids in charter schools weekly, serving on youth boards and cleaning Lake Erie beaches as high schoolers, Axner believes that by nurturing and encouraging her children’s love of volunteering she can help generations to come.
“I haven’t even worked that hard to get them active in the community. I see in them the passion that I have for helping other people. It’s incredibly rewarding to see my kids get joy out of doing good, whether it’s raising money or working one-on-one with other kids. They love going to other schools to tutor, and sometimes it’s not even tutoring. Sometimes it’s just sitting and having conversations about everyday things that provide a different perspective for these children.”