By Deanna C. White
For most people, the words "CPA" and "accumulation" are synonymous with material wealth.
But when you link those words to Louisiana CPA Susan K. Whitelaw – a woman who has spent the last thirty-five years following her own adage "your community is an accumulation of all the good things you put into it" – people think of someone who is truly "richer" in every sense of the word. They think of a woman who has accumulated a legacy of public service and selfless volunteerism, in acts both large and small.
On October 22, the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) formally recognized that exemplary commitment to public service when it named Whitelaw the 2012 recipient of the AICPA's Public Service Award for Individuals. The annual award honors members of the AICPA who have made significant contributions to their communities. Whitelaw received the award at the fall meeting of the AICPA's governing council in Los Angeles.
"The many strong candidates for the Public Service Award make it difficult to select the person most deserving of this award. We are fortunate that so many CPAs dedicate significant amounts of their time to their communities", said Steven H. Wimmers, CPA, member of the AICPA's awards committee. "It is our belief that all of the compassionate and tireless volunteers should be recognized, but this year's winner, Susan K. Whitelaw, clearly rises to the top."
During her distinguished career as a public servant, AICPA and Louisiana Society of CPAs (LCPA) officials say one of the hallmarks of Whitelaw's volunteerism has been her emphasis on activities that led to her community's betterment and the betterment of services for individuals with developmental disabilities.
For more than thirty-five years, Whitelaw has volunteered her time and talent to The Arc Caddo-Bossier (The Arc), a private nonprofit agency that provides an array of services and supportive programs for infants, children, and adults with developmental disabilities and their families.
Whitelaw became involved with The Arc, located in Shreveport, Louisiana, when she turned to the organization for support and guidance after her son Travis was diagnosed with developmental disabilities when he was less than a year old.
Whitelaw said she will forever be grateful to The Arc, which provided her, as a young mother looking for answers in a frightening time, a "first port", a safe harbor, and a never-ending chain of support to help her find the best services and resources for her child.
"I don't know how or where I originally heard of The Arc, but for some reason it stayed in the back of my mind, and when Travis was first diagnosed, I immediately thought of them. From that moment on, I had people I could reach out to who could help me find the answers I needed. I never felt lost or alone because I had The Arc", Whitelaw said.
Whitelaw said the first time The Arc asked her to volunteer, she unhesitatingly said yes. And she has been saying yes, to a variety of public service opportunities, ever since.
"Really I started [volunteering] because of my personal connection to The Arc", Whitelaw said. "Since then, I've never said no. One thing just led to another. That's how my career in public service began."
Whitelaw's original "yes" has dovetailed into an exemplary record of public service. She has volunteered with an array of local and national organizations. She presently serves as the annual support committee chair of The Arc Caddo-Bossier Foundation Board and as the board's vice president. Whitelaw has also served on the national board of The Arc United States. She has volunteered as a classroom assistant in The Arc's Goldman School and Child Development Center, been a member of the school's PTA, and has served as its president.
During her tenure at The Arc, Whitelaw says she's most proud of the fact that she has been a small part of raising public awareness of the organization. "Over the past thirty-five years, we've really gotten the word out about what The Arc is and what it does, so all families who have children with disabilities are aware that we're out there and they can, if they choose, take advantage of the services we provide", Whitelaw said.
In addition to her service at The Arc, she also serves as treasurer for the board of the Handicap Are Producers House (HAP House) in Bossier, Louisiana, a nonprofit organization that provides adults with mental and physical disabilities the opportunity to work and earn a paycheck, as well as the Louisiana Disabled Persons Housing Corporation.
Whitelaw also served approximately ten years on the Caddo Parish of Indigent Defender Board. She said she firmly believes in protecting the rights guaranteed to all individuals under the US Constitution. "If you're accused of a crime and are poor, or unable to provide a lawyer for yourself, you're still entitled to a defense", Whitelaw said.
She's also a passionate and staunch supporter of her alma mater – Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge – where she serves on the alumni board. "Education is vital for any state, and I want LSU to be the best it can be", Whitelaw said. "A big part of what we do on the alumni board is raise money to provide scholarships so every young person can have the opportunity for success through education", Whitelaw said.
If you ask Whitelaw why she has so vigorously championed so many causes over the years, she'll say she simply has a quiet calling to "speak for those who have no voice."
But those who know Susan Whitelaw say she's nothing short of a one-woman tour de force behind every cause she serves.
"Throughout the years, Susan's financial knowledge and leadership have enabled The Arc Caddo-Bossier to provide opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to realize their full potential, to fulfill their gifts and talents, and to become self-directed and contributing citizens, said Chris Horne, CPA, member of the LCPA.
Horne said Whitelaw was a guiding force in securing funds necessary for the construction of a $1.5-million, state-of-the-art horseback riding area. The arena was the only Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) horseback riding facility providing therapy and respite for individuals with disabilities in Northwest Louisiana.
Ron Gitz, CPA, CGMA, executive director of the LCPA, said Whitelaw's generosity has extended far beyond her own community as well.
"Susan has taken the love for her own disabled child far beyond her own arms and her own heart. Her love has spread to other children, through other families, beyond communities to bring those with 'unique' abilities out from the shadows and into to the light so that we all may embrace the true potential in each of them", Gitz said. "We are proud to have Susan as a representative of the great ways CPAs in Louisiana and throughout the United States are utilizing their skills to make their communities better places to live."
If Whitelaw could add just "one more" cause to her list, she says she hopes her story will encourage CPAs to take up volunteerism – particularly younger CPAs, who will soon be asked to pick up the mantle of leadership when the "all the grey hairs are gone."
"Just do it", Whitelaw advises. "Just make the leap and get involved. I understand young CPAs are time exhausted, but instead of thinking this is going to take away from your free time, or even your family time . . . just do it once, and I guarantee you will do it over and over again."
Just do it once, Whitelaw says, because she's certain the positive ripple you send out when you volunteer will come back to you. Then just do it again and again, Whitelaw says, because ultimately, it's up to us to determine the world we want to live in.
"I think the one thing people don't really realize is that you only get out of things what you put into them, and that includes your community. Your community is an accumulation of good things you put into it."
Whitelaw is a partner in Whitelaw, Rice & Green CPAs LLC, in Shreveport.