By Courtney Mallen, Literacy First Development Specialist
“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” Stewart Jarmon, 33, sets his glass on the table at Zocalo Café, an airy-industrial modern Mexican place in central Austin. It’s not busy yet – we arranged to meet early, just before the Study Social Committee meeting. The committee is almost all rising professionals, most of them work in central Austin, and Zocalo has a great happy hour. They’ve met up there before.
Modern, valuable, and broadly appealing could also describe The Study Social, the Literacy First fall fundraiser. It’s always on a Friday night, always downtown, always affordable, always a blast. And it’s always managed by tireless and well-connected volunteers, one of whom is Stewart. He’s the de facto Study Social co-chair.
Co-chairing a fundraising event is perfect for Stewart. Philanthropy is personal. For Stewart, that means carrying on his family’s traditions of community participation and social activity. “My grandparents were socially active in various causes. I just always grew up that that’s what you do, join various groups, whether they’re charitable or not. Be part of the community.”
Stewart started young. “I did charity when I was little with my mom. I worked for a group called Kids Care, and we went around and did projects as a group of kids. It was me and five other kids. My mom’s nursing friends and their daughters.” He picked back up on being part of a philanthropic events team several years ago. “For a couple years, overlapping this, I cofounded with a few guys – this sounds so fratty, and I was not in a frat – Whiskey for Water, and we did whiskey tasting events for drilling and maintaining water well projects in Africa. It’s hard to create a charity from scratch, and what we decided…we did the parties and got the money, but we gave it to another charity that actually does the work. We bundled the funds. We fundraised for them.” After a few years, the guys became involved in other projects, and Whiskey for Water went fallow. But a persuasive family friend had already led Stewart to develop a new event.
The family friend was Helen Watkins, Literacy First Advisory Board Chair. All of Stewart’s family are friends with Helen’s family, and Stewart is close with Helen’s daughter, Maggie. “Helen says, “why don’t you actually do something? There’s no better time than now.” This was five years ago, and the Literacy First board was facing a common challenge for all nonprofits: engaging the next generation of supporters. With a good group of young organizers, a good vision, they could get some traction. Maggie, Stewart, and the rest of the group knew what would work for them and their friends: The Study Social.
It was an easy concept for Stewart. “I like to bring people together, I like to throw parties. Once you get to a certain age, you can’t just tell people you’re throwing a party for one hundred people. If you’ve got a reason behind it, it’s justified.”
His reason for supporting Literacy First was deeply felt. “I’ve always had -” There is a long pause. “- trouble reading myself. I don’t think it’s…I’ve never been diagnosed with anything. It’s more just the getting into reading. It wasn’t a habit growing up. I could never figure out if it’s just because I was bad at it. As I grew older, through high school and college, I realized that people who read have an easier time reading for academics, and for work, and reading opens up opportunities. It doesn’t limit you. Even though I think I’ve done well for my life so far, potentially – who knows? I’ve probably technically limited myself. I’ve improved over the years. Recently. But it’s still a limiting factor, whether you’re starting at the bottom or you already have a decent base. You’re still limiting yourself if you don’t read or read strongly.”
“We weren’t looking to raise too much money,” Stewart says, but the very first event brought together over a hundred people. It’s grown every year, and this year is expected to be the biggest: the committee’s expecting nearly 300 people.
It was a growth opportunity for Stewart as well. He came back for a second year. “And then after a second year, somebody approached me and asked if I wanted to be on the advisory board – not just do an annual party, but be more involved.” Stewart joined. “I wanted to continue doing it [The Study Social], and the logical next step is to do something more official.” Everyone on the board has their expertise, he says, and his has been events (Literacy First also does a spring fundraising luncheon, along with smaller gatherings).
Over the years, his board experience transformed him. “I was probably the youngest by 15 years, but I’ve grown up. I’ve been on site visits [to Literacy First schools]. I like the excitement of the kids when we called them in. As soon as they came in, they were attentive, and sitting down and learning. The fact that it’s not an after-school program, or a weekend program, or a summer program – it’s day-in, day-out, in school.” He was also struck by Literacy First’s operational efficiency. “I like the whole program layout. The actual operational quality. The mission’s great, and the reporting, and logistics – the fact that they’re going into so many of the schools – the infrastructure is there, and it seems to be working.”
There’s another reason for Stewart to support an in-school literacy program. “I loved school! Schools’ where my friends were! When’s it gonna be Monday? I had friends on the weekend of course, but you can only see a couple on the weekend! I had perfect attendance. Through college!”
In a way, then, the Study Social was the perfect vehicle for Stewart’s interests in literacy, community, and philanthropy. He’s proud of that this year marks the fifth anniversary of the Study Social. But it’s Stewart’s final year on the committee, a bittersweet coda for his philanthropic and hosting efforts in Austin, since he’s recently moved to Mexico.
“I’ve always had my family’s love of Mexico and Latin America in general. It’s a world away, but it’s closer than flying to New York.” He and his mother share a love of cooking, particularly interior Mexican, and he’s eager to learn more and bring that knowledge back. “If I need to be home in a day, I can be home in a day.” But he won’t just be cooking. “My friend did refer me a really good directory and locator for volunteer opportunities abroad. I probably want to pursue that. To get connected.” Getting connected, building community, that’s what Stewart does. Given his trajectory so far, there’s no doubt that he’ll become a force for social giving with whatever lucky organization he chooses – like he’s been for us. The Literacy First team is grateful for his legacy, and excited to hear what he cooks up next.