Under the Helmet: Meet Joanne Pasternack, V.P. & E.D. Community Relations & 49ers Foundation

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Joanne Pasternack and 49ersI take football seriously. Like, very seriously. Like many fans, my week can be made or ruined with a win or a loss by the 49ers. I know it’s only a game, but it feels like so much more, and in some ways, it is.

The San Francisco 49ers aren’t just a football team. They are an organization, and that organization is a part of the Bay Area community at large, doing good work and community service. That work is spearheaded by Joanne Pasternack – Vice President & Executive Director, Community Relations & 49ers Foundation – and the Community Relations Department.

Pasternack’s role oversees everything from grant making to community service to game day activations, such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Salute to Service activities. The 49ers Foundation is the 501(c)3 grant making and fundraising arm of the 49ers.

“Our model of giving is to be transformative and, to meet that objective, we provide significant grants to a select number of organizations. Each of the last five years, 80% of our funds have gone to approximately eight organizations that fall within our mission statement to keep kids ‘Safe, On Track and In School.’” said Pasternack.

The Foundation was established 25 years ago and, over that time, has donated over $30 million to Bay Area non-profit organizations. It also provides significant funding to the 10 year-old 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto, which, according to its website “…is designed to keep kids safe, on track and in school. The Academy serves middle school students and provides a small, caring and safe community – both during the school day and in after school programs. [They] bridge the opportunity gap by creating transformational learning opportunities that empower youth to realize their full potential. By providing [their]students with the resources, relationships and services they need, [they]are changing lives, one student at a time.”

Joanne Pasternack and 49ers

49ers players come from all walks of life, which resonates with youth throughout the Bay Area. Recognizing the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of under-resourced youth, 49ers players are in the community weekly during the season, serving kids and organizations in need.

“Each Monday during the season, our community outreach events have a different focus in alignment with our mission statement. For example, last month, we visited Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall in San Jose where our players met with currently incarcerated young men and spoke with them about how to channel frustration into something positive such as sports, music or art. Then they did football drills together before circling back to share how they felt after exercising. It had an impact – on the youth and the players.”

Joanne Pasternack and 49ers

It is important to note that, according to Pasternack, each of the last five years, 100% of the 49ers players have participated in one or more community outreach activities. But it’s not just the players. Starting at the top, everyone is involved.

“Our ownership group is incredibly committed to philanthropy. In September, we painted a mural at Cabrillo Middle School – home of the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute, and 49ers Co-Chairman, John York, jumped right in to put paint on the walls. The entire York family actively and enthusiastically supports the community programs on a weekly basis. That sets the tone for what we are and who we are as an organization philanthropically – they give in an authentic way and that is why it has permeated our entire organization.”

This participation throughout the building earned the 49ers the 2013 Patterson Award for Excellence in Sports Philanthropy and the 2015 Beyond Sport International Philanthropic Sports Team of the Year Award in October 2015. Earlier this year, the organization was one of four finalists for the ESPN Sports Humanitarian of the Year Sports Team of the Year Award.

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The commitment to service throughout the organization is probably why, throughout the years, so many players have gone above and beyond a simple visit to a classroom, playground, or hospital.

“There was a tradition started by former 49ers player Takeo Spikes a number of years ago called the Linebacker Toy Giveaway. Takeo lost a close family member to cancer and saw how depressing it could be to be in the hospital, particularly during the holidays. When he started this program, Takeo recruited linebackers annually to bring gifts to kids who are going to be in the hospital over the holidays. When he left the 49ers, he passed responsibility for the event to Patrick Willis who has passed it on to the next generation of Linebackers. It is a long-standing tradition.”

Recently, two current 49ers went above and beyond for a young girl they visited at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. This story brought tears to my eyes and made me proud to be a Niners fan. I imagine it will for you as well.

“While visiting Packard, we went in to the room of a young girl who had just been diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumor. She was about 12 years old and had lost her vision because of the location of her tumor. As her parents shared their story, the players – Garrett Celek and Michael Wilhoite – were visibly moved but also found a way to keep it very upbeat, alternating between listening intently and making small talk. When we left the room, the guys got pretty emotional and said out loud, ‘We have to do more. This is just, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that she’s going through this.’

Sure enough, two days later, Garrett and Michael brought a huge box to my office. Inside that box was a plethora of items for not just the girl, but her little sister who had also been in the room, and the girl’s parents. It was clear they had thought it through, sharing that they had purchased ‘tactile items because she doesn’t have her vision right now. We want her to know that we’re thinking about her, but rather than simply autographing something (but we did that, too!) we wanted to provide something she could feel and hold and snuggle with while she was sitting there and going through this treatment.’ That was quite an incredible moment.”

As you can tell, reaching kids in a positive way is a significant focus for the 49ers under the York Family’s direction. Aside from keeping kids on track, they also focus on keeping kids safe and nurturing the interests of children in the community.

“The keeping kids safe element is really important to us because kids need to feel safe before they can even begin to learn. We have been affiliated with the Hedge Funds Care Help for the Children program for nearly a decade now, helping to raise funds to eradicate violence against children and domestic violence. Last year, we collaborated with Hedge Funds Care to donate $550,000 to support the cause. Annually we also go with our players’ and coaches’ significant others to a shelter to honor and pamper women who have been through violent situations to celebrate their resiliency.”

“On a regular basis, we visit the 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto, working with the kids there who come from really challenging situations. Building on our commitment to creating educational opportunities for youth, in 2014, we launched new initiative – the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute at Cabrillo Middle School – a partnership with Chevron, Santa Clara Unified School District, and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The STEM Institute works with kids who are highly motivated and talented but who don’t have the resources in their school environment to be able to reach their full potential. It provides them with an additional 330 hours of education and enrichment – in addition to accelerated math and science, robotics competitions and more – to enable them to reach their full potential. Our hope is that each of them will graduate high school qualified to enter a top tier university with a STEM major.”

In addition to their outreach programming, the 49ers Foundation partners with the Taube Foundation and the Koret Foundation on a program called Touchdowns for Kids. Every time the 49ers score a touchdown, $5,000 is deposited into the charitable fund. Field goals, sacks and interceptions each result in $1,000 deposits. At the end of the season, the funds are equally divided among five to eight organizations selected annually. This is yet another reason that it would be awesome for the Niners to score more touchdowns than field goals, beyond winning games. The tagline for the program is “Now there’s even a bigger reason to cheer for the 49ers this season.” Agreed.

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So how did Joanne Pasternack get her philanthropic start? She was raised in Washington, DC, and philanthropy was a large part of her childhood and a lesson taught by her parents. But, for Pasternack, things really fell into place for her as a teenager.

“[W]hen I was 14, I was a competitive figure skater, living in the Bay Area, and my coach asked if I would help her on Saturday mornings with a program for Special Olympics athletes. I was paired up with a young woman named Tiffany who had Down syndrome. From the moment we started working together, we became close friends and it broke down any preconceptions and barriers. When I saw the joy that she had in going out there and figure skating, it reinvigorated my waning enthusiasm for the sport as well. I was at an age where many teenagers begin to get distracted by social opportunities and other aspects of high school and had been considering leaving my skating career behind. However, when I looked at it again through Tiffany’s eyes, all of a sudden I understood what a privilege I had to be able to do the sport that I loved so much. [S]he jump-started an even heavier involvement for me in philanthropy and helped me see that volunteering can change perspective and can change lives.”

Joanne Pasternack and 49ers

That experience pretty much set up the trajectory for Pasternack’s life. While an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, Pasternack interned with ACLU, child advocacy groups, and organizations providing resources for underprivileged youth and their families. She then attended law school at Santa Clara University, where she received the Pro Bono Project Award and the Public Interest Law Certificate. Following law school, she ended up back in Washington, DC working for the Special Olympics at their international headquarters, before moving back to California to work for the City of Mountain View.

“At the City of Mountain View, I was working for the city manager, the mayor and the police chief, when one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever had was brought to me by then Police Chief Scott Vermeer – a dear friend and mentor. Chief Vermeer asked if I would take the lead on starting a Police Activities League to provide venues for officers to connect with kids, break down barriers and, eventually, serve as a means to divert youth from gangs and unproductive activities.”

Very quickly, it became an absolute passion for me as we launched the Mountain View Police Activities League. Soon after, the moments came – cops sharing that they were on a call for service when a youth they had coached sought their assistance, found a passion, learned a new skill. It was really incredible to be a part of that.”

I soon realized that I needed to do that type of work full time and I started looking around, saw this opportunity with the 49ers, and it was one of those moments where your heart starts beating faster and you realize what you’re meant to do, and fortunately I was able to take the aggregate of all these different things I’ve done, as a community volunteer and as a professional, and parlayed that into the opportunity to do this job – an amazing journey that now has me in my 8th season with the team.”

Beyond the 49ers and philanthropy, Pasternack serves on a number of non-profit boards, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco Sports Management Program and the George Washington University Sports Philanthropy Certificate Program, can recite all 50 states in alphabetical order in under 25 seconds, has two young children, and her husband is the Director of Partnerships for the San Jose Earthquakes. So she has a lot going on. But when you talk to her, it is clear that she is passionate about her work and that she wouldn’t trade her four hours of sleep a night for anything.

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I will end with a story Pasternack told me about a prominent player who will remain anonymous. This player had severe dyslexia. He was teased by his classmates, ridiculed by a teacher, and was embarrassed to read aloud in class. But, through the 49ers community outreach programming, he found a way to make a tremendous impact.

“He stands up in front of these kids and he says, ‘People told me I was stupid. And I had a teacher who told me that I was nothing…[S]he just didn’t believe in me. And I decided that I didn’t believe in her if she didn’t believe in me. And I had another teacher who came in to my life who told me that I could be anything I wanted if I set my mind to it. And then I realized that I could do anything and I started with the knowledge that I was the fastest runner in my school and that I had always been the fastest, so I got out and I just started running.’

And I kept running, and I figured out that I had this extreme talent and that that was going to take me places. So then I hunkered down and I applied the same approach to my classroom studies and I found ways to make it work. I was a small guy then, but I was fast and that took me father than anyone thought was possible. I realized that if I took that same approach to reading, it could work, too. So what if it takes me longer and the letters flip around for me, I can do this. I’m going to have people record my books so I can listen to them, and I am going to learn to ask for help where I need it. When people tell you can’t amount to anything, look inside yourself. Figure out what your talent is and prove them wrong.

The kids were just staring at him,” shared Pasternack. “The teacher later told me, ‘You have no idea what a difference that made. These kids don’t believe in themselves and for them to see a hero come up and say, people told me the same thing and I proved them wrong …, now they’re looking at him going, my goodness, he’s at the top of his game, and he just didn’t listen to the naysayers. He found his own path to success through determination and hard work. It’s huge.”

It is huge. The 49ers may not have a winning record so far this season and, as fans we may be disappointed, but on and off the field, there are some bright spots, and at the end of the day, they matter most. There’s good work being done over in Santa Clara and sometimes we just need to be reminded. After all, it isn’t just a game, but it’s a game that’s doing a lot of good for a lot of people. Go Niners!

To learn more about the 49ers Foundation and its work, click here.

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Tracy Sandler

Bleeding gold and staying Niner faithful, I bring you the latest news features & commentary on my beloved San Francisco 49ers.

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