by Lisa Moody Breslin
photography by Walter P. Calahan
People who know Bonnae Meshulam identify her in many roles beyond executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Westminster. Game Changer. Energizer Bunny. The Principal. Dynamo. The Storyteller. Today’s Version of St. Vincent DePaul. These are only a few of the titles colleagues, friends and family members have assigned Meshulam over the years.
“She changed the game of the Boys & Girls Club when she came five years ago,” said Jack Tevis, a business owner and philanthropist who serves on the club’s capital campaign committee and whose wife, Beth, is on the board of directors. “Wonderful pioneers charged the club up the hill, not knowing what was on the other side. She took it from there and created a culture filled with humor and discipline, affirmation and positivity.”
“She is Sandy Oxx of the Arts Council, the Leslie Simmons of the hospital, the Lynn Wheeler of the library,” Tevis added. “Because she couples steely focus with soft humor and a sense of fun, it is hard not to be drawn into what she has created.”
This issue of Carroll Magazine adds one more title to Bonnae Meshulam’s list: Person of the Year.
Her ability to galvanize the community in order to move the Boys & Girls Club from its current 2,500-square-foot location on Union Street in Westminster to 17,000 square feet at 71 E. Main St. pulled her to the top of a list of many nominations.
Meshulam’s ability to pull together a team of colleagues who join her in lifting up youths and showing them how to advocate for themselves pulled her to the top of the list as well. She came to the Boys & Girls Club when it was a fledging organization that had experienced approximately eight to 10 years of growing pains, which included a revolving door of executive directors. The club welcomed 40 youths a day.
Now there are as many as 110 children who use the club’s services and there are 75 on the waiting list. Programs previously offered to youths that some people describe as “canned” now include programs that cover STEM subjects, composting, crocheting, and tearoom experiences that help youths understand the value of appropriate dress and good manners.
“She creates an infectious culture – a call-to-action culture,” said Jordana Hudson, the club’s operations manager. “Everyone feels the we’re-going-to-do-this call. It’s a culture where our spouses and our children want to volunteer, too. It’s a family culture to serve.”
“With her leadership comes this sense of we are all in this together and it’s fun,” said Erin Bishop, a colleague and confidant who worked with Meshulam during her Junior Achievement successes and now teams with her in Westminster. “She has this passion for children like I have never seen. It existed while she was a leader in Junior Achievement as well. She has to help; it’s in her soul. This club, rallying the community around it, is her legacy to the community.”
Game Changer. Energizer Bunny. The Principal. Dynamo. The Storyteller. Today’s Version of St. Vincent DePaul. Person of the Year. The qualities linked to each of these titles assigned to Meshulam are rooted in her 30-plus years of experience with Junior Achievement and her life with a family that embraces hard work and unflappability.
“My parents were Jeanne and Herbert Klaus,” Meshulam said. “So I had years of ‘Oh, are you Santa’s daughter?’ Like that was original.”
“My mother, a hairdresser, was a list maker who was really organized,” she added. “My father, a used-car dealer and an ambulance driver, was the visionary who always said ‘Let’s do this and that.’ I carry qualities of both of them in me.”
Meshulam’s grandfather, Harold Austin, was an orchestra leader who wrote music for and played with the famous Dorsey Orchestra. He and other family members also ran a ballroom dance studio in Buffalo, N.Y. Meshulam’s great-grandmother, Albina Cameron, was the ballroom matron.
“She ran the soda machine and the snack shop, too, and knew where every penny went and the full inventory of every cup of tea. I carry some of those qualities, too,” Meshulam said. “My grandfather taught me how to do books, how to be creative and to think out of the box. You do all these, he assured me, and you will make it.”
“I also learned that business and family always come first,” Meshulam added. “Even if I was on a date, I would sometimes get a call to come and help — and I did.”
Meshulam’s help often took the form of teaching ballroom dancing and setting up for events, including the huge New Year’s Eve dances that lured hundreds of dance-all-night guests.
Other life lessons that she brings to her leadership at the Boys & Girls Club incorporate the time she took off from work to care for his father before he died, and the years she watched her brilliant grandfather falter to Alzheimer’s.
Her grandfather left to play golf one day and didn’t come home for three days.
And when they found him in his car in Rochester, N.Y., Meshulam and her family discovered how people’s kindness could calm fears.
“We found notes in his pocket that were written by people who had helped him along the way,” Meshulam explained. “The notes listed how they had helped him. It was beautiful. Their kindness ensured that his confusion didn’t include massive fear.”
These experiences sparked lessons that Meshulam shares with Boys & Girls Club youths every day.
“We learn from all experiences, even devastating ones,” Meshulam explained. “You don’t have control of a lot of things, but you can always control your reactions. If something hard is linked to a choice, learn from it. And if you do it again, shame on you.”
“Do what you gotta do to get things done” is another mantra Meshulam shares with the youths. It’s a lesson born of her own experience when fresh out of college.
Meshulam needed to pay off loan debt she accrued while she completed her degree in elementary education, and one of her earliest jobs was working for an allergist. She made serums and gave shots. To perfect the injection process, she practiced on bananas.
“I was fast,” Meshulam said. “I knew that career was not for me, but you do what you gotta do to get to somewhere else.”
“Bonnae was not just my aunt and my mother. She has also been a patient teacher and a friend,” said Meshulam’s niece, Kelly Dolan. “She taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to, but in order to get what you want you have to work for it. And because of her I learned to never run away from a challenge.”
Foundation with Junior Achievement
Meshulam spent 12 years as president of Junior Achievement of Central Maryland. Just as she has spearheaded the expansion of programs offered at Westminster’s Boys & Girls Club, she ushered in many more programs for JA in the areas of business, economics and workforce readiness. She also built her dream of JA Biztown for fifth-grade students.
Under Bonnae’s leadership, JA grew from serving 6,000 kids in 1996 to over 27,000 kids in 2008 when she retired.
Prior to her relocation to Maryland, she was President of Junior Achievement of Western New York. Her presidency marked a first for women in the organization and she took the Buffalo JA from bankruptcy to an endowment.
“There are no words in the vocabulary that can accurately acknowledge what she does — there is nothing that she can’t accomplish when she puts her minds to it,” said Melvin Mills, a former board member for Carroll Hospital Foundation and the local Chamber of Commerce, among other positions. Mills lives with his wife, Linda, in Melbourne, Fla., but remains connected to the county.
“I would want her on my team at any cost,” Mills added. She has a great personality, always a kind word for others and she is always smiling.”
Meshulam identifies her role in teaching concepts of a free-enterprise system to youths and CEOs in Russia, China, Thailand and England as her proudest professional moment.
Her explanation for what unfolded, like most personal experiences that she describes, rolls out like an adventure tale filled with harrowing and hilarious moments. She talks with her hands, stops for moments to get a grip on her own laughter, all the while conveying the magnitude of the historic moment.
“Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and during the shift to free enterprise, 10 other JA leaders and I took 45 high school students, 500 computers, all the economic books we could gather from JA libraries and we went there to teach the children about free enterprise,” Meshulam explained.
“One pinnacle moment was when we all dressed up for a dinner at the Kremlin to honor our work,” she added. “We were dressed in our best. But when news broke that Gorbachev lost power, it went from lovely to chaotic very quickly. The climate was unsure. We had to get out of there.”
Meshulam kept the youths calm by telling them that they needed to go out front for a major photo shoot and to take everything with them. In fact, throughout the ordeal that included them being dispersed to homes where families were willing to keep them safe and share their rations and clothes, Meshulam managed to maintain an upbeat “this is all a big adventure” culture.
Even the KGB helped the group until publishing executive Steve Forbes got a plane fueled and it came to get them home. Meshulam called that plane an “air plop” because chickens were on it. People “paraded up and down the aisles asking if they wanted to but anything — from perfume to a Coke or peanuts.”
“The magnitude of what happened never really hit me until we were up in the air,” Meshulam said. “It was an incredible trip, an exciting trip. It gives me energy to experience something so different while knowing we really were experiencing history.”
Meshulam, like all who have been named Person of the Year, is not perfect.
As high as her energy goes, there are also one or two days of “crash” lows, she said.
“They don’t happen often, but they happen and then the next day — after chai tea and time to unplug — I’m back up again,” she added.
Bishop also conceded that Meshulam is “the worst driver in the entire world.”
“She has to go everywhere opportunity knocks, but she often has no idea where she is going,” Bishop added. “Sometimes we don’t know how she gets home. Before there were more gadgets like GPS, she was lost all the time.”
Meshulam lives in Westminster and with her husband, Jeff. She enjoys the comfort of family, which includes her stepson, Joseph Meshulam; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Bialasak; her son-in-law Michael Bialasak; a grandson, Steven Bialasak; her mother, Jeanne Klaus; her brother, William Klaus, her niece Kelly Dolan; and nephews Patrick and Christopher Dolan.
Meshulam also stays active in the community through her involvement in a Leadership Carroll class, the Marty Hill Family Center, Carroll County Service Council and the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland Strategic Planning Committee.
“I’ll know it is time to retire when I’m not excited about getting up and doing something,” Meshulam said. “That day is nowhere near. I love what I do and the community I work with.”
Boys & Girls Club of Westminster (2012-2017)
As executive director, she led the accreditation process to charter the club under Boys & Girls Club of America. She implemented BGCA student leadership and development programs to reach at-risk students.
- Increased fundraising from $130,000 to $425,000 annually.
- More than doubled the number of students served from 101 to 242 per year (currently at facility capacity).
- Increased summer camp funding 100% to serve more students.
- Developed corporate partnerships to increase student opportunity and program funding.
- $5 million capital campaign for new BGCW Club.
Junior Achievement of Central Maryland (1996-2008)
As president of Junior Achievement, she was credited for the startup and turnaround of the organization through strategic planning and the development and recruitment of proactive, high-level executives for the board of directors.
- Inherited an organization with a budget of $350,000 and a deficit of $187,000, and achieved profitability within one year.
- Expanded student growth from 6,000 to 27,000 students and corporate volunteers from 230 to 1800 annually.
- Established, planned and launched Exchange City, a 10,000-square-foot mini city for students to imagine, investigate and operate their own businesses;
collaborated with 14 businesses to secure funding and provide a realistic learning opportunity.
- Expanded concepts of Exchange City to establish a summer camp for students age 11-14.
- Secured an additional $750,000 above annual budget, in revenue, in-kind services, and materials for the Exchange City project.
- Led the expansion of Exchange City in to JA Biztown: secured funds and donations for a facility renovation that included updated technology, curriculum and software.
- Developed and implemented a marketing plan to draw attention to JA and its student participants. Built the “World’s Largest Snowman” – 55 feet tall –
which gained national media coverage and drew thousands of visitors to the facility.
- Established a $300,000 endowment fund, raised $1.5 million each year.
- Maryland’s Top 100 Women Award, three times – placed into Circle of Excellence.
- Strong CEO Magazine BRAVO Women in Business Achievement Award.
- Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics.
- Maryland State Department of Education – Friends of Maryland Education Award.
- Harry & Jeannette Weinberg Foundation – Weinberg Fellow.
- JA Worldwide Platinum Summit Award.