Sara McInerney can’t feel her toes.
The community engagement specialist for Finish Line Youth Foundation has gone numb after six hours in a cold, hard rain while leading hundreds of volunteers building a playground on Indianapolis’ east side.
“I’d been worried all week, having people come up to me saying, ‘You know it’s gonna rain on build day, right?’” she said.
But when McInerney, ’14, arrived at the site, a piece of public land adjacent to Post Road Christian Church, her fears were put to rest.
“Seeing the charter bus full of Finish Line employees roll up at 7 a.m. made me want to cry happy tears. I have amazing co-workers. They’ll come do whatever it takes to get a job done for the kids.”
A partnership between Finish Line and national nonprofit KaBOOM!, the project commanded the experience and coordination skills of someone twice McInerney’s age. Yet the 25-year-old’s leadership — bolstered by the confident smile she continually flashed her soaked-to-the-bone volunteers — made the group believe they could finish.
“Sara is awesome,” said Rainy Holt-Davis, a Finish Line customer care representative and build-day volunteer. “She doesn’t just plan these things. She gets out and does the work with us. And she’s never without a smile.”
The May 4 build was the second KaBOOM! playground project McInerney has led for the Finish Line Youth Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Indianapolis-based national retailer of athletic shoes, apparel and accessories.
Bringing together so many volunteers is its own test, but Mother Nature made this year’s build particularly challenging.
“When we saw the forecast, we prepared for the worst. We got towels, ordered ponchos for everybody and gloves too, because this would have been more miserable without them,” said McInerney, whose efforts to enliven her crew at one point involved carrying around a plastic-wrapped boom box blaring hip-hop music.
Later, during a check-in with more volunteers assembling playground equipment inside the church’s gymnasium, she told her supervisor, foundation President Marty Posch, “I’ve gotta get back out there. I don’t want them thinking I’ve given up on them.”
McInerney’s positive attitude and can-do spirit made her stand out during the summer she interned with the foundation after graduating from Ball State in 2014.
“From the start, Sara was very vocal about where she wanted to go with the company,” Posch said. “She’s always sought ways to challenge herself. It’s unique having an employee demonstrate that level of initiative and capacity for growth.”
Before landing at Finish Line, McInerney’s career aspirations centered on one goal: helping people.
“Sara’s someone who’s not personally ambitious so much as socially ambitious,” said Laura O’Hara, a Ball State associate professor of communications studies, the program from which McInerney earned her degree. “She’s one of few people I know who does work to make things better for people. I deeply admire her for that.”
O’Hara recalls McInerney’s final days at Ball State, when the college senior was paralyzed by the decision she faced upon graduating. She could take a full-time communications job with an Indianapolis company or accept the Finish Line Youth Foundation internship. The foundation’s mission spoke to her, but the internship would last only through the summer.
O’Hara was proud of McInerney’s decision to choose the internship. Their conversations shaped the commencement speech O’Hara gave that year to graduates of the College of Communication, Information, and Media. “Sara said, ‘In the end, my decision came down to chasing what I’m passionate about, because life’s too short not to.’ I quoted her because I thought it was a great sentiment to share.”
Once McInerney made her choice, she never looked back. “Going in, I knew I wasn’t going to have a job with the Youth Foundation. It was a closed door. But I thought if I did a good job at my internship, if I met as many employees as I could — from senior vice presidents to supply chain people — then another door might open that would lead me back to the foundation.”
Her hustle inspired Posch and others to keep McInerney on staff. “Sara didn’t know it, but we opened a position for her. We couldn’t let her go after she’d shown that level of commitment.”
‘If you’re not giving back … we’re not interested’
Three years into her career, McInerney still has pinch-me moments.
“I can’t believe I nailed the job of my dreams right out of college. I thought it would take years.”
Her responsibilities include coordinating philanthropic events on behalf of Finish Line stores across the eastern seaboard. “All our stores and their employees love the Youth Foundation. It gives their jobs greater purpose. They could be having a rough day, and all they have to do is think back to the shoe giveaway they led where they gave a 7-year-old with cancer a fresh pair of Nikes, and they’re in tears.”
McInerney also engages with the foundation’s involvement with Special Olympics. Since its creation in 1998, the Youth Foundation has awarded more than $17 million to nonprofits nationwide that support youth health and wellness initiatives and Special Olympics athletes across the country.
“I thought most charitable efforts happened at the nonprofit level, but I love working for a corporation foundation,” McInerney said. “It’s part of the competitive piece that draws employees to work for you, especially millennials. If you’re not giving back in some way, we’re not interested.”
Taking a break during the May 4 build day, Holt-Davis agreed. “I love that Finish Line is so invested in Indianapolis. It means a lot to me.”
Finish Line employees raised much of the money for the KaBOOM! playground builds. The foundation matched their donations, but the community partner also contributed several thousand dollars. This year, Finish Line employees raised more than $50,000, which was $9,000 more than what they put toward the 2016 KaBOOM! build at Warren Early Childhood Center, also on Indianapolis’ eastside.
“Raising that extra money proved people love the permanency of these playgrounds,” McInerney said. “They make a donation then get to build a slide that stays in our community. Past projects we’ve done have all been great, but a KaBOOM! playground has serious staying power.”
‘It’s chaotic and loud, but so much fun’
A few weeks before she led the 2017 KaBOOM! build, McInerney was at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Finish Line was the official footwear supplier of Special Olympics Team USA. As a foundation ambassador, McInerney met with team members before watching them compete. “I got to participate in a unified relay with snow shoe athletes, and that was fun, building relationships with them.”
Before her role at Finish Line, she’d had little interaction with people with intellectual disabilities outside of a few family members. She’s since become one of their champions. “I recently read Tim Shriver’s book, and it covers the history of people with intellectual disabilities. It was interesting, and I learned so much.”
At the annual Special Olympics Summer Games in Indiana, hundreds of Finish Line volunteers show up at Indiana State University to help coordinate the three-day event. McInerney is one of them. “We pick up bocce balls from the court, help athletes find where their start line is … it’s chaotic and loud, but so much fun.”
The work is a perfect match for someone as community-oriented and athletic as McInerney. Growing up in Griffith, Indiana, McInerney played a variety of sports but excelled at soccer. In college, she played competitively for Ball State before stepping down her sophomore year to focus on her studies and campus involvement.
All those years as an athlete had a profound impact on McInerney, who stays active thanks to CrossFit. “Kicking a soccer ball around was what I did whenever I got sad or upset. Sports taught me to be a more patient person, a better leader.”
‘My career can be as big as I want it to be’
A leader is exactly how O’Hara remembers the “bright and bubbly” McInerney.
“She’s one of those alums we love to have come back and share advice with seniors. We’re always going to invite her to those events because she’s such an inspiration to talk to.”
McInerney’s personal motto is “What more can I do?” The question explains why she’s always pushing herself to take on new challenges, especially in her career.
One of her latest was hosting a conversation in April with Special Olympics gold medalist snowboarder Daina Shilts at Finish Line’s annual managers meeting in Indianapolis. “We danced off our nerves before taking the stage, and now we’re great friends.” Interviewing Shilts in front of 1,000 Finish Line leaders was “a huge professional accomplishment. It’s going on my résumé, for sure.”
McInerney sums up her advice to students in one sentence: “Do not settle and always follow your passion over a paycheck.”
On a personal blog, McInerney shares stories called “Passion Profiles” about inspiring peers. And her keen interest in public speaking, which began with a TEDx talk she gave at Ball State in 2015, continues after her recent delivery of another at Hobart High School outside of Chicago.
Whether speaking to high school or college students, McInerney sums up her advice in one sentence: “Do not settle and always follow your passion over a paycheck.”
Young professionals, she said, are worth more than they think. “I tell them not to let insecurity hold them back. They should keep reaching for whatever it is they want.”
She wishes she could go back and put her own end-of-college jitters to rest. “I didn’t think life was going to get better after college, but as I’ve gotten more chances to prove myself professionally, I’ve come to realize life after graduation can be wonderful.”
Today McInerney knows she’s got the will — and the experience — to be a leader wherever life takes her. “I’ve learned how to step up and raise my hand. I can do this. My career can be as big as I want it to be.”