All it took was seeing a sea of Special Olympics T-shirts at a Renaissance fair in Minneapolis for Sheri McMichael to know where she belonged: working to improve the lives of children.

McMichael, 57, is the executive director of Variety – the Children’s Charity of Iowa, where she has been at the helm for 20 years. Before that, she was vice president of development for Special Olympics Iowa.

McMichael is being recognized as one of the Business Record’s Women of Influence for 2020, an honor she humbly says is the result of those who stand beside her doing the work that she describes as her passion.

“It makes me feel really good that the work being done by Variety, not me, but by Variety as an organization, is being recognized,” she said.

McMichael was working for a health maintenance organization in Des Moines when she was approached about applying for the Special Olympics job. Before the process was complete, she and her husband visited a Renaissance festival in Minneapolis, where she spotted a large number of people wearing Special Olympics T-shirts ahead of the World Games the next year.

“To me that was a sign that this is what I needed to do,” McMichael said. 

She quickly learned the ins and outs of fundraising and the importance of meeting grant application deadlines, all while making a difference in the lives of children.

Jump ahead to her leadership at Variety.

“It was just a different opportunity to impact all kids, underprivileged, at-risk, critically ill, those living with special needs,” McMichael said. 

And it’s the end result of that work that drives her, she said.

“As hard as it is and as sad as it is sometimes, you just want to wrap those kids in your arms and take them home, take care of them, and make all those things go away. We’re doing that in our own way,” McMichael said.

McMichael was praised for her enthusiasm in a letter of recommendation submitted by Don and Margo Blumenthal.

“Sheri couldn’t achieve all she does without an exuberant personality,” the Blumenthals wrote.  “She is always smiling and is ready to tackle the most difficult jobs with a positive attitude.”

McMichael attributed some of her success to her friend Rosalie Gallagher, whom she described as a “ball of fire.”

“She works so hard for the community, and to give back in different ways,” McMichael said. “She really influenced me in keeping my eye on the end result. Don’t let the things along the way distract you.”

McMichael also spoke about the inspiration she received from Jody Reynolds, the first female president of Variety International, and whose husband, Stan, was one of the founders of the Variety Telethon. McMichael’s voice cracked with emotion as she remembered her friend who died last year.

“She was quiet and calm, and watching her really influenced me,” McMichael said. “To watch her as she led Variety International, and how she did it, just really inspired me.”

THREE AREAS OF INFLUENCE
1. Helping Variety launch the inclusive playground concept for children with special needs.

2. Expanding Variety’s mobility programs.

3. Helping to revitalize the Young Variety program to get young adults involved in giving back to the community.