For Laura Shields, engaging in the New Orleans community and the Junior League of New Orleans have come naturally. “I grew up in a Junior League household,” says Laura, the Junior League of New Orleans (JLNO) 2022 Sustainer of the Year. “Volunteerism definitely runs in my family.” As a New Orleans native, Laura followed in her mother's and sister's footsteps when diving into JLNO.
It is also fitting that she follows both in receiving the Sustainer of the Year award: her mother, Helen Martin Shaw, was honored in 1972 when Laura was a senior in high school, and her sister—former JLNO President Betsy Shaw Nalty—held the title in 1999.
Sharing the title of Sustainer of the Year with her younger sister comes as no surprise to Betsy, who says, “Laura’s commitment to voluntarism personifies the mission of the Junior League!” While Laura is proud to continue this impressive family legacy, her Junior League journey has been her own. When Laura joined the League, she was a full time Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and was pregnant with her son. At the time, JLNO lacked much of its current flexibility for working women. Laura still rose to the occasion, completing all of her provisional requirements at the thrift shop without the benefit of evening shifts. She also quickly discovered a way to marry her profession with her community service, serving as the Treasurer for the Thrift Shop and before spending two years on the JLNO Board as Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer.
When reflecting on her time in the League, it is her tenure on the Board that Laura says impacted her the most. “Serving on exec was probably one of the most rewarding experiences,” she says.
Given her two year commitment in the treasurer role, she had the opportunity to see firsthand the leadership styles of two different JLNO Presidents and to hone lifelong skills: “The Junior League is such an incredible training ground,” Laura recalls. In addition to facilitating meetings, negotiating group dynamics and mastering the art of compromises, Laura also leveraged her board experience to conquer a fear of public speaking. “I was terrified of public speeches—my knees would shake,” Laura says. “I remember at Junior League, I’d have to get up and give presentations on budgets and things like that.”
Laura’s Junior League trainings were only some of the benefits she gleaned from her time in the League. As Laura says, “The other thing about the Junior League was opening my eyes to the needs in the New Orleans community.” Laura was able to replicate the same combination of professional expertise and community passion by serving as treasurer on a host of other boards: from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School to Dress for Success, to the New Orleans Botanical Garden Foundation—just to name a few.
Former JLNO President and Sustainer of the Year Chair Jennifer Couvillon recognizes this impressive reach across the community, saying, “Over the years, she has dedicated her time, talents and treasure to positively impacting and improving our New Orleans community. As a thoughtful leader, she exemplifies the mission of JLNO by serving others.” Laura’s leadership qualities clearly extend far beyond her accounting acumen. As her sister Betsy says, “Her calm, steady, inclusive, fair and thorough leadership qualities—together with a wonderful sense of humor—have made her a favorite of many!” These qualities have positioned her to serve as an Elder and Clerk of Session at her church, St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, on three different occasions, and they led to deep engagement in various neighborhood boards and associations as well. Her civic involvement also reflects her commitment to children and education, having served as an Advisory Board Member for the Cowen Institute, as well as on the Board of the Parenting Center of Children’s Hospital and Voices for Children, amongst other educational and children’s causes. Perhaps Laura’s greatest passion in the New Orleans’ community is her beloved alma mater, the Louise S. McGehee School, where she has served as Chair of the Alumnae Association and Endowment Committee and has been a Board Member since 2006, Board Chair since 2019 and was the receipient of the Distinguished Alumni award.
Though she retired from her fulltime accounting career in 2017, it is easy to believe Laura when she says “I like to stay busy!” Like so many JLNO members today, Laura has spent a lifetime juggling family, work and community activities. “Time management is critical,” Laura emphasizes.
She found success in explaining to her family why she was engaging in the projects she undertook, and including them in those activities when she could. As Laura says, “Not only does it help continue the thread of volunteerism in your children and spouse or partner, but it instills pride in them for what you’re doing.” For Laura, having her family support her leadership across the New Orleans community has made those endeavors even more special.
Laura has also learned, however, that there are times to lead and times to follow. For JLNO members striving to find balance and stay engaged, Laura advises seeking a supporting role if one’s personal and professional life won’t support a leadership position. The structure of the Junior League is especially conducive to this approach: “The connections you make with people are invaluable,” Laura says. She also remains “absolutely amazed” at all JLNO has done and continues to do through the pandemic. From her perspective, this take both dedicated leaders and members to keep the organization growing and thriving at this level.
These days, in addition to her community service, Laura spends her retirement with her husband, Lloyd “Sonny” Shields, and their blended family of five children and seven grandchildren. She is proud to see her and her parents’ legacy of volunteering carried on through her sons’ civic engagements and her McGehee involvement continued by two of her granddaughters. Though Laura says she is “in awe of this [Sustainer of the Year] honor,” it is undoubtedly a fitting accolade for a lifetime spent bettering New Orleans. As Jennifer Couvillon says, “We are grateful to Laura for her dedication and are honored for her to recognize her as the 2022 JLNO Sustainer of the Year.”