When Memphis native Ashley Harper graduated from Central High School and left town, it was for the mountains.
First, for Fort Collins and Colorado State University nestled in the Rocky Mountains where she majored in English and entertained lofty plans of working with metaphors, imagery and language.
Upon her return to Memphis, she did just that working for Burke’s Bookstore for seven years.
When she left Memphis a second time, Harper once again found herself atop a mountain. This time, though, it was Machu Picchu. She, husband, Dan, and their two small children, Flannery and Gus, 5 and 1 at time, respectively, moved to Lima, Peru, in 2000. The couple taught English at a private bilingual school.
She describes the experience of living in a foreign country as “excellent” and “phenomenal.”
“We miss it every day,” she says and would recommend such an adventure to anyone who has the opportunity. “I’m not a traveler, I’ve never done much traveling, but being somewhere and learning to fit in, that’s what I like.”
Back in Memphis in 2004, Harper volunteered at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as an interpreter. Responsibility loomed and the need for paying work led her to Hands On Memphis where she was the “last man standing” before that entity’s merger with Volunteer Memphis.
With the two organizations, she says, “I wasn’t at a nonprofit that had one single mission and impact area and I really liked that because I was meeting all sorts of different people from all over Memphis and I really enjoyed the variety.”
After what would eventually become Volunteer Mid-South, Harper found herself at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis in 2008. The move into the grants and initiatives department as a program officer, she said, “made sense” because she found herself working with different nonprofits in Memphis that were looking for grants and funding. She worked to distribute money through competitive grants, or the Community Partnership Fund, into the community, and to help local nonprofits understand how to acquire funding from the Foundation.
“I already knew a lot of people in the nonprofit community, and this was a way to continue to work with them, just in a different capacity,” she said.
“Knowing how many people are trying to make this a better place for everyone, it makes it easier to live here. I don’t feel the negativity that so many people place on Memphis.”
Director of grants and initiatives, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis
In February, Harper was named director of grants and initiatives. With the title comes more responsibility and it’s a challenge she relishes, calling upon her nine years in Memphis nonprofits and a worldview gleaned from time away. She is looking forward, she says, to “making more of my own decisions and feeling more confident in those decisions on what to tell a nonprofit. … I am entrusted with making decisions in more situations.”
When Melissa Wolowicz left The Community Foundation as the vice president of grants and initiatives for a position with BRIDGES, she moved on knowing that the Foundation is in good hands.
“Ashley is one of the hardest working women I know and she’s the last one to take any credit for it,” Wolowicz said.
Harper has worked on initiatives such as GiVE 365, and with outside organizations to help her industry progress and extend its reach. She has taken an active role in the past with her children’s schools and in bolstering her own Midtown community.
“While she prefers to work behind the scenes, its been great to see her step into the spotlight through her work with GiVE 365, the Southeastern Council of Foundations and the Council on Foundations,” Wolowicz said. “To top it all off, she is a wife, mother and triathlete. … She inspires me to work harder.”
And then there is Ashley Harper the athlete. She began training with Star Runners in 2012, and running half marathons. When friend Stacey Greenberg suggested they try a triathlon, Harper didn’t hesitate. The real challenge, she says, was in finding the time and in what she calls “the fear factor.”
“Just the fear factor of being in a group with people that are true athletes,” she said with a laugh. “After that first race, though, it was just completely different. Not drowning was just the best thing.”
She has since completed four sprint triathlons and is gearing up now for the Memphis in May Sprint Triathlon on May 18.
Whether running, biking, swimming, climbing a mountain, or looking for that next nonprofit to help Memphis advance and heal itself, Harper is at her best and ready for all that might stand in the way.
“A lot of times people … when they’re younger, they want to get out,” she said. “But knowing how many people are trying to make this a better place for everyone, it makes it easier to live here. I don’t feel the negativity that so many people place on Memphis.”