2023 GPA GrantSummit – Scholarship Reflection, by Brenda Perino

Brenda and Reagan

Brenda and Reagan

Thanks to the scholarship that I received from the Grants Professional Foundation (GPF), I was able to attend my first GPA conference, the 2023 Grant Summit in Kansas City. I did not have the money to attend this year, it wasn’t in my department budget, and I really wanted to go. I submitted a scholarship application with hopes of receiving the award. I was ecstatic when I received the news that I was selected as a scholar this year!

For months, I was looking forward to the conference because I am new to the field and wanted to learn more skills to help me become a better grant writer from seasoned professionals. I taught Physical Education and was a year-round, four sport coach for over 20 years. At the beginning of this new journey, I took every free webinar and read all the blogs I could find. I value professional development and feel like I could spend my days just attending webinars and not even writing grants, but I don’t always make time for it now that I am over a year and a half into my new career . I knew if I could attend this conference, I would be laser focused on learning and get a lot out of it.  What I left with was a ton of information to help me write better grants and far more knowledge than I ever expected to gain about myself. First off, I had no idea how to get to the hotel from the airport in Kansas City. I don’t have a rideshare app and wasn’t sure about public transportation. During the week of the conference I connected with someone on a GPA forum who was arriving at the airport around the same time as I was, and we organized a meetup and rideshare . Networking for this event began before I even left Florida and I made a new friend right away. On day one, I settled into my fancy room then went to register and check out the vendors. I attended the Newcomers Reception and instantly started having a great time! I was super excited to receive an “I Love Grants” bracelet as soon as I walked in the door. The MC, Jess, was hilarious, and I found some of my rock people with the musical mixer.  A couple days later, a woman from the mixer sat with me at a table for lunch and lead the conversation with, “I also love to rock, and loved your energy at the newbies reception.” I was able to connect with another Goodwill attendee at the mixer, and we were able to hang out, even in the airport while waiting to go home.

After that, I went upstairs for the welcome reception and to more closely check out the vendors to start collecting stamps with hopes of being one of the first people to turn it in, possibly increasing my chances of winning the free one-year membership. They had tons of information and free goodies and since I am all about free office supplies, stickers, chocolate snacks, t-shirts, magnets and more, I was in heaven! My prized possession from this trip, other than the grants bracelet that I wear every day now, is the unicorn duck for my jeep!  I had signed up to work at the GPA Foundation booth, but when I checked in twice, they insisted that I wasn’t needed. I had also volunteered for two sessions, so I wasn’t worried about meeting the requirements. It was neat to see faces behind organizations like Foundant and Instrumentl since I have taken many of their webinars and read their newsletters. I have scheduled demos with some of them now that I am back in the office .

The opening session was the perfect kickoff to a great summit! WOW! There’s Jess again! She is outstanding at hosting!  At the welcome reception (and throughout the conference), I was dealing with a team back home who just started working on a report and grant due by November 2nd, even though I sent it out two months ago with weekly reminders ever since. I was able to vent to my new friends, and instantly knew I was in the right place around over 1,000 people who understood me, my frustrations and stress. I was around folks who know what the oxford comma is, and the difference between objectives, outcomes and outputs! I love how Jess and everyone else kept the comedy throughout the whole conference! I haven’t laughed that much in a long time, and it was much needed. I honestly expected the conference to be dry, and while informational, mundane. It was anything BUT that! I appreciate how GPA put real, funny people in charge of leading the conference. I saw brightly colored hair, creative outfits, amazing purses and shoes and appreciated every single bit of it! I realized that I didn’t get the memo to bring my sparkly glitter boots when I saw our President and others wearing them throughout the conference. They will be in my suitcase next year!

On day two, I attended the Scholar Breakfast and was honored to receive the certificate, the first grants related certificate that I can proudly hang in my office! The food for breakfast was amazing, too! I met some donors and other scholars. The first session I attended was “No Unsolicited Proposals” How to Get that Date to the Prom” and I received instant action items to start putting into practice and share with my development team. After that, they had a spectacular lunch ready for us and I realized that GPA is going to be feeding us very well! During lunch I assembled 28 goodie bags for the children’s hospital, and recruited two others to join me. The next session was the “Combating Grant Myths” and I learned strategies to demystify some of the common myths.

I signed up to volunteer in the last session of the night, “I signed up for What?”. Since the title was so vague, I had to go and find out what it was about.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the tech to cooperate for me to be able to monitor the chat. This session was more about Federal Grants and common challenges. This session helped me understand the risks of accepting grants. They even let us out early to see the puppies! When I found out there were going to be puppies, I couldn’t wait to go snuggle with them! In my mind, I was alone on the floor with about six puppies playing all over me, but when I got out there, there was a huge crowd already waiting in lines to get their hands on those darlings. Even though it didn’t go as planned, I was able to briefly hold one of those sweet babies, which was the perfect ending to a great day! I vote horses and ponies for next year’s conference!

On day 3, GPA provided another slam dunk breakfast buffet! No one told me I was going to gain 10 pounds on this trip eating all this unlimited delicious food! (Disclaimer, once home, I only had only gained 2 pounds). I volunteered to work this session and I was not prepared for it to change my life. I’ve always known my brain operates differently than other peoples’ brains do, so I wondered what the “Work with Your Brain, not Against it-How to Accommodate your Neurodiversity” session was about, so I volunteered in advance for this one. I wasn’t prepared to learn more about myself in that hour than I had learned in almost five decades, as well as meet other people like me!  I learned how and why my brain works that way and left with strategies to help me.  For the first time in my life, especially now, I did not feel alone, or “quirky and weird” as my boss and other coworkers often tell me I am. I feel like I belong!  I left that session with a new outlook on my brain, my work, and my life, almost in disbelief like, where was Laura Cochran all my life?  I noticed that people were leaving their cups and trash all over the water tables in each room and decided in an effort to make up for lost volunteer time, I would clean up every water table in each room I was in for the remainder of the conference.

The next session was “Vulnerabilities in Grants Work: Set Yourself (and others) Free.” This was another session where I learned more about myself, and strategies to deal with my own emotions. I also won a book and old school stickers that brought back 80s memories of my old sticker book. Then, of course, another delicious lunch was waiting for us to enjoy while participating in the plenary Session with Beth Z. I had to look up the word plenary to know it was a meeting for everyone. Once I saw Beth Z, Lady Nerd, on the schedule, I was super excited because I was in one of her webinars a couple months ago and receive her e-newsletters. She is an amazing presenter and so knowledgeable on all things tech. I enjoyed learning the ABC’s of AI in her humorous presentation and about fell out of my chair laughing at the “Gen Z” voiceover!  I Changed my last session of the day after seeing her in person and finding out she was presenting because I knew it would be good. I enjoy her, and her content, and I was hoping to get the rest of the alphabet in her session! I learned that Alice Runke was also there! I have taken so many of her webinars and was happy to see her in person. I looked for her the rest of the conference but never ran into her to thank her for all the knowledge she had given me start my grant writing career. She reminded me  how grateful I am to have begun this career in the digital age with the internet and instant access to data!

In Beth Z’s “Powered Productivity: Super Tech Tools to get stuff done”, I ended up meeting her and thanking her for her webinars and newsletters, and she gave me a NERD card! It’s official, and if anyone argues with me about being too nerdy, I will proudly show them my card! I also won her ABC book and a cool Lady Nerd bracelet! I was able to bring back tech to my team and they are very interested in most of it, especially the LipDub app because we serve large Hispanic and Haitian populations.

I had been looking forward to the next session, “Captial Campaigns, Grants can lead”, since the schedule came out before the conference. We just began a 50-million-dollar capital campaign and I needed to know how I can contribute. I learned many ways that I can help my team with this campaign and am happy with the knowledge I received. 

On the last night in the hotel, I received a text from Kelly Romero that I had, in fact, won the free year membership from Vendor bingo and I was beyond excited to spend my last night knowing I was most likely the luckiest attendee that ever attended a GPA conference with all the goodies I had won, not to mention winning the scholarship, too! 

The next morning, I was sad to be leaving but was looking forward to one more super delicious breakfast and the last sessions of the conference. Another session I was excited about was “How to Craft a Detailed Budget” because that is one area I have struggled with. I am tasked with all things grant budget related and math isn’t a strong quality that I possess.  I learned some new ways to craft our budgets and will put those strategies into practice right away, just in time to begin preparing 2024 budgets.

Then, the physical education teacher in me needed to attend “Become a #HealthyGrantPro: Anti-Burnout Strategies for the Grant Professional.” I am not burnt out, but I know it’s realistic to expect it could happen one day, so I wanted to be prepared with strategies to combat burn out before it happened. I learned strategies for better self-care which I am hoping will help diminish the sicknesses and physical ailments that I’ve experienced in the last two years, which I attributed to being almost 50 years old. I realized that much of it comes from the stress of deadlines and dealing with a team who delivers information at the last minute, and my own anxiety causes a lot of it. I am excited to start using these strategies right away. I was also inspired to possibly put together a session in this category for a future conference, using over 20 years of knowledge from my previous career. 

The closing ceremony was enlightening and entertaining, and it was then I learned there had been afternoon snacks upstairs every day! I missed it because I was downstairs every day except for lunch but was happy to enjoy the snacks that day. Again, I don’t have a ride share app so I had wondered how I would get back to the airport, but my chapter President was leaving at the same time so I could ride with her and have some post-conference chit chat on the way. I was sad to be leaving, but I was very motivated, inspired and re-energized to put into practice the knowledge I gained. I am not accidental; I chose this profession. I am not a robot, and I am more than just a grant writer; I am a freaking grants professional with feelings, hopes and goals and at this conference, I gained the strength to advocate for myself and this profession. I left feeling validated about my profession and the conference gave me hope and confidence. I am not an afterthought. I am needed, valued, important and I do have a purpose to help make this world a better place.

In all, I had a wonderful experience and walked away with a renewed glow, and a winner in more ways than I can count! I am grateful to the GPA Foundation for selecting me as a scholar recipient and I am already looking forward to next year and beyond, where I can be around my people. In the meantime, I will attend South Florida Chapter events and GPA webinars and attempt to build in time to view the sessions that I missed. Thank you for organizing an outstanding conference and providing continuous opportunities to grow personally and professionally.