A Heart for Helping Others, Tiffani Nair has found her niche in nonprofits

When Tiffani Nair — “rhymes with fire” — first decided to major in communications at Angelo State University in San Angelo, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as public relations,” she says. “I had to look up online what kind of jobs you could get with that major.” As she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject, she remembers, “My professors said, ‘Don’t go into the nonprofit area; you’ll never make any money.’” Her first job in the field was as the marketing assistant at a mall, where she used the writing skills she had honed at the university’s student newspaper to craft press releases. She also managed the website and coordinated health fairs and an annual nonprofit community day at the mall. “While I was there, I kept thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do all this marketing for something good?’” After graduation, she got her wish, stepping into her first full-time professional job as program director in charge of scheduling volunteers for San Angelo’s Meals for the Elderly, affiliated with the national Meals on Wheels program, which delivers meals to people whose physical or mental disabilities prevent them from preparing regular meals for themselves. “My boss there told me, ‘This (job) is going to get into your heart; it’s going to become part of your life.’” At age 21, she was skeptical at first, but it happened: “This kind of job is special; the volunteers and the people you come in contact with become your family,” she says. “The organization’s mission becomes your purpose.”

After four years, Nair wanted new challenges in a new environment. Originally from Big Spring in West Texas, she says, “I’m a country girl who needed to be in a big city.” She chose San Antonio because although it’s the nation’s seventh-largest city, “It doesn’t feel like a big city. There’s a slower pace, a small-town feel, with all the advantages of a major city.” With the move, she found an executive position in her chosen field. As director of mission delivery and communications in the San Antonio office of the American Diabetes Association, she’s in charge of the organization’s local community education program, oversees all its communication efforts, coordinates media interviews and helps present special events. At workplace wellness talks, health fairs, programs at community centers and “anywhere we can gather a group of people,” she’s the face of the organization, sharing information on diabetes prevention and management with people who already have been diagnosed or might be at risk of developing the chronic condition. Diabetes, whether Type 1 or Type 2, is a metabolic disorder in which the pancreas produces too little or no insulin, which helps move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. If untreated or poorly managed, diabetes can lead to cardiovascular, kidney and other complications. It is known to affect at least 14 percent of San Antonians — twice the national incidence.

Part of the message Nair wants to communicate to the people she meets at outreach events is that “Diabetes is not something you bring on yourself. It doesn’t have to shorten your life. To a great extent, you can prevent the consequences and to some extent, even prevent (diabetes itself).” One challenge to getting the word out — about getting tested, following recommendations for diet and lifestyle changes and scheduling regular checkups — is that “diabetes is not very visual. There isn’t much of a shock factor. By the time you’re diagnosed, you may still be symptomless.” Too many people with diabetes, Nair says, “get a little too nonchalant. They go into a thought process where because they feel fine, they think, ‘I’ll take care of it later.’ But if you choose to ignore diabetes, it will be harder to avoid damage to your body.” Early last year, Nair recognized that “I wasn’t always practicing what I preached. I was teaching people about correct portion sizes, but I wasn’t following my own advice.” Determined to serve as a good example, she lost 30 pounds and has since kept it off with simple but effective strategies: no fast food, no fried foods — “I’m using my oven more” — a salad for one meal a day, no super-size or “Texas-size” portions and regular gym visits. High-blood pressure runs in her family; before Nair began her weight-loss regimen, hers was “right on the line” before a diagnosis of hypertension, and now it’s in the normal range.

Looking toward her future, Nair would be open to working in a larger regional office or the national headquarters of the American Diabetes Association. For the present, she says, “I enjoy what I do. At the end of the day, if I’ve helped someone learn to take better care of themselves, if I’ve helped them through our program, I’m happy. I feel very fortunate to be where I am.”

By Paula Allen
Photography Janet Rogers