SA Women Changing the Retirement Landscape
After taking a step back from hugely successful and dynamic careers, Lainey Berkus, Estela Avery, and Sylvia Rodriguez are reinventing retirement poetics, all while continuing to bring their philanthropic color and grace to the SATX community.
“I dream in color. I always have,” Lainey Berkus leans in to tell me as we chat over coffee at Bilia Eatery in Castle Hills. And it’s no wonder, as this former CE Group Co-Founder has already inspired my future fashion choices. Arriving in her Nirvana sweatshirt and complimentary yellow and black accessories (to include ever-fabulous oversized black glasses), I can’t help but feel the idea of reinvention immediately impressed upon me. “I am positive; I am happy. I don’t wonder how to fill my days. I am always open to what comes next.”
Having semi-retired ten years ago, Lainey still takes on a small batch of consulting clients, including Don Strange of Texas, Merit Coffee, the Las Casas Foundation, the Ambassador Group, and more. Known across the San Antonio community for her memorably edgy creative campaigns (to include an upside-down Christmas tree/telescope) throughout her storied PR career, Lainey is shifting conventional conversations about retirement as she reinvents the landscape. “I retired because I had a wakeup call. Time is priceless”.
After 35 years fully immersed in the PR and media relations world, she’s leaned into her love of art, hiring a McNay tutor and studying art for two years. “The first thing I did once I retired was hire a tutor and studied my passion—The Arts—I loved that and learned so much.” Her personal collection, which includes art pieces often collected on travels with her husband as micro-memories, now spans over 300 pieces. During COVID, surrounded by her collection, her art served as both catharsis and a way to keep her heart lifted during lockdown.
Lainey’s love of the arts has continued to expand her love of nonprofits and community building, preferring to work with nonprofits that are part of her retirement mission, especially those which help children. She’s taken on leadership roles within Say Si, the McNay Contemporary Arts Group, Les Dames d’Escoffier and UTSA Special Collections. “I never had time to do that before,” she says. “I get to do things I always hoped to do.”
Most surprising might be her newest passion, gardening, which has truly allowed her to embrace outdoor spaces, local nurseries and parks, and the peace and creative arts which come from garden design itself. “At 73 years young, I can look back at my kaleidoscope life, and I know who I am. By evolving and reinventing myself, I see the world more clearly, and that inspires me to make a difference in my unique way—just on a smaller scale. I’ve only just begun. Most importantly, I’m a mom, wife, and hands-on MeMe for nine grandkids. My glass isn’t half-full; it’s overflowing.”
Like Lainey, Philanthropist Estela Avery, Retired Registered nurse and former Executive Director of the San Antonio River Foundation, made a similar decision to retire earlier than anticipated. Facing health challenges of her own and the declining health of her husband, jewelry designer James Avery, Estela felt the need to “just take a break” so she could prioritize the health of herself and her family. After the passing of her husband in 2018, she became increasingly involved with The Grace Center in Fredericksburg.
“I feel very lucky to have gotten the call to be one of the founding members. We are going to help individuals who are in desperate need.” As current President of The Grace Center Board of Directors, Estela has been essential in the construction completion of the center’s shelter for victims of domestic violence. Having recently finished an incredibly successful capital campaign, when doors to the new building open in Gillespie County, The Grace Center will be able to accommodate 36 occupants, including their children and pets, and fill an immense need. “I am a big believer in philanthropy. I am very blessed in so many different ways. It is important,” Estela notes.
Fueled by her immense love of the outdoors, Estela is serving for a second time on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Each one is so majestic; we have to keep fighting for these spaces and these treasures. Each one is so unique and so beautiful.” Esteala has also served on Hallmark University’s board and continues to support the institution with a scholarship in Mr. Avery’s name. Volunteering keeps Estela involved locally and nationally, fulfilling her affinity for nonprofits and sharing in others’ passions. “Volunteering and serving the community is very important. I really get a lot of joy from being involved, “she says.
Reading a really great book, family life with her nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren through her marriage to James, and adventuring with her daughters across continents and unique experiences in Africa and Singapore keep her open-minded to the full joy of life experiences. Working in her yard, and playing with plants as she splits time between her ranch in Fredericksburg and home in San Antonio, keep Estela actively enjoying and embracing the Texas sunshine.
On how Estela best navigates her retirement landscape: “For me, it’s the beginning of another chapter that will be different. Life is a journey. Make it a good one. Stay open to learning and keep on learning no matter what.”
On April 16th Sylvia Rodgriguez participated in the L’Étape by Tour de France, a 60-mile bike ride. An avid cyclist and champion fundraiser for the National MS Society, Sylvia has been cycling with Valero’s official cycling team, Velo Valero, for the last 22 years. “It’s a part of my life. It’s just very enjoyable,” she says. “The camaraderie is just very special.” In addition to L’Étape, Sylvia, rides 100+ miles each October; Bike MS: Valero Ride to the River. In 2019, Sylvia was inducted into the MS Society’s Fundraising Hall of Fame, having raised over $50,000 for the charity. She rides for a cause, for the exercise, and for enjoying the outdoors with other cycling enthusiasts who ride 2-3 times a week.
Intending to continue working until 2023, this San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame inductee, Sylvia retired from Valero in 2020 after 28 years of service, serving as Director of the Valero Energy Foundation for 12 years. When the pandemic hit, Sylvia chose to retire early and hasn’t looked back (except to see how her cycling teammates are faring). Instead, she’s using her time to support community organizations. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she remembers.
In addition to Velo Valero, Sylvia also volunteers with the Valero Vanguards, a group of about 70-80 Valero retirees who supplement nonprofits around the community during working hours on behalf of Valero. Working on special projects year-round, Sylvia volunteered as part of a pre-k picnic day in an underserved school this morning. Sylvia also serves on the board of the San Antonio Women’s Chamber helping raise scholarship funds for nontraditional female students. “To those who have been given much, much is expected,” she quotes from the Book of Luke, highlighting the importance of sharing our gifts with others to make our community better.
Currently in her 10th year on the board of the San Antonio Parks Foundation, Sylvia effuses nature. “I love to work with plants,” she mentions, volunteering at her church to water plants and care for the hedges. “There’s just something about being outdoors,” she says. Both Sylvia and her husband love primitive camping, often at Big Bend Ranch State Park, spending time hiking the incredible landscape by day, stargazing by night and enjoying wonderful meals cooked over an open flame.
“Stay active as much as you can, whether it is through exercise, spending time with grandchildren or volunteering occasionally. You’ll see how impactful it is, not just for the nonprofit you’re helping but for yourself. You can make a real difference by sharing your knowledge in a variety of meaningful ways. I do things that I love to do, but I share my blessings. It’s important that I share my blessings.”