By Caurie Putnam | Photo by Rita LaVeck
Walking into the Memorial Art Gallery for the Upstate New York Families for Effective Autism Treatment’s (UNYFEAT) annual gala this April, the first thing you noticed was the silent auction. Snaked around the stone wall perimeter of the gallery’s foyer were about a hundred high-value items and services that had been donated by local businesses, artists, and individuals.
Each auction item was meticulously and beautifully displayed.
The auction garnered $20,000 for the organization in just a few hours and was chaired by UNYFEAT member Nicole Hilger.
A huge number? Yes
A surprise to those who know her? No
When it comes to building things, Nicole is an expert.
Nicole is the Director of Special Events and Outreach for the Builders Exchange of Rochester – a not-for-profit established in 1888 to support businesses identified with the building industry.
Through her programming, Nicole supports members who build every type of commercial, industrial, institutional and public building; supply building materials, fixtures, machinery and equipment for every type of construction; and furnish surety bonds, mortgage loans, financing and insurance for every construction activity.
“One of the most important things Builders Exchange does is to bring business here to Rochester,” Nicole said. “I’m not out in the field in a hard hat, but I provide a support role to the construction industry.”
Nicole’s work recently earned her a board position with the National Association of Women in Construction’s (NAWIC) Greater Rochester Chapter.
For 55 years NAWIC has supported women in all facets of the construction industry by providing opportunities for mentoring, educational experiences, professional development, and networking.
“When people think of the construction industry they don’t often think of polished, educated, women,” said Brandonne Rankin, Director of Community and Government Relations for the Builders Exchange of Rochester. “Nikki’s involvement with NAWIC is so important because it will hopefully change that.”
Nicole’s work in the construction industry indirectly stems from her work at home as the mother of triplets, along with her husband Aaron. The two met in a political science class while undergraduates at the University of Rochester. Nicole grew up outside of Pittsburgh and Aaron in Lockport.
In 2004, Nicole and Aaron, who now live in Victor, gave birth to Emma, Sophie, and Alex. Nicole stopped working outside the home to care for the triplets. When they were around eighteen months, she noticed some subtle differences between Alex and his sisters. At age two and a half, Alex was diagnosed with autism.
“For two years we had twenty hours a week of Early Intervention therapists in our home,” Nicole said. “When you have a child with special needs it becomes a full time job.”
When Alex was four, Nicole and Aaron realized the steadfast, solid support they gave one another was not enough.
“You figure out very quickly who your friends are,” Nicole said. “Having multiples makes your list of friends small and then when you add autism to it the list gets even smaller.”
That all changed when they found UNYFEAT – a grassroots organization founded in Rochester in 2004 to provide support to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families. The group now has over 1,000 family and professional members.
“We needed to broaden Alex’s world and ours too,” Nicole said. “We needed to find people in the same boat who understood us.”
The support and friendships Nicole found through UNYFEAT inspired her to get involved in a leadership level.
“I wanted to give back and say thanks,” Nicole said.
Nicole credits her sorority experience at the University of Rochester and girlhood experience at the all-girls Ellis School in Pittsburgh with laying the foundation for her love of volunteer work. Nicole’s volunteer special event planning with UNYFEAT prompted her to take on her position with Builders Exchange of Rochester once the triplets started first grade.
She strives to balance her roles and lives by the saying, “Keep calm and carry on.”
“The piece of my life I never want to give up is being a mom first,” Nicole said. “The kids know that when I’m home I’m ‘Mom,’ when I’m at work I’m an event planner, and when I’m at UNYFEAT I’m sometimes an event planner.”
This balance is something that doesn’t surprise those who have known Nicole before she juggled three important roles.
“Nikki is the queen of balancing and multitasking life,” said Sue Bloch, of Brighton, who has known Nicole since 1994.
Bloch was the advisor of the EpsilonTau Chapter of Gamma Phi Beta at the University of Rochester when Nicole became a member. She is now the president of the Rochester alumna chapter of the sorority – an organization Nicole is also involved with.
“Nikki seems to effortlessly balance her life as a daughter, wife, mother of triplets and as my loyal and fun loving friend,” Bloch said. “She’s an amazing woman respected and admired by many.”