With almost 40 years of charitable activity, the American International League of Florence (AILO) has recently welcomed a new president, Blandina Steinhauslin. Steinhauslin granted The Florentine one of her first interviews since taking the new position, describing the reasons why she became involved in AILO and her hopes for the organisation’s future, including plans to expand the association and raise its public profile.
An internationally minded Florentine, Steinhauslin has spent her whole life in Florence and has always embraced the cosmopolitan mixture of cultures in the city: ‘That’s what makes Florence interesting and it’s a very lovely city, so I can’t complain!’
Trained as a geologist but with a passion and talent for textiles, she first worked in her field for a couple of years after graduation, then joined her father’s company, importing raw materials for the ceramic industry. Several years and four children later, Steinhauslin decided to focus on her family:
‘I wanted to be there for my children. It was time to be a mamma, a full-time mamma, and I have never regretted that decision, even though it was a lot of work. Sometimes I wonder how I managed the family, the children and the company … When you are young, though, you don’t think about it! You just do what you have to do.’
Steinhauslin’s involvement in AILO started gradually. Her interest in meeting people from different backgrounds was the reason she became an AILO member in the first place, and the result was countless new friendships. AILO has a way of bringing people together to work towards a common charitable cause. Part of moving in international circles is that people constantly come and go, but Steinhauslin finds this to be ‘very stimulating… You come into contact with people and then maybe they leave, but that doesn’t mean the relationship comes to an end. On the contrary, you should work harder to form friendships more quickly because the person might leave tomorrow … it’s a good life lesson.’
When the previous president asked Steinhauslin to take over in July 2014, she said, ‘The thought of becoming president of the association hadn’t crossed my mind … I didn’t think I would be capable. But after some thinking time, I thought maybe I could contribute something. In two years’ time, we will see if that’s the case.’ The hard work began in September: overseeing the budget, the organisation of new and returning members, and preparations for the annual Christmas Bazaar, which will be held on December 8, 2014.
From its small beginnings 40 years ago, the AILO Christmas Bazaar, the first of its type in Florence, has continued to grow, and it now stands in a class of its own. Among other things, it offers American-style foods such as brownies, hamburgers, jams and pickles, as well as a chance to socialise and spread some Christmas cheer.
All the proceeds from the Christmas Bazaar support AILO’s charitable mission, Steinhauslin explained. ‘Charities apply to our committee with a project, and after brief presentations all the members vote. The number of charities that benefit from our fund-raising efforts depends on how much money is raised at the Christmas Bazaar.’
As she looks beyond the Bazaar and toward the work ahead, Steinhauslin said that improving AILO’s online presence and internal communication are at the top of her to-do list. For example, a blog is in the making, to which all the members will be encouraged to contribute so the public is better informed about the association’s projects. Commenting on improving AILO’s ‘brand,’ Steinhauslin explained, ‘We want to add to what we already have. We need more visibility and hope to expand the society, without losing sight of our mission, for which we are well known.’
Another of Steinhauslin’s goals is to spread the idea of volunteerism, a key aspect of AILO but a notion and practice that is far from the norm in Italy—and is even viewed with suspicion: ‘Sometimes institutions don’t open their doors to us! I hope that, bit by bit, the mindset will change. We have to persevere. After all, when you give, you get back.’ It is not all an uphill battle, however. As part of the larger Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas, AILO may be small but it is powerful. AILO was awarded the Marzocco from the City of Florence in recognition of its good work, which benefits some 10 to 15 charities each year.
The AILO Christmas Bazaar will be held on December 8 from 10am to 5pm at Le Pagliere (ex Scuderie Reali), in viale Machiavelli 24. For more information, see www.ailoflorence.org.
Best bar for an aperitivo?
Gilli in piazza della Repubblica: inside or outside, the atmosphere is engaging.
Favourite restaurant in Florence?
Gusta Osteria in piazza Santo Spirito
One place in Florence that makes you happy or inspires you.
The Fondazione Lisio, one of the few remaining places where hand velvet and brocade are still woven.
The biggest difference between Italians and Americans?
How different can they be now that Italians eat hamburgers and Americans eat pasta?
Favourite coffee shop in Florence?
I don’t drink coffee; I drink tea at La via del tè in piazza Ghiberti.
Favourite Florentine, past or present?
My four children.
Favourite view of Florence?
From Sesto, roof of the Excelsior, at sunset. An almost 360° view over Florence, breathtaking.
What would you ask the mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, over a cup of coffee?
Will you come to AILO’s Christmas party?