Super volunteer opens his heart and his oven, baking about 500 cookies a week
James F. Mulvaney Jr. is being honored by Volunteers of America Southwest for his years of philanthropy. He is also active in supporting St. Vincent de Paul Village, the San Diego Center for Children and many more. He is also famous for his homemade cookies.
James F. Mulvaney Jr. is a people person, but you will know him by his cookies.
The local philanthropist — who is being honored at the Volunteers of America Southwest's annual Anniversary Celebration on April 20 — gives his time, talents and financial support to a list of local nonprofits that also includes St. Vincent de Paul Village, the San Diego Center for Children, St. Madeleine Sophie's Center and the McAlister Institute. He gives his cookies to everyone.
"They call me the Cookie Man, and I branded myself that way," said the 60-year-old Mulvaney, who bakes about 500 cookies a week, augmenting a basic chocolate chip recipe with M&M's, nuts of all varieties and whatever Costco items strike his kitchen fancy.
"It's a way for me to relax, and it's something I enjoy doing. And it's a good way to get people to want to talk to you," he said.
The native San Diegan came by his giving-back instincts the old-fashioned way. His parents — former Padres President James "Jim" Mulvaney, who died in 2010, and Ruth Mulvaney, still a family force at the age of 94 — were big believers in supporting the organizations that support San Diegans. And they made sure their seven children became believers, too.
"I learned that helping other people gives you a feeling of gratitude that makes your life a lot easier and more enjoyable," said Mulvaney, who has a 20-year-old son and lives in Del Mar Heights. "And the most important thing in my life is that I make my father proud. I hope he thinks I'm doing a good job."
At the Mulvaney dinner table, Jim Jr. and his siblings heard all about the United Way and COMBO, which raised money for local arts groups. They heard about the fundraising campaign to rebuild the Old Globe Theatre after it burned down in 1978, and they heard about the benefits of the LEAD San Diego community leadership organization.
And sometime in the 1970s, they heard about Father Joe Carroll, a priest whose work on behalf of the homeless caught Jim Sr.'s attention in a way his namesake would always remember.
"One thing that really stood out was the time my Dad told us about this priest named Father Joe and how he was helping people by giving them a hand up, not a hand out," Mulvaney said of Carroll and the organization that would become St. Vincent de Paul Village. "There was a sparkle in his eye that night that was amazing."
Now a vice president at Alliant Insurance Services Inc., Mulvaney started his career at 19, when his dad bet him that he wouldn't get a haircut or swap his life as a surfer and occasional landscaper for a real job. Mulvaney got a haircut and a job as a messenger for a mortgage company.
He made his first philanthropic splash two years later when he joined the board of the Starlight Theatre. Mulvaney wasn't making cookies yet, but he made a big impression anyway. He also learned that he had a gift for getting others to give.
"It was a lot of fun," Mulvaney said, remembering that one of his first Starlight triumphs was successfully persuading a donor to give the group $38,000 for a new curtain. "I was this young punk who didn't know much, but I had no fear of asking people for money. I still don't. All they can say is, 'No.' And to me, 'No' means 'Maybe next year.'"
There was a time when Mulvaney had his own issues with saying, "No" to some of the bad things life had to offer. But he has been in recovery for 16 years now, using the energy he used to devote to unhealthy habits to volunteering.
One of his many projects is Volunteers of America Southwest, which provides housing and mental health support for veterans, housing for low-income seniors, treatment for adults struggling with substance abuse, and transitional services to help ex-offenders integrate back into the community.
"This organization helps so many different people. It takes the vulnerable and brings them into vibrancy," Mulvaney said during an interview in the group's Mission Valley offices. "They help addicts and alcoholics with their recovery. They help veterans and they help children. The fact that they are doing something about recovery, that's what I love. That is where my spirituality comes from."
Mulvaney began chairing the organization's annual Celebrity Golf Classic fundraiser four years ago. And with his deep ties to San Diego, his endless list of contacts, and his bottomless well of energy and enthusiasm, he is a tremendous resource on and off the greens.
"He is a true difference maker," said Gerald McFadden, Volunteers of America Southwest's president and CEO. "He has really taken a significant leadership role in helping us grow our mission and leveraging his contacts and experience to grow our golf tournament. And he knows that it's not about him. It's about the difference he can make. That is the power of Jim. He never forgets that."
Mulvaney also never forgets how lucky he is to be alive and well and in a position to give other people a hand when they need one. People know him for his cookies, but they remember him for the goodness he leaves behind.
"There is an incredible amount of happiness in doing this," Mulvaney said. "If I could, I wouldn't work. I would just spend all of my time doing this. This is my passion."