“Everything I’ve done in life has contributed to my ability to do whatever I tackled next.”
So says Lulie Nelson who, at 73 (her birthday’s this month!), has seen success in a variety of career moves and launched an incredible nonprofit organization alongside her husband. She’s also been through the seventh grade seven times: once on her own, twice with her children, and four times with foster children. That alone may qualify her for sainthood. But, to Lulie, it’s just life. This is her journey, her path, and every step has led to the next.
A third-generation Californian, Lulie was born in the San Francisco Bay area to a family of successful food industry entrepreneurs. Her father’s oldest brother was a minister, but the rest of the family owned restaurants, Mexican grocery stores, and even a tortilla factory. Lulie grew up working in her parents’ restaurant, and did everything from preparing meals to purchasing to waiting tables to cleaning the bathrooms.
“Our family rule was, ‘if you see something that needs to be done, do it’,” she recalls. “I pretty much adopted that as my personal motto from an early age and it’s served me well.”
Her restaurant duties also included marketing and payroll, skills that led her to a position as a teller, then one as a county auditor, and eventually a spot as a terminal clerk at a petroleum company. Over the next 15 years, she worked her way up to distribution manager and was responsible for several terminals and worked with 35 fellow managers – all men – in a highly atypical position for a woman in those days. Along the way, she made a temporary detour to become a UPS driver for a season, which she says taught her to be quick and accurate. She also earned an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s in transportation and a tanker truck driver license.
“It was very much a man’s world, particularly in the petroleum industry,” Lulie says. “I was fortunate to have a great boss who was very fair. And, when I was eventually laid off due to an office closure, I was prepared for my next step into an even more male-heavy industry: technology!”
For the next several years, Lulie managed domestic and international benefits in the company’s human resources department, earning a master’s in human resources in the process. At the same time, she and her husband, Ray, raised a blended family. As their kids got older and began to move into lives of their own, Lulie and Ray began to consider fostering.
“Everyone wants babies,” she says. “But babies grow up! It was the older kids who needed us, and so we became foster parents so we could provide a stable, long-term family for them. Being a mom – a regular mom, a step-mom, and a foster mom – has been my best
The couple found they had a knack for dealing with angry and fearful teens and preteens. Lulie, always a strategic thinker herself, was big on asking kids to think through their words and actions. When things went sideways, she assigned them essays – on everything from sexual harassment to name-calling to violence – to help them process the deeper meaning and understand the bigger picture.
“We really did set out to create a home for the kids and to help build their futures,” she says. “Part of our job was to model participative parenting because that was something they hadn’t typically experienced. We went to their games and concerts. We had actual conversations with them. We knew their friends and what was going on in their lives. That was a new environment for them and the really responded to it. Our foster children are now in their thirties and they still call and send photos regularly. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.”
Since Ray is a musician and Lulie sings and plays violin, music was an important part of their family. Most of their children played some kind of instrument and they quickly realized the impact music could have on a struggling child or teen.
“Guitars Not Guns actually started decades ago, in San Jose, without a formal structure or name,” Lulie says. “My husband was an entertainer, and with teenagers in the house for most of twenty years, we knew a lot of kids. If we’d hear about a kid who was heading down the wrong path, we’d find someone to donate a guitar and get the kid some lessons. People didn’t believe it would make a difference at first, but it did. We started finding more kids and giving out more guitars, and then, one day, someone asked for a tax receipt. So we went and got a 501(c)3 and that was that.”
In addition to providing instruments, the program also hosts all-volunteer classes to teach the kids to play and provide a gathering space. It started out small in San Francisco, but soon Lulie got a call and then another. Now, Guitars Not Guns hosts classes in fourteen states and Canada.
“Music engages both sides of the brain,” Lulie explains, “so it’s such a great thing for all children. Our program focuses on kids in the foster and juvenile justice systems, but we believe all children should have access to music and music education. We get so many notes from teachers and social workers about how kids in the program have improved their grades, how they are more confident and less angry. It’s truly amazing.”
Just a few years after launching Guitars Not Guns, Lulie and Ray moved to Georgia – largely on a whim. They were visiting family and saw a house they loved and that, once again, was that.
“We’d lived in San Jose, CA for 41 years,” Lulie says. “Then Ray saw a house and said ‘do you want to buy it?’ and I said ‘sure!’ Six months later, over New Year’s 2006, we retired to Georgia. I say ‘retired,’ but we’re as busy now as ever!”
Lulie continues to serve as the central office for Guitars Not Guns. She’s also a member of the ABWA and a charter member of Women Working Wonders. She helps with the children’s ministry at First Baptist PTC and serves as treasurer for Iglesia Crist Reina. Until recently, she was the Wednesday morning receptionist at The Bridge.
“I have been so blessed in life,” she says. “And I’ve learned that things have a way of working out, from potlucks to nonprofits. Just be flexible. And be generous. It all comes back to you tenfold. You don’t lose what you give away. You’ll get it back some other way, usually when you most need it. Everything we’ve done in our past brings us into our present. And what we do today prepares us for our future. Make today great, because you’re preparing for your next now.”