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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Troll doll salesperson is hardly what you’d expect to find on a CEO’s resume. But Heather Bellino hardly expected she’d wind up a CEO, so perhaps it’s fitting.

“I’m not even kidding. I was a great troll doll salesperson!” she laughed.

Her career as an advocate for domestic abuse survivors wasn’t in her 10- or 20-year plan. It wasn’t even on her radar. A chance volunteer opportunity changed the trajectory of her life and gave her purpose she never imagined.

It’s hard to fathom Bellino doing anything else as we listen to her discuss her work with enviable enthusiasm. It’s that late-afternoon weekday hour that elicits intense longing for a nap, yet Bellino is beaming. She’s of the opinion she has the best job in the world, and she can’t wait to tell us why.

“I became the PTA mom. It was absolutely that.”

That’s how Bellino describes what led to her career pivot. She planned to become a stay-at-home mom after her family moved to Texas. Her son was in elementary school, and she devoted her spare time to the Parent Teacher Association.

Bellino seems like the type who doesn’t do anything halfway, and that’s exactly what happened here.

She organized the heck out of school events and fundraisers; so much so that another parent asked her to help with a non-school-related function.

Heather Bellino, Texas Advocacy Project CEO / KXAN photo: Ed Zavala

It was a fundraiser for the Texas Advocacy Project. Bellino liked the organization’s mission — providing free legal services to victims of domestic abuse — and started volunteering more of her time. Eventually a part-time volunteer coordinator position opened up in 2005, and her fate was sealed. Within a decade, Bellino was the CEO.

“The stories that we hear every day about people that are ready to get out of these horrible relationships, and we’re able to offer that support — it’s amazing,” said Bellino.

The Project’s new office space is in Austin. It’s been mostly uninhabited since the move happened during the pandemic. The organization’s 30 employees have been working remotely, so KXAN is the first to see the setup.

Tina Carloni & Heather Bellino / photo: provided

We’re not the only ones along for the tour, though. We asked Tina Carloni to join. She’s a former Texas Advocacy Project client. She credits its staff with getting her out of an abusive relationship. They helped her win sole conservatorship of her son, and she was honored with the organization’s Courage Award in 2018.

Tina Carloni, Texas Advocacy Project 2018 Courage Award recipient / photo: provided

“I owe them everything . . . Heather took my hand when we met, and she’s never let it go,” said Carloni.

It’s that commitment to the mission that’s helped Bellino double the Texas Advocacy Project staff and triple its budget — offering a ray of hope and a path forward to even more victims.

“I know that I ended up in Texas for this work. It is absolutely why I’m here. I am the luckiest person in the world to be able to get up every single day and do the work that I do,” Bellino said.