Easterseals’ Danielle Gentry-Barth: An Awesome Struggle
Danielle Gentry-Barth, a proud Bearcat, told us to meet her in front of Mick and Mack’s at the University of Cincinnati. We settled comfortably in an office borrowed from the philosophy department, and Danielle shared her journey from a master’s degree in history to her position now at Easterseals. She frequently described her work and her life as “awesome!” She fell into fundraising right out of graduate school and has yet to fall out of it. She also told us about the work she does to help others outside of Easterseals. It was clear that helping people is in her nature.
This is Part 2 of a two-part series spotlighting a few of the incredible ladies of Easterseals. Check out “Easterseals’ Debbie Smith: ‘Don’t tell me no; tell me how.’” here.
First, please tell us about yourself.
I love that question! I’m the mom of three girls. That’s the biggest part of me. One of them is a student here [at UC]. My second is 13, and my third is 9. I’m a wife to an awesome husband. I’m a baseball lover. I work in the nonprofit world. I’ve done that for almost 20 years as a fundraiser and a marketer; that’s awesome!
Tell us about Easterseals.
I’ve been there for two years. I just celebrated my second anniversary in February. We’re a pretty dynamic organization. We’re really unique in that there are local affiliates across the country, and they don’t all do the same thing. We don’t have some charter from a national office saying, “This is what you do.” The one connecter is that we all serve people with disabilities. You’re able to respond to the need in your market. So Columbus looks different from Cincinnati, and Cleveland looks different from both. In Cincinnati, we serve about 7,000 people a year.
We’re really focused on workforce development and getting people into the workforce. Depending on where they are, that looks very different. Some people might take a year to be ready to get there. Other people are ready in 30 days; they just need help finding the right spot.
We serve people with disabilities, a large population of veterans in the area, and people with disadvantages. By disadvantages, we mean they had a baby at a young age, they have a criminal background, or they dropped out of high school. When you look at the whole, 85 percent of them live in poverty. So, we’re really working with people who live in poverty and have a lot of challenges to overcome. So, it’s a great organization. It’s so awesome!
You think about the things that brought you to the career that you’re in. Either you have a strong network, you have an education, and/or you have experience. We’re working with people that have none of those.
The sad part is that no one knows what we do. That’s part of my job. I’m the marketing person. I’ve got to tell the story in a new way. What’s interesting is that, a couple of weeks ago, we attended this volunteer event at United Way. This older woman comes up to us and says, “I have been familiar with Easterseals all my life. My mother gave to Easterseals and my grandmother did this and that with Easterseals. I’m looking at all of your new stuff and all I can say is that this is not my grandmother’s Easterseals!” That stayed in my mind. People think of us as old and not relevant any longer, so it’s our duty to change how people think of us. The name is very old. No one knows what an Easter “seal” is any longer. You would give money and they would send you an Easter “seal”, with an Easter lily on it. We need to reinvent ourselves just so people understand we are relevant and what we do makes a huge difference in this area.
I feel like every Easterseals should have an employment part of it.
Think about what a job does for you. It’s not just your paycheck. It’s your network. It’s your sense of belonging, fulfillment, and satisfaction. You feel like you’re giving back, not just taking from or sitting at home. People deserve that sense of pride. If no one’s there to provide it, what happens to these people? It’s really unfortunate. You think about the things that brought you to the career that you’re in. Either you have a strong network, you have an education, and/or you have experience. We’re working with people that have none of those. So, how do they go, “I’m just going to go get a job”? It just doesn’t happen like that. So thankfully, there’s organizations like ours.
Another cool thing about Easterseals is that we have these social enterprises. We have a production and logistics facility where we’re putting together clinical trial kits for clinical trial companies in the area. We hire people with disabilities to put these clinical trial kits together, we get paid, and then the money goes back to the mission. We also have a store in Northside called Building Value. We’re doing a whole lot with Building Value right now, in addition to the regular business, the marketing, and fundraising. We’re completely redesigning the store, then doing a lot of marketing around that. We’re doing some do-it-yourself events where we’re having artists come in and teach us a lot of cool stuff.
Tell us about a project that is close to your heart.
I do a lot of volunteer stuff. It’s just in my nature. Partly, it’s because I do this for a living, so then you’re asked to do a lot of things.
I lost my stepfather to pancreatic cancer in 2008. It’s a brutal disease. Very shortly after, in 2009, I got involved with The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. It is nothing like Easterseals, but has a similar framework. It’s a national organization with local affiliates. The difference is that these local affiliates are made up of volunteers only. I lead the Cincinnati affiliate. I’ve done that since 2011. I’m very proud of it! I’m not proud that this disease is here, and this disease is brutal. The 5 year survival rate is disgusting. Since I’ve been engaged, the 5 year survival rate has risen from 4 percent to 9 percent. We’re trying to do a lot to increase the survival rate. That means a lot of advocacy and a lot of fundraising events. Locally, we do a 5K every year.
When you’re diagnosed and you go on the internet and see that everyone dies, you need someone to say, “I made it, and you can, too.”
We also do a lot of work with our local physicians. A great thing about Cincinnati is that we have these amazing healthcare organizations. People are flying in from other places to be treated here. I can’t say enough about the UC Barrett Center! They do a lot of research on pancreatic cancer, which you don’t find. When diseases don’t have a lot of money to pump into the research, you don’t find a lot of people that go into that field. Fortunately, here in Cincinnati, we have a pancreatic center at the UC Barrett Center, so they do put a lot of money into it and they get a lot of great minds that come here.
We work closely with them. It’s a reciprocal thing. We funded them large amounts of dollars through the PRA research grant. They do a lot to support us throughout the year in terms of fundraising and being part of our events. They also help to connect patients to survivors. That’s something that we’re really proud of. When you’re diagnosed and you go on the internet and see that everyone dies, you need someone to say, “I made it, and you can, too.” They’re really great about connecting our survivor network with people that are newly diagnosed. All that has happened since I’ve been involved, and I’m really happy about it.
You have a Bachelor of the Arts in history and political science, a Masters of the Arts in history, and a graduate certificate in museum studies from the University of Cincinnati. Now you work in marketing: How did you make that transition?
When I came back for my master’s, I got the M.A. in history and the museum studies certificate. I thought that I would go on to get my Ph.D., but I needed a break. So, I got a job through the museum studies world at the Cincinnati Fire Museum. First, I interned there: You had to as part of the graduate program. Then they offered me a job as curator of education. I thought, “This will be a great break from school. I’ll do this for a year.” It took me about a week to realize that there is no funding. I can create all the programs I want, but if we have no money, how are we going to put this thing on? So within a few short months, I was spending most of my time fundraising and I realized at some point that I love this! I still have plans to hopefully get a Ph.D. in history, but that hasn’t happened yet because I still love what I do.
The fundraising world is small. I know most fundraisers in this city. Most people come in through the back door. You didn’t plan on a career in it. Some people love it; some people don’t. It depends on your personality. I was one of the crazies that was like, “I love asking people for money!” I left the fire museum and went into healthcare. That kind of fundraising is very different. I was at The Christ Hospital for a long time and I loved that hospital, but they have so much money. The Gambles founded Christ. So, they’re sitting on all this money, this huge endowment. One day I asked myself: “You’re doing this as a way to give back. You love asking people; most people don’t. You want to support good causes and get other people to cheerlead and be excited about it, too. Why are you doing it for a hospital that’s sitting on a billion dollars?”
I left Christ and went to another organization in Cincinnati called Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. This is a much smaller organization. The organization’s all about getting kids out of high school and into education or employment. They have a large mentoring program. If you’ve ever thought about mentoring a child, it’s a great thing to do! Then, this opportunity came from Easterseals and – at first – I kind of turned it down. Slowly but surely, I was convinced that I should take the position. It was probably the best decision I made in a long time, professionally. I’m proud of it!
A lot of it is convincing people that you have to see things a little differently.
I still miss healthcare; I really do – something about the structure of it all and kind of being on the cutting edge of so many things. But, these social service organizations are dying a slow death, because government funding is not there. Also – for the most part – the people we serve will likely never be in a position to give back. Where, if you’re in higher education or you’re in healthcare, many of the people that are served are in a position to give back: “I got this great education and I went on and made a bazillion dollars. I can set up this endowment. I can set up this scholarship fund.” That’s never going to happen where we are.
So I’m convincing people that will never need our services to give to us. It just felt like that was the right choice. Slowly, we’re going to get less and less government reimbursements, but people still need to be served. So I made this choice to leave and some days I’m like, “Was that right?” Healthcare was pretty; those bonuses were really nice! But you just go on. You’ve got to do a lot more convincing people because there is a big group in the world that think people just want to sit around and do nothing and that it’s a choice. Well, no, let’s walk through this: He’s really not lazy; he’s not like you. He didn’t grow up in Indian Hill or wherever. His life was very different than yours. A lot of it is convincing people that you have to see things a little differently. So, I start at a different spot. I’m in the basement now. In healthcare, I would start on the second floor: “You’ve already been to this place and you’ve had this wonderful physician and he saved your mom.” Now I’m way down in the basement. It takes me, like, 10 more steps to get up to the second floor. It’s a different kind of struggle, but it’s awesome!
You mentor a child through the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. Please tell us about that.
She’s the fourth girl in my family. I have three daughters and I mentor her. I’ve mentored her since she was in fourth grade; she’s a freshman now. She’s a year and half older than my middle daughter. And it’s awesome! She loves my girls; she fits right in. She goes on vacation with us; it’s like she’s part of the family. Her mom is awesome and very engaged, so she keeps me abreast of things. This kid has so much potential! She’s smart. She’s the most athletic kid ever, in the history of the world. Put a ball in her hand and she’s going to excel.
You have a degree in the humanities, in history. What aspects of your education have helped you in your current career path?
It makes you a well-rounded person. You understand different cultures and different people. That’s one of my favorite things about attending UC. When I was here, it was like, the 15th most diverse college campus in the country. I was born here and then moved to New Orleans and then Texas. Then my family came back to Cincinnati. I graduated high school in the suburbs. When I came to UC, I was like, “This is amazing! Look at all of these different people!”
I had to read everything under the sun. I feel like my face was in a book for, like, 20 years. Even though I complained about it, it helps you to see the world in different ways. I feel like it gave me the foundation to do what I’m doing now. I think it gives you a way of understanding that people communicate differently. Different things are important to people in different ways. But, the technical stuff, no, it didn’t. Those things just happened or developed. Part of it is your personality: what you like and what makes you tick.
Many companies are failing to bring adequate numbers of women into executive leadership positions. Four out of six of the people in executive leadership positions in your company are women. Why do you think Easterseals has succeeded where so many other companies have failed?
I think that you see a lot of that in the not-for-profit world. You’ll see a lot more women in higher positions in that community than you do in corporate America. I think it’s for a lot of reasons. Women go into these kinds of fields. You have this desire (although not every woman does) to make the world better. I think that a lot of women are accepted in those roles. Not just within the organization, but within society. It’s okay to go work for a not-for-profit, where it’s not always okay for men. So it’s almost the opposite. Women face problems in the corporate world, but men face some problems in the not-for-profit world: “Oh, you’re not going for the paycheck? Why did you get this degree and you’re only making such-and-such?” Especially the social service or the human services not-for-profits. It’s different in higher education or healthcare, where there are more dollars to be made. Women are expected to take care of people; this is an accepted role for women. That’s just the nature of that business. It doesn’t always mean that there’s a female at the top.
Finally, please tell us about a woman who has influenced your life.
I’m surrounded by women! I’m one of five sisters. I have four daughters. My husband has five sisters. We’re a girl world! I had my mom and my stepmom. So I’m totally surrounded by strong awesome women. It’s no doubt my mom is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She’s definitely my influential female.
She didn’t expect us to hold ourselves back. If you have something to say, you say it.
When I was growing up, I was really close to my dad, more so than my mom. Then over time, I realized that this woman is a badass: “What am I doing trying to fight this? I need to be more like her!” She is awesome. She was a business owner. She came from a family and a community that didn’t appreciate education, but my mom did it anyway. My mom was self-sufficient. She made her girls strong and powerful. She didn’t expect us to hold ourselves back. If you have something to say, you say it. It was in a different age. My mom and my dad were divorced. My mom loved my dad, but she wasn’t happy. My mom was like, “My life is too short!”
My husband’s parents have been married for almost 50 years. We approach marriage so differently. We’re happily married; I love him to death. He’s my best friend. But I tell him all the time, “If you weren’t, I’d leave! Life is too short.” That totally comes from my mom. Why would you sit here and be miserable because the culture tells you that you need to be a good wife? So, I think all of my sisters would say that my mom was unbelievable. Half heart and sensitive and tender, and then half badass. You didn’t cross her. My mom and my stepdad owned several restaurants. My stepdad would always refer to my mom as his bouncer. Somebody acts crazy, he’d be like, “I’m going to go get my bouncer!” My mom did not put up with anything. It was awesome.