Megan: Hey, guys, I’m so excited about today’s She Boss and yes, I’m not Gracie, surprise, surprise! So, we’re changing things up a little bit with She Boss and if you live in the North Alabama area, you absolutely know this face, Cathy Miller with the United Way. She is an amazing individual; we’ve had an opportunity to get to know her over the past couple of years but you just are all over the place in the community. And I love that so much and a lot of people do know you for your role at the United Way but there’s so much more to the Cathy Miller story.
Cathy: That is true.
Megan: Yes, so I’m very excited about digging into that but thank you so much for carving out time and spending the afternoon.
Cathy: It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here. I’ve watched Flourish kind of flourish from the very beginning and so appreciate the entrepreneurialism that’s illustrated so well here and just the chance to come have a chat. It is a great chill factor. We all need a little bit of that.
Megan: Yes, exactly. It’s a nice break for me, too. So I was neck deep in research on a whole bunch of stuff. So it’s nice to take a break and just hang out. So anyway, so glad that you’re here. So, a lot of people don’t know the many layers of you. So, let’s start with the most recent being in your role at United Way. Talk to us just a little bit about what you do with them.
Cathy: I am the Community Impact Director and that’s just kind of a nebulous title. But what it really means is that I get the chance to work with great nonprofit partner agencies- 27 right now, on a regular basis, I’ve been just this week and accountability meetings with them, to make sure that those dollars that are donated to United Way are used well. We were just talking about this with one of our partners, we have this lovely candid transparent place that we can go to because there’s trust there. So, we can talk about challenges, problems, fixes, all those things together and that’s not necessarily usual for a grantor/grantee relationship so we love that. So, that’s like a third of what I do. But I also am a little bit of an extrovert.
Megan: I know.
Cathy: Yes, and so I love to meet people. A part of my role is to be out in those community groups like the US Services Council, like community connections, where nonprofits are coming together, and representing us from the perspective not only of a major funder in the community for the Health and Human Service nonprofit sector, but also for a hub for resources. And we want to make sure every nonprofit that comes into the community knows that The United Way is there for them as well.
Cathy: So, then the third slice of me at United Way is that I run And manage several programs for them, a record breaking transportation program that’s filling gaps in our community, called Ride united. I work with closely with our 211 Call Center, which is a hub for- I don’t know where to turn for help, I just need to just call this simple number and I can get tapped into this beautiful network of nonprofit servants that we have in the community that are ready to help and their resources available. So I get to do that. So, I always tell my new interns, when they come in with us, every day is different, you’re likely to be running in one direction and if I’ve learned anything during my time there is how to shape priorities fast because you have to when human need is involved. And when you’re Zelena staff as; we are a team, we all pull together, we may be down helping do something for a campaign in a rush or jumping back to something else. So, we really do stand in that place and I have this as- I’ve been 13 years at United Way, as the Community Impact Director; started there as a Consultant in 2010. And worked through several different positions there. I love it. It is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life and I’ve done a lot of hard work.
Megan: Probably some of the most rewarding.
Cathy: Oh, yes, also the most satisfying, because I am very much about wanting to leave something that says, “I was here.”
Megan: Yes, leave your legacy.
Cathy: I don’t want it to be like, ‘the big crown and look at me kind of legacy.’ I love that when I sit down with a person in need- I’ve had two people call me today and just hear their story. And then because of the United Way I can connect them to people that can actually help them. That is powerful. That is so powerful.
Megan: So, in the 13 years that you’ve been with United Way, how have you seen the needs change within our community? And I know-
Cathy: That is a big question.
Megan: It is a big question, and I would love to hear it because I think for some people who may not realize what the United Way does, your programming is very robust. The amount of services that you provide is very in depth and you align the needs of the community with how you all sort of take care of those organizations that you partner with. So, talk to us just a little bit about when you started where the snapshot of Huntsville Madison County was compared to where it is now, and really how the United Way has evolved with that.
Cathy: Oh man, that is a big one.
Megan: Pull up receipts all right.
Cathy: That’s right.
Megan: Actually, pull up your check books.
Cathy: That’s right.
Megan: There you go.
Cathy: So, we were in a simpler community, a smaller community at that time. During that trajectory, we’ve gone from one of the growing cities in the state of Alabama to the largest city really fast. And infrastructure of all kinds, including the social service infrastructure that has contributed to our quality of life here is challenged. So that’s a big difference I see. Also, I was just chatting today with someone and talking about the difference. In 2014, when I was a part of our first Needs Assessment during my career there, we put a finger on the pulse of needs, and we have a social scientist help us so that it is objective, we’re not going and playing favorites or going and say, “Oh, here’s a hot item, let’s throw some money over there.” That’s not the way it works. We’re very intentional and strategic. So, I’ve seen-
Megan: How often do you do the needs assessment?
Cathy: Every three to five years.
Megan: Okay, so that was something- not to interrupt but the needs assessment was one that I did not know existed until I was in Flagship, and we had a chance to hear you speak and the needs assessment is a very in depth report analysis assessment of the needs in the community. That way you can ensure as an organization that you’re aligning those services adequately. So if you’re a business owner, if you’re someone looking to volunteer, I mean, the United Way does a phenomenal job of providing a snapshot of where our community lies in relation to that.
Cathy: Oh, thank you for interjecting, that’s wonderful.
Megan: It’s very impactful.
Cathy: It is.
Megan: And I had no clue that even existed. And again, as an organization, if you’re thinking about philanthropic endeavors, or where can I put my time, don’t think about those that are just top of mind because they have the money to brand.
Megan: Look at the needs of our community, that way you can truly fill a gap that is not potentially oversaturated.
Megan: You know what I’m saying?
Cathy: Yes, very important. So, the whole idea that needs assessment then, not only drives our work, but people pay attention to it, it drives their work, we see new programs develop out of it, when there’s a gap and a need that’s identified there. It is an efficiency model. I wish that I could quantify this, if we have a researcher that that’s all they did, to look at if we had even 10 agencies doing research for grant to identify the condition of need around whatever it is they’re trying to address and we multiply that by the hourly rate that that person is being charged, United Way’s doing once and tells the whole community, here’s where you going to find this information. So, it is an efficient piece in that way and our community comes to us. Transportation has gotten a kick start since 2014, because that was an emerging growing issue that was identified in that study. And so we love that our friend, Dennis Manson, city of Huntsville, always credits that for part of the beginning of movement to what’s happening with public transit, we want it to move like a fairy godmother wand, and I can’t do that but they have made significant progress since that time and we were happy to share that liberally. We print a few 100 copies, but we also provide it online. We’ll be doing it next year. And so it takes almost a year from beginning to end. We involve thousands of people from the community because we not only want to see the hard data, we go to Census and Department of Labor and Public Health and any place we can find hard data about conditions and people in our community. But then, we listen to the voice of the community and when those align, that’s where United Way’s work starts.
Megan: Yes, gosh, and I don’t know that a lot of people in our community understand how you, as an organization, helped shape true change that people can see whether it be through a bridge or be through new transportation. You know, I mean, those are huge changes that you guys are making on that.
Cathy: I have some numbers for you again, because I love this. I always say, “I hate numbers, but I like what they tell me.” So, when we look at the footprint of United Way programs and agency partner programs that are receiving dollars in the United Way, we’re touching one in four people in Madison County in a given year, that’s over 100,000 people are touched somehow. And that could be- you know, we typically think a lot about our fragile populations are people in poverty. And we’re fortunate here to have a fairly low, compared to the rest of Alabama, poverty rate. But for every one person that’s out there struggling, it’s impacting the whole community, you know? And if they’re not thriving, then we don’t have people waiting on us at restaurants and hotels, we don’t have health care workers. We don’t have school teachers.
Megan: School bus drivers, we need more school bus drivers.
Cathy: Yes, all those people, if they’re not thriving, if they’re not stable, so about 70% of our resources go toward that. But the other 30% is you and me that hit a point in time when we cannot help ourselves; and that could be trauma, that could be sexual abuse. That’s a terrible thing to have to talk about, but it is in communities. It could be mental health, it could be an achievement gap with kids, there are all kinds of things there that are not tied to financial.
Megan: I would imagine a lot of those gaps are still surfacing in response coming from COVID.
Megan: So, where you may not even have been able to anticipate that 10 years ago as a need, but now that’s a significant need.
Cathy: And so, you talked about what changes since the pandemic, it’s been- and I’ve talked to people who’ve been in the work 30,40 years, they’ve never seen anything like that disruption. And I would just brag on the United Way Partners, because the first week, March of ’20, when we went remote, the whole community just shut down because that’s all we could do. We didn’t know very much at that time. Those agency partners were Zooming with us every week. And there was not a coward in the room. They were scared like we all were, ‘I don’t know what this means. I don’t know how this is going to disrupt what I’m doing for people.’ And yet to one, the only agency that could not function at some level from that very first meeting was the dental clinic: Community Free Dental Clinic and that was because the Alabama Dental Association said, “No, you cannot open your doors.” And that’s the only reason that they were not but everybody else was in there figuring it out. The Boys and Girls Club fed their kids when they couldn’t be taken care of. The [unintelligible 00:12:18] went with us in a bus out north to get those County kids that needed those non-perishable items too, just because their families couldn’t get to grocery stores sometimes or we’re afraid to go out.
Megan: The only meal some of those kids get is when they go to school.
Cathy: Oh, yes, so we had, in those eight months, a million dollar impact on our community between that, the work that we did, and the generosity of the community that came around in brought us extra funds to help with rent, and utilities before the money from the fans came in, United Way is positioned to be there and to keep people from losing their home. So, I sit back when I have a chance to breathe and think about that time and I remember- I felt in 2011 when we had the tornadoes, I was very much in a new experience. I had just started working for United Way, then we had that disruption. And I remember this- almost physical pull again, then I could just, like I said, almost physically feel people that once we did our work, and then kind of tried to go back to normal, I knew there were still people out there hurting and I felt that pull, the only other time I felt it is now. And so, we want the whole community to feel that pull because if you’re- my husband and I are comfortable, we’re not rich, but we’re comfortable. If I didn’t work for United Way, I wouldn’t know my community. And so, we invite people to come all the time and just sit down with us and learn. There are fragile seniors, homebound people, there are fragile children. We have almost a quarter of our children living in poverty in Madison County, Alabama.
Megan: A quarter of our children are living in poverty in Madison County, Alabama?
Cathy: That is shocking to people.
Megan: And we have Cummings Research Park and about one in five of PhD-
Cathy: And what a beautiful community.
Megan: It is, but there’s a big gap.
Cathy: Yes, there is a gap and that wealth gap, that housing gap, that achievement gap in school, all of that from the pandemic and the craziness and uncertainty that we’ve been through has widened. So, that puts me separate from my neighbor, if I don’t move in those circles to even know that there’s a need and we have a lot of compassionate people that I think don’t even realize. So, you know, we invite them, ‘Come talk to us. We’d love to help educate you and help you have a philanthropic place that matches your passions, and that can target funds.’ or we love when people just give to the United Way, because then we can influence all of those programs at once and kind of- all boats rise, messaging that we love so much. So, can you tell that I really like working?
Megan: Just a little bit, it sort of just exudes from the words that are coming out of your mouth, you know, I mean, it’s definitely it’s a vibe that you carry around, I gotta say. But I don’t know if there’s anybody who really speaks to the United Way message quite the way that you do. And it’s something that- again, I know, we talked about this earlier but I don’t think that the average individual here truly gets an opportunity to see that and it’s eye opening, game changing, and something that will stick with you for a really long time. And when you have the opportunity to be involved in that day in and day out, that becomes part of who you are. I mean, there’s just no doubt about that. I have a question. So, when was the last needs assessment done out of curiosity?
Cathy: It was published in 2019, right before the pandemic and we could not do one when we normally would, which would mean 2021 or 2022. So, we are doing one next year. We did some research in the interim. We were in the middle of our strategic plan in 2022 and I said to the board and leadership, I said, we can’t use 2019 data to go into how we raise and allocate these dollars. So, we had researchers that were part of the social work department, master students from Alabama A&M, who took our needs assessment from 2019, and looked at and talked to some community leaders to get a sense of what was emerging. And so, from that, we identified and in education, our achievement gap was the big thing that we had to pull together, because these children lost time, not because of our schools, but just because of the environment they were having to function in and parents being asked to do things they had never been asked to do before.
Megan: I had such a newfound respect for teachers, not I didn’t before but I mean, it was very difficult. And my son was in first grade and I struggled with it. I mean, it’s very difficult.
Cathy: And so all three of these things are going to be things that we cannot solve with one agency. I don’t care who the agency is; that’s got to be the community coming together and working together and figuring out strategies and being collected about it. Then also, mental health. I often talk about- since the pandemic, I’ve had this little tapping on my shoulder almost constantly, and I don’t pay attention to it all the time but it’s there and it’s just the uncertainty and quick change and then technology on top of that, and fast growth and you name it, but that is there for- I don’t care how well functioning you are but that is there at some level. And so, our mental health is very important in this community, but it can be really nebulous so what do we do to care; and then financial stability- it’s a double edged sword because it’s housing available and affordable housing, and especially for our fragile or lower income populations, because we have to have four of them to support one poor blue collar, and to support one white collar worker, in terms of just services, you think about all the services that you touch every single week and you need your school system, with your teachers and other employees, health care, and a lot of those childcare, a lot of those are lower paying jobs, so that’s been a real challenge so that’s affordable housing piece.
We have a summit in March on affordable housing, which 72 amazing community leaders and real estate people and financial institutions, architects, developers, we had them in the room talking and saying, ‘This is- we can’t do this alone. We’ve got to do this together.’ And we’re actually meeting tomorrow with a core group of that to kind of go, ‘Okay, what’s next? What do we do? What have we done since March? What are we doing?’ We have a new fund at United Way called, A Place for Everyone Fund, that is dedicated to the housing issue. And then akin to that, of course, is workforce development. And we don’t have every company and research park out in that lovely slice of Limestone County and near it is screaming for more workers. And so, that’s again, one of those big community issues. And so, often we’ll play a capitalist role at United Way or an advocate role. We don’t pretend to be experts that know all things, that’s why we’ve got the agencies and our city government, just lots of different organizations, but we can call them all together under the name United Way and we can say we don’t have to agree on everything. Can we agree on some central things that work together?
Megan: As long as you get the right people in the room.
Megan: I mean, and you guys have the power and influence to be able to do that. So what would you say is one of the most surprising facts that most people are shocked to learn, whether it be about some of the services that you provide, or it’d be a gap in our community that maybe some people just don’t realize, or anything at all that you guys do that people are very shocked to learn about?
Cathy: Wow. Well, I mentioned a couple of them already, just the breadth of how many people the services between our partners and us touch every year, I think that’s certainly significant. I think the other thing that is surprising for people is that the multiplicity of need, and what I mean by that is that it used to be probably 20, 30 years ago here, smaller community, a little bit more homogeneous community, less diversity, where somebody would come, and you touch them, and then you could just go away and they’d be fine: one need, one isolate need. As our society becomes more complex, our needs become more complex. And now, when we’re talking to people, they have a whole shopping list of things or a roster of things that they’re struggling with, it’s not just one thing. So, they might be struggling with finding a better paying job. So, they’re struggling with housing, they can’t pay their utility bill. They can’t pay for childcare, which is very expensive. And so, our dollars are targeted- childcare is a good example, our dollars are targeted at Village of Promise, and Heart of the Valley, into scholarships for those families, so they can go to work, so they can start to get those good paying jobs at Toyota. RideUnited comes in and gives them short term transportation while they’re saving for that car. So, we also are a place that can blend and braid resources really easily, because we have those kissing cousins, those closest agencies to us but we also have- we know the non-profit sector. And so, if somebody needs something that’s outside of that core group, we’re going to do everything we can to go find it.
I think that people tend to see us, we’re part and affiliate of the national now worldwide United Way system, but they don’t control what we do, because in every community that United Way belongs to their own community and we support what the needs define that we need to support. And I think that it is easy to get lost when you see the name. It’s the best-known brand in the non-profit sector. And it’s easy to just think, ‘Oh, they’ve got a big vault in the back, and they need no money, because they are United Way.’ or sometimes people confuse this with the van moving company, United. And then the other thing I would say is if you know and love your United Way, tell somebody else about them because we don’t have a marketing staff at all. And we are a small staff, so we do what we can, but we are not reaching everybody. And we are a good product. And there are a lot of folks who are looking for a philanthropic home, looking for a place to belong and we can be that place for them where they really can see their dollars blended with somebody else and they can make a real difference in our community. And so I think that’s a myth maybe, that we’re just fat and sassy somewhere, or that we pay our staff hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. My husband makes more on our investments, honestly [unintelligible 00:23:43-00:23:47].
Megan: You’re not in it for that. You know you are in it for this because that’s what fuels your passion, which is pretty obvious. I also just want to say, and then I want to move on to the additional layers of Cathy. But I think, too, that partnering with the United Way is such a benefit to a lot of organizations here, especially those that have grown a lot which we know the growth here, but how in the world as an organization, can you meet the need of every employees’ passion project, and really what they want to do. So, by partnering with the United Way, as opposed to potentially one or two organizations, like you said, you’re really able to spread those resources out where the needs are the greatest in the community and you can’t necessarily do that otherwise.
Cathy: So, who has time to research all that?
Megan: Well, there’s a lot of organizations here.
Cathy: There are
Megan: I hope I don’t get myself in hot water here but sometimes there may be some organizations that pop up, and they may be shady, you just never know and leaning on the United Way as a resource for that will eliminate any concern that you have around anything like that, those are great programs you can use resources very diligently, support the need and meet those people where they’re at.
Cathy: So, one of the first thing as we always do is we listen, we’re not going to go in and say, ‘Donate to United Way and your money is going to do this, and you don’t have any choice.’ I mean, I’m a donor, my husband, our donors and we appreciate that a great deal. And so, there are also opportunities, like we target our dollars to the whole of United Way. And that’s not because I work there, we did it when he worked for IBM, and Price Waterhouse and all those folks. We’ve been givers a long time before I got associated with him, but we understand that, ‘Invest in the Whole’, and there are donors that that see that and want to invest in the infrastructure that gets these results, and then for people that maybe have a passion for children in education, then they can target their dollars into that education area, and really educational, financial stability and health- the three. That’s a three-legged stool for quality of life. If you cover those, then the person is going to be okay but if they’re missing one of those legs, then they are not going to be thriving, and they’re going to be a draw on the community contribution.
Megan: Which you end up potentially or indirectly supporting that individual down the road, so why not be more proactive now?
Cathy: It’s like that return, if you think it, for seniors, I love this work of enable,one of our deepest investments, they are seniors because they are absolutely in the place where they’re saving the community and the individual money, because they’re aging safe at home, which is much less expensive than a nursing home and that’s true for the individual and their family but it’s also true for the community. So, it’s smart business to invest in the United Way. I can only say, from my own perspective, I almost want to cover up my nametag when I say that, but we found- my husband and I found that if we invested in United Way, our impact was greater and when I invested in one agency, there were limitations to what the installers could do. And so that’s been the reason that we’ve made the choice to be United Way leadership givers is even with a retirement. We were booking along pretty well when he was working and I was working and then when the IBM income and benefits went away, then we were at a different level. But we had the conversation, ‘Can we give a nice dinner or two a month?’ And that made it easy for us to say, ‘Yes, we can.’ And that’s how easy it is to be involved with United Way. So, I think I have to be transparent, there are probably more unmet needs in this community today than there have been in our history or for a long time.
Megan: I think that’s to be expected with the immense growth.
Cathy: And that’s what it’s coming from. We can’t, as a nonprofit sector, grow fast enough to meet the demands. And just like the for-profit business, they’re experiencing increases in insurance, in all kinds of cost materials and supplies, although a lot of things are donated to them. And so, there’s just a lot coming at us, talk about sometimes we’re just staying in the winter, we’re leaning in, we’re not shrinking away from that, but we need the community’s help in order to rise to the occasion or we may turn into a community that we don’t want to be. And I want to be preventive around that because that’s the other cool thing about United Way, 70% of what we do is investing in prevention, 30% in intervention, that’s smart economically and it’s also smart emotionally. It reduces trauma. And I say that every single United Way partner agency and program, I don’t care who you are and what you’re doing, you’re impacting the mental health of this community.
Megan: I love that, though and I’ve never really thought about the business model of what you all are doing in that capacity, where it’s heavy on the preventative aspect to avoid those challenges even happening to begin with.
Cathy: Because you think about children coming up and not having the Boys and Girls Club, for instance, or Girls Inc., or Village of Promise and they don’t even know the doors are there for them. Without maybe that one single resource. I love it when Dwight Warren runs the teen centers at the Boys and Girls Club, because they’ve opened up a whole new livelihood for teens that were not there. They used to serve up to eighth grade and then the big kids were like, ‘Oh, that’s for the little kids.’ But they have crafted this place where kids get to dream of careers and college that they never even thought was possible because nobody had the opportunity to open the door until they went to the clubs. And so, I could tell those stories all day. We don’t have time for that.
Megan: Are you sure? I know you could.
Cathy: But I really could and that’s because I am the accountability person. So, this time you’re spending an hour with every single agency, having those conversations with them not only on what they’ve been doing, but you know where they’re going, and what their challenges are and how we can help. And the secret truth is that all we need are resources. That sounds so cheap and I don’t mean it to.
Megan: Well, it’s not.
Cathy: But it is the truth, we have the system, we have the plan, we have the model, we’re scaling. And that’s really all we need, just a simple gift one time or year-round, whatever works for somebody, we even have plans where people can do quarterly gifts if they want or whatever works for them. We have the system in place, thanks to our 34-year CFO.
Megan: Holy cow!
Cathy: Can you imagine that? I always give Mr. Rossetti credit for our stability in these 80 years that we have existed as an organization. Because there’s been a lot of change in this community since 1943.
Megan: Oh, yes.
Cathy: And we’re one of the older non-profits in the community. And his piece of that accountability has been stellar and our Board, and in particular the Finance Committee, have really been champions for the community to protect those resources.
Megan: That is awesome. I could honestly talk to you about United Way all day long. I really could. I have a background in non-profit. I don’t know if you know that.
Cathy: I do know that, so now we are just going to peel off the layers.
Megan: So, all of the amazing leadership qualities and motivation that you carry into the role that you’re in today. Talk to us a little bit about what led you here, because you jokingly kind of said that you’ve had a couple of different careers, and very interesting backgrounds, as well and what you originally studied compared to where you have sort of found yourself today so give us a little bit of a background on that.
Cathy: So, when I went into finance. I really grew up in business here, had a lovely mentor and boss who was the Executive Director and he took me from Secretary to Administrative Assistant to Executive Assistant and let me do a bunch of things, that’s maybe a thread throughout my career. I like to do a bunch.
Megan: It’s a thread that will then benefit throughout your career, regardless of what you’re doing.
Cathy: And so, I became their marketing assistant eventually, and then their Regulatory Compliance Officer at a time where we went from two states to 50 states.
Megan: Holy cow!
Cathy: So, that was definitely an experience. In every one of my other careers, I feel as though I gained skills that then prepared me for the work I do today. And so, from that, I got that accountability piece and numbers like I said, I hate numbers but I like what they tell me. I got that sense because he was a financial wizard. And so, I still have just great memories of him. We had our son during that time, so Chuck will go to meetings and have to sit in the corner, just what that’s like to do that. And then my husband’s career started taking off, we had a chance to go to the David Sarnoff Research Labs in Princeton, New Jersey, and he was in his thirties and we were like we are going. This one an opportunity where colored television was invented. So, we went there not knowing anybody. I had become this child that was born in the town where my grandfather was born, and now I’m going all over the country with the man I love. I’ve told him to this day; I will go anywhere with you. So, from there, then I continued on that administrative piece because I have good writing skills. I have good research skills from the library training, and pretty good office organizational skills. So, that kind of stayed with me because the good thing is when you have transferable skills, you can take them anywhere. And I think that so much was happening in the job market here and across the country, is you’re not going to stay the same position for a long time, most people aren’t but if they have those transferable skills they can really build to gain value for their employer and for themselves through their careers and that’s what I’ve really seen.
So, when we left there, went back to Tallahassee and got rehired because Bob loved me so much. And did some more work with him with regulatory compliance. And then we had a chance to move to Portland, Maine. And so, a lot of our southern friends were saying, ‘Those Yankees, you’re gonna hate it up there.’ And again, we would be way far from family but we found them to be generous and that’s true, no matter where we’ve lived, I’ve found generous people. I’ve found, sometimes it’s said, ‘If you’re generous, you find the generous people.’ We really did find that. So, we built a house and lived in it for 16 months.
Megan: Oh my goodness, not because of the people though, right?
Cathy: No, it was just a job opportunity and we went to Atlanta and Chuck gave me a great present. He said to me, he said, ‘We’re not quite where we need to be financially. We’re in pretty good shape. You can do whatever you want.’ And again, I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ It’s like what I want to do when I grow up. And so, whenever I encounter people, they’re changing careers, they always kind of talk to them about that time because it is just a wide-open door.
Megan: So, what did you do to discover what the next path was for you?
Cathy: I thought back to my roots because really my roots come from my mother. She was a great lover of reading and the idea that reading takes you to places you can’t go and introduces you to people that are different from you and the same and you learn to love life and participate in life when you read. So that’s what drove me to library science school. So, I said, ‘How can I blend that with all these business experiences I’ve had to do something unconventional? Can I become an educational consultant without 30 years in the classroom, or an education degree?’ And I said I’m gonna try because I believe that reading and writing are tools for life. So, I came up with a brilliant mantra. I am the literacy ambassador because it explained what I was trying to do. I was both trying to not be just the academic scientists that a lot of people are that come out of academia and teaching for 30 years, they are going to be in that track but I understood and I kind of educated myself and went to Kennesaw State and took some classes and learned the science of reading. And then I also understood the parent side because I was a parent who was raising a reader and so I could bring that piece as one of the rare educational consultants with a foot in each world. That was my niche.
Megan: I love how you molded your two passions together to create in essence, your own destiny, not to sound cheesy.
Cathy: But that’s a true thing.
Megan: Can I ask how old were you when you were at that point in your life?
Cathy: About 40, and I didn’t think I had that courage within me but I will tell you, my husband believed more in me than I did. And he said, ‘You can do this.’ So I’ve always been kind of a mold breaker.
Megan: I love that.
Cathy: So, that allowed me to do that. I had an aunt that said, ‘Oh, you just invented your own job.’ And I said, ‘Yes’, and more and more people are doing that. So, for them to think about how what talents and abilities and talk to people that you trust and get them to be honest with you about what’s there and not, even with all that accounting experience, I did not want to mess with books so I had to find somebody to do that part so I can be out doing what I love. But Atlanta was a perfect market for them because I was raising Charlie on my own during the week because Chuck was still traveling and was home, very involved dad, but home only on the weekends most of the time, unless we were lucky enough to get a contract in Atlanta. So, I didn’t take any business those first few years that was not overnight. But that was a perfect market because Atlanta is such a good market and schools, PTA members and all that stuff.
So, I have a great friend named Virginia Meldrum who is a storyteller in Powder Springs Installations in Georgia and I have been scripting every presentation and training I did. I will stand in front of the mirror and practice and just get it roped and then I will feel good. She’s a storyteller and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I cannot co present.’ which we got a chance to co present for the Georgia PTA conference. I can’t co present the script with Virginia. And she said the wisest thing to me and I say this to people speaking all the time. No matter what you’re doing, if you have a chance to be a speaker, be comfortable in your knowledge base and speak from them because the benefit of that is, then you get to listen to your audience, you get to flex to them and respond to their needs instead of it being about you. And so, I carried that all the way through my 23 years of active consulting, which was lovely and got a chance to go all over the country, published three books, and did a lot of wonderful things during that time. I had researched and published when people told me without the university connection, I couldn’t. I want to make some university friends and they asked me to be the lead on research projects. I was publishing peer reviewed journals, education journals, breaking the rules.
Megan: That’s impressive.
Cathy: But the other thing is there wasn’t that little shy girl from North Carolina. But life has taught me that missed opportunities are regrets and I want to have as few of those as I can. So, I tend to be bold. I tend to go, ‘Oh I can do this’ even if it’s not something that somebody else has done before. And I tend to find people throughout my connections not just in education at that time, but in marketing, and in parenting, and all those things because then you can build this network of experts around you that really does help enhance your knowledge, your growth and your value. So, I always encourage people to be really eclectic about that. To this day, I still love to go to networking events, not just the nonprofit ones where I’m selling, but the business ones- I love Vicky Morris’s Rise. So, I’m trying to pop out into those roles all the time. I do listen to podcasts about marketing for business, Masters of Scale data, do you know that podcast?
Megan: I do, That’s a very good one.
Cathy: So, I think that’s really important for people that find themselves in a position that I was in to go, ‘So what do I do?’ And LinkedIn was such an amazing network builder for me and find me on LinkedIn.
Megan: By the way, I hope I don’t embarrass you, but I absolutely love your headshot that you use. It’s like this side profile view. And it has so much wonderment and just sort of like, ‘What is Cathy thinking?’ I don’t know. It’s a cool picture.
Cathy: It’s called thinking, wondering and pondering. I used to use that when I was talking about kids really diving deep into what they’re reading because we can stay on the surface and just think but then wondering, pondering, it’s where problem solving comes from, it’s where creativity comes from. I just have to say this, that throughout that time, one of the things that was most important to me and because I became a facilitator and trainer, then I could touch many more thousands of children than I could if I was just tutoring or something directly, is that I could make a big difference in the trajectory of how they view reading and writing if I did it right.
Megan: What a generational change that would make.
Cathy: So, I love, love, love, love- our son, I’ll tell you this, in our family, my mother was a reader and she produced readers. My brother was a truck driver, my sister, a park ranger, me, a librarian and all other things. And yet we’re all readers because of that little woman that showed us not by saying, ‘You do this worksheet’, but by blending it with us and exploring it with us. I think sometimes we lose that magic because we didn’t know a lot about the science of teaching kids to read now and it can be that academic slant but parents have such an important role around that to go okay, ‘The school’s got the science side, the practice on phonics and fluency and comprehension strategies and all those lovely things. I don’t have to know that. The frame is I can sit down and enjoy anything with my child that’s in text.’ And most of the internet is still text. So, it’s the best gift you could ever give anybody. So, my sister and I both have a son each and they’re both readers. And so, my mother’s reach is coming from- she’s been gone for quite a few years but she still has a footprint in this world because of that.
Megan: I love that so much. So, let me ask you a question. If you were to pick a book that maybe describes a part in your life or is really close to you for a particular reason, what book would that be?
Cathy: So, one is a brand-new book that my friend Sherry Pentecost gave me, called, A Time to Think.
Megan: A Time to Think
Cathy: And I need that in the whirlwind I’m living in. And so, I’m excited, she just gave it to me, so I’m excited to read it. But she gave it to me in the context of our DS assessments that we just did and some training we had from Dr. Bruce Peeper of NASA around the Art of Communication. So, I’m really excited about that. And then just a tender dear book I have, I hid my mother’s copy of the Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and I return to that book and read it every 10 years and hold it where her hands were and I see something different in it. So, for people that poo poo fiction, fiction is life, it’s where you get to know people are very different from you and very similar to you. I have had different life experiences. It is what our community and world needs: to have those experiences and they can come. My son used to call it, ‘I’m going to read the book and make a movie in my head.’ And I love that because there’s so much richness, I mean, Dickens has been dead a long time, several 100 years, and yet his language and his words and his stories still remain. And so that’s lovely, I think we have to step out of that whirlwind of academia sometimes and go, ‘So, what is reading and writing really for?’ And to instill that in the next generation.
Megan: I love that. I love that so much. So, what is next for you?
Cathy: That’s a big question.
Megan: It’s a big question and not necessarily specific to United Way. I know there’s a million and one things probably going on with United Way but what has you excited about what’s to come over the next couple of years, within- I know you have the best world traveler built in.
Cathy: I do
Megan: So, do you have any plans to travel anywhere?
Cathy: We already have kind of started introducing it, because until last year, I never had the support system at United Way that I needed to be able to take 10 days off and turn and yes, it’s a pandemic, if I needed that just get away and step away a little bit. So, we have an internship program. You know, we’re copywriting futures and I love that connection to the next generation so I can get them trained and then go off to for a week to Dragon Con in Atlanta and go have fun like Dr. Marie Curie.
Megan: So, you’re going to Dragon Con?
Cathy: Every year, for five years.
Megan: Oh my gosh, I love that.
Cathy: So, you and your listeners have to go look for me in the DragonCon pictures because I do portray Dr. Marie Curie in the DragonCon parade in a troupe called Skeptics and History. And so, it’s Galileo and Marie Curie and Einstein and all these people and I like to think I have a tiny little bit of something that they had [unintelligible 00:47:23] on the box. Let’s try something different. And I have a great admiration particularly for her. Tell your whole story about her but so anyway, we’ve been able to do that and I’m not ready to retire. I have plenty of energy and I told Daniel and said, “I hope you’ll keep me till retirement. If I have a brain cell.” But if you do, and after that, Chuck and I, will probably move from this community because we’ve always been movers and there’s always, I don’t think we have a final list in place. I think we’ll just always be going to some new adventure and some new place and our son is in St. Louis right now. And so, we’ve told him, don’t worry about staying close to home because we don’t know where it’s going to be, just go off and do your dream and do what you need to do to put your footprint in the world. And we’ll just come and travel and visit you. Our best friends live in Las Vegas. So, you know we will be doing some of that. I think because of the way our lives have worked when Chuck retired, we flipped and I was the one out of the house all the time. You know he’s my house husband now and stays home and he’s an introvert naturally, I’m an extrovert so that settle phase has come. He’s doing things that he’s never had time to do before. I love that so we’ll have more of that kind of thing. And we really do like each other. That’s a lovely thing. We love each other’s company. People go, ‘Didn’t your husband drive you nuts during the pandemic?’, you know, I worked 16 months at home during the height of that because of our age and part, we’re more fragile population. But he was my salvation during that time because he came in every single day at lunch time and he goes, ‘You need to leave this alone and come have lunch with me.’ We spent a whole hour. At 5 or 5:30, I could have worked 80 hours a week during that time. I could have but I wouldn’t be a pen on the floor and I wouldn’t be where I am today if he hadn’t said, ‘No, you’re done for tonight. Come away.’ And just having that structure from him was lovely. And so, I do treasure that he’s the only person that knows me more than anybody else and still cares for me. And we also think that we have the better end of the deal, both of us say that and we really do believe that. But you know, when we’re talking to people, they go, ‘Are you crazy? How could you think of a better end of the deal? But we do have a great deal of respect for each other and I’m looking forward to spending more time together when that time comes.
Megan: So, can I ask what is and I know that there’s many and it’s gonna be hard to pick one, but what is the trait about Chuck that you love the most?
Cathy: He’s the frankest man on the planet.
Megan: He just cuts to the chase right.
Cathy: Yes, he does and then as a southern girl growing up where I was taught by generations of women that I was to be the fixer and everybody else had to be taken care of before I was or maybe not even that I was at all but it was selfish to have in your mind and so to encounter somebody who was very honest and very frank, he’s helped me grow so much in that area. So, I definitely think that’s the piece for him. There are many.
Megan: I’m sure there are.
Cathy: He is also the most ethical person.
Megan: What an admirable trait that is. That just permeates so many other areas of your life.
Cathy: It’s made life easier. You know, we’ve made a long-term commitment. It’s not always been easy. But we have had that commitment and because he’s ethical, I know if he says he’s committed to the years and that’s been a great gift.
Megan: I love that. You say how many years of marriage?
Cathy: December will be 44.
Megan: So, any piece of advice you have to- I know 43 years of happy marriage. I mean, you always have your ups and downs of course but what do you think has made it work?
Cathy: In addition to those few things I just said, I think a piece of it is that we also respect our individuality. We have a core that’s the same. We have some common values, those kinds of things, but we don’t try to own each other. And we don’t try to say, ‘Oh, you have to do everything together.’ To me, that’s a little bit like- anytime somebody tries to put their arm around me and their hand is right here or their arm is right here, I feel a little claustrophobic. And I think I would feel that way with a partner that wanted to just be at me all the time. But we are those circles that are doing this and carve out time, just the two of us- we went to Vermont last year for 10 days and we’ve been in New England when we were at night but it was lovely. We had a great time and we enjoyed each other during those times like, ‘Oh this is the little taste of what’s coming later.’ So, I think that’s part of it.
I also think that in in the family sometimes it’s okay to get lost in the whirlwind of life and to accept that and to know that if that person is still committed to you and you to them, that you can navigate that and one of you is going to go and shake the other one when they need to be shaken or if you can’t shake and you stand there let them know that you’re there until they navigate that. We are all such imperfect human beings, fragile sometimes, it’s a big commitment to stay with someone that long. And the changes come and you got to keep accepting of that but we still really do like each other.
Megan: You do? I love it. When it boils down to it, just make sure that you really do like each other.
Cathy: That’s right.
Megan: I love that. Cathy, thank you so much for joining us. It was so nice to hear sort of the other side of Cathy that maybe not a lot of people get a chance to hear about and it’s fascinating your background and just everything that’s sort of contributed to get you to this point. I bet most people don’t realize that you studied in a library, like that’s just- I love that so much that it’s just an interesting thing about you among many others.
Cathy: Thank you
Megan: Thank you so much. We really appreciate this. The She Boss of all She Bosses of our non-profit community world. Thank you guys so much for joining us.