Emerging as a Leader Amid a Pandemic

October 27, 2020SEE ALL STORIES

Debra Ward is the Chief Executive Officer of YWCA San Gabriel Valley, an organization committed to eliminating racism and empowering women. Since 1935, YWCA San Gabriel Valley has provided extensive social change services to the public, including a domestic violence shelter program and a senior service program, which currently provides more than 75,000 meals to seniors each month as the pandemic continues to highly impact their community.  

In 2019, Debra decided to apply to ESC’s Executive Directors Leadership Institute (EDLI) for guidance in her new role of CEO at YWCA San Gabriel Valley. Following a fruitful mentorship with ESC consultant, Susan Flaming, Debra requested financial consulting services with ESC to strengthen internal finance systems. Susan and a team of financial management ESC consultants, Benjamin Breslauer and Gene Tuch, guided and supported Debra in critical areas of financial management and oversight. The trio began by examining policies and procedures to identify how programs and finance could intersect. The focus of the assignment changed as the organization faced immediate financial challenges. “Ben and Gene brought a keen and specialized lens to our organization, helping my team further analyze reports and work to resolve challenges in our contractual revenue structure. Fund Development planning also became a critical piece of our sustainability strategy.” For additional help, Debra and other senior staff, including board members, enrolled in ESC’s Developing Development Program to strengthen YWCA San Gabriel Valley’s fund development processes.  

Not only were these programs instrumental in Debra’s development as a first-time CEO, but they also prepared her for the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19. Today, Debra finds herself leaning on the skills and partnerships she gained during her time with ESC: 

We’re a better organization because of the financial and fund development guidance we have received and the ESC leadership team that is now a part of our YWCA San Gabriel Valley family. They’ve been very sensitive to our challenges and have provided essential training and consulting resources during this time.” 

As the YWCA San Gabriel Valley completes their fund development project with DDP, they continue to innovatively stretch resources to meet the needs of those impacted by COVID-19. Describing a model of “doing more with less,” Debra explains YWCA San Gabriel Valley’s meals delivered have tripled their average to provide more than 75,000 meals to seniors in more than 40 cities each month. With most senior programs in the region shut down because of the virus, YWCA has stepped up as a community leader to fill the gaps: 

After COVID, we went from 25 calls per day to about 200. Thankfully, we have been able to continuously zero out our waiting list and deliver meals to the homes of those in need.” 

YWCA San Gabriel Valley domestic violence programs have also been significantly impacted by COVID-19. With the “Safer at Home” emergency order and school closings, the domestic violence shelter has upped its role by providing homeschooling and internet to students, including adapting lesson plans for children up to age 17. Thanks to all YWCA San Gabriel Valley staff’s diligence in following health and safety protocols, all services have been carried out without a single COVID-19 case. Now, Debra feels confident in the organization’s ability to push through any challenge it is presented with:

We’re climbing back up, and I would have to credit not only my leadership team, but also the ESC experts who walked that journey with us and were there to provide expertise. I will forever be grateful for their contribution, their time, and their valuable input. This past year, although a difficult one, unveiled capacity building program augmentation where there is a greater need for fund development to sustain our services.” 

Looking towards the future, Debra hopes to establish a racial and social justice program through YWCA San Gabriel Valley to further the services that the organization has passionately provided for the past 85 years. Addressing the fight for social and racial equity places the organization on the front lines of each day. Debra says, “The civil unrest is another indication that the time is now. The challenges are not going anywhere, and we really have to put some substance in our words and in our actions. Let’s go beyond the talk and act as a leader for the San Gabriel Valley.” The effort behind this work is not new for Debra and her team as they have been working toward broadening their racial and social justice program since 2018. Thanks to her work with ESC, Debra feels equipped with the skill, strategies and support network she needs to make this vision into reality.