ORRVILLE — In 1986, the Orrville Area United Way board asked its new executive director, Helen Meyers, to consider staying for two years.
She agreed. Then stayed another 30 years.
“I never looked back. I just fell in love with it,” said Meyers, who plans to retire in October after 33-plus years at the helm.
Meyers oversaw her final Orrville Area United Way Annual Awards Celebration on Tuesday night at Trinity United Methodist Church. She fondly remembered past ceremonies that were held at the Orrville Area Boys & Girls Club where they had to haul over tables from Schmid Hall.
The longtime executive director came to the job in the mid-1980s with no prior experience in administration. She had a teaching degree but could not find a full-time position and was mostly substitute teaching. Her husband Gene was teaching and coaching and not making a lot of money, and with two small children at home, she needed to find a job.
“I saw this ad in the paper and I thought, ‘That’s right in Orrville. I wouldn’t have to drive too far.’ That was the first thing that attracted me,” Meyers said.
She also had to do her research. The only thing Meyers knew about United Way was what she read in the brochures that her husband brought home from work. She went through as much material as she could get her hands on, looking back at old meeting minutes and speaking with many people who had been involved with the organization.
Looking at the brochures, Meyers always wondered why the Boys Scouts received more funding than the Girls Scouts. The answer was simple — they asked for more.
“Back then, agencies asked for an amount, we’d add that up then we’d go out and try to raise it. It’s so different now. We expect measurable outcomes. We expect outcomes that serve people who need help. We’re very into agencies working together so collaborations are very important to us,” she said.
Meyers credited Lowell Steinbrenner, the former president of Contours Inc., as the one who helped her reorganize United Way when she took the job. The board of directors did everything from allocations to the annual campaign, and the rest of the community was not as involved.
“We completely revamped the organization, including using volunteers from the community which really changed the way we were seen,” she said. “It’s still incredible to me after all these years, the dedication to volunteerism that exists in this community.”
Meyers readily admits that she doesn’t know everything, even after 33 years, but believes the greatest asset she brought to the job was her ability to talk with people and learn from them. She had to learn a lot when it came to bookkeeping and did almost everything with a pencil and calculator until she finally got a computer, to the relief of her board.
Past presidents and current members of the board Phil McFarren and Jeff Eshelman both enjoyed the relationship that she built with the board and the creative freedom she gave them.
“She does a lot for us that’s not always expected for the director to do, so the board can focus on other things,” Eshelman said.
McFarren added, “Helen is so involved. She always considers what the board gives her. She allows us to be creative and we can be adventurous and bold.”
Meyers said she struggled with campaign ideas after only three or four years and believes creativity is a big advantage for her successor, Sally Criss. While she focuses on the accounting, Meyers has entrusted the creativity and campaign building to Criss, who joined United Way in March 2018 as the associate director.
“She is creative and gregarious and unafraid of going in and asking for help for in-kind donations in addition to what companies generally give us during the campaign,” Meyers said. “I’m very confident in Sally’s ability. She’s overcome so much. When she says to someone on the phone or someone that comes into the office, ‘I know how you feel,’ she really does.”
Meyers doesn’t plan to work past October and is looking forward to spending time with friends, visiting her sons who live in Texas and South Dakota, and naps. She’s also happy to become a little less organized.
Her organization skills are coming in handy near the end while she’s preparing a detailed list for Criss of all she does throughout the year.
“There’s a lot to think about when you’ve been here as long as I have. A lot of what I do isn’t written down anywhere and that’s terrifying. I have a notebook with the months’ tabs, saying what you do month by month. It’s been an eye-opener to see how much I do,” Meyers said.
Reporter Emily Morgan can be reached at 330-287-1632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.