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North Hills Monthly

New CEO Takes the Helm at HEARTH

Oct 29, 2020 07:18PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

HEARTH's food pantry

HEARTH has been serving homeless women and children in the Pittsburgh region for the past 25 years. The nonprofit’s acronym stands for Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training, and Housing, and the organization provides transitional housing to women and children until the women get a degree or learn a trade and find new employment. Residents can access a food and clothing pantry, child care, computers and many other services, all in a newly redesigned complex.

Marisa Williams recently stepped into the role of CEO vacated by her predecessor, Judy Eakin, who retired after working with HEARTH for the past two-and-a-half decades. We spoke with Williams about her vision for HEARTH and why she was drawn to the role.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): Tell us a bit about your background and where you worked prior to joining HEARTH.

Marisa Williams (Williams): I grew up in Media, PA, and came to Pittsburgh by way of the University of Pittsburgh. Immediately following graduation, I moved to Chicago for a couple of years. I came back to Pittsburgh for a career opportunity in financial services, all while spending my “5-9” time (after work hours) cultivating my community engagement and board work. I spent the first 10 years of my career in financial services and came to my nonprofit journey in 2015 by way of the YMCA.

I was at the YMCA for 5-1/2 years. I started as the executive director and my final role at the Y was as head of Community Outreach and Impact. The CEO gave me the privilege to create this position immediately following the Y’s bankruptcy as a means to remain connected to communities where we closed facilities or those where we would never be able to build brick-and-mortar spaces to serve.

I was able to learn so much about social services and what it meant to be a servant leader—how to build solid teams and to keep people together, and to ensure that the mission was at the forefront of everything we do. Certainly, the experience at the Y prepared me for taking on the role of the CEO at HEARTH, especially given the social services work we do.

NHM: What is HEARTH's mission?

Williams: That every family and individual lives in safe and affordable housing—that is the vision—and the mission is to provide a range of supportive services. I like to provide that picture of wraparound services and housing that empowers homeless women who are survivors of domestic violence to become independent and self-sufficient. What makes HEARTH so unique is that the supportive services (one-on-one case management, food pantry, clothing closet, etc.) are on-site. The suburbs of Pittsburgh are lacking easily accessed public transportation, so this gives the families extra support. This means they can focus more time on their kids and their schooling.

NHM: What are some of the ways in which the community supports HEARTH?

Williams: There is really nothing within HEARTH that volunteers aren’t touching. They are critical to its success. I don’t think the work of HEARTH can be done in its totality without the help and dedication of these volunteers. Pre-COVID, volunteers would come and help us maintain the garden outside throughout the course of the year. They provide babysitting nights to give the moms a break. We have a team of volunteers who come in and decorate the apartments. Volunteers maintain all the pantries.

NHM: The former CEO, Judy Eakin, left after 25 years—why did you want to come aboard as its new CEO? What drew you to this position?

Williams: I think my purpose—helping those you meet thrive in this life—women and children have always been a part of that. I always have had a desire to make sure that I’m giving back in any way possible. I think that I get the most joy out of making sure that my work and the thing I do most every day is truly aligned to my values, and I think the work of HEARTH in just really working with women who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to get the kind of supportive services that they need. HEARTH saw a gap in a flawed system and tried to figure out how to fix it. I‘ve spent my adult life looking for the gap, and asking, ‘How do I fill it?’

The wraparound services were the biggest part; how do we go from surviving to thriving? I’ve always been a proponent of people first and project second. Staff morale has been a priority of mine during my leadership journey. I want to ensure that I keep the staff at the heart of what I do; if I do that, our employees will keep our clients at the heart of everything they do. If leadership chooses not to invest in its employees, you can almost guarantee customers/clients aren’t being cared for at the highest level. It’s a cycle and we’ll all just continue to take care of each other and get better as we go along.

NHM: What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?

Williams: When I think about my first 30-60 days, it’s about establishing an inclusive and creative culture where the staff feels ownership about what we put out and also making sure that the participants feel comfortable and supported. I also want to engage both the staff and other volunteers in identifying support systems that they may need to have created or reviewed. Every six months, we’ll take a deep dive into what we’ve been doing and figure out how we can raise the bar just a little bit higher.

The word of 2020 has been diversity. A lot of attention has been put on race and racism, and I want to make sure that while we’re thinking of culture setting, we’re also thinking about intentional inclusion. What does that look like when we reference low-income housing? Have they had access to mental health support? What does it mean to create healthy relationships? What do healthy relationships with food look like? These are things that some households take for granted. How do we go back to basics to create whole and healthy families?

If I can do anything to help others gain access to basic human rights and needs, I feel like I am doing my job, living my purpose. My passion is being able to work in a way that is beneficial and impactful to others, so I’ve always led with the heart.

NHM: Was there anything new or surprising that you learned when you came aboard?

Williams: Honestly, one of the things that surprised me was the dynamic volunteer structure that they have. There are a lot of people that care about this organization and the outcomes, and there aren’t many nonprofits that can say that they have such a strong volunteer engagement culture, who are not board members. It is a strong statement to have people in the North and South Hills and everyone in between that really care about the work that is done here. This is a testament to the work that Judy, the board and the staff have done to cultivate this type of engagement and caring for the women that come through these doors daily. 

To learn more about HEARTH, visit www.hearth-bp.org.