Being Brave and Persistent with Whitney/Strong-- A Guest Post from Development Director Tammy Schaff

As 2016 began, select individuals at the bank where I had built my career received early retirement information and I was one of those “lucky” people. I was initially annoyed; I wasn’t anywhere near retirement age, yet my tenure at the bank, coupled with my age/position, made me a candidate. The timing of this package, however, offered the thought of turning the page in my career book and having a completely fresh start; this was exciting. My one moment of pause was my team, as it’s always been about the people for me – how to lead, how to engage, what did I learn – and this particular team was one of my best. I remember receiving notice of my early retirement approval and needing to tell both my manager and my team.  Both were incredibly supportive and encouraging, once they got over the surprise of my news (and I was processing it as well – holy crap, what did I do – ha, ha), and made my last days of an almost 30-year career at the bank wonderful.

I woke up on April 1, 2016, as a “retiree” and not sure what to do with myself.  Whitney, who had been on my team for several years at the bank, gave me a card as I left the bank that included the words to the theme song from “St. Elmo’s Fire” written out as part of her message. She changed “man” to “woman” in the chorus, noting my next steps would continue to blaze a trail, and it was a perfect send-off.

“I can see a new horizon underneath the blazing sky
I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher
Gonna be your (wo)man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where the future's lying St. Elmo's fire”

~ Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire (David Foster and John Parr)

As much as I didn’t think my day-to-day work defined me, I quickly realized I was struggling with how to think of myself and what my “new horizon” would / could be. I decided this change called for some self-care and used that summer to recharge and reignite myself. Non-profit work was at the top of my list and I spent time talking with friends about this potential next step. The timing wasn’t aligned, as that “right” fit was eluding me.

Late summer of 2016, the HR Director of a local Medicare company reached out on LinkedIn to ask about my interest in a seasonal role for fall. I interviewed and accepted the offer. At the end of 2017, this team delivered the strongest client retention numbers ever for Medicare’s Annual Enrollment Period. In 2018, the sales team was added to my responsibilities and I was named Chief Consumer Officer, working to ensure both the sales and service were elevating their skills, meeting goals and delivering a great Medicare experience. 

When the shooting occurred at Fifth Third in Cincinnati on September 6, 2018, and I learned that Whitney had been one of the victims, I knew she would be a catalyst in driving change so that what happened to her could be stopped from happening to others.  Whitney was always my “why” person and I knew this incident, while never something someone would want to happen, would be her driving “why” going forward.  Standing up Whitney/Strong two weeks after the shooting is illustrative of that drive and I knew great things were in store.

In February 2019, two friends and I spent the day in Louisville with Whitney enjoying lunch and learning more about her Whitney/Strong work.  She shared about a recent Washington, D.C. trip and the meetings with senators and congressman from both sides of the aisle on her three strategic priorities (her research supported that those very three were ones both Republicans and Democrats could agree on).  Finding a Director of Development was Whitney’s next role to fill and she was asking us for input and ideas.

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Our discussion resonated with me and I continued to percolate on it in the weeks after that day in Louisville. I don’t believe you can have someone like Whitney in your life and not be impacted; her shooting had left me wanting to take action. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Director of Development opportunity, knowing I’d be learning as I engaged in such a role; Whitney/Strong could be my non-profit engagement fueled by my passion to make a difference. I talked with Whitney in April and we agreed that I would join her.

As I shared my new role with a few close friends before going public, one of them told me I was “brave” and she was “proud” of my choice with Whitney/Strong.  How often do we hear something like that from people who we love and are influential in our lives?  I can tell you that particular conversation affirmed my decision as I took the leap of faith in leaving the corporate world for the second time.

Now, more than ever is our time at Whitney/Strong. With the mass shooting in Dayton, OH this past weekend, my hometown, the tragedy of gun violence has once again touched too close. Whitney/Strong is my St. Elmo’s Fire. My heart’s work is now trenched in development and fundraising to ensure a safe future for our children while holding elected officials accountable for changing our gun laws. Whitney texted me the morning of the Dayton shooting that we must be “brave and persistent.”  That truth is why I’m here.

The thing about being brave…it doesn’t come with the absence of fear and hurt. Bravery is the ability to look fear and hurt in the face and say move aside, you are in the way.”   – Melissa Tumino, blogger