Children's Home Changes Led by a Family of Leaders and Listeners
Left to Right: Sharon Williams Frisbie, Thomas Williams and Ellen Katz, president and CEO, The Children's Home
Photography by Greg Grupenhof
This is the second in a three part series about how The Children's Home of Cincinnati has changed and adapted to the new healthcare landscape. The first installment was published Thursday, February 19. The third and final installment, following up on The Children Home's plans for integrated services, will be published the following Thursday, March 5. Check out all the pieces here!
In 2014 the family of William J. Williams honored him by making a donation in his name to The Children’s Home of Cincinnati. Called W.J. by his friends, Williams sat on the board of The Children’s Home for 18 years. He had an immense and positive impact on the organization, as did his children when they followed in his footsteps by joining the board years later.
A History of Helping Children
Founded in 1864, The Children’s Home was at first a shelter for the abandoned youth of Cincinnati. Its initial mission focused on saving children from the distress of neglect, abuse and poverty. After expanding from its roots in traditional orphan care, the organization began new programs to enable children to remain in their own homes while receiving special services.
After World War II, The Children’s Home began to focus its efforts on adoption and treatment for children with behavioral challenges. Then, in the 1970s, The Children’s Home converted its facilities from a home for dependent children to a residential treatment center. Later, The Children’s Home replaced the residential treatment facility with a less restrictive day program designed to serve the same population of children. Complimentary services were put in place to provide families with additional support in home, school and community settings.
Today, The Children’s Home offers educational and mental health programs that help children facing social, behavioral or learning challenges build the skills and confidence they need to succeed in life. Through more than 20 campus and community-based programs and services, the private, nonprofit organization has transformed the lives of countless Cincinnati children and families.
The Legacy of William J. Willaims
During his 18 years of service on the board of The Children’s Home, W.J. oversaw many of its transitions. In addition to being board president and vice president, he served on a half-dozen board committees, including the facilities and long-range planning committees. He helped to appraise all the campus buildings, got involved in planning the swimming pool building, made suggestions about programming and service rates and donated Reds tickets to the students each year. He and his fellow board members shepherded the organization from a primarily residential service to one now dedicated to education and treatment.
W.J.'s impact was felt elsewhere in the Queen City as well. He owned, operated, built or influenced many of Cincinnati’s businesses, nonprofits and sporting institutions, including the Reds, the Bengals, Western & Southern Financial Group and North American Properties, which his son Thomas Williams now leads.
This record of dedicated community service set an important example for his children. His son, Thomas, and daughter, Sharon Williams Frisbie, followed his lead by joining The Children’s Home board.
“They knew their dad was committed to The Children’s Home,” says Katz. “If it was their dad’s cause, it was their cause.”
Yet despite the Williams family’s substantial contributions of time and money to The Children’s Home, none of the organization’s buildings bear their names. That’s the way they’ve wanted it.
“It’s a family that has been raised with high standards, high values and a strong work ethic,” says John “Tad” Lawrence, who has served on the board with all three Williams family members.
Serving on the board with W.J. taught Lawrence a lasting lesson: “The more you listen and the less you speak, the better results you’ll get.” As Lawrence recalls, W.J. would mostly listen during board and committee meetings. Then afterward, he would offer suggestions to the appropriate person.
James Schwab, president and CEO of Interact for Health, formerly the Health Foundation, served with W.J. on The Children’s Home board for three years in the 1980s. He describes W.J. as very thoughtful, very quiet and very insightful.
“He would have never drawn attention to himself,” Schwab says. “It was always about the welfare of the kids.”
The three Williams family members have had similar styles and approaches on the board of The Children’s Home. They each value the importance of listening, working behind the scenes and building consensus.
When Thomas served on the board from 1987 to 1999, he was one of its youngest members. He drew on his father’s example, but also looked up to his fellow board members.
“I was a 30-year-old kid and there were all these senior executives,” he recalls. “It was a little intimidating for me.”
Eventually, he became involved in a planning process that led to major changes.
Leadership from the Next Generation – and Changes
Thomas remembers thinking that the residential treatment program, which worked to resolve the behavioral problems of teens living on its campus, was spending lots of money without significant results. The obstacle: The staff couldn’t work with the teens long enough before they were moved to foster care and the staff didn’t get access to the children until an age when certain behaviors had become ingrained.
“We were not moving the needle one bit,” he said.
The board decided to eliminate the residential treatment program. That led the organization to launch programs that begin working with kids at younger ages with a broader range of conditions. And the organization provides many of those services in the community, rather than solely on its Madisonville campus.
Thomas became known among his board colleagues for asking tough questions but doing so in a kind way. “He’s not afraid to ask a question that ought to be asked,” says Lawrence, a senior vice president of the UBS financial firm.
He also became known for offering clear advice as well, says Wesley Young, who preceded Katz as The Children’s Home top executive. “Tom is a very practical businessman with great insights, a straight shooter. There was no beating around the bush.”
Sharon joined the board in 2000 and remains a member after serving three years as chair. Her leadership style is to get board members engaged by involving them in projects and seeking their ideas. “She’s pretty unassuming, very humble, with a low-keyed approach,” Katz says.
She’s also conscientious, coming to meetings prepared by reading briefing materials and consulting with the senior professionals of The Children’s Home.
Perhaps most importantly, Sharon is willing to act decisively. Years ago, she got the organization involved in a major fund-raising event called the Great American Artists Series. At the time, The Children’s Home had not participated in big fund-raising events. She helped The Children’s Home become the event’s sole beneficiary in Cincinnati that year. It was a risk, Katz recalled, because The Children’s Home lacked experience in raising money that way. “She just sort of stuck her neck out,” Katz says.
It was a good first step for The Children’s Home, which now is successful at raising money from large fund-raising events.
“She’s committed to the place,” says Mardie Off, who served on the board with Sharon. “She wants to make it even better.”
Sharon is known for regularly attending Children’s Home activities that involve students and their families, including graduation ceremonies. That’s just one place where the impact of The Children’s Home becomes evident.
“It’s thrilling to see these students in their caps and gowns and to hear stories about how The Children’s Home has made such a huge difference in their lives,” she says. “There was once little hope that they’d earn a high school degree. But thanks to The Children’s Home, their futures became much brighter. Their lives turned around completely.”
The Williams family has been a source of ingenuity and change at The Children’s Home for nearly 50 years, accounting for one-third of the nonprofit’s century-and-a-half existence. They’ve overseen the expansion of the organization from one that served a only a few hundred children in the 1970s to one that now serves 7,000 annually. Their incredible work has helped make The Children’s Home what it is today, a path to success for Cincinnati’s youth.
The Children's Home of Cincinnati is located at 5050 Madison Road, Cincinnati, OH 45227. you can reach the organization at 513.272.2800 or visit www.thechildrenshomecinti.org.