When Volunteers Work as a Family

Photo by Gary Baker


Nearly 31,000 people in the Greater Cincinnati area live with type 1 diabetes, which makes finding a cure vital.

The JDRF Southwest Ohio chapter is committed to funding that cure, and as a result has experienced several consecutive years of record-breaking fundraising success.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve hit a new overall chapter fundraising record of over $3.4 million total,” says Melissa Newman, JDRF’s executive director. “The Cincinnatian of the Year Gala achieved a record-high $1.2 million, Dayton Gala had a new record of $145,000, our Ride to Cure Diabetes program actually set a new national JDRF fundraising record at over $567,000, and our chapter is ranked number one for fundraising performance in the country based upon market capacity.”

Those numbers might surprise people when they learn that JDRF Southwest Ohio has only seven full-time paid staff members.

“We’re able to achieve all of this because of the strength of our partnerships between volunteers and staff,” says Newman. “We could only accomplish a fraction of what we do without our hundreds of dedicated volunteers. 

“My primary objective is to maintain a dream team of staff and volunteers who ‘get it.’ They get the mission of JDRF. They get why we’re here and they know how to work together effectively.”

JDRF volunteers fill vital roles such as committee leads, event-day volunteers and even office interns for this branch, which covers 43 counties from Northern Kentucky, Southeast Indiana and Greater Cincinnati north to Dayton and Lima, Ohio.

“It’s important for both staff and volunteers to understand their role and responsibilities,” says Susan Mustian, president of the board of directors. “When the lines of communication remain open and ongoing between staff and volunteers, the organization builds a cohesive environment – a real partnership – which then creates opportunities for great success.”

Nick Wagner, JDRF’s senior walk manager, emphasizes the importance of working effectively with volunteers. The One Walk is an annual event that has more than 8,500 participants and raises more than $1 million. It consistently ranks as one of the biggest nonprofit fundraising walks in the region.

“Before working at JDRF, I held the mentality that ‘It’s easier to do this myself than ask for help,’ ” he says. “But I learned very quickly that is the perfect way to fail. Here, I have a great support system and the challenge has been learning to let go and utilizing the talents of our many passionate volunteers.”

One of these volunteers is Tracy Huebner, who was inspired to get involved by her daughter and sister who have both been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“The people in the JDRF community have been fantastic and we all share a special bond,” she says. “We always say, ‘It’s the best family you wish you never had!’

“I’ve worked with Nick and other chapter staff a lot over the years and their dedication to JDRF helps drive us all towards the common goal of improving the lives of those living with type 1 diabetes and ultimately finding a cure.”

Another One Walk volunteer, Marianne Dressman, understands the challenges of an organization that is volunteer-based.

“The JDRF staff knows that this is more than just a job,” she says. “It’s difficult to keep great talent in the nonprofit world, but somehow, year after year, they manage to do that. It’s really a testament to the quality of the people and the relationships they have formed with those they serve.”

JDRF Southwest Ohio not only hosts one of the most successful walks in the region, but it also dominates with regard to the gala as well. Attracting between 700 and 900 attendees each year, the Cincinnatian of the Year Gala is one of the region’s top fundraising galas. And, like other JDRF events, it relies heavily on volunteers.

“Volunteers are instrumental in helping get all of the details in place,” says Becky Susman-Gaible, the senior gala manager. “I work with over 60 local volunteers to plan events and they help coordinate everything from figuring out logistics to planning event themes to finding sponsorships. They really do have some tremendous ideas.

“This year’s Cincinnatian of the Year Gala chair is Petra Vester, who is a volunteer. I’m lucky that we work really well together. We both like to plan ahead, capture everyone’s ideas and then remember to write everything down.”

Vester has worked with Susman-Gaible for several years and has helped by doing everything from making decorations to writing manuals. She hard at work putting together the May 13 gala.

“Becky is great at asking for help and I’m more than happy to do anything that is required for us to raise as much money as possible,” says Vester. “My daughter, Hannah, has type 1 diabetes and raising money to fund research will help her in the future.”

Staff members and volunteers agree that they feel more like family than co-workers.

“For me, the emotional support that volunteers contribute can be just as important as their fundraising prowess or ability to execute an event,” says Newman. “When the hours are long, the job is hard and the challenges seem insurmountable, sometimes all it takes to make it over the hump is to have a volunteer simply say ‘thank you.’ That’s a great reminder of why we work so hard to raise money for a cure and it can be tremendously motivating. We are so incredibly appreciative of our volunteer partners, which we refer to as our ‘JDRF family.’ These wonderful people not only provide us the emotional support needed to make it through the tough times, but they truly make the job rewarding and fun.”

The Southwest Ohio Chapter of JDRF is located at 8050 Hosbrook Road, Suite 314, Cincinnati, OH 45236. For more information or to volunteer, call 513.793.3223 or visit swojdrf.org.