Discipline. Hard work. These are values you would expect to learn on a military base. Sometimes, it happens even if you aren't enlisted...
Barbara Jessie-Black spent 17 years on an American military base in Germany. "Military brats" they're often called — a self-given endearing nickname for the servicemember's children who come along for the ride.
"Brats" have to deal with obstacles most American kids don't. The constant moving. Different schools. Different cultures. It's a tough childhood.
But it can have an upside. Learning those values at a young age sets a foundation for success later in life.
It's that foundation that's allowed Barbara to excel throughout her career. She has an MBA from Meredith College, rose to Operations Manager at Belk, Inc., and holds too many professional affiliations to list.
Almost all of the PTA Thrift Shop's inventory is donated — including Barbara's favorite piece in her office. Photo by Christin Hardy
"And German," she says. "I'm fluent in German."
But even with all her talents, Barbara is quick to point out that the most important value she learned on the base has nothing to do with herself.
"People forget that it's called military 'service' for a reason," she says. And that's where her love for community work and serving others began. She would work for Meals On Wheels, volunteer as a Girl Scout, help tutor students; anything that would allow her to give back.
"I really enjoyed my time in the corporate world. Belk is more community-conscious than most large businesses, but I was always interested in exclusively working with nonprofits."
Barbara then co-founded the OneVoice Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship, a forward-thinking organization with the goal of preparing children for the world of entrepreneurship — making sure they understand how those skills translate into success.
"It was a great organization, but almost too progressive in its goal. It was tough to get funding," she said.
Then one day while flipping through the newspaper, Barbara saw an ad for the Executive Director of the PTA Thrift Shop in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
Since all donations are essentially investments back into the community, everything given to the PTA Thrift Shop is given... with love.Photo by Susan Murray
"When I saw all the history behind the PTA and what they stood for, it clicked."
Formed in 1952 to support the arts in local schools, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Thrift Shop was and still is a landmark in the area, renowned for its commitment to the community that surrounds it.
But, they needed help. They needed... someone like Barbara.
"The Thrift Shop had a great foundation and a board that worked really hard — it was just unorganized," were her first thoughts. And, naturally, her business and professional experience would be a perfect fit.
Being such an integral part of the community isn't easy. There's always something else to be done. Photo by Susan Murray
Barbara quickly went to work. She expanded employee benefits to create a more stable full-time staff, and focused on rebranding the organization with a first-class logo and an aggressive marketing component.
Barbara explains the strategy, "Operating like a 'business' can have negative connotations, but if you can be more efficient and self-sustaining, then that actually allows you to do a lot more for your community."
She calls it, "Monetizing BIG, but in a small way."
Barbara wanted to show that a community-centered nonprofit organization could not only operate successfully, but could even compete with big-time businesses in the area in terms of sponsorships and marketing.
And with her help, they did. The PTA has been wildly successful since Barbara's arrival and is currently in the process of opening a 27,000 square foot commercial redevelopment, including a community meeting plaza, retail centers, and open space for downtown businesses like a restaurant or cafe.
And of course, all of these improvements have come from Barbara's reorganization of the nonprofit to be more... profitable.
—Profitable for the community. And in many different ways. While the new development will no doubt benefit the organization's $1.4 million dollar endowment, the PTA remains committed to preserving and sustaining its community's environment as a whole.
The redevelopment of our Carrboro site is important because it not only pays homage to our founders' original vision of enriching our children's education — but also expands that vision to enrich the community in which our children will live, work, and some day lead.
"We want to be sustainable in the full sense," Barbara says of the PTA's dedication to the triple bottom line: People, Planet and Performance. "If you take care of your People and Planet, the rest takes care of itself."
Even with the scope of the new project, it remains environmentally responsible, following LEED construction standards and remaining Green Plus Certified. The PTA staff aggressively recycles, and for what they can't use, they make sure it gets to someone who can.
In the true spirit of community, Barbara says even though the model is perfect for towns like Chapel Hill and Carrboro, it doesn't have to be limited to those. The Thrift Shop model has been used in nearby areas like Chatham County, and as far away as Ann Arbor, Michigan. "We think it can be replicated, and we try to foster that growth as much as possible," she says.
They're looking to develop an online template, with information such as local laws for different areas and a message board forum for funding discussion. And about once a month, Barbara is asked to speak about how other nonprofits can achieve the same success as the PTA Thrift Shop.
As one might expect, so much extracurricular work can be physically taxing, and it's no surprise that Barbara's hobbies involve winding down. She enjoys yoga, meditation, and working in her garden — with all three sometimes overlapping. It's only natural for a multitalented person to multitask while relaxing.
But for Barbara, it will still always be about serving the community. She wants to show others how nonprofit work can tackle complex issues with just as much excitement and innovation as big business.
Though many might argue, she has already been successful at that too.
—written by Jordan Rogers