Smooth transition, shared goals mark changing of the guard at United Way

Retiring executive director Sandra Davis and new executive director Michelle Hankes pause for a photo at Blount County United Way.

Photo by Sherri Gardner Howell

Retiring executive director Sandra Davis and new executive director Michelle Hankes pause for a photo at Blount County United Way.

A good career and a good career move.

That’s how Sandra Davis and Michelle Hankes each characterized serving with the United Way of Blount County.

Davis, the outgoing and longtime executive director of the United Way of Blount County, and Michelle Hankes, the incoming executive director, are sharing space at United Way headquarters as the transition takes place. Davis is packing boxes; Hankes, unpacking them.

After 17 years on the job, Davis is retiring to travel, volunteer and have some fun, she said. She says she is glad she choose Blount County to be her home 17 years ago. “This was a good career choice for me,” she said.

Davis said the community, the board of directors and all the volunteers at the United Way of Blount County have supported her throughout her tenure. “I know they’re going to do the same thing for Michelle, and she’ll probably reflect back that this was a good move for her,” she said. “United Way is a good career. It gives you an opportunity to meet a lot of people and feel like you have contributed, in some small way, in the improvement of lives in your community and, through your career, made a difference.”

Hankes found her motivation to leave Chicago and come to Blount County after a negative experience. She applied for Davis’ job after burglars tried to break into her Chicago home when she was alone with her children.

Hankes said her most important priority is her family -- husband, Michael, and sons, Keegan, 7, and Rory, 3. “My family is the most important thing for me, which is why I chose a career in United Way and social services,” she said. “I wanted my kids to be able to say, ‘My mom helps people.’ ”

Hankes said she initially wasn’t interested in applying for the job as executive director. Her parents moved to Blount County six years ago, and her mother contacted Hankes about the opening. “I liked what I did. I enjoyed my board of directors. I wasn’t job searching,” she said.

It wasn’t long after her mother called about the opportunity that Hankes and her husband were stuck on a Chicago interstate, listening to a news report about how may kids had been shot. Her husband told Hankes he didn’t like raising kids in Chicago.

“The next day I was at home alone with the kids and an intruder tried to break in,” Michelle said. “That clinched it. I called and said, ‘Are you still taking resumes? I threw it in and, long story short, here I am.”

Hankes said she came to Chicago from Iowa. She and her husband had been in Chicago two years, and they had not be able to find a home they wanted to buy. “It was meant to be,” she said of the circumstances that led her to Blount County. “(In Chicago) I was afraid to walk outside by myself. Having a person try to break into the house we were renting was frightening. I said, ‘This isn’t a place I want to live.’ ”

The family support since moving here has been another benefit, and, she gets to do a job she enjoys, she said.

“It’s doing the same kind of work that I really love doing,” she said. “It was a win-win.”

Davis said she didn’t want to be on the search committee that found her replacement but she did get to spend time with each finalist. She was impressed with Hankes and glad she had United Way experience because the “learning curve” is much greater if a new director lacks experience working within United Way.

“I thought she was an excellent candidate, and I looked back to see what else has she done besides United Way and saw she had been executive director for another non-profit,” Davis said.

Hankes was executive director of The 4c’s, a children’s resource referral service. She also worked with the Girl Scouts before her tenure with the United Way in Chicago. “We certainly thought she would be a good candidate to interview,” Davis said.

At the beginning of the process, each candidate went through a telephone interview and then the finalists were brought into town to interview with the committee, meet staff and have lunch with the executive committee. Each finalist also spent time driving around Blount County learning about the aspects of the community.

Davis said she and Hankes had a “good visit” while riding around the county. “She had a real good interview and impressed the board and staff and was ultimately was selected,” Davis said.

Hankes said she was nervous getting in the car with Davis for their drive around town. “Sandra was hospitable from the very beginning, and you could tell she was going to check me out. It’s because she has 17 years invested and wants the best thing for United Way. She’s retiring, but she’s not running way,” Hankes said. “I had a couple of hours to really hear about what this county is all about. It was probably the best two hours of the day.”

Hankes said her initial apprehension gave way to admiration. “I was nervous getting into the car and was even more impressed with what she had built with her volunteers here,” she said.

Davis said she has been asked by Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham to serve on the Maryville Housing Board, but she also has other plans. “I’m going to travel and enjoy the grandchildren,” she said.

Reflecting on her years with United Way, Davis says it has changed and grown as the community has grown.

“When I moved to Blount County, I had one other staff member. We were raising $800,000. We just finished a campaign where we raised $2,180,000, and we now have a total of seven staff members,” she said. “We’ve also grown as far as services we offer. We’re doing more than money and allocating money to agencies. That’s been a real positive step for our United Way. The county has grown tremendously in population and we’ve reaped the benefits of that.”

Davis said she wants her work with Hankes to be two-fold: Review the things she needs to know and help her meet community people.

“The things I’ve shared with Michelle are so she can hit the ground running,” said Davis. “I’m going to make sure there’s a smooth transition, and then, I’m getting out of her way,” said Davis.

Hankes has other ideas. “I’m going to have her number etched into my hand,” Hankes said.

The two were quick to thank those who help get things done at United Way. “We’ve got a good staff,” Davis said.

“Absolutely,” Hankes said. “And a good board.”

Hankes said she can tell when government entities and agencies are quick to work with one another to solve problems. “Yesterday I sat in on a self-sufficiency committee meeting with partner agencies and municipalities that came to discuss helping families achieve self-sufficiency,” she said. “I heard leaders from these different agency groups talking and throwing out ideas and not one person said, ‘We’ve already tried that, it doesn’t work.’ There wasn’t one negative word.

“I went home and knew I had made the right choice,” she said. “I’ve never seen individuals from cross sections work together so well for the common good.”

“That was one thing I have seen our United Way do well is the collaborative efforts,” Davis said. “One of our strong skills is bringing people to the table.”

“Yes, conveners,” agreed Davis. “And we all benefit in the community by doing that.”

n The United Way of Blount County annual meeting is noon on Thursday, Jan. 17, at the Airport Hilton. A reception for Hankes is planned for 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 23, and a reception is planned for Davis from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30. Both receptions are at the United Way of Blount County office at 1615 East Broadway Avenue.

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