This article was written by James Barragan of the Austin American-Statesman and published on November 1, 2015.
After 12 years with the United Way for Greater Austin, eight of them as its president, Debbie Bresette officially stepped down from the organization Thursday.
“She’ll be missed,” said Kay Garza, the Vice President of the Navigation Center at the United Way for Greater Austin, who has worked with Bresette for 12 years. “She’s been the heart and soul of this organization and someone who truly cares about working poor families.”
During Bresette’s tenure, the group placed an emphasis on helping disadvantaged youths and families. Through its early childhood development programs, the group put 500 area children from disadvantaged backgrounds into pre-K programs and started an initiative at low-income middle schools to prevent kids from dropping out.
Much of the emphasis on disadvantaged youths came from Bresette’s own family experience. She has biracial grandchildren. Because of that, she says, they may not be given the same opportunities as other kids. But instead, Bresette tries to focus on the positives that kids like her grandchildren bring to the table, such as different cultures and experiences.
“That gives them the ability to have a really open mind,” she said. “If we invest in them, no matter what they look like or where they come from, they have the opportunity of being the Einsteins of the future, of saving us, of saving our planet.”
Bresette’s tenure was also marked by the push for new ideas at the nonprofit, from the rebranding of the organization’s name, to the search for new programming and funding opportunities, such as “pay for success” programs in which private capital is leveraged to help pay for social welfare programs that save local entities money in the long run.
“She’s open to ideas and doesn’t necessarily want to do things the way they’ve always been done,” said Heather Beckel Luecke, the group’s interim president.
That push for new and bold ideas is partly how Bresette convinced Luecke, who had previously worked in branding in the private sector, to join the organization four years ago.
“Initially, I said ‘I’m happy to meet with you, I’ll meet anyone, but I don’t want to waste your time, I’m not a nonprofit person,” Luecke remembers.
But after meeting Bresette, Luecke changed her mind.
“She just has this incredible optimism, this huge heart,” Luecke said. “And she recognizes talent and cultivates it and brings out the best in people. That’s what you want from your leader.”
She also knew how to inspire her staff to do their best work, her staff said. From shouting out ideas across offices when she was really excited, to doing her routine “Debbie Drive-by’s” in the morning to check how her staff was feeling, to giving a local CEO and board member the nickname “Mr. Pancake” during a community service event with children, to coming in to work the day that Hurricane Katrina struck and taking phone calls at the navigation center.
“That’s the type of leadership she was willing to do to help out,” Garza said.
For her part, Bresette said she has achieved the goals she set out for the organization to reach and hopes people remember her work as an act of love.
“I didn’t do it because it made a ton of money, I didn’t do it because it kept me healthy or that it got me a lot of sleep at night,” Bresette said. “I did it because it’s an act of love for me, a love for Austin and a love for United Way.”
We cannot thank Debbie enough for the kindness and passion she shared with everyone she met, both at UWATX and while out representing us in the community. While she will truly be missed, we are excited for what the future holds and have already begun our local search for a new permanent president, led by a subcommittee chosen by the UWATX board. Heather Beckel Luecke, UWATX Vice President of Donor Experience, will serve as interim president while the search takes place.