Barbara Washington, vice president of public relations and special events at Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, sings gospel music everywhere she can.
One of her favorite gospel songs is “Wade in the Water,” which makes a biblical reference to a healing pool that an angel touched to cure physical and emotional illness.
With the turbulent childhood she experienced growing up, she deeply understands why “healing pools” in the St. Louis community are so necessary for children. The St. Louis-area club provides this for more than 40,000 young men and women annually.
“I’ve used singing to raise money for scholarships and help young women and men succeed in school,” Washington said. “I’m concerned about today’s youth. We have to have leaders for them. Working for a man like Martin Luther Mathews is an honor. He is a child at heart and motivating person who has allowed me the opportunity to utilize every skill I have to make things happen, including raising millions of dollars to help thousands of children turn their lives around.”
Washington will be recognized as 2012 Non-Profit Executive of the Year on Thursday, Nov. 15 at the 13th annual Salute to Excellence in Business Awards & Networking Luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. The networking reception begins at 11 a.m., and the luncheon and program start at noon.
The event is jointly hosted by the St. Louis American Foundation, St. Louis RCGA and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
Washington has quite a story to tell, many parts of which are tragic. Yet she feels her story reflects how tragedy can be turned into triumph, and that is the message she passes along to the youth.
“My mother didn’t get a chance to raise me because she suffered depression,” Washington said. “She was married to a military man at the age of 13.”
Her mother moved in and out of many difficult relationships and homes, and so did Washington and her siblings. After enduring several abusive foster-home situations, Washington and her sister Jackie eventually went to live their step-grandmother, who basically brought them on as farm hands rather than relatives. However, that’s where she fell in love with hard work and with school.
Washington was living in Germany when she found out her mother died. After burying her mother in Mississippi, Washington relocated to St. Louis to be with her sister and raise her two sons.
“I knew when I got here I needed to make some quick moves to get on my feet,” Washington said. “I worked three jobs and some days would catch three to five buses to get to them.”
She advanced in corporate America as a single mother raising her two sons, Jay and Jamie.
She began volunteering for Mathews-Dickey about 30 years ago and became so involved that the organization tapped her to be the head of public relations.
“I learned from Mr. Mathews that if you can get a team involved, then you can be successful,” she said. “Everyone has a talent. You have to be able to motivate people and get from them their strengths. You also have to know where their weaknesses lie and help them overcome these areas to become a contributing part of the team.”
Washington’s specialty for non-profit fund-raising is spinning a shoestring budget into a profitable event that promotes the goodwill of the organization. And in the early years of building the PR & special events department, Washington developed a knack for forging partnerships with corporate communications professionals and PR firms to spread positive messages about the organization.
She also engaged a total community effort of business, clergy, law enforcement, schools and parents in order to realize successful results for her organization.
She established and annually oversees three prominent community-wide fundraisers and utilizes her grant-writing skills to generate nearly $1 million for the club’s programs. These events are the Clifton Davis “Say Amen” Gala benefiting literacy programs; the Sheer Elegance Fashion Show, a holiday fund-raiser for the Club’s Girls’ Program; and “Jack Buck Celebrity Night with the Stars & Tony LaRussa,” benefiting the Reviving Baseball in the Inner-city Program.
Washington also administers education programs with a dedicated staff and 250-plus professional volunteers.
“Our lifeblood is volunteerism,” she said. “My proudest achievement is being able to see so many young people who have gotten involved in programs who come back and say, ‘I want to get involved.’ If you receive, you must be able to return the blessing.”
As a testament to that, Washington’s favorite gospel number is Mahalia Jackson’s “If I Can Help Somebody As I Travel Along (Then My Living Shall Not Be In Vain).”
Tickets are $75 each for general seating, tables of 10 available for $750; $100 each for Preferred/VIP seating, tables of 10 available for $1,000. Call 314-533-8000 or visit stlamerican.com.