Doreen Cato took the helm of the United Way of Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties at much the same pace she has lived the rest of her life. On Sept. 4, with 11 days until the non-profit’s yearly fundraising push kicked off, the new executive director led a small team in all the logistics that would usually be months in the making: creating brochures, a newsletter, updating pledge forms and coordinating fundraising presentations.
She laughs remembering the persistent “deer in headlights” look she wore through those first days. Not only was the run-up to “The Campaign,” as it’s called, overwhelming, Cato also had to adapt to the variety of donation types used on the Harbor. At the same time, she had to learn all the strong, unique communities that make up the area.
For a woman who has started a dance troupe for youth while attending college and working, started her own business, led a fundraising arm of the United Way of King County, and raised two children, rising to a challenge is par for the course.
“It’s OK, I like learning new things,” Cato said with a laugh.
Coming to the Harbor
Cato has settled full-time now in Ocean Shores after spending two years splitting her time with King County. Bellevue was home for more than 30 years for the Detroit native before she discovered the beach on weekend getaways.
“This is my last move, I don’t think I’ll move again,” she said.
While raising her two children, Christina and Barron, Cato owned and operated her own dance studio in Bellevue — choreography proved to be surprisingly apt practice for coordinating a fundraising campaign — and during the ’80s, ran wellness programs for several area banks.
“Back then you could smoke, people would smoke at their desks, you could go have a martini at lunch. I couldn’t believe it,” Cato remembered.
Her work bringing Washington Mutual’s program statewide brought her to the attention of the United Way.
She led a successful fundraising arm of that branch of the United Way, but also spearheaded Project LEAD, a board leadership development program for people of color. Since its inception in 1992, the program has placed more than 850 people on governing boards in Thurston, Pierce, Snohomish and King counties.
At the 20th anniversary celebration a few weeks ago, Cato gave the keynote speech and met some of the participants of the intensive, 5-week program, including the mayor of Bellevue and a former deputy mayor of Seattle.
Cato said she felt “like a proud mama. … It was something to see those slides of all the people who’ve gone through it and where they are now.”
Cato took her first step toward her calling of helping others on a hot June day in 1963. She was 14, and snuck away from home to join the Detroit march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. More than 100,000 people marched, the largest group the civil rights leader had led up to that point.
In her book, “Saving the leader within: The impact of childhood trauma on leadership,” Cato remembers being unable to find the family she was supposed to march with.
“A lady grabbed my hand and said, ‘Honey, there’s no strangers today.’ She led me to a long line of people, and this is when I saw blacks, whites, Mexicans, Chinese, and people from other ethnic groups I did not recognize linked arm in arm. This was remarkable because it was the first time in my life that these groups were not fighting or calling each other names.”
“Ever since I was 14, I have dedicated myself to social justice,” she said. In her book, she wrote, “I found my voice of courage that day.”
It wasn’t long until Cato was working her way through Eastern Michigan University as a nurse’s aid to earn her degree to become an art teacher.
“I was a starving artist, so the nurses would sometimes save me the general trays,” giving her a much-needed hot meal from time to time, she recalled.
Along the way, she and a friend started Hamilo and Company, a dance troupe for kids in Ypsilanti, Mich., a college town smaller than Hoquiam, Cato said.
The ambitious project took the young dancers traveling all over the country, from Ohio to New York City.
“Those kids, a lot of them had never been out of Washtenaw County, let alone to Detroit and all those other places,” Cato said. “The look on their faces when they got off that bus with all those tall buildings, I still remember.”
It was an early experience in large-scale fundraising.
“People said, ‘You’ll never raise the money to do that,’ but we raised $30,000,” Cato said.
Cato earned her first teaching job at a small Detroit middle school in the ’70s, but it only lasted a year. Her performance was highly commended, but a problem grew throughout the year: She and her husband were expecting their first child.
“They made me stop teaching when I started showing. They let me finish the school year but they wouldn’t let me come back,” Cato recalled. “Women were fighting for their rights back then. They were doing good to vote.”
The district didn’t offer an explanation for the policy. She was able to work as a substitute after threatening a lawsuit, a recourse unavailable during her grandmother’s teaching days.
In her book, Cato describes Nancy Josephine Davis Harden as “an independent, free-thinking woman of her time.” A teacher during the 1930s, when married women generally weren’t allowed to teach, Harden remained single into her 30s. She married and had five children, but when her husband died, she was left without income.
“Because she had children, they wouldn’t let her teach again,” Cato explained.
With work scarce, Harden eventually resorted to disguising herself as a man in order to work in a car manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Mich. A police officer noticed her disguise after a scuffle on a trolley car, leading to her decades-long confinement in a mental institution.
Cato remembered her grandmother telling the story in her book:
“He took me to the stationhouse,” Harden told her. “I told them I had five children at home without a father who needed me. They refused to listen. The next morning I was taken to Ypsilanti State Hospital, where I remained until my second-youngest child, Sarah, who was five when I left, had me released 33 years later.”
Cato got to know her grandmother as she lived with Harden during her college years.
At age 54, Cato was back in school earning her doctorate in Educational Leadership.
“I didn’t need it for here in the states, I was at the top of my profession,” she said. “What I needed it for was the work I was doing in Africa.”
Cato made her first trip to Africa in 2004. It was a simple vacation to Morocco, but it opened the door to something much larger.
“I had never been to Africa before,” she said. “My family had never been back to the continent of Africa. Both sides of my family have been in the U.S. since the 1600s and I was the first one to go back.”
She returned the following year, this time to Kenya. Cato and a group of women went to invest their own money visiting villages, lecturing at colleges, working with schools and health clinics, and doing whatever they could to empower women.
“We also helped form women’s groups. All they need is a boost and every time you’d go back it was putting us to shame. They’d accomplish so much,” Cato said. “Planting the seed was all we really needed to do.”
The work of the women in those groups has now brought clean water to 48 Kenyan villages. The lack of water is among the most serious issues in African villages.
“In the rural areas, that’s the part that just makes you want to cry. You see the kids in there with the cows in the dirty water filling the jugs,” Cato said.
In Ethiopia, their work was more in the diplomatic vein. Cato and her colleagues met with women in parliament to discuss strategies to educate rural women.
“They’ll be a force to be reckoned with, I’ll tell you that,” Cato said of the women they hope to educate. “Once you get educated it’s hard to go back and pretend there’s nothing there. They’re in for a wide awakening.”
The Ethiopian parliament itself was an experience for Cato.
“It was mind-blowing. They have more women in parliament than we do in the United States,” she said.
Women hold 16.8 percent of the seats in the 112th U.S. Congress currently under way, but the 113th Congress will be home to a record number of female representatives. There will be 73 women in the House and 20 in the Senate, bringing the total representation to 17.3 percent. Ethiopia, however, has had more than 21 percent women representatives since 2006.
When Cato’s group met the president, he brought them into his personal vault of historical treasures.
“Here I am down there in the vault, and we’re looking at this piece of glass and the president said, ‘That is the crown of Queen Sheba,’” Cato recalled, her eyes widening at the memory. “I opened my mouth and my eyes, I couldn’t believe it.”
He also showed them the armor of Solomon, the first emperor of Ethiopia. At a museum, the group was brought in after closing so the museum director could introduce them to Lucy, the remains of an early human ancestor from an estimated 3.2 million years ago.
“I’ll never forget, the man pulls out — I think it was a jaw bone. And he brings it over to (one of Cato’s companions) and he said, ‘Would you like to touch her?”
It was meant as an honor, but Cato declined because she worried about damaging the priceless specimen.
It was in Ethiopia that a village named a school after Cato. Even if she never gets to go back to Africa, she said, “It’s a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Working with the United Way has been an opportunity to make a difference at home.
“At United Way, I figured I would have a piece of different parts of the community of being able to help in some kind of way. I may not get back to Africa, but at least I get to influence in some kind of way,” Cato said.
She’s been busy learning about how people around the Harbor choose to give — and that East County isn’t the Harbor. Gifts given by people in this area can vary more than what she saw in King County, from payroll deductions of time or percentages to one-time gifts. Learning the individual identities of the communities from Taholah to Satsop has been a challenge and a pleasure.
“I have put some miles on my car,” Cato said with a laugh.
She had her board at her back: At every turn, they stepped up to help with fundraising presentations and help wherever needed.
“I just say thank you, thank you, thank you. I think it would have been very hard to do that by myself,” she said. “Most boards, they don’t do that. What they did was over the call of duty.”
Margaret Carthum had been the campaign chair last year, and was drafted again to help.
“She asked, ‘How did I get on this committee again?’ I told her when you have that kind of talent, you don’t let it rot,” Cato said, laughing.
Most United Way chapters have a volunteer called a loan executive to do that kind of work, but there haven’t been any around here in more than five years.
A loan executive is typically an employee of a local company who is on loan full-time to the United Way for a period of time, Cato explained.
“Back in the day, I had them all day for three months,” she said. Now, she’s been talking to companies about new ways to break down the executives’ time so they can have that position again for fundraising.
Cato said she would design a training curriculum depending on the time agreements she’s able to reach, but her goal would be to provide intensive preparation in fundraising and finance so anyone could do the job regardless of their experience.
“If they’ve never done any fundraising before, it’s really scary to tell a person, ‘You’re responsible for $150,000.’ It’s like, ‘What, I’ve never even sold cookies before!” Cato said with a laugh.
The key, she said, is to get people on the phone, making appointments and asking for donations right away.
Send them home, “And they’re dreaming about it all week building it up,” Cato said. “Do it right then and then they’ll see it’s fun.”
It’s all about telling your story as a person, learning about the people you’re talking to and what their priorities are, and asking for their help, Cato said.
Cato has a few items on her wish list to build Grays Harbor’s United Way. At the top may be compiling a list of skilled volunteers to whom agencies the United Way helps can turn to when looking to fill a specific need, like marketing or IT.
“Those would be volunteers who are rich with skill sets … who are willing to volunteer a few hours a month for free. That would be a godsend to any agency,” Cato said.
For now, the best way to support the United Way is to donate to its annual gala. Cato said auction items are in demand, ideally something larger and interesting, like a Victoria Clipper cruise. Their goal is at least 40 items for the auction.
“That would be the biggest Christmas present to give to the whole community, is to help us make that gala a success.”
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933, or by email: email@example.com.