Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born, raised, and where do you live now? What’s your current career position?
“I am 100% Tennessee. I was born in Chattanooga, raised in Knoxville and moved to Lebanon in 1989. I am currently the director of the Autism Education and Therapy Center or Autism ETC.”
Family? Married? Children?
“I’ve been married for 35 years, and I have two grown sons.”
What’s your secret to successful marriage?
“My husband, Mike, and I married when we were both 22 years old. Our successful marriage is due to our differences and how we use those differences to complement each other. He is extremely creative; I am very analytical. Our oldest son, Destin, 26, is very much like Mike, having graduated from University of Tennessee’s architecture school in 2019, and Derek, 25, is very much like me, having graduated from Belmont with a degree in entrepreneurship on his 22nd birthday in 2017.”
Where did you graduate high school? College? Degree?
“I graduated as salutatorian from West High School in Knoxville in 1981. I then went to the University of Tennessee, where I graduated with a degree in business in 1985.”
We understand you started at Autism ETC in 2011 as a part-time bookkeeper. Can you please tell us what exactly is Autism ETC? Now you are the executive director. Are you on Music Valley Drive?
“Autism ETC is an applied behavior analysis therapy center in a school-like setting. It is not a school. Our programs are designed to help children on the autism spectrum prepare to enter school for the first time or to equip children who were not successful in school with the necessary skills to re-enter a typical school environment. We moved to our new Nashville location on Music Valley Drive at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic March 23. Last year was tough, but we survived.”
What are some of your career highlights and biggest career accomplishments? How did you get to this position?
“I retired from one of the general agencies of the United Methodist Church in 2010, where I had worked in accounting, human resources and employee benefits for 22 years. I did not know what I wanted to do next. A close friend suggested I talk with Karen Blake, founder of the Autism Foundation of Tennessee. We hit it off immediately. Soon after starting with the foundation, I became executive director. We made numerous changes, including rebranding the company under the name Autism ETC. My biggest career accomplishment is hiring the right people. We hire attitude, not aptitude. I am continually amazed at the love, patience and caring the young people we hire exhibit toward our clients – the children.”
Have you personally been associated with autism? There are so many spectrums. Can you explain what autism is for us?
“I have not personally been affected by autism. Karen’s son, Matthew, was diagnosed at 2 years old. When I met her, I knew this was something I wanted to do. In all honesty, I cannot explain autism. I can list some of the common symptoms such as delayed speech, lack of eye contact and inappropriate social behaviors, but I am baffled how it affects children differently. I empathize with parents who just want their child to be normal.”
You have a master’s degree in management from Trevecca. Please tell us about that.
“I got my master’s degree in 2009, long after I graduated from UT in business in 1985. I just wanted more understanding of what it takes to effectively run a business.”
Prior to joining Autism ETC, you served for 22 years with the General Council on Finance and Administration of the United Methodist Church? Please tell us about this.
“I started working for GCFA soon after Mike and I moved to Middle Tennessee. Truth be told, I took the job when I learned I would receive 22 vacation days during my first year of employment. Seriously though, GCFA provided numerous advancement opportunities, allowing me to move into human resources and employee benefits. These skills have proved invaluable during my career at Autism ETC.”
What are some of the projects in which you’ve been involved?
“My main project has been to grow Autism ETC and to bring more people into the field. There are not nearly enough ABA providers to meet demand. We have lengthy waiting lists in both Autism ETC locations.”
Do you belong to any other organizations? Why are you so devoted to public service?
“I do not belong to other corporate organizations. I belong to several golf organizations, where I have met many amazing women. I did not find public service; it found me. When I started working for Autism ETC, I saw a need that was not met. Life can be a struggle for families with a child on the spectrum. I love being a part of something that gives them hope; hope for their child to have a happy and productive life.”
Who is your mentor? Why?
“I have several mentors. These people have taught me to let go of the small stuff and concentrate on the important things.”
Are you a mentor to anyone?
“I hope I am a mentor to my staff. Autism ETC is filled with young, energetic and passionate people. Out of 100 employees, only two of us are older than 50. Working with people on the spectrum is difficult. I want staff members to learn how to take care of themselves as they take care of their clients.”
If you could spend an evening with anyone, past or present, who would it be and why? What would you ask them?
“This is going to be so obscure. When I was young, I played every sport imaginable. I probably read the biography of Babe Didrickson at least 10 times. She was a trailblazer for women’s athletics, winning gold medals in the 1932 Olympics and, in the 1940s, became the greatest woman golfer of all time. I think it would be fascinating to learn how she persevered and thrived in the man’s world of athletics.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received or given?
“The best advice I ever received is to start saving for retirement early. The best advice I’ve given is to never meet a stranger. I don’t hesitate to talk to complete strangers. You meet the nicest people that way.”
“I like to play golf, volleyball, go boating and exercise. I just love being active.”
Are you a champion golfer and play all the area courses? Explain how you got to this point as a golfer. How do I learn to golf?
“Ha, I’m hardly a champion, but I do love to play and have been fortunate to play all the amazing clubs in Middle Tennessee. At 44, I decided to pick up the game of golf and even uttered the words, ‘How hard can it be?’ Golf is the most difficult sport I have ever attempted. But the thing I love most about golf is the people I meet while playing. I play golf with young and old, good and bad, men and women. The only skill I like for a playing partner to have is the ability to have fun. To learn to play golf, you just have to find someone who believes in you and is willing to teach you the sport, preferably a good golfer.”
What would surprise us about you?
“I was the tallest person in my class in fourth grade. I played basketball because I just knew I was going to be tall. Today, I’m 5-nothing. I guess I was wrong.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
“I want to be training my replacement to take over Autism ETC. I haven’t figured out what’s next after Autism ETC, but I want it to be fun and involve good people.”
“I’d love a dog, but we are never at home. It would not be fair to the animal.”
Do you like to travel? If so, what’s your favorite place you’ve visited? Where’s somewhere you’d love to visit when it safe?
“I love to travel. My family has taken me to places I never dreamed possible. Two years ago, we visited Peru and Bolivia. Matsu Picchu and the Bolivian salt flats were incredible. In 1992, my husband was my tour guide to Rome and Paris. I’d like to visit Europe again – maybe Spain – when it’s safe.”
What was your last text and to whom?
“It was to my friend, Kim. We are working out the menu for the Titans’ watch party Sunday. Go Titans.”
Some answers were edited.