THE BLOG

Family Matters: DreamMakers, Unapologetically Investing in the Underserved

06/16/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016
Sarah K. Lee via Getty Images

I believe we can change the world. My passion is seeking out and shining a light on people, businesses, organizations and communities that are doing just that. I call these people DreamMakers. Family Matters of Greater Washington led by their visionary President and CEO, Tonya Jackson Smallwood are DreamMakers.

Joe Brodecki, the DreamMaker who led the Campaign to Remember fundraising initiative for the development of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum introduced me to Tonya.

"I have an idea for another Huffington Post piece on a wonderful, remarkable woman, her name is Tonya Jackson Smallwood. Tonya leads Family Matters, which serves people from the womb to the rocking chair. Tonya is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met -- she is a true DreamMaker. Interestingly, she commutes by bus to DC from Spotsylvania everyday; talk about commitment".

Three weeks later I was in Tonya's office in Washington, DC learning about Family Matters and the impressive, and indeed inspiring, woman that leads this exceptional social enterprise. And yes, Tonya does commute by bus, some days taking three hours each way, to help serve the underserved. It is my privilege to shine a light on Family Matters and Tonya Jackson Smallwood.

While the media is consumed with the violence and protest in our country and around the world, it is also important to focus on the root causes of most crime and unrest -- poverty, lack of education and hopelessness. History has taught us again and again, that when people do not feel valued, seen or heard for generations, inevitably that hurt turns into anger. Penned up anger is like a pressure cooker, if it does not find release, it inevitably explodes.

Family Matters understands this. This iconic organization has been a release valve for thousands of underserved families in the greater DC community for 133 years. They not only assist the disadvantaged with basic needs to relieve the intense pressure that poverty weighs on people, families and communities, they also have the insight and foresight to invest in the development of people to enable them to help themselves. While many in our country have bought into the myth that investing in the youth, the poor, the elderly and the disenfranchised is counterproductive, Family Matters understands that the only way to stop the insidious cycle of poverty and the ills it produces is to invest in people. For the last six years, Family Matters has been led by a CEO who served 19 years in corporate America and feels it is a privilege to serve the most vulnerable of our society.

Tonya joined Family Matters in 2009 when the organization was experiencing turbulent times that were exacerbated by the nation's deep recession. She has inspired the Family Matters team and partners to dare to dream big. Tonya not only steadied the organization, she and her team are transforming this non-profit organization into a flourishing social enterprise.

"From day one, I have believed in the importance of identifying and applying compassionate solutions to big, seemingly intractable social challenges. To me, applying compassionate solutions means approaching people as individuals, not clients and addressing their challenges without judgment, but rather with a sense of dignity, compassion and purpose, knowing solutions do exist. At Family Matters I have fostered a culture of purposeful experimentations to find new and creative ways to do exactly that".

"The non-profit sector is a far more complex social ecosystem than many give it credit for. There are not only huge fiscal challenges in serving a community where need greatly exceeds existing resources, there are social, political, and pedagogical obstacles standing in the way of a better tomorrow. But I am a big thinker, and the big picture for me is about finding a way around each and every challenge that I face. I am not doing this alone: I am continuously building a strong cohesive team of game-changers who share my passion and belief in a better tomorrow through the actions of our work at Family Matters today".

Tonya has a proven track record of leading with vision and values, building innovative programs and engaging and energizing employees and partners to deliver superior results. Her personal story helps us to understand how she continuously achieves the seemingly impossible and gives us insight into why synchronicity loves to dance with her spirit.

Tonya's leadership philosophy is born out of her unapologetic belief that "With God all things are possible". Guided by her faith she has achieved remarkable success as a senior corporate executive, an entrepreneur and as a philanthropist. Tonya lives her faith. She does not compartmentalize her belief system.

"My personal mission is to help people achieve their highest potential and live their best life. It's about exposing people to a higher level of thinking, which then translates into a higher level of being, which translates into a higher level of living! The best of life is available if you know how to tap into it. I believe that anything is possible and what limits the vast majority of people in the world is that they don't know that."

Tonya believes in miracles. Her life has been a series of miracles and she has overcome tremendous obstacles. She conquered the challenges that come with teenage pregnancy and being a single mom determined to live her best life and provide an even better life for her son. Tonya graduated with honors from Purdue University and shortly afterwards obtained her master's degree from George Mason University. She later rose to become a successful vice president at Freddie Mac, managing 300 billion dollars of mortgage commitments & purchases. Shortly after leaving her lucrative corporate position, her husband became ill and she became his primary care giver. When he recovered she took that opportunity to pursue a long held dream. Tonya started her faith-based nonprofit foundation, Experience Imagine, to help people to see that anything is possible.

In the midst of pursuing her dream the great recession happened. When the 2008 financial market crashed it greatly impacted Tonya's plans and caused her to slow efforts to advance her dream.

In 2009, Tonya received a call out of the blue recruiting her to lead Family Matters. She was unsure whether this was the right path for her however, relying on her faith, she decided to explore the opportunity. Soon after taking the job she realized that the marriage between Family Matter's proud legacy, her corporate experience and her personal vision, could be leveraged to do amazing things, and she was right. Under Tonya's leadership, the Family Matters team has achieved impressive results. They are serving more than 22,000 seniors, families, teens and youth in Greater Washington through an array of innovative and empowering programs including: Aging and Disability programs for seniors, Technology Training, Bright Futures Teen Mothers Program, Mental Health Services, Foster Care and Adoption, and Youth Development programs. They are not satisfied with just serving those in need, they are committed to making dreams happen for families, children, teens, adults and seniors, most of whom are struggling to survive on less than $20,000 a year.

This summer will be Family Matters 49th year for their Camp Moss Hollow Youth Development Program. Through their summer and winter camp they bring the arts; dance, drama, music to more than 1000 youth annually, along with outdoor activities and organized sports. They also offer innovative academic improvement program such as their new partnership with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Summer Innovation Program that offers Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. These programs and activities are potentially life-changing experiences for young people who are living in environments that are underserved and underexposed to life-building opportunities that many of us take for granted.

One highly innovative program offered by Family Matters is the Ways To Work program. They provide low interest car loans to "economically and credit-challenged families" to enable them to get to work, repair their credit standing and to improve their financial literacy. In 2013, this program earned Family Matters the "Premier Program Performance Award" presented by Wal-Mart.

The most significant recognition of Family Matters committed service to the community came in 2013 when Family Matters received a gift of $28 Million dollars from the estate of philanthropist Richard A. Herman, a long time supporter of Family Matters.

"This gift will help fund an innovative collaboration with John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Family Matters to bring arts programming to low-income District seniors and youth. The goal of the program will be to educate and expose District youth and seniors to various art forms, as well as introduce the healing power of the arts to those in need. The power of the arts to transform lives is well-known, and we hope to spark the interest and creativity of both young people and seniors whose access to the arts has been limited, due to their circumstances and income."

Family Matters is not resting on their laurels, they are poised to grow and flourish. Last year Tonya led the organization through a shared visioning process that resulted in a new and compelling mission; a bold and ambitious vision, and shared values to help them navigate the next chapter of their Journey:

Tonya's personal vision for Family Matters is big, bold and uncompromising. She sees Family Matters as a household name and the impact of their work influencing communities around the world.

"Family Matters is made up of some of the most compassionate, intelligent, hard working men and women whom I have had the privilege of leading, and I see many ways, each day, how we are making our local community, and our greater society, a better, more equitable place for all. We can only continue to do so with the support of our communities getting involved, because we know in this society everyone matters."

On my quest to spotlight DreamMakers, I continue to be amazed at the number of people around the world who are committed to creating a world where people and the planet can flourish. Every DreamMaker that I have had the privilege of interviewing see the world in the same awe-inspiring light. They have a sense of responsibility beyond their own lives. They take responsibility for the world we live in and are committed to making it better. They share a characteristic I call practical-optimism, although they clearly perceive current reality, and unflinchingly confront it; they share a deep faith that any challenge can be overcome. Their visions are large, deep and unaffected by cynicism. Tonya Jackson Smallwood and Family Matters are what my mentor Max De Pree, former CEO and Chairman of Herman Miller calls, "a gift to the human spirit,"