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Leader guides in changing times

President and CEO Marisa Geitner took the helm of Heritage Christian Services in 2013. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

The task ahead for Marisa Geitner in the late 2000s appeared steep.

As then-executive vice president of Heritage Christian Services Inc., Geitner was being groomed to take over for the organization’s president and founder, Robert Pieters. She also was navigating an industry-shattering change, with funding shifting sharply away from the agency’s strength in residential services.

It was a difficult task, but Geitner did not back down.

“They always say the right leader comes along at the right time,” says Richard Vander Horst, Heritage Christian Services chairman. “This was the right time for her leadership. She had a solid background of where we came from and for those we take care of, but also progressive and understanding enough to see that the world was changing and that we couldn’t sit around and let it happen to Heritage.”

Geitner’s plan for the agency has included responding to the changes while remaining true to Pieters’ original mission and focusing on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But she also kept an eye on the future, crafting new partnerships and increasing the organization’s stature in the community while looking for ways to diversify revenue streams.

The organization she now leads has more than 1,600 employees, including 1,300 locally, and $60 million in annual revenue. Geitner has plans to continue growing the organization, which ranked No. 20 on the RBJ 75 list of the region’s largest employers.

Succession plans
Even as an undergraduate at Nazareth College in the early 1990s, Geitner, 45, says she knew of Heritage Christian Services’ reputation in the community and saw firsthand, through her own work in a day program, how well the organization served its clients.

“Working in a local organization, the majority of people we supported in that day program were also supported by Heritage Christian,” she says. “I could immediately see the quality and commitment of Heritage, how they differentiated in the support they provided.”

Not long after she graduated from Nazareth in 1992, Geitner went to work at Heritage Christian Services part time and within a year became a full-time speech therapist there. She continued there while finishing her graduate degree, then came to a crossroads.

“I got a nice offer from a local hospital, and I came to the organization and let them know I was leaving for another position, and they said, ‘First talk to the big guy,’” Geitner recalls. “So I talked to Bob Pieters, and he said later that he had no recollection of what he said, but it was a formative moment for me.

“He said I would want to go home and think about it, whether I wanted to work in a system that will be hard to influence, or to work in a system that you love and will be able to make a real change.”

Geitner chose the latter, and went about doing just that. At Heritage Christian Services, she took a lead role in designing and creating a day program, a first for the organization, and then was called on for another large project.

“This was the first time that the organization looked at serving people with complex needs in a meaningful day experience, and just as I was feeling good about that program they asked me to build an organization development program,” she says. “I had no idea what that was at the time, so I learned that it was a new program for all of your workforce recruitment and development efforts.”

Geitner said she initially said no, but took on the job after the organization hired a consultant to help with the process. After the program’s creation she was promoted to vice president to oversee the efforts.

That was when Heritage Christian Services began to plan for its own future, one that would include an important role for Geitner. At this time the board was going through succession planning for Pieters, and sensed Geitner’s potential as a leader.

“The board was working actively with Bob to lay out a plan, and during that time we were poked, prodded and tested,” she says. “We had leadership profiling, individual profiling, Myers-Briggs, you name it. That’s how the board and Bob were learning about the internal talent that we had in the waiting.”

In 2003, the board announced Geitner would be advanced to an executive vice president with the idea that she would gain experience directly with Pieters. It was the same year Heritage Christian Home became known as Heritage Christian Services to better reflect the organization’s growing breadth of operations.

Plans to move Geitner up in the operation gained steam in 2008, when she says the organization “really focused on my having all the experience necessary to succeed Bob.”

“Between 2008 and when I took over as CEO in 2013 I had the opportunity to learn from Bob and lead together,” she says. “I also got more board experience and broader community experience, so with him there I got to spread my wings a bit.”

New challenges
Geitner’s ascension to CEO came amid a turbulent time for the human services sector. Starting around 2008 funding began to shift dramatically, with the state moving away from funding group settings.

“Our opportunity to serve people through group home developments all but stopped,” Geitner says. “That was our most significant way to reach people, and we had about 350 people waiting for that service from us.”

Geitner says she was lucky to be working with Pieters during this time.

“I was really able to learn through his entrepreneurship and that founding spirit,” she says. “He made it clear that we will never and still won’t be a victim to that. We will never back down and say that there’s not any more we can do. People in need are still in need, so when the climate changed we just found a way to do things differently.”

That included taking on a larger role in advocacy, making sure funders were aware of the needs of the clients, Geitner says. The organization also developed a customized residential opportunity model, which aimed to help support the needs of clients outside of a group home setting.

The organization also developed a more responsive system that helped bring immediate help for those who needed it, Geitner says.

“For years, when a family member called in because they thought a child was a good fit for a group home, we kind of registered them in waiting,” she says. “In the mid-2000s we had about 350 people waiting, with those people doing nothing more than passively waiting on a list.”

So the organization developed a universal needs registry, one that sends people calling in to resource advisers who gather information and direct them to immediate resources, whether it is through Heritage or a partner in the community.

“Gone are the days of the frustration of the large intake packets, and instead we’re asking them questions and having them articulate what they need, whether it’s a long-term want or an immediate need,” Geitner says.

Now the list of hundreds of people waiting is gone, Geitner says, and the system is better at responding to client needs.

“Because we have such a sophisticated way of handing people’s needs, we continue to make new introductions, so if someone is living in a certified home and is ready for the next step, that is an easy transition,” she says. “Not every organization is able to do that, and we’re very proud of it.”

Continued growth
The strides that started during the years leading up to Pieters’ retirement have continued. This year, the organization launched a licensed home care agency serving the needs of the elderly, and the organization’s child care has expanded with the acquisition of a center in Webster and another planned for Greece.

The organization also has grown its retail shop that sells clothing, home goods and small electronics. Geitner says the operation has allowed Heritage Christian Services to extend its mission beyond Rochester.

“We’ve expanded our retail shop twice now, and it’s generating enough revenue for us to support two significant international ministries in Guatemala,” she says. “We’ve built 11 homes there now and brought needed medical and school supplies.”

The non-profit also sent a team to Guatemala for three weeks at the start of November to lead a camp for disabled children. Geitner says it is a needed excursion for the participants.

“For many of them, it’s the only time that they will leave their village,” she says. “There is also educational services and spiritual support.”

Another major accomplishment has been the opening of the Pieters Family Life Center, a facility in Henrietta that offers programs and services. Community integration is the hallmark of the center, Geitner says, with therapeutic services offered alongside life training for teens with disabilities and T-ball instructional programs for children.

It is a model that generated concerns from the community, Geitner recalls.

“We had some hesitation from community friends who would say we were an organization known for providing services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” she says. “They said it would be a battle to integrate the center and difficult for many people in the community to want to be part of it.

“That was hurtful to hear. It’s not the 1970s anymore. But the community has really bought in, and we’re proud of how quickly we were able to integrate the center.”

Looking ahead
The success of the Pieters Family Life Center is a good indicator for the outlook of the organization, Geitner says. As she looks ahead to a future with continued fiscal constraints from funders and growing need for services, partnerships within the community will be key, she says.

Growing the organization’s funding—and diversifying the revenue streams to decrease reliance on state funding—will also be an important part of the organization’s growth, Geitner adds.

“We’ve grown our revenue about $3 million over the last three years, and that’s part of our solution for sustainability,” she says. “We’re looking for more diversity of funding but we also need that overall container of funding to grow.”

Geitner is proud of the steps the organization has taken, she says, going from close to 100 percent Medicaid funded to roughly 93 percent.

Developing the organization’s staff will be important as well, she says.

“We have to continue to find the best and the brightest workforce, and we work harder on that than anything we do,” she says. “We’re working on selecting people in diverse ways, showing that we care for them and appreciate the level of investment they provide when they come to work here.”

Geitner is also looking for new ways to reach employees, noting 60 percent of the organization’s workforce is made up of millennials.

“One of the first investments I made was taking Walt Disney’s approach to people management—selecting the right people, communicating well, educating and showing you care,” she says. “That gives us a workforce full of people who are proud to work here and who work hard to fulfill our mission.”

Geitner says she aims to foster not only a love of the organization and its mission, but for the greater role it serves in the community. She has used her position to advocate on several issues, including domestic violence and anti-poverty efforts, two areas that often touch the intellectually and developmentally disabled clients at Heritage Christian Services.

Geitner played a key role in the development of a program aimed at educating people on the signs of sexual abuse in children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, notes Mary Whittier, founding executive director at Bivona Child Advocacy Center.

That effort has grown to include 15 local organizations, Whittier says.

Geitner “was 100 percent on board with the implementation of the Darkness to Light program, and because of the vulnerability of the population she works with she had all her staff and parents get the training they offered,” Whittier says.

Geitner has taken a similar role in a program that aims at identifying and preventing sexual abuse among older adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Whittier says.

“She’s got a lot of vision,” Whittier says. “While some people are just reacting, she’s able to see these opportunities and challenges and get at them.”

Community involvement is important for Geitner herself, who along with her mother leads an effort to bring a mobile food pantry to Bloomfield, Ontario County. Geitner, who lives in Bristol, Ontario County, also is involved with her teenage son and daughter, taking an active part in their athletic endeavors.

This has given Geitner an important role with her daughter’s club lacrosse team, Relentless Hustle.

“I was one of the founding families, and it’s been a great club that focuses on nurturing girls in their self-esteem and how they treat their bodies,” she says.

Geitner hopes to continue using her own commitment to the community and the organization’s growing influence to ensure a brighter future for all.

“We don’t put a fence around our mission,” she says. “There is a lot of great talent and resources we can use to help the challenges of today, and our work is making sure all people are valued and respected.”

Marisa Geitner
Position: President and CEO, Heritage Christian Services Inc.
Age: 45
Education: B.S. in speech pathology, Nazareth College, 1992; M.S. in education, Nazareth College, 1995
Family: Son Patrick, 15; daughter Addilys, 16
Residence: Bristol, Ontario County
Activities: Gardening, cooking, spending time with children
Quote: “We don’t put a fence around our mission. There is a lot of great talent and resources we can use to help the challenges of today, and our work is making sure all people are valued and respected.”

12/4/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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