Donna Hanley is a compassionate helper, a licensed mental health counselor, a wife and a mother. She and her partner moved to Sarasota just 4 years ago but have already left their mark on the city with Donna becoming the Executive Director of ALSO Youth. We met up with her in the newly renovated ALSO Youth space and she shared with us her journey from mental health to advocacy.
We always ask, are you originally from Sarasota?
I’m actually from Albany NY. I was born and raised there for most of my life. I left in early 90’s and lived in Houston Texas for about 7 years before going back to Albany. I’ve actually only been in Sarasota for 4 years.
So you had a few moves before settling in SRQ?
My wife Karen is a research scientist. She’s always working with grant funds doing brain and spinal cord research. When people work under grants there’s always the threat of funding going away. After 25 years of Karen doing that work, the conversation about that money running out started coming up, so we started to prepare for that, saving for our future. We had always talked about living somewhere warmer. Florida was never on our radar. Karen’s parents spend winters here and are in their late 80’s. It became apparent that Florida was the place we needed to go. We knew it would be hard to find jobs. It took us about 7 months.
Tell me more about your professional background and finding a job in your field in SRQ.
I’m a licensed mental health counselor in New York. I researched getting my license down here but it was just a little bit more of a hurdle than what I wanted to do. I had my own private practice before moving here but for 12 years prior I’d worked at 3 different residential treatment centers for youth. At the last organization I worked, I was the Assistant Executive Director on the residential side. We had our own school and health clinic with about 72 kids across 6 different cottages. That organization is where youth were placed when they were not functioning in their home or community for a wide range of reasons.
I think the Rosemary District is kind of a funky area, open-minded people and nonjudgmental.
It seems like ALSO was a good fit for you. How did you find your position with ALSO?
Karen and I connected with the Women’s Research Center where we went to a support group for women who were trying to get a job or trying to return to work. There we made a friend who had done a lot of development and marketing work. She suggested I join the association of development professionals. I joined and saw the job for the executive director for ALSO Youth. And I’m like, “Okay, it’s LGBT, it’s youth. Not mental health but it is advocacy”.
Was there something about the mission that you were attracted to?
The actual letters in ALSO stand for: Advocacy, Leadership, Support and Outreach. And simply put, what we want is that everyone gets treated with respect and dignity out in the world, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
What about some personal connection to the mission?
I don’t have a tragic story about myself. I’ve been lucky. I had it easy. Karen and I have been together 35 years, and we raised my daughter together (she was 7 when we met each other). We’ve had rumors spread about us, living in a small community. No one ever did anything to us though. But going back further to when I used to work with all of kids in my jobs, I got to hear their stories and see the results of people’s unkindness. I like being in a helping profession.
Can you tell me about coming into the organization and what ALSO Youth does?
When I got the job, Molly, my part-time program coordinator, was returning as a volunteer and the Executive Director had just left. They hired Molly and she ran ALSO for 3 months before I came on. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of organizational memory on the board. Molly and I had similar ideas about what would work for youth, what they would need at a drop-in center. That’s level one, that’s what we do, provide a safe place for them to be. But we asked ourselves “What is that going to do for them when they leave here and go back home?” Molly and I felt very passionate about providing structure and replacing or enhancing things that were missing in their lives as a result of their issues.
What do you see that is missing from these kids’ lives that would benefit them?
We know that structure for youth really helps them grow and that a lot of things happen in group discussions. Because of this, we offer support groups. We know that youth who are marginalized because of their real or perceived sexuality or gender lose out on healthy socialization and tend to withdraw, don’t go to school, or are tutored and schooled at home. And even if they are in school, a lot of them don’t participate, they don’t raise their hand to answer questions, they don’t want to go on field trips, etc.
So how do you help these kids with the effects of social marginalization?
We try to do things that replicate what they miss out on. Last Saturday night was our 4th prom. The last headcount I heard was there was 137 kids signed up to go to that prom. It’s not that they don’t go to their prom, it’s that we offer something different than what is offered at their prom. And I would say less that 50% of these kids identity as LGBT. A lot of them tell us they come to the prom because everybody is nicer. There are no cliques in the corner, you’re not snubbed by this group or that group.
What we want is that everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression gets treated with respect and dignity out in the world.
I know that the Interior Design Society recently remodeled your space. Tell me about it and why it’s meaningful.
This whole renovation project with IDS choosing us was about them meeting whatever needs we had. They came and we talked. At first they thought they could only paint and get us new furniture, but then they asked what I really wanted. I said I wanted a new floor and a new group room so we can do two things at the same time. The construction company said, “Sure, we can get this done” and started raising money. Now, we as an organization have a more pleasant place to spend our time in. I believe that personally role modeling for youth is important. Being nice kind and compassionate is beneficial. Same thing for environment. What does their environment say to them? Taking it up a notch in presentation says something. Having an outside organization like the IDS says something. It says that it’s not just the staff at ALSO who cares about them but other people as well. As these people learned more about ALSO and what we’re all about, they put their own hearts into it.
What is your group art project with Grace Howl about?
We want this place to be fun and funky, but also want to keep it at a certain professional level. The vision here is that we have a removable 3 panel work of art that Grace will be drawing a design on. After, she will work with the youth to paint the design. It’s just the recognition that here we have a renowned artist from the community who’s taking the time to come in and do this.
What are some of the challenges that you see facing ALSO?
Longevity. We’re a nonprofit. We exist through the generosity of others. I say that because I want people to really know that and understand the impact they have when they are generous to us. In order to be here, we have to pay the rent and keep the lights on. So fundraising is important for us. We have a Turkey Trot in November, a 5k over the Ringling bridge. It’s out biggest fundraiser actually. We just had our annual gala on April 1st. We had 170 people attend. Sarasota is a very philanthropic town, with over 1,000 non-profits in this area. Competition for funds is great.
Do you think that the Rosemary District is a good place for ALSO’s HQ?
ALSO has been in this space for 14 years. This is our 25th year of existence. They were in a couple of different places but landed in this space in just the last couple of years. With the rejuvenation, the art and the businesses coming in, you can see that all kinds of things are moving out of downtown and into the district. Although it’s scary seeing all the construction going on in the district, I think it’s kind of spruced up the neighborhood. The kinds of businesses are more liberally minded, I think, and we have the colleges nearby. I think the Rosemary District is kind of a funky area, open-minded people and nonjudgmental. It’s right for us.
How do you see ALSO fitting into the growth of RD?
One thing that has been a little elusive, but I believe is important, is giving back. Because of our drop-in nature, there’s not a lot of predictability. It’s been hard for us to have other organizations understand that un-predictableness. But I think that with the growth of the area and more organizations coming in who gain an understanding of how we operate, we might have more opportunities to give back to the community. We have great relations with Urbanite theatre, for instance. We are also involved with the art alliance community. I have this great hope that the kinds of organizations in this community will be open to having us involved. I think the synergy will come.
Last question: what do you want for the future of the organization and the world?
In the future, we would rather not have to exist.
ALSO Youth will be holding a Grand Re-Opening Party on Wednesday, May 31st from 4 to 7 pm at 1470 Blvd of the Arts Sarasota FL 34236.