After 45 years of service, 32 of those as executive director, Deb Gerken will be retiring from the Northwestern Ohio Community Action Commission (NOCAC) effective Dec. 11.
NOCAC is a private, non-profit corporation that was created in 1965 to combat poverty in a primary service area that includes Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Paulding, Van Wert and Williams counties. In addition to those six counties, NOCAC also provides publicly funded childcare in Hancock, Hardin and Auglaize counties. The agency has approximately 140 employees and annual funding of more than $8 million.
A native New Yorker, Gerken went to high school in Syracuse and attended college at Adrian College in Michigan. Her field of study at Adrian was home economics, “But it was more community service type stuff, not the cooking and sewing classes,” recalled Gerken. “I had 26 hours of sociology and took a lot of anthropology and studied culture.”
Gerken came to Defiance soon after graduation from college in 1975.
“I graduated in May, got married in August and in October we moved here to Defiance,” said Gerken. “I saw an ad in the newspaper for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. I didn’t know what it was ... I didn’t know what community action was, but it seemed interesting. I got interviewed and by the time I got home they called and said I had the job.”
During those early years at NOCAC, Gerken wore a variety of hats.
“I was the Retired Senior Volunteer coordinator,” said Gerken. “About a year later, I became the senior nutrition director. That was back when the Defiance Senior Center had just started.
“We (NOCAC) started all the senior nutrition sites, then we started all the senior centers — that probably spanned 20-30 years of development until they got to the point where they spun off and became county-supported entities,” explained Gerken. “Now they all have tax levies and they are supported ... and that was our goal, to get this going and get it developed and then spin it off into the communities.”
During the 1980s, she served as director of the Head Start program, which at the time served approximately 300 children in five counties. At that time, the Defiance Head Start program rented classroom space at St. John United Church of Christ on Webster Street, but soon relocated to its present location.
“... the Armory here in Defiance,” noted Gerken. “We worked with (former mayor) Rita Kissner and Sandy Herman, back then with Family and Children First, and we got grant money to renovate the whole Armory building into the Head Start center. The city still owns the building, but we basically pay for everything.”
In addition to the senior centers/nutrition programs and the Armory renovation, Gerken is very proud of the growth in services to the area’s homeless population.
“When I came here we didn’t do any of the homeless programs, we’ve developed all of that,” noted Gerken.
“The biggest area that we’ve grown in is when we bought the building across the parking lot and we renovated it into the PATH Center,” said Gerken. “We have HUD subsidized single-occupancy apartments upstairs, we operate the soup kitchen and we have emergency shelter rooms available. That has been over the last 20-30 years that has grown.
“Now we are doing rapid rehousing programs to try not to have people in the shelter very long, but to get them out into housing and get them case management, to stabilize and get them a job, so they can support their own housing,” said Gerken.
Like most other facets of society, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the ways in which NOCAC had functioned this past eight months.
“We’ve done a lot of remote services,” said Gerken. “Like Head Start — we do have kids coming into the centers, but we only have half come one day and the other half another day. They are not getting as many hours of on-site service so then we do virtual (instruction) ... thank goodness for technology.
“Our weatherization program is out weatherizing homes,” said Gerken. “The program stopped for a while back in March when everything kind of shut down, but they have been back out since early summer.
“Also, at the PATH Center we’re not doing meals in the building, but they are delivering meals to people and they (meals) are available to pick up at the curb,” noted Gerken.
As for her plans in retirement, Gerken seemed at a loss.
“I have no idea,” she exclaimed.
Gerken’s husband, Tim, with whom she shares four children and four grandchildren, retired Oct. 30 from Miller Brothers Construction where he was a general superintendent for bridges.
“I have family all over the country — my sister is in Kansas City, my mother is out that way too, she’s 93,” said Gerken. “I have a brother in Seattle and a brother in New Mexico, so we’ll travel some, but we don’t have any big plans.”
Stepping into the executive director’s position at NOCAC following Gerken’s retirement will be long-time employee Angie Franklin, who currently serves as the agency’s Community Services director.