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Gresser turns over community foundation reins
The Yuma Community Foundation is under new management.
Judy Gresser, regional manager for 11 years, retired on Friday. Her position has been taken over by Janell Johnson.
YCF is a 19-year-old permanent philanthropic endowment for the enduring benefit of the community. It secures, manages and allocates donors' gifts for charitable purposes in the community, while working to improve the quality of life for local residents.
Formed in 1993, YCF is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization and was one of the Arizona Community Foundation's first affiliates. Since then, YCF has established 51 funds with a total asset value of more than $10 million.
“The whole partnership — the team and our amazing local advisory board — reached a $10 million asset balance very recently, and it just seemed like this was not a bad time” to retire, Gresser said.
“I have been there 11 years and had fun doing it. This is the most fun job, maybe in the country. It is going to be so much fun to watch Janell move the Yuma Community Foundation to the next level.”
The motto at YCF is to “serve and amaze,” Gresser continued. “It is more than a motto. It is how we feel. We are here to serve — to improve the quality of life for Yuma County. It has been my privilege, believe me, to serve.”
When Gresser announced her retirement a few months ago, YCF began searching for a suitable replacement.
“There was a search team that was comprised of members of our local advisory board and some staff from Phoenix,” Gresser said, noting it was a group decision to hire Johnson.
Gresser is confident Johnson will fulfill the duties of her new position admirably. “When you have invested so much time and heart into the community foundation, that is a really good thing, I think, to be able to say with confidence that the reins are in excellent hands.”
Johnson said she understands the gravity of her new position. “It is huge job with a huge responsibility, and one not to be taken lightly.”
In addition to her other duties, Johnson plans to help YCF enter the realm of social media to connect with younger generations.
“I think we are at a time here in Yuma where people are connecting via social media a lot more,” she said.
“I think it is interesting to see how we can engage that audience, and what we might be able to do with seeing the generations come together.”
Johnson believes Yuma is a “fantastic community ... I really appreciate it at all levels and I am excited to see the opportunities for growth and hope I can grow along with everything that is happening here.”
Johnson grew up in Kent, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. She graduated from high school in 1995 and attended the University of Washington, where she majored in Japanese sociolinguistics.
After she completed college, Johnson applied for a teaching fellowship program in Japan. She then moved to Yokohama, where she worked at a commercial high school.
“That was a fantastic experience. I was the only foreigner and had a little bicycle with a basket on it and rode it around with my son in the basket.”
Johnson has two sons, ages 11 and 16, as well as three stepchildren: a 9-year-old girl and two boys ages 11 and 13.
After about a year in Japan, Johnson decided she wanted to follow a different path and moved to New Jersey. Soon thereafter, she began working for Deloitte & Touche, the world's second-largest professional services firm headquartered in New York.
During this time, she found she had a tremendous interest in the company's ancillary philanthropic work. She later left the company and went to work for Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J.
“I worked for the Department of Economic Development. I was policy adviser to the deputy mayor. We were a new administration, so people were getting their feelers out and weren't sure exactly what everyone was doing.
“I was one of the original policy advisers to really help build the department and after a few months there, they asked me to focus on the community-level work.”
She began working on a prisoner re-entry program designed to reintegrate former criminals into the community as successful and upstanding members of society.
“We received a couple of million dollars in federal funding, and then some match funding from our local philanthropists. I was the point person in building all the bridges. We had to include the Department of Corrections, parole, probation, the Attorney General's Office — the foundations that were providing match funding.”
Johnson also had to maintain open communications with the public.
“People on the street had to like what we were doing, so it was my job to really build those bridges and to get everybody to see the big vision and promote the program. It took probably a good year and a half to do that.”
After receiving funding for the program, the money was redistributed to Newark area nonprofits.
“We subgranted those funds to six organizations and we monitored their success, provided them technical assistance, and collectively we were all successful.”
The experience Johnson gained in Newark helped provide her with the basic foundation she will need to oversee YCF, she noted.
“It was very exciting to see the magic happening at all the levels and to get people excited about what was going on, and to be that bridge builder getting people to communicate.”
After the program was up and running, Johnson left her position at city hall and began a private consulting practice.
About two years ago, Johnson moved to Yuma to be with her husband. The two were married in 2011.
Once in Yuma, she began working for Randy Nelson at the Arizona Western College Small Business Development Center. He introduced her to Rotary International, and she joined Fort Yuma Rotary.
“I joined Rotary and got to know people in the community and got a feel for what was important in this area,” she said
“I had never really lived in a border town, or a town with this landscape or this demographic, so it was really great to get to know some fantastic people who wanted to make a change in the community.”
That led her to become involved with the Yuma Area Nonprofit Institute (YANPI), which was founded in a partnership of YCF and United Way.
“I just loved the mission of YANPI,” Johnson said. “It is about building bridges, not working in silos. Everybody is important. Every organization is important. Sometimes we don't realize how much we touch people at different levels by what we do. Every single organization counts.”
During her time with YANPI, Johnson was introduced to Gresser, and the two began working together. That experience gave Johnson an opportunity to see the day-to-day process involved with running YCF.
“Judy has done such a tremendous job, and it has really been incredible to watch what she has done, and to observe her interactions to see how people respond and how much they value that input,” Johnson said. “It has been tremendous to watch that.”