Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday November 22nd 2017

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Laura Gilliam: New United Way CEO

By Duwayne Escobedo

The most satisfying work that Laura Gilliam has done includes working with the school system, Marshall University, law enforcement, health department and churches and nonprofit agencies to reduce the opioid crisis in West Virginia.

The epidemic is a big problem in the Huntington, W. Va., area and across the United States. More than two million Americans have become addicted and abused the prescription pain pills.

Gilliam has led the charge to fight the issue as the head of the United Way of the River Cities, which serves four counties in West Virginia and one in Ohio, the past 12 years. She recently beat out 315 other applicants to become the new president and CEO of the United Way of Escambia County.

“We are ground zero, unfortunately, in the substance abuse issue,” Gilliam said in a telephone interview with Inweekly. “We have been very active and partnered really well with the local community. It’s a complex issue. We’ve worked across a lot of sectors to create solutions.”

Gilliam said she cannot wait to take over the United Way here and get involved in Achieve Escambia. The organization serves as the backbone of the initiative to improve education from “cradle to career” in the local region.

The 54-year-old gets excited talking about that and other challenges at the United Way of Escambia County.

“This is a new adventure,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for me. I wasn’t aware of everything they’re doing. I value partnerships. They are key to being successful in attacking major issues. Without community support, there is very little we can do.”

United Way board chairwoman Yvette McLellan, led the search committee and expects big things from Gilliam when she starts the job here Jan. 8. The United Way of Escambia County is the most comprehensive health and human services charity and largest provider of funds to the region’s most critical programs.

In fact, after interviewing Gilliam over Skype, LandrumHR chairman and founder H. Britt Landrum Jr. told the search committee, “She’s sharp. If you don’t lock her down you’ll miss the opportunity.”

McLellan pointed out that Gilliam transitioned the United Way of the River Cities from a traditional United Way to a community impact organization, just like the Escambia County agency. Gilliam replaces Andrea Krieger, now executive director of the Pensacola State College Foundation.

“She has a long history with the United Way and that’s one of the things that really stood out with us,” McLellan said. “She eats, breathes and lives United Way. I can tell she believes in the United Way and gets it.”

The Gilliams support their mom’s decision, although she admitted some sadness exists because the family lived in Huntingdon for about 27 years and had deep roots in that community.

Her husband, Frank, is a professor of biological science at Marshall University. Her children include her 26-year-old daughter, Rachel, who directs the family ministry at a church, and her 23-year-old son, Ian, who expects to earn his wings as a pilot in June. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in July 2016.

She said her son is going through flight school at NAS Pensacola, the Cradle of Aviation, is a big part of her excitement about relocating to the Gulf Coast.

“I knew this was a place I would like to be,” Gilliam said. “We’ve been down here several times and always been impressed. My family was excited. They knew I had been looking at what is the next step. They’ve been very supportive of me.”

Another reason the United Way search committee tapped Gilliam was because she “stood out” in leadership, experience, professionalism and history of working effectively with community partners, donors and volunteers.

“She also truly understands metrics and measurable impacts that drive the goals of the United Way of Escambia County,” McLellan said. “She can come right in and elevate us even more.”

Gilliam leaves a trail of success behind in Huntington. She successfully created a 2-1-1 service for the United Way of the River Cities, which is a national effort by the organization to connect the needy with local resources. She has made national and statewide presentations more than a dozen times on subjects ranging from diversifying fundraising strategies and meeting community needs to coalition building and dropout prevention.

Plus, she was deeply involved in the community. Gilliam is a founding member of the Women 2 Women Committee with the Huntington Area Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, she is a past president of the Huntington Rotary Club.

The Herald-Dispatch named her “Citizen of the Year” in 2011, and a Huntington Mayoral Proclamation established November 7, 2015, as Laura P. Gilliam Day.

Despite the accolades, Gilliam wants Pensacola residents to know she’s approachable. Her door will be open to them, she said.

“I will spend a lot of time listening to concerns and ideas people might have for solutions,” she said. “I believe in dialog and conversation and getting input from the community on what some of the challenges are, the gaps, that we can respond to.”