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Don Mathis: The Natural Giver
How a Career of Caring Impacts Poverty

December 2011

As the leader of a nationwide organization fighting poverty on a local level, Don Mathis follows his passion in life … helping people. In 1973, Mathis worked at a Head Start center during graduate school at the University of Delaware. But not knowing exactly what he wanted to do after school, Mathis followed his heart and continued working for Head Start.

“I found myself spending more and more time at the [Head Start] center and was offered a teacher job. I found that I was much better at working with 5-year-olds,” Mathis explains.

The Havre de Grace resident has worked in social advocacy with low-income children and at-risk families ever since. His current career reaches poverty-stricken Americans. Mathis is the former head of the Boys and Girls Club of Harford County and current president/CEO of the Community Action Partnership of Washington, D.C.

History of Leadership
In the ’90s, Mathis worked for the Clinton Administration’s AmeriCorps program. As the campus director of National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), he knew the Boys and Girls Club program and felt there was much to offer in Harford County. Hired to serve as their executive director in Harford County, Mathis added two new clubs, Havre de Grace and Bel Air, and a new building in Edgewood.

Don Mathis (left) at the Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino, Calif. Energy Efficiency Training Center; Mathis (middle top) works tirelessly; Mathis (middle bottom at center) with staff members and volunteers at Boston’s Nightingale Garden; Stacy Flowers, Rob Goldsmith, Don Mathis and Brian Phipps at a community economic development mall construction in Abingdon, Va. (right).

Steering the Boys and Girls Club

Directing the Boys and Girls Club of Harford County for 10 years, Mathis leveraged his government connections from D.C. to open doors for the Boys and Girls Club to attend events like visiting the White House and meeting President George W. Bush. The Club also formed a relationship with Olympian gold medalist Michael Phelps, who started his swimming career in Maryland.

“Phelps has given thousands of dollars to the Clubs, and we’ve taken kids in van to see him compete,” Mathis mentions.

Mathis reached out to young people in many areas of Harford County, says Wayne Dougherty, mayor of Havre de Grace, who has known Mathis for 15 years. Dougherty was introduced to Mathis at the Havre de Grace Rotary Club and describes the first time they met.

“I was totally in awe of his compassion,” Mayor Dougherty explains. “That compassion was to make a better life for our citizens and the youngsters in the Boys and Girls Club.”

Connecting personally with youth, no matter where he works, is part of Mathis’s character. When NBC News’ “Today Show” held a Christmas toy drive, 7,500 Barbie dolls were sent to the Boys and Girls Club of Harford County and were distributed by Mathis’s team within three weeks. Known then as “Don the Barbie Fairy,” Mathis recalls the 10,000 astronaut dolls that arrived next, and the donations were shared to any other charity organization that needed toys.

Spending Cuts in a Poverty Crisis
Mathis joined Community Action Partnership in 2007 and took the leadership role of overseeing 1,056 Community Action Agencies, anti-poverty initiatives and advocacy for the 46.2 million people in the United States living in poverty. It certainly appears that Mathis and the Partnership have their work cut out for them as poverty reaches record levels. The U.S. Census Bureau reported another 2.6 million people in poverty in 2010, with 15.1 percent of Americans counted as poor.

“The impact is crucial. [Poverty] is the highest since the early ’90s and we have the highest number of poor people ever,” Mathis says. “One out of six people get food stamps … the poverty problem is substantial.”

Mathis points out that Harford County estimates that 39.4 percent of households headed by single women are poor. Harford County provides a food pantry and Mathis says the demands are increasing. “People that used to volunteer are now asking for help,” he observes.

Judy Mason, executive director of the Harford Community Action Agency says that the economic downturn is hitting the entire community. Mason characterizes Mathis as an excellent choice to lead the national association and says he “has made really great strides” at pulling things together.

“Don is as passionate as they come,” says Mason. “He’s very emotional about the work that he does and the people that he serves.”

While Mathis says that pockets within Harford County stricken with poverty need help, he is quick to say, “People in Harford County are committed about solving problems.” While the needs increase, the government is reacting with budget cuts. Mathis says Congress passed a resolution to cut 4.5 percent of the national funds for the Community Action (the federal Community Services Block Grants program for states), affecting over 1,000 Community Action Agencies.

“The cuts are starting now, and we are very concerned,” he reveals.

A Leader’s Dedication to Impacting Lives
The nonstop fight against poverty has Mathis working extreme hours. Waking at 4 or 5 a.m., he boards the 6:30 a.m. train from Aberdeen to Washington, D.C. Mathis often arrives home at 10:30 p.m. No one understands his dedication to long working hours quite like his wife of 11 years, Carol Cooley Mathis. She’s the city administrator for the City of Havre de Grace, where the couple lives.

“He’s really committed to kids, to families, to people who need a hand up,” Carol says. “This is a man who understands how hard it is to make it.” Mayor Dougherty concludes that if there were more people like Mathis in the world, society would be a better place. Dougherty feels that Mathis has deep compassion for people and that he’s not in [the position] for himself. “[Mathis] has the opportunity to reach out in his position to touch these individuals to show what true leadership is to the country,” explains Dougherty.

Community Engagement
Believing that everyone can make a difference and become engaged in the community, Mathis advises businesses to get involved. “It’s a real commitment and you have to do it for the right reason,” he advises.

Mathis says he is satisfied with his work but is pushing at the same time since “our country is in real trouble.” Mathis concludes that BRAC has insulated Harford County from some problems. “People in Harford County are committed about solving problems and the business community is very supportive of that,” he says.

Humility, candor and self-forgetfulness are just a few words that describe the nature of Mathis. His career of caring is well underway and his commitment to solving problems seems to have no end in sight. “I feel great every day, but I feel frustrated. It’s in our DNA as a country to persevere,” concludes Mathis.