Nearly a decade ago Donna Gathers and her family relocated to Sandy Springs from the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights. Gathers had only just completed her graduate coursework receiving her Master’s of Public Administration from Cleveland State University and also recently had overseen a Shaker Heights’ official’s re-election campaign. She was considering a new career after years of working as a fulltime mother, volunteer and graduate student and knew only that she wanted to pursue her passion of public administration rather than her original field of human resource consulting.
“I took a number of years off when my kids were born,” Gathers said. “That’s when I got the non-profit bug. I was doing work for the schools and the city of Shaker Heights while finishing my graduate degree.”
Gathers’ three children were all teens when her husband’s, Jeffrey, work transferred him to Atlanta, which she said was a complicated age to uproot children.
“We moved here with some trepidation, but Atlanta is a very easy place to move to,” Gathers said. “People here are welcoming, and the cost of living is pretty kind to live this close to a big city. Now that we’ve moved to the south we would never leave. We’re addicted, and we’re committed southerners.”
Gathers again began volunteering soon after settling into Sandy Springs, this time at North Springs High School. It was there she met the executive director of Leadership Sandy Springs Carolyn Axt who saw something special in Gathers, and it was here Gathers happened upon the path to the career for which she had been searching.
“Donna just has this wonderful balance of knowledge and experience,” Axt said. “She has the ability to see the broad picture yet she’s a wonderfully, friendly, fun individual. She’s just a really capable woman and a fabulous team player who’s always looking to develop a collaborative. She’s never been out for herself. It’s always about what can be accomplished.”
Axt introduced Gathers to then director of Sandy Springs Revitalization, Inc. John Cheek –Gathers is the current executive director– who Gathers said indicated at their initial meeting that many local businesses, although members of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, were also interested in the possibility of a more localized business association. After conducting her own research, Gathers came to the conclusion that a Sandy Springs Business Association was a feasible concept and was hired to facilitate its inception in winter 1997.
The following January the SSBA had its first breakfast meeting under the leadership of Gathers as executive director – a position she has held since and at which she often works weekends and late nights attending council meetings or Association functions.
“When I’m sitting at the council meetings, I’m not really happy to be sitting there at 10 p.m., but the decisions they’re making impact my life, the lives of my family and the lives of my friends,” Gathers said. “It’s an easy thing to get involved in and for a lot of people to feel connected to. Sandy Springs is an amazing community for non-profits.”
Gathers said she made a conscious decision to move forward in the non-profit world despite the obvious financial drawbacks because she cares about her community and knows she is working toward an interconnected higher goal truly affecting her family and friends’ quality of life. She suggested anyone considering a career in the non-profit world also make it a conscious decision but said if someone can afford to and has the will to do so the trade offs are more than worth it.
“There’s just something about working with people who are donating their time that make it so rewarding,” Gathers said. “You find you push yourself a lot harder.”
Now nearly 440 members strong, The SSBA plays a critical role in many issues facing the newly incorporated city of Sandy Springs. As executive director Gathers spends much of her time advocating on behalf of causes denoted as beneficial to the SSBA. The most recent project in which the SSBA and Gathers have taken an interest is the city’s Comprehensive Plan, including future land use, scheduled to be completed by year-end.
“Things are happening here really quickly. They have to happen quickly,” Gathers said. “The council is on a mission to get things up and running and a lot of those things have legal deadlines. The Comprehensive –land use– Plan must be done by the end of this year and will affect the redevelopment of the Roswell Road corridor as well as the rest of Sandy Springs. The Roswell Road corridor has always been a hot button, and it’s going to take a number of years to solve what needs to be done both from a redevelopment issue and a transportation issue. When the council is talking about a comprehensive land use plan we need to make sure we’re involved so what is done is friendly to business interests on the corridor.”
Another SSBA project is the newly released “Sandy Springs Guidebook” published for the first time in 2006.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for years, but it’s a tremendously expensive effort,” Gathers said. “You’ve got to build your organization so it has enough strength and recognition to sell the advertising to put out a piece like that. There are some terrific shops and restaurants in Sandy Springs, but it’s been a gradual recognition that this is a cool-edge city.”
To that effect, the SSBA is also gearing up for Celebrate Sandy Springs to be held at The Art Institute of Atlanta April 21. The event is unique, according to Gathers, who said she doesn’t believe a similar event has ever taken place in the area.
“It’s going to be unbelievably cool,” Gathers said. “There will be different food, wine and entertainment on each floor. There will also be a tent outside with a big band. It is not your standard dinner and silent auction.”
Although Gathers spends much of her time at the SSBA/SSRI office, at the SSBA’s monthly meetings and regular pub nights or out in the city working on community issues, she is more than an effective community leader. She is also an avid lover of life’s simple pleasures and spending time with friends and family whether entertaining small dinner parties at home or traveling with her family. A love of both reading and education also define Gathers’ identity. In fact, she said she would go to university indefinitely if money were no object. It seems, however, that running a very close second place to family and personal time is another identity entirely.
“When we [SSBA] came in we were charged with giving Sandy Springs an identity,” Gathers said. “I believe we have helped in that effect.”