As the Executive Director & CEO of Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit, Laura Varon Brown seems to constantly be on the go from the minute she walks through their red door. Sometimes though, the people who walk into the clubhouse have the ability to make her pause, if only for a moment.
“There are times when someone will say to me that 'Gilda’s Club saved my life,'” Brown said. “It just stops you in your tracks when you realize that this business that you’re running really makes a difference to families.”
Through their free programming – yes, free – Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit is able to help the thousands of people who come to the clubhouse each year, for both those with cancer and their family and friends.
Brown knows how vital that support can be. She lost her mom to cancer when she was in her early twenties and watched her second husband go through cancer, which he successfully beat.
“I didn’t know about Gilda’s Club then, but I can only imagine what it would have meant to my kids to have the children’s programming that we have and certainly me as a caregiver,” she said.
With over 10,000 members, that’s a lot of people to affect, and serving those people is Brown’s favorite part of the job. Being able to stay connected to the community was another draw of working in the non-profit world for Brown, and something she knew well. Before running the non-profit – which she’s done since 2012 – the Bloomfield Township resident worked in journalism at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News for almost 25 years as both a reporter and an editor – with a brief pit stop at the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Michigan in between.
Her years in journalism helped prepare her for her current role more than one might think. Those years in the newsroom helped her become an excellent communicator, a skill needed in any role, and gave her fact-checking skills and the ability to explain herself well.
“I think I’ll always be a journalist, not a former journalist – you’re always a journalist –it gets under your skin,” Brown said. “It absolutely prepared me at being able to interact with the community, understand the community and the differences in our community. We have such a diverse community in every way and journalism certainly helped me to understand that.”
Under her leadership, Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit is now more financially stable than when she entered the position. For the first time they own their clubhouse. Her next goal is to accomplish more program growth to make sure they are serving as many people as possible and continue to have an impact on the community.
She also hopes to have an impact on her staff and help them build careers at Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit. Brown knows non-profits aren’t necessarily known for building careers, but she wants to change that.
“My job is to make sure that our staff feels confident in their careers here, that they can build a career, that they can support a family with their career. And watching them grow is truly an extraordinary part of my job,” she said.
With all she’s been able to accomplish in her six years in the position, Brown plans on staying in the role as long as she’s making a difference and that they are growing.
“I would like to stay here as long as they’ll have me,” Brown said. “I love it.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent