Group that develops county’s leaders is losing its leader

Sarri Gilman is turning a page — one more page in a career that has changed thousands of lives for the better.

In more than 20 years leading nonprofit organizations, Gilman has worked to shelter homeless teens, bring hope to the neediest families and point working adults in directions that will help their communities.

“You know when it’s time to leave something,” said Gilman, 53, who in May will step down after seven years as executive director of Leadership Snohomish County.

Each year, the nonprofit organization takes applications for about 30 people to join in an eight-month program that aims to develop community leaders.

People selected for the group’s Signature Program spend one work day each month learning about different aspects of Snohomish County, including education, law and justice, arts and culture, human services, economic development and other areas.

“It’s great for getting to know a lot of people,” said Michelle Dietz, director of development for Village Community Services, a local nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities. Dietz is part of Leadership Snohomish County’s class of 2013-14, which will graduate before Gilman’s departure.

“I have always admired Sarri’s work,” said Dietz, who noted Gilman’s previous roles with Cocoon House and One Childhood Lasts a Lifetime.

In the early 1990s, Gilman founded Cocoon House, which serves homeless and at-risk teens. She served as its executive director for a decade. What began as one Everett shelter for teens now has facilities and programs all over Snohomish County. Gilman later created One Childhood Lasts a Lifetime, and with grant money worked with housing agencies to improve the lives of children staying in shelters.

Gilman isn’t retiring from her profession. A mental health counselor, she has a private practice on Whidbey Island, where she lives and where her twin daughters were raised. Gilman is also a former freelance columnist for The Herald’s Good Life section.

“It’s going to be very hard to replace her. You need to find a leader of leaders,” Dietz said of Gilman’s current role. “Her style works for inspiring a shared vision, and inspiring people to reach their potential.”

Jack Southwick, president of Seahurst Electric company in Everett, was part of Leadership Snohomish County’s class of 2010-11. He is now on the organization’s board of directors.

“Leadership Snohomish County and Sarri herself are almost synonymous,” Southwick said. “She is a very insightful and effective leader. She understands mission very well. The other thing I admire: She is an excellent communicator — off the charts — both listening and sending messages the other way.”

Southwick has a short way of explaining what it’s like to take part in Leadership Snohomish County: “For me it was ‘Jack, meet Snohomish County. And Snohomish County, meet Jack.’ It beckons you to get involved, to find a way to help out,” Southwick said. “Don’t just have a job and work, but get involved in the community.”

Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, executive director of Sno-Isle Libraries and another Leadership Snohomish County board member, said Gilman is “really great at connecting the dots,” seeing how connections with people will create greater opportunities. “Another thing that is great about the class, it’s an interesting combination of corporate people, those from nonprofits, and folks from the public arena,” Woolf-Ivory said.

Gilman said it’s seeing that an organization has the “community capacity” to sustain itself that lets her step away.

With Cocoon House, Gilman said she left after the organization was on solid ground financially and with effective programs for teens. “I know when I’ve done what I’m supposed to do,” Gilman said.

Leadership Snohomish County started as a small job, 18 hours a week. “It grew and grew, it became a huge thing,” she said. The organization will replace Gilman with a nearly full-time position, 32 hours per week.

“First I had a lot to learn. How do you teach leadership anyway? And how do you grow an organization that’s sustainable?” Gilman said. “Community leaders keep standing on the shoulders of other community leaders.”

Cultivating great leaders helps us all.

“We need them on school boards, at nonprofits, and to run for office. We need people to do this right,” Gilman said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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