Susan Gernert

Susan Gernert

GEORGETOWN — Put yourself in Susan Gernert’s shoes as she walked in as the new president and CEO of Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries Inc./Guerin Inc.

It’s your first day on the job and you will soon be in charge of 120 employees who deal with family reunification and every level of elder care. You are responsible for maintaining and growing the business and also taking care of the 28 buildings on 30 acres.

You also are following a legend who built the business model you now oversee.

That is exactly what Susan Gernert faced as she walked into Providence Self Sufficient Ministries on July 31. She was taking over for Sister Barbara Ann Zeller, who was not only the face of the facility, but also the heart and soul of the ministry.

It was Sister Barbara who was the visionary behind the reunification program and villas in Georgetown, where she served for 25 years to provide a welcoming home for the elderly and families in need. In 2004, the Guerin Woods campus for seniors opened on the Georgetown site. The facility includes independent living, assisted living, and a full-care nursing home along with a memory care villa.

Gernert knew what she was walking into, after interviewing with Sister Barbara just days before her passing. Sister Barbara died the day after Gernert took over.

“I told the story at a gathering of a child following behind the parent and that is how I kind of feel … but she is slowing down and waiting for me to join her and one day we will be walking side by side. I will no longer be in her shadow,” Gernert said. “I can’t fathom having come here with a shovel and building this from the ground up. I am in awe every single day when I walk outside; 28 buildings on 30 acres, we have a lot going on here.”

It will be Gernert’s task to continue everything that is going on at the Georgetown campus and prepare it for the next 25 years. She said she is more than ready for the challenge, despite having big shoes to fill.

She said four years ago, following the death of her daughter, she decided her career path needed a new direction after spending decades as a corporate attorney.

“I come here with a unique background. Sister [Barbara] knew I had a heart for it,” she said. “After my daughter died, that was a life-changing event for me. She was our youngest child, 17 years old, and when she was born she had a life expectancy of 12 months. She was profoundly disabled ... I knew I wanted to do something else. I consider this my dream job.”

Gernert said one of her tasks is to spread the word about all the great things happening at the Georgetown campus through the family reunification program and with elder care. She said many of her own board members don’t know about everything the facility does.

“Sister [Barbara] was president, CEO and chairman of the board, so she sort of talked to herself. I think the board members said ‘whatever you say Sister, whatever you want Sister,’” Gernert said. “It’s been an eye-opener for them. I am sharing the good, bad and the ugly. Sadly, a lot of the good things we are doing we have been doing for decades and they didn’t even know it.

“Sister was so modest. She didn’t do enough bragging about all the wonderful things happening here and how we are unique. I try to open a board meeting by telling a story, or introducing an employee and bringing them up to speed about what we are doing and how we are doing it. I feel like I almost need to re-educate them about some of the things that are happening here.”

Areas she wants to concentrate on include doing what she can to support her employees and utilizing technology more in day-to-day operations. Since there are no longer nuns on staff, Gernert said she is considering converting their former home on campus into a daycare to help her employees with small children.

“Sisters’ house is now vacant and I am trying to develop a business plan for a daycare. I am motivated not only to give the community a daycare, but to give support to my employees,” she said. “It’s really difficult to staff 24/7. I am now in the middle of doing a survey on what would be interesting to them. We are sitting here with an asset next door and need to turn that into something that is supportive of the ministry or something that would support our staff. Not only do we have to take care of elders and kids, but I have to take care of employees as well.”

There are also the two acres Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries owns across the street from its Georgetown campus that are ready to develop. Gernert, however, said it’s too early to make a decision on that property.

“I have to make sure everything is sustainable, then maybe decide what to build on the two acres across from us. The focus has to be on what we’ve already got,” she said.

While there will be some changes and a new lady is in charge, the mission of Providence Self Sufficient Ministries will not change. The model Sister Barbara put together 25 years ago is strong and continues to grow. It’s about taking care of families in crisis and elderly in need.

“A lot of residents are really concerned. You bring a new person in and they think they are going to sell the place,” Gernert said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

She said she is ready for the challenge and in no way will let Sister Barbara down.

“My greatest fear is disappointing myself,” she said. “When my daughter died, I had to find a place not only for my head, but also for my heart. When I go home every night I tell my husband this is my dream job.”

Chris Morris is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Contact him via email at Follow him on Twitter: @NAT_ChrisM.

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