Big changes are underway at the Diabetes Hands Foundation, with the recent news that beloved community leader Manny Hernandez is stepping down from the helm of the organization he founded with his wife Andreina seven years ago. Whoa!
Longtime D-advocate Melissa Lee will be taking over, at least temporarily, as interim executive director. She's been involved in TuDiabetes and the DHF since nearly the start, and has been a part of pretty much all the great things the org is known for -- the TuDiabetes support community, the Big Blue Test fundraising campaign, the Diabetes Advocates network, and the D-advocacy training camp called MasterLab. It's tough to capture the impact all of this work has accomplished in the D-Community and beyond.
We had the chance to chat with Manny and Melissa recently, when Dallas-based Melissa was in town visiting the San Francisco Bay Area offices of DHF. It was a very laid-back and fun interview, to say the least. Here's what they had to say:
DM) First off, congrats to you both! What kind of response have you gotten to this news over the past few weeks?
Mel) Having a founder leave is a shake-up. We're a young organization that's been led by a founder, and we've never gone through a succession before so this has been a learning experience at every level for everyone. We have made a real concerted effort to handle it in a smart way, to document all of this for future preparation.
Manny has built a great organization, but an even greater staff. When he steps out of the picture, things are still moving smoothly. And that's a huge benefit to me, because all I have to do -- well, I do have to do a lot -- but I have the benefit of a self-sustaining and committed organization and staff.
Manny) I'm smiling, and really agree and honestly don't have much to add to that. I can only say from my perspective, from Day One, I've felt an incredible amount of support. The Board helped me big time to come to grips with making this decision and doing what I needed to do, and that means a lot.
What actually prompted your decision to leave DHF?
It was a VERY difficult decision to make, one that I struggled with for months. But I needed to address the challenges re: the cost of my mother's long term care (she lives with Alzheimer’s).
Change can be hard…
Manny) Yes, it’s been a very emotional time. We were all very much tear-eyed, and (DHF colleague) Emily Coles said, ‘I don't doubt we'll be able to keep it going, but it's going to suck not having you around every day.’
This is a beautiful team – we’re all friends and family. No matter what I do next, this will be a part of my life that I cherish.
So what is next for you, Manny?
I'm looking at a few options, and my dance card is pretty full. What I am ready to say now, is that I know for a fact I'm definitely looking to stay in diabetes or pre-diabetes. There's a lot that can be done on a number of fronts there.
My involvement in DHF will continue through April 30, and then I'm at their disposal in whatever way they want or need me to be of service. There's no reason I won't continue on a volunteer basis. The nature of my role is changing, but I'll still be committed and will just stand back. I'm very excited about the future. Melissa brings a crystal-clear vision for doing something better and differently -- there's a beautiful balance between those two things with her.
For those who don't know you, Melissa, tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement over the years...
Mel) I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1990 at age 10. I was born and raised in Texas and live there still with my husband and two young children. I joined TuDiabetes.org in 2008 when I was looking for people who had traveled the diabetes and pregnancy journey and I found a wealth of support online.
I started a blog in 2010, a couple years after I entered the DOC, and it was a year or two before anyone really started reading or taking much notice of it. No one seemed to know me, but it was primarily because everything I had done in the online community was for Manny and through TuDiabetes. As one of the first administrators of TuDiabetes, I spent most days combing through the RSS feeds and monitoring every post that came into the community. As the community grew, I helped create the admin team to delegate moderating activities as I stepped into the role of lead admin. I've always fundraised and spread word about this organization and have pretty much dipped my hands into every program we have done -- written the script for a Big Blue Test video, judged contests in the community, served on the steering committee of our advocacy program, and finally, served on the Board of Directors of DHF. You might say everything I have done is for this organization and the love and support of this community.
You have some big shoes to fill…
Mel) It's … very hard to replace a superhero, to step into a role of someone so beloved. As I step into the interim executive director role, I'm making trips to the Bay Area office, as well as traveling to visit funders, partners, and sponsors. My travel calendar is a little crazy and thankfully my amazing husband is up to the task of handling our little ones while I am away.
And how long are you the interim leader, Mel?
Mel) There's an ongoing executive director search, and I guess the earliest possible date for them to name someone would be the day after Manny leaves (on May 1). The latest possible date for the board to name a permanent director is January 2016.
Give us a peek into the California offices of DHF…?
We are in downtown Berkeley on University Avenue, just down the road from UC Berkeley.
This is a cute office -- a big enough space for this size of staff, with a workspace for three desks and a second room with a conference table for team meetings. And I really can't stop marveling that we're located above a chocolatier and pie shop... so it's perfect for low blood sugars! I've never worked in the diabetes space before and never had co-workers with diabetes, so this is great.
We have five people on our staff: Corinna Cornejo (telecommuting from Hawaii) is our Director of Operations and Development, Mike Lawson is Head of Experiences, Emily Coles is Director of Communities, and Desiree Johnson is our Administrative and Programs Assistant. For 2015, we also have two consultants -- Bennet Dunlap who works with our Diabetes Advocates program and Mila Ferrer, the community manager for EsTuDiabetes.org, our Spanish-language community. And we have so many dedicated volunteers involved, from our Board or Directors to our community admins to those who wish people on TuDiabetes a happy birthday each day. We couldn't do what we do without them.
What's it like working in an office with so many D-friends?
Mel) It's an odd but rewarding experience being tasked to lead your friends. As a Board member, I had the opportunity to shape the strategies of the Foundation, but now I am charged with the operations. That requires a new level of involvement, obviously.
Looking back, what have the biggest highlights been for you both?
Manny) The most important thing to me is that while it was something Andreina and I started, it’s now … about community and coordination. I've joked that if I ever got run over by a bus, DHF needs to be able to go on.
Mel) Manny is too humble. I don't think a day goes by where someone doesn't say how their life was changed and empowered by what he's done. We have to give credit where it's due, and all of the programs he started are important!
The larger DOC (Diabetes Online Community) has evolved a lot over the past eight years. How has that impacted DHF?
Manny) I've observed exponential growth of different groups in the diabetes space over the past years. Together we have a very powerful reach. My hope is that over time, we all continue to be mindful of who's doing what in the community so that we can best collaborate -- to have a slightly more cohesive voice.
Mel) Let's talk Big Blue Test, which is the only program of its kind that is small, actionable, and instantly accessible. There are a lot of opportunities to do more, if we can get that to more people. We have visions of growing that beyond a small multi-month campaign, and we want to explore that.
What can we expect in terms of advocacy programs this year?
Mel) This year's MasterLab is going to be a day and a half, on July 7 and 8, instead of just one day as it was last year. We are still determining the agenda will be, based on what we learned from our last experience. MasterLab will be my opportunity to implement vision, as interim executive director. We are looking to make Diabetes Advocates and MasterLab the premiere resources for people who want to advocate. We want people to leave that day and say, "I know what I want to say and what I can accomplish."
What about the big changes coming this year to your online destinations TuDiabetes and Diabetes Advocates?
Manny) On some level, strictly speaking as a geek, this brings me back to the time when we first started the two communities. The tech has really advanced, and there's a lot we have been hoping and dreaming of doing. So now, we can. That's pretty exciting for me.
And I love Melissa's analogy on this, that we're changing houses but it will be the same family in there. The kitchen may look a little different and the bathrooms may be in different spots, but it's still us living there.
Mel) When the DOC was young, we were on the cutting edge of everything. Nothing like this had been done before, and in that DOC 1.0 we were classy and new. That was a time of podcasts and less than 100 bloggers, and hardly even a presence on Twitter. Now, we're at a point where we reach thousands and have hundreds of bloggers. How do we keep serving the DOC in this new age? We have to give them something that's more robust, easy to navigate.
So this is about better mobile accessibility, and a little cleaner experience for the user -- to help our members have an online experience in a manner they've come to expect these days. In the coming months, we’ll be porting over all the old content so every old discussion will be there. We will still be found at TuDiabetes.org, of course. It’s a very large effort and we hope to have this done by the end of April.
Lastly Mel, has this leadership change shifted your own approach to advocacy or specifically to DHF programs?
My goal is continuing the awesomeness. I have a very public passion for diabetes advocates, but I've had to approach my own individual mission for diabetes advocacy in a different way. I have a lot of ideas about how we can be more effective, and I plan to get the attention of all the relevant stakeholders in a positive way. I'll make them laugh and listen, and I'll show them what the power of the patient voice can do.
Thanks to you both! It's definitely a
bittersweet time to some extent, but encouraging that we'll see the great work of
DHF continue. Also, be sure to check out this comprehensive video interview with Manny and Melissa over at TuDiabetes!