As we celebrate our 60th, we are sitting down with some of the people who have helped shape Emerge into what it is today. Through their stories, we are able to see the hard work and dedication that continues to surround the Emerge community.
Lori J. Bertman is president and CEO of The Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Family Foundation, Louisiana’s largest private family foundation. She is also the co-founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and widely recognized as an expert and thought leader in philanthropic support.
In this interview, Lori shares her personal and professional connections with Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation (BRSHF) and The Emerge Center.
Emerge: How did you first get involved with BRSHF/Emerge? What year was it?
Lori: Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation was the first place I turned to when my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The year was 2000 and my son was 14 months old. I believe the organization was a major part of what saved and changed the entire trajectory of his life. He is one of the lucky ones who went through the program and transitioned into a typical school setting by kindergarten.
I was fortunate that I had resources and knowledge while also being in the field of philanthropy. I immediately felt this organization deserved to grow, so I spent a lot of time thinking about those who did not have as many options and resources to rely on. I held on heavily to the mindset of “what about everyone else?”
Once I got into a position with The Pennington Family Foundation where I was able to help non-profits, we quickly noticed how vital Emerge is for our community. This is just one of The Pennington Family Foundation’s missions – to work with children who have communication challenges. Emerge meets our mission, is something the Pennington family cares deeply about and is incredibly important.
This has been a wonderful journey with Emerge, both personally and professionally. I admired BRSHF before my son was diagnosed and that is why I immediately sent him there.
Emerge: How have you continued your involvement with Emerge?
Lori: Personally, I have always tried to support the team with both advice and time to ensure there was the capacity to serve the large number of children who need these services. I worked hand-in-hand with the team on the capital campaign to build Emerge’s new facility. Through this work, I was able to show how that campaign formed an entire structure on service, learning and treatment for a population that is underserved.
As Emerge began to grow, one of my first tasks was to assist with planning a signature annual gala. The gala was a part of the growth campaign and still embodies the meaning of continuous evolution. With this in mind, the theme “Emerge Into…” was born. My encouragement to the Emerge team is to always keep a mindset of moving forward. The Pennington Family Foundation intentionally supports Emerge in this way.
I am so proud to work with this organization.
Emerge: In one word, how would you describe Emerge and why?
Lori: A gem.
I truly feel Emerge is a savior for this community in so many ways. The services Emerge offers to the community are critical and have allowed me to become a referral source for other parents experiencing this diagnosis for their children. When that became a part of my world, the harsh reality of limited services became even more evident to me. I began to spread the word as I knew Emerge deserved to flourish and I wanted to reach as many people as I could.
I believe it is safe to say you don’t have to have a personal experience with your child to notice that Emerge is something incredible.
Emerge: Can you speak to the importance of the organization expanding?
Lori: I see Emerge as a leader and a real player in the game. From the beginning of The Emerge Center, there was a gorgeous building and huge support, but space ran out. Instead of stopping there, you decided to expand by building The Emerge School for Autism, allowing more grades and increasing the number of children being served.
There is always a collaboration with the community to continue the growth of Emerge and that is something The Pennington Family Foundation constantly roots for and supports. Emerge has become a very sophisticated treatment facility and now a school for children with autism.
Emerge: What are some of the consistent strengths you have noticed over the years?
Lori: The ability to build and fly your plane at the same time. It is incredibly ambitious and amazing to look at a 60-year-old organization that continues to remain relevant and meaningful as the world evolves. It takes a big team to do this – a combination of the leadership, commitment to the children and the best practices for each therapy.
There’s been a reinvention. You’ve taken the core concepts of BRSHF and reinvented them to continue the ability to serve the community and the vast amount of need we have for these services. The ability to change and develop resources is quite extraordinary.
Emerge is never afraid of going bold. You are not afraid to take the risk because you see the true outcome for these children. You have always been very focused and willing while leaving yourself open to continue to build and always emerge.
I also believe Emerge’s community supporters contribute not only monetarily, but they also stand by you in every other way. This is fundamental to the growth of Emerge. These donors care about your sustainability and where you are headed. It is a real testament to the people who have been involved in every aspect.
Emerge: This year we celebrate our organization’s 60th anniversary. What thoughts and emotions come to mind when you think about that?
Lori: I immediately think back to Dee Dee Reilly and the founders of BRSHF and realize how big of a reflection this is of their work. I think about the Junior League members who believed there was a gap in our community and did something about it. The ability to leverage this original vision to a new caliber is a gift to all.
I see you creating a platform where you can conduct research studies that make meaningful contributions to the field of autism. You are a source of research for the greater understanding of how to do this work successfully. It is a compliment to the growth – to measure and evaluate the data collected at Emerge to learn how you can best do the work and then teach others. Our children deserve it and they deserve Emerge.
I’ve cherished my time with Emerge and look forward to many more years together.
CEO of the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Family Foundation;
Co-founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy