Superheroes don’t always wear capes. Nonprofit leaders are real-life superheroes who look just like everybody else, but it’s the passionate work they do, and the people they help, that make them who they are.

The Foellinger Foundation Leadership Lab is meant to support, strengthen and inspire the vital work that nonprofit leaders do in Allen County. The nine-month program is part of the Helene Foellinger Leadership Development Initiative, launched in 2016. More than 200 nonprofit leaders have graduated from the program since the initiative began.

“I love these leaders so much,” says Jennifer Kasmier, Director of Leadership Engagement for the Foellinger Foundation. “When you think about the number of organizations in Fort Wayne that support those most in need, including children and families, these leaders are the ones orchestrating the funding for those programs. They’re the ones leading the charge. They are truly superheroes who give with their hearts and put their blood, sweat, and tears into everything they do.”

Jennifer Kasmier, Director of Leadership Engagement at Foellinger Foundation addresses the group during a Leadership Lab in the “News-Room” classroom.

The Leadership Lab involves work in and out of a classroom and includes a variety of diverse speakers with a focus on leadership topics such as emotional intelligence, communication, coaching, management, decision-making, goal-setting, innovation, and self-care.

The value of the program, per person, is about $9,000, but leaders participate at absolutely no cost. “The foundation’s investment in nonprofit leaders is probably the most critical thing we do,” says Kasmier. “It has the biggest impact and furthest reach in our community.”

A mural designed by One Lucky Guitar and installed by Paint the Town Graphics adorns the stairwell leading to the renovated lower level at the Foellinger Foundation.

Part of the Foellinger Foundation’s investment is the complete renovation of their building at 520 E. Berry Street in downtown Fort Wayne. “I could start crying talking about how proud I am of the space,” says Kasmier. “It’s been a vision of the Foundation for many, many years to bring leaders together and give them the space they need to collaborate and innovate to solve the most crucial problems facing our community.”

The current group of leaders got their first look at the wide open space on April 20th. “This is absolutely gorgeous,” says Michelle Creager, CEO of Matthew 25. “It has the awe factor, but it’s so inviting and welcoming. I can’t wait to bring my team here.”

Joshua Gale, Executive Director of Just Neighbors Interfaith Homeless Network agrees. “It’s just a beautiful space,” he says. “It’s a big change from the style it was before and I’m really looking forward to using the space more.”

Kasmier hopes the space allows the leaders to get away from the daily grind of running a nonprofit. “I hope they come in here and are rejuvenated and refreshed with the bright colors and the openness and amenities we have to offer. I hope it inspires them to think more creatively and be more collaborative.”

Lara Schreck, Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Fort Wayne collaborates with a group at the Leadership Lab. Michelle Creager, CEO of Matthew 25 is on the left.

Creager says the program is phenomenal. “You come into a role feeling like you are going to change the world. You’ve got all this ambition and drive, and you come here and it’s just invigorating. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Amber Targarrt, CEO of Early Childhood Alliance, says the Leadership Lab is a true blessing. “I think oftentimes, as leaders we don’t take the time to invest in ourselves because we work to serve other people. This is a dedicated opportunity for all of us to invest in ourselves, find great resources, connect with each other, and truly grow so we can better serve our organizations in the community.”

“The therapeutic side of the program definitely comes from the peer relationship building,” says Kasmier. “I think the number one way they become better leaders through this program is learning from one another. I’m merely the cruise director bringing them all together.”

Sharon Tucker, Executive Director of Vincent Village, Inc. which serves homeless families with children.

“It’s so crucial to be with people who understand your own struggles, too,” says Gale. “Being the executive director of a nonprofit brings a lot of things together to deal with that only your other colleagues can really understand.”

Creager says she’ll cherish the laughter and occasional tears with her group. “This group will stay together long after the program ends. The shared visions and commonality, and the struggles and triumphs. You celebrate together, and you work through problems together. It’s invaluable.”

Jennifer Kasmier, Director of Leadership Engagement at Foellinger Foundation talks with WANE15’s Pat Hoffmann.

This current group will wind up their training this month and celebrate graduation together in June. “We hope every leader walks away with 11 new friends in the community,” Kasmier says. “We hope they leave feeling more empowered and confident in their leadership.”

From what I witnessed when I was there, I can confidently say, the mission was accomplished.

It’s easy to see why the Foellinger Foundation Leadership Lab is Positively Fort Wayne!

The Foellinger Foundation was founded in 1958. The Foundation’s grantmaking portfolio includes over 100 different nonprofit organizations in human services, arts, culture, environment, early childhood, youth, and family development.

Artwork of co-founder Helene Foellinger hangs on the main floor.

On average, the Foundation annually invests $7-9 million into local nonprofit organizations.

The Foundation’s grantmaking reflects the Foellinger family’s interest in encouraging a community of self-reliant citizens, with a commitment to the founder’s values and principles: integrity, accountability, responsibility, and results.

The Foellinger family immigrated to Fort Wayne from Prussia in 1836.

You can see a documentary about the family by following the link.