Intentional Excellence While Helping Others

By Brad McEwen

This weekend, when tennis lovers from across Southwest Georgia and beyond descend on Doublegate Country Club for the “Serving Up Meals” charity event, they will be doing more than enjoying some spirited competition on the court.

They will be raising funds—and more importantly awareness—for one of the SOWEGA Council on Aging’s most important programs.

While it’s just one of many programs the nonprofit organization administers in its 14-state footprint, the council’s Home Delivered Meals program (formerly known as Meals on Wheels), is one of the senior-focused organization’s most high profile and most important—as last year the program delivered over 151,000 meals to more than 725 area residents.

According to SOWEGA Council on Aging Executive Director and avid tennis lover Izzie Sadler, with “Serving Up Meals,” the organization is able to generate additional funds for the program, while also connecting the vital role the council plays in the lives of seniors in Southwest Georgia with a segment of the population that might not otherwise be exposed to it.

“When I first came on with the agency my job was fundraising,” Izzie explained during a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening Beyond the Bank interview. “And I’ve run (tennis) tournaments in this town for years, so I realized I could do this for the Council on Aging and use it as a fundraiser, but also just as a really great awareness event.

“I think this is a different niche of people who normally wouldn’t be involved in our programs, and that’s key. We’re always trying to reach those markets that don’t know anything about what we do and I have great connections (in the tennis world). So that was the inspiration for it.”

And going on a nearly a decade of hosting the fundraiser, Izzie says it’s also become one of the Council on Aging’s most anticipated events.

“I want to say this is our ninth annual event,” she said. “It’s grown significantly, but it’s always been a popular event. We have about 80 to 90 players that register for it, which is really good for this area.

“This year we’re also adding a junior tournament just to get more involvement, and we’re also adding the pickleball social on Friday night because so many people are into pickleball nowadays. It’s a lot of fun.”

Izzie added that the event draws folks from all over southern Georgia, as well as from Florida panhandle area, all of which are not only coming to enjoy the great competition, but also to support a worthy cause that is indicative of the larger efforts being made to support the growing number of seniors, not only in Southwest Georgia, where the SOWEGA Council on Aging serves, but nationwide.

But while Serving Up Meals was the immediate impetus for finally doing a Beyond the Bank interview with Izzie, the fact that our area Council is poised to become an even more vital part of the community (as more and more of the population reaches senior age) was a major factor in prioritizing the interview.

And I immediately knew it was the right decision.

It seems that on almost a daily basis I read a story or a headline about the growing senior population as more and more baby boomers reach retirement age. And the vast majority of those seem to focus on the sheer magnitude of the numbers and what might transpire when those citizens exit the work force and/or start require some type of living assistance as they continue to age—concerns not lost on SOWEGA Council on Aging’s leadership.

According to Izzie, the numbers indicate that by the year 2030 one in five people in every community will be over the age of 65. Which is why events like Serving Up Meals, the SOWEGA Council on Aging’s annual Comedy Night and its Empty Bowls event, are so important from an awareness standpoint.

“It’s all about awareness,” Izzie repeated throughout our nearly two-hour visit. “It’s about awareness and it’s about building a community.

“It’s pretty complex here (at the Council on Aging) because with our core programs we serve seniors over the age of 60, people with disabilities of all ages, and their caregivers. So that’s a wide variety of people that we serve. The needs there are very complex, very deep.

“So how do we use our limited resources to help them? And a big part of that is, yes, we can provide some services that are going to give some relief. But how can we educate? How can we empower? How can we motivate or create motivation, or a movement really—I think movement is the word—for our whole community to embrace the need for seniors to have support?

‘This isn’t just about the SOWEGA Council on Aging and what we can do, because we have limited resources,” she continued. “But our whole community should have a concern about the seniors in our community, the individuals with disabilities in our community, and the caregivers who are carrying that burden. How can we kind of spread that burden around?

“I mean pretty soon there will be more seniors than children. So just start naming off topics and how they can affect everybody—transportation, driving, needing to take somebody’s keys from them. Now you’re talking about independence, and what solutions do we have for them now? What solutions are in place to get them to have a quality of life still, to remain independent? Because we can’t all just go to the nursing home. Most people want to live as independently as possible in their own homes.

“And that’s what our mission is. But it’s going to take way more than just us.”

Serious issues to be sure, but as Izzie pointed out throughout our conversation, not necessarily issues that are at the forefront of everyone’s radar even if perhaps they should be.

Additionally, the issues she and the Council on Aging team focus their time on, are interconnected and complex. Which puts a greater emphasis on awareness and understanding.

“I’m so big on awareness,” she said. “And that’s about, how do we engage people who normally wouldn’t be engaged with our agency? We have so many people that come to us in a crisis and that’s not the time to come. We really want to catch people so that we can educate, so that we can engage them before there’s a crisis.

“If you come to us when there’s a crisis, at that point our resources are limited, your time is limited. We’re not going to be able to help you as well. So, these awareness events, we call them fundraisers, but to me they’re awareness events, I don’t worry about what we bring in. I’m just getting the word out there, getting people involved, learning about what we do.”

And what the SOWEGA Council on Aging does is provide various programs designed meet the physical, spiritual and mental needs of area residents over 60 years of age, and their caregivers, to help provide a better quality of life for all.

That mission, Izzie explained, is executed through a variety of different programs including the aforementioned Home Delivered Meals program, elder abuse prevention programs, nutritional programs for seniors and advocacy programs at local, state and federal level, to name a few. Additionally, the Council also operates senior centers across its footprint that offer seniors a place for activities of all kinds and nutritional meals served in a group setting.

In fact, the programs and activities offered by the Council on Aging have led to its being designated an area aging agency by the state of Georgia, which brings its own set of challenges to the table as well.

“There’s complexity and some gaps in understanding and also in resources,” Izzie explained. “That’s why we’re designated as an area agency on aging. The state unit on aging, The Division of Aging Services, has designated us as the area agency for Southwest Georgia. But we are different than most area agencies on aging because we’re also a nonprofit agency. So being a nonprofit agency we are able to fundraise and raise awareness for all of the programs and services that we offer so that we can meet those gaps a little bit, so we can reach more people.”

Where some folks might speak about complexity in a somewhat negative light—after all it has to be challenging leading an organization of 79 employees and more than 300 fully vetted volunteers who administer numerous programs to thousands of seniors and caregivers across a footprint covering 14 impoverished Southwest Georgia counties—Izzie lights up when considering the multi-faceted approach needed to lead the nonprofit.

And that’s because navigating complex situations and trying to fully understand all sides of any issue has been a constant theme throughout her life.

In fact, Izzie credits a lot of her fascination with people—and with the many factors that feed into all aspects of life (be personal or professional)—to her upbringing overseas.

“My father’s American,” Izzie said. “He was in the Army, so I was born in Frankfurt, Germany and raised in Europe almost my whole life. I went to kindergarten in Ethiopia, Africa.”

It was during her time in Africa actually, that Izzie said she first started to see the world in a different way and first started considering deeper concepts about who we are and about how we connect to create a greater society.

“I saw a lot there that really influenced my life,” Izzie explained. “I was only 4, but I remember a lot.

“We lived in this compound and we had guards. We had dogs. We had everything we wanted behind the walls of that compound, but on the other side was literally Africa. There were children running around with no clothes and I didn’t quite understand why I got to live in the compound and they didn’t.

“That was pretty defining for me. You know, as a 4 year-old you’re going, ‘Wait a minute, I got clothes on, food and all this stuff, and these kids are running around…’ But I’ll tell you what, they looked so happy. They were the happiest children ever, running around just laughing and smiling and having a great time.

“I think about this a lot. I’m in the compound and they’re free you know?

“So, there’s a lot of different perspectives to that and it probably doesn’t help with my complexity issues.”

Izzie said her family eventually was evacuated from that compound due to unrest in the area, and after a brief period living in Greece, ended up back in Germany until she was in the 5th grade and her life took another unexpected, yet incredibly formative turn.

“My father retired from the military at that point and he was looking for a new position,” Izzie continued. “He came to the States job hunting and he asked me to live with my grandparents in Versailles, France for a year. Because I had started school when I was 4, earlier than most kids, he said, ‘Well, just go to the French school. Just learn French. It’ll be alright. Who cares if you pass or fail, just go. You’ll learn the language. That’s what this year’s all about.’ So I said okay.”

As one would imagine, having to acclimate to an entirely new culture and living with family members who spoke a different language brought with it a plethora of challenges. But, within those challenges, Izzie said, she gained a lot of perspective about herself and the world around her that ultimately had a profound impact on how she views the world.

“So, my grandparents don’t speak English,” she said. “My grandfather maybe a few words. So here I am learning how to use an English to French dictionary at the age of 10 to try and learn how to speak French with my own family. I ended up fluent in about two months.

“There was no way around it, but it was really an experience of, I guess, perseverance. I was rather comfortable when I was in the classroom, in a way—I was hoping not to get called on for anything or talked to—but at least I was behind a desk. But when you open up for recess, and it’s like, ‘Now go out and mingle with people that are a different culture, that don’t speak my language,’ it was tough, like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Izzie said that at first she simply observed the other kids and noticed rather quickly that they all seemed to congregate to play Chinese jump rope—something she had never seen before. She said she watched trying to figure out what they were doing and then went home with the notion to learn how to do what the other kids were doing.

“I saw that and I go home and ask my grandmother to get me a big elastic (band),” she explained. “I tied it around two chairs and I just practiced all these things, like cool things. And so back at school I went out there and I didn’t speak French, but I was like [motioning her hands], ‘Can I get in?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ And so I got on in there and I thought, ‘Well, this is how we can bond.’”

While Izzie is quick to point out that taking that tact was really just a simple thing a kid would do to try and fit in, it showed her at an early age how important it is to keep an open mind and try to understand others better in order to create positive connections.

It also was a good early example of the importance and complexity of communication, which she ultimately studied in college and says lies at the root of how she conducts her life and leads the Council on Aging.

While she would ultimately study Communications at Florida State University, it would be several more years before she moved to the United States and forged a life here. And again, that transition further strengthened her resolve to understand different people, cultures and how they intersect with the greater world.

“My dad ended up getting a job back on the military base but civil service this time,” Izzie told me. “I was back in Germany, finished high school there and graduated when I was 17. My parents stayed there for about four of five more years, but I went ahead and moved to the States.

“So here I am moving to a new continent—I had never lived in the States before—but I didn’t expect the culture shock for some reason. I guess I was young and I thought, ‘Well, I’m an American.’

“But I wasn’t an American. I was European.

“But I was actually very pleased with the American culture. It was intimidating a little bit, I think. There’s a lot more distractions compared to Europe where things are just a little bit simpler sometimes I think. But the people were great.”

Izzie said her parents owned some property around Ft. Myers so that allowed her to have a Florida residency for college.

“I didn’t think I wanted to live in South Georgia, just mainly for the heat, or South Florida, mainly for the heat, so we chose the Panhandle,” she said with a smile. “I thought it would be a nice quiet place to be. And I ended up going to FSU. They have a little branch there on the Gulf Coast, but at that time it didn’t offer a full curriculum, so they had a little shuttle that would take you to FSU, so I shuttled back and forth. That way I could live at the beach.”

Not only did the Panama City Beach allow her to conduct her studies at FSU, it also allowed her to indulge her another of her life’s passions—physical fitness.

Izzie said that throughout her life she’s always been physically active and fitness training proved to be a great way to not only stay in shape, but to earn extra money during college.

It was clear to me that these years were just as defining for Izzie as her time growing up overseas as it was the time in which both of her life’s passions rose to the forefront of her life and started to become increasingly more interconnected—much like her experience that year in Versailles, when it was physical activity that allowed her to communicate and connect with different people.

“I feel that communication’s probably the tool that most of us lack,” Izzie explained. “I study it and I’m still lacking. I don’t think anybody can perfectly communicate. Communication, to me, it’s like an onion, there’s so many layers.

“There’s not only the message we’re sending, it’s the message people are receiving. And then there are the really complex filters in between—our mindsets, our culture, everything that can create miscommunication is very obvious. So it’s almost impossible to communicate clearly. So to me, I’m kind of passionate about that. And I use it every day.”

Even though she was armed with that education, Izzie said it was really her life experiences after graduation that helped some of the concepts she had learned in school really start to gel.

“When I graduated, at first I was like, ‘What am I going to do with a degree in Communication,’” she said. “Because of course I’m thinking journalism or something like that. And I didn’t really want to go into that field. So I kind of just muddled my way through. It’s my experiences that led me to where I am now.

“In college I worked my way through by being a personal trainer, fitness coach, aerobic instructor, yoga instructor. I think I always had a passion for helping people be their best, so that translates into everything I do.

“And I use that example often with my staff, because when you teach an aerobics class, it sounds like something basic, but I’ve got a variety of people in this class, all different fitness levels, all different backgrounds, all different health issues, all different injuries, motor skills, interests, reasons for being there. So, how do I take this group, in the next 60 minutes, and help them reach their goals at their pace, all at the same time?

“And that’s what I do here every day. How do we all take what we have and reach our goals within our limitations? So as an instructor, that’s our job—to know the safe way of doing it, have the foundation and the experience to know what people are going to react well to. I don’t think we can motivate people, but how can we help them achieve a mindset of motivation?”

While communication and interpersonal relationships are a key component of how she manages things at the SOWEGA Council on Aging, so too is the notion of mindset. In fact, I could argue that achieving the right mindset for success, is a major part of what makes Izzie tick.

At several points during our sit down Izzie mentioned mindset and almost always provided some illustration and commentary on how critical mindset is to everything she—and by extension the nonprofit—does.

And the mindset that Izzie says trumps all, is the mindset that excellence can be achieved in all things—if a person is willing to believe and put in the hard work.

“I’m big about, if you’re going to do something, just do it right, do it well, do it with passion; make it something amazing,” Izzie said. “One of the things that’s super important, I think, in life is our mindsets.

“Because if we’re not really intentional about developing a mindset that’s positive, and a mindset that allows us to see the good, then more than likely our human nature is to see the bad and to see the challenges and to see the problems.

“That’s one thing I feel like I do. If you were to ask me what my job was, it’s to help people to develop that mindset.”

And in addition to a positive mindset, Izzie said she places a lot of her focus—whether it’s dealing with staff, volunteers, or her children—on helping people develop a mindset that strives for excellence in all things.

Which in and of itself can be a rather large challenge as each person’s view of what that means can be vastly different.

“I grew up in an environment of fear and intimidation in the military,” she explained. “There is something to be said for making sure you’ve got your ducks in a row because life depends on it. However, in the real world, it’s a little bit different.

“You’re dealing with people who didn’t have all that military training. If we all had that military training, we could just move forward like soldiers. But we don’t.

“So, we’ve got to deal with people who have all kinds of life experiences. And for me, it’s really seeing the different interpretations of excellence.

“Two things I talk to my staff about a lot is respect and excellence. It’s kind of our culture here. If we do everything with respect for others and respect for ourselves, respect for our own work, respect for our own integrity and work ethic and then if we do all of that with excellence, then we’re on the right track. There is not failure. There’s just redirecting.”

But while it’s easy to think that formula will inherently work, Izzie also understands that much of that relies on how a person views excellence, which she’s learned doesn’t always match up with her view of it.

“What I’ve been surprised to see is the different levels of understanding of excellence,” she continued. “For some people excellence is waking up in the morning and showing up. Because that’s all they know. Maybe they come from a family who didn’t wake up in the morning and show up.

“So, all you know is what you’ve learned. So how do you encourage and inspire those people, who feel like they’re performing with excellence?”

To illustrate her point, Izzie shared a story of when she was working in various capacities at the Albany Area YMCA not long after relocating to Albany with her now ex-husband to run the tennis center at Doublegate.

“I had someone, when I was working at the Y, come in my office and he’s like, ‘Hey Yo Izzie,’” she began. “I was like, ‘Yeah?’ And he goes, ‘I want a raise.’ So I was like, ‘Okay. Well have a seat and let’s talk about it.’

“I said, ‘Well, tell me what you feel like you’ve accomplished that has warranted an increase in your pay.’ He was a fitness coach and they’re paid like minimum wage. There’s a very fine gap. A raise is like 10 cents. I can give you 10 cents. But it was a concept that was interesting to me because he said, ‘I’m here every day that you schedule me. I’m on time and I do my work.’

“I was like, ‘Okay. That’s what you’re getting paid for right now. What are you doing to bring more value to the hours?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, exactly. So, we have a long conversation about that and he was upset because I didn’t give him the increase in pay.

“But what’s more interesting is that after that moment he ended up—he was in college at the time but floundering a little bit at the time, was working part-time as a fitness coach at the Y, didn’t have too much direction—but from that moment he decided what he wanted to do in school. He wanted to go into law enforcement and ended up being very successful.

“I think it just kind of switched something in his mentality of just showing up to ‘What kind of value am I bringing to the hour.’ So that’s our challenge. How do we deliver that to people in a way that’s non-intimidating, non-threatening?

“It’s very hard. We have 79 employees here, everything from kitchen staff to high-level managers and everything in between, and everyone has their own expectations, their own issues.

“So how do we move forward instead of back?”

Of course, while Izzie finds significant pleasure in troubleshooting and figuring out how to blend and merge different people and ideologies through her work with the SOWEGA Council on Aging, the truth is she could do that within any organization.

So why the pull toward working with seniors?

As she explained, it mainly comes down to the fact that she views that growing segment of the population as vulnerable and just like the little girl who struggled with some of the disparities she saw during her time in Ethiopia, the grown Izzie seems hardwired to help others, especially those who might have a hard time finding help elsewhere.

“I think that goes back to my desire to help the vulnerable,” she said. “And in my mind, as you age, you become extremely vulnerable, especially seniors in this generation because there are things that exist that didn’t exist when they were younger. So, as we age we may be more comfortable with technology. My grandmother died just a few months ago at 105. She saw everything. She saw cars, radios, CDs, airplanes. I mean she saw everything being invented. This is just crazy to think about. While we’re still probably going to see a lot in the next 20, 40 years, I don’t think it’s going to be that drastic.

“And seniors nowadays, so many of the systems that they depend on are computerized. If you want to apply for your Medicare, you have to get on a computer. There’s lots of things that you have to understand at a different level and be able to navigate. So what does Mary Sue who lives in Terrell County and doesn’t have internet do?

“So yeah, I think that’s how I ended up with seniors. I’ve always just had a passion for, I guess, helping people be the best they can be and protecting those that are vulnerable.”

While it’s clear there’s myriad challenges facing not only our senior populations, but by extension our entire society, it gives me a certain level of comfort knowing that someone like Izzie Sadler is on the frontline, bringing people together, coaching them toward excellence and forming a true community aimed at protecting each other and moving us all forward together.

Serving Up Meals kicks off this Friday at the Doublegate tennis center with the Adult Pickleball social and junior tournament kick off at 6 p.m. For a full breakdown of the event and how to get registered for some fun for a good cause, visit the SOWEGA Council on Aging/Area Agency on Aging Facebook page or the organization’s website www.sowegacoa.org where you can also access the nonprofits most recent annual report and learn more about the many programs and initiatives they offer to seniors across Southwest Georgia.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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