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Public service punch Featured

6:00am EDT January 31, 2003
Janet Jackson, United Way of Central Ohio's new executive director, combines a passion for helping the community with years of public service as a municipal court judge and Columbus city attorney.

On the surface, one might wonder why a legal eagle was chosen to head this community service icon. But it only takes a brief examination of her community involvement record to realize that Jackson has championed Central Ohio children and families since she first appeared on the public service scene.

When you consider her leadership role with the Coalition Against Family Violence; Project SMART, the city attorney office's truancy prevention program; and 11 years as a United Way board member, Jackson is a logical choice to fill the void left by Brian Gallagher, who left Columbus to head the national United Way agency.

Jackson says that although the United Way typically promotes its directors from within to avoid the learning curve associated with understanding how the United Way system operates, her years as a board member have exposed her to its inner workings.

As with other philanthropic organizations, Jackson anticipates that one of the United Way's biggest challenges will be dealing with less funding from government sources and reduced volunteer contributions. But with the needs of area families continuing to grow, she welcomes the challenges, along with the rewards that go hand in hand with meeting them.

What are the biggest needs of families in Central Ohio?

There will be new challenges we face since the agencies that were there to support us will not be there. We are receiving less money from the state and we don't know the impact yet of city budget cuts. The United Way did not make goal this year for the first time in many years.

And there are still plenty of families in the area that do not have the money for basic needs like housing and health care. There are more and more residents going to food pantries.

And there is always the issue of education. I don't believe it's only the role of schools to improve the education of students, it needs to be a community effort. Especially when there aren't the resources in the district to provide what students need. There are a lot of children that come to school without food, glasses or needed medication.

How will your experience as a municipal court judge and city attorney benefit you in your role at the United Way?

My love and passion for children and families in this community started while I was a judge. I served on the board of the United Way for 11 years and learned about how it meets the needs of its partner agencies.

This experience helped me to develop the philosophy that I am a servant in the community. So many people helped me that I wanted to 'pay it forward' to others that need help, so I became more involved.

One problem I learned about was truancy in schools, so as city attorney, my staff and I started Project SMART, an intervention program in middle schools. Since the project started, truancy has been reduced by 9 percent in the schools that operate the program, while schools without the program are only posting a 4 percent truancy reduction rate.

My last big project as city attorney was to chair a task force on truancy. Every school district in the area was invited to participate, and out of that came a pilot program started in Columbus public schools and Whitehall schools.

One of the task force members, Commander Robinson [Thomas Robinson, commander, city of Columbus Police Department], felt that one way to reduce truancy was to meet the needs of children with psychological problems. There are few psychologists on the public school payroll, and they are spread too thin, so one solution is to work with a group of psychologists to give of their time to help the children. I'm not afraid to ask.

What do you feel your biggest personal challenge will be in your new role?

I realize it's a challenge to come in to the United Way system from the outside. Usually a director has worked his or her way up through the ranks. But with my involvement on the board, I don't think there will be as big of a transition period.

The biggest challenge will be to address many issues and to make a real impact in the community. We need to bring new and existing partners to the table and find innovative solutions to these issues. Franklin County is the 15th largest (United Way) region, and continues to expand its reach. We will have to extend our resources to keep up.

I would like to increase the number of students entering kindergarten ready to learn. A lot of kids come to school not prepared. I would also like to increase high school graduation rates and develop other programs that can end the cycle of homelessness.

We also need to have more services like assistance with substance abuse and psychological services that can go along with homelessness.

We are becoming a more diverse community. There are more Hispanic and Islamic citizens, and we need to decrease the barriers between these populations -- they will continue to increase.

Columbus is definitely not a black and white city. We need to bring all stakeholders to the table, people of all ethnic backgrounds, and not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.

What are your biggest personal challenges?

Balancing my personal and professional lives is a big challenge. I am very proud to be a mom (son Harrison is 13 years old). It's the most important job I have. I strive to maintain a balance, partly by saying no.

When I make a commitment to my son, I keep it. I put in very busy, active days. Harrison gets on the school bus at 6:52 a.m., so my first meeting often starts at 7:30 a.m. But I am home to make dinner, and make sure I am available to him on the weekends he is not with his father. How to reach: United Way of Central Ohio, (614) 227-2700 or www.uwcentralohio.org