Six years ago, Meg Geltner was at a crossroads in her career. She was nearing her 30th anniversary with The Salvation Army, where she rose the ranks from secretary to general manager. “I felt this big desire to make a difference in people’s lives … and I was enamored with what The Salvation Army offered and their mission. I got very creative with programs that are still functioning today,” she says. Throughout her time there, she supervised the completion of eight capital building projects and managed an annual operating budget of $17 million dollars. Her résumé was full of accolades such as the 2001 “Best Managed Salvation Army Program in Florida” and the 2007 Florida Division Best Practices Award. But something was missing.
“I was at a point in my career where I felt like I really needed a change,” she says. “After building The Salvation Army those 29 years from a small organization to a large, multi-county one, I missed being [closer] to the mission. I was ready, in my heart, to find something to do where I had the opportunity to be an executive director at a very small, young organization where I really loved the mission.”
When friends who worked on the board of Pace Center for Girls approached Geltner, asking if she would consider taking the lead as executive director for the Lee County center, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “I took what I learned as far as program development at The Salvation Army, and I’ve had a wonderful time developing the day school here, which has expanded to a reach program with therapists in middle and high school to help with behavioral counseling,” she says. “At Pace, we never go over 62 girls, so I know everyone’s name, how they’re doing, what they need—and I wasn’t able to do something like that at The Salvation Army for many years.”
Pace began with one center helping 10 girls in Jacksonville in 1985. Now it’s expanded to 21 centers across the state and serves 3,000 girls each year. The Lee County center, which opened in 2007, was the 17th in Florida and has since served more than 700 at-risk teenage girls between the ages of 11 and 17 years old. Twenty-one percent of the girls had a prior arrest before coming to Pace; 78 percent were failing one or more classes; and 25 percent were using drugs and alcohol. After leaving Pace, 81 percent improved their academic performance and 100 percent were enrolled in school or employed within three years.
When Geltner was recruited, though, “Pace was a different Pace,” she says. It was a struggling program with a high turnover rate of executive directors. But the young organization had just received funds to become a Gold Standard Best Practice program, something that appealed to Geltner and could allow her to take Pace’s programs—and her ideas—to the next level.
Geltner’s background was in social services and focused more on the counseling and behavioral health side of things. Working as headmaster of the school was one of the major challenges she faced in her new role, but it allowed her “to be confident I could make the right decisions as executive director,” she says. It took a year to hire someone for the assistant principal position. But during this time, she built the program from the ground up while learning on-the-job how to be principal. “It’s so important to know that in order to become successful, in any role, you have to be willing to allow yourself to be courageous,” she advises. “Stay true to your values and principles because the second you start to compromise that, you start to compromise the ethics of those who surround you—and it’s critical not to compromise the mission.”