As the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County prepares to celebrate its 99th anniversary and continues to grow its powerful collective impact work, several key leaders have announced their retirement. At the end of 2019, President and CEO, Merle Berke-Schlessel, Esq. will retire along with Chief Operating and Major Gift Development Officer, David R. Kennedy. Cathy DeCesare, Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives will transition to part time and fully retire in June 2020.
Ms. Berke-Schlessel has served as President and CEO for over 18 years. She has transitioned the United Way from a federated fundraiser to a dynamic catalyst for social change. Ms. Berke-Schlessel was the first non-profit leader in the region to shift focus from managing chronic problems to solving them. She reflected: “Doing things the way they were always done was never an option. I saw community conditions deteriorating and worked with the board and staff to focus our efforts on understanding the root causes and positioning our assets in a way that had the greatest impact for change.”
Since 2001, Ms. Berke-Schlessel welcomed creative thinkers and new practices to get measurable results. She was a key leader in the creation of the first Bridgeport Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness and received national recognition for ending chronic homelessness. That plan was the start of what today is a comprehensive region-wide homeless prevention system. Under Ms. Berke-Schlessel’s leadership, innovative community collaborations were given institutional support to incubate and grow. She was the driver of “Bridgeport’s Blueprint for Young Children,” which set the path for the United Way’s signature Cradle to Career initiative, Bridgeport Prospers.
“I am so honored to have served as the President and CEO of this wonderful organization; there is a lot to celebrate. We never could have achieved so much without our generous donors and dedicated board and staff, who had the courage to change. It’s is so fitting that I retire alongside two key leaders of our United Way,” commented Berke-Schlessel.
David Kennedy celebrated 30 years of service to the United Way System this year. He was the President and CEO of the United Way of Norwalk and Wilton, which merged into the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County. Cathy DeCesare, who will retire from her full-time position, has been responsible for improving systems work around early childhood and literacy. Together, the leadership team has created transformational change in breaking down barriers for better early childhood outcomes and meeting basic needs.
Chairman of the Board Samuel Tingley noted that the retirement of these leaders marks the end of an era. He and the board expressed their gratitude for the combined wisdom and dedicated service of this powerful team.
“We are thankful for the major innovations this team has led,” commented Tingley. And we are truly encouraged by the momentum of Bridgeport Prospers, the collective impact movement to improve outcomes for all children.”
Currently, Bridgeport Prospers initiatives focus on ensuring preschool readiness, third grade reading proficiency, STEM education opportunities, and community resilience for children and families.
New leadership will be secured before December 31, 2019, and Mr. Tingley expects the transition to be seamless.