When Gayle Whittenberg learned the executive director of the Big Sky Chapter of the March of Dimes planned to step down, it didn’t take long for her to respond.
“This light just went off in my head,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is my chance to get back to working in women’s health.’ ”
A few months later she left her position as development director at United Way of Yellowstone County to take over March of Dimes.
Whittenberg replaces former director Debra Donovan and comes into an office that covers the entire state of Montana with four employees and a cadre of volunteers to work with hundreds of families annually.
March of Dimes is a national nonprofit that supports babies born prematurely and their families. The organization also works to prevent birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.
About 1,400 babies a year in Montana are born prematurely, and Whittenberg said that through family support, education and other efforts she wants March of Dimes to be a leader in reducing that number.
“Here’s a chance to get back into women’s health care issues, to get involved with so many new faces,” she said. “One of nine pregnancies will end up premature, and Montana has a grade of B in that regard. But I want it to be an A.”
One of her top priorities is to expand March of Dimes’ presence, involvement and contributions across the state.
“We’re really trying to focus our efforts on expanding the board’s reach throughout the entire state of Montana, and I think Gayle’s experience is going to be of tremendous benefit,” said Tom Boos, chairman of the Big Sky Chapter’s board of directors and CEO of Billings Federal Credit Union.
That experience comes from 20 years working with nonprofits. Her work includes time spent with United Way and 12 years with Billings Clinic, both with its foundation and its research center, as well as organizing Montana’s first Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure event.
Whittenberg knows she’s got a tough job ahead, which includes raising the group’s profile in Montana, filling out the staff, expanding the board and greatly increasing the number of volunteers, who support the organization throughout the state.
“Volunteers, there are not enough,” she said. “Not enough at all.”
The group’s signature and biggest fundraiser, the March for Babies, is held each spring in a half-dozen Montana communities — Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula — and Whittenberg said she’d like to see those events act as regional hubs for smaller communities across the state, drawing in more participants along the way.
While the March for Babies events are great fundraisers, Whittenberg said they can also be powerful events for participants, especially those affected by premature birth.
“I see these walks, and it’s not just a walk or a run,” she said. “It’s a place for people to put their hope, their fears, their grief and their joy and share it with other people. Great things come out of that.”
Other events include the Signature Chefs Auction, held in Billings for the last six years and scheduled for October, which brings local chefs together to cook for attendees and includes auctions and other events.
Last year it expanded to Missoula — this year’s will be held in September — and Whittenberg hopes people will seek out the March of Dimes to attend and donate.
Earlier this year, the Montana chapter helped ensure critical congenital heart disease screenings were added to the newborn screening panel by leading the regulatory effort through working with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.