Cari Guthrie Cho

The Natural Healer

Successful adults often name childhood role models, mentors, teachers, and parents as the influences that set them on their professional paths early in life. Cari Guthrie Cho, however, can’t name any particularly intuitive therapists or inspiring teachers, and wasn’t steered toward counseling and the field of mental health by any particular adult hand. Rather, her career choice was inspired solely by her own experiences, particularly those spurred by her parents’ divorce and the role she played in its aftermath.

Cari was ten when her parents separated, and while the divorce wasn’t acrimonious, it nonetheless represented a major upheaval for a family with young children. Though much too young to fully understand the scope of adult problems, it fell to Cari to console her mother and comfort her confused younger sister—responsibilities she took on with innate grace. Her family found her to be a natural talker and listener, with a presence that soothed the ache of the situation and allowed them to see it as an opportunity to rebuild. “My mother was very open with me about what she was going through,” Cari acknowledges. “I remember sitting on her bed late at night, talking about her fears and hopes.” Though the situation wasn’t ideal, Cari and her mother developed an incredibly close relationship that persists to this day. Over the next few years, Cari talked extensively with her family and began to dream of a career spent helping others face their problems and defeat their demons.

As a child, Cari dreamed of helping other families deal with the trauma of divorce, but as she entered the world of mental health, she began to encounter people experiencing truly severe psychological issues. These people desperately needed the attention of someone dedicated, and she knew she had found her calling. Today, Cari is President & CEO of Cornerstone Montgomery, an organization that provides a vast array of services for the mentally ill in Montgomery County. Because people suffering from mental illness tend to fall through the cracks of an imperfect social safety net, they often lack access to proper psychiatric care, and homelessness, drug addiction, and unemployment plague their ranks. Even beginning to tackle these problems, entangled and complex as they are, requires a tremendous commitment of time and energy that most people balk at. Ever the optimist, however, Cari has spent her career helping people fight for their lives, even if they gave up all hope of a normal, happy existence long ago.

In 2012, two organizations—Threshold Services and St. Luke’s House—merged to form Cornerstone Montgomery. Both were well established in the area; St. Luke’s had been providing services to the area’s mentally ill for four decades, while Threshold had been doing the same for three. Both had begun as grassroots organizations founded by community members—St. Luke’s by members of a local Episcopalian Church, and Threshold by members of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). The NAMI members sought to provide housing for their family members in need, while St. Luke’s hoped to bring a range of services to the area’s homeless. Over the years, both groups grew and evolved, and both came to provide residential services, day programs, and clinics staffed with psychiatrist and therapists.

Although similar in these many respects, each organization had a unique focus and range of programming to bring to the table. “St. Luke’s had a tremendous employment support program and were the best in the area at helping people with mental illness find, secure, and keep jobs,” Cari explains. “On the Threshold side, we brought the co-occurring disorder program, working with people that have both mental health and substance abuse disorders. Our missions were similar and had overlap, despite their distinct specialty programs. We felt that joining forces as one entity that had a broader range of services would be a good thing, so the two boards met and agreed to merge.”

Today, Cornerstone Montgomery employs a staff of 300 and operates on a budget of $18 million. Until she actually stepped into the role, Cari had no idea she’d be running an organization so large, serving as its CEO, President, and default COO. Although her dreams of becoming a therapist date back to her early childhood, she never imagined taking on an executive role. But the position required unique competence, dedication, loyalty, and passion for the mission, all of which were manifest in Cari’s own philosophy and approach to service.

Cari was born in Des Moines, Iowa—the town both of her parents called home. A mere two weeks later, the family moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where Cari’s father enrolled in an animal physiology graduate program. Four years after that, they moved to London for two years while he completed his post-doctorate work. Finally, the young family settled in Maryland, where Cari’s father had found work as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Growing up in Laurel, Maryland, Cari did well in school and, with some encouragement, discovered a lifelong passion for choral singing and music. “My mother made me join the choir at church,” she remembers. “I was vehemently opposed and didn’t want to go, but of course it turned out to be a lifelong passion for me. She would laugh at me and say, ‘You never want to do anything new. Just try it, you’ll like it!’ And I did. I’ve had wonderful choral directors all my life and have been lucky enough to sing in places like Westminster Abby and Notre Dame Cathedral, and with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.”

Divorce notwithstanding, Cari loved middle school and high school, flourished socially and academically, and felt the constant support of both parents. “They never doubted I could do anything I wanted to do,” she says. “They were at every concert and every piano recital.” After high school, Cari headed to The College of William & Mary, where, she immediately began studying for her Bachelor’s of Psychology. “William & Mary was sort of a last-minute decision, but I visited the campus and really loved it,” she recalls. Even through her formative years and the personal evolution from childhood to adulthood, her interest in studying psychology and becoming a therapist never wavered, and although she liked some of her professors at school, she got her most memorable education back home, employed at Montgomery General in the psychiatric unit. Cari’s mother was working for a law firm at the time, and the hospital was one of the firm’s clients. She got Cari an interview, and Cari began to work as a psychiatric technician, where she was quickly trained as a nurse’s assistant and thrown into the deep end. “My mother remembers me coming home with these stories about clients and the issues they had, and she just couldn’t even fathom it,” Cari remembers. “But none of it shocked me. It fascinated me.” She grew close with her supervisor, Rosemary Walters, a wonderful teacher and mentor who immediately recognized the young woman’s unusual dedication to the work. Indeed, Cari worked not only every summer, but anytime she could get home at all. “I’d call them and say, ‘I’m coming home for Christmas. Can I work?’” The answer was always a resounding yes.

Although she loved her work at Montgomery General, Cari wanted to explore all of her options before taking on her first full-time job after graduation. She interviewed for a position at Threshold Services, and the organization appealed to her. “It struck a chord with me because it worked with people in the communities where they lived,” she explains. “I realized I liked that better because I liked seeing the clients when they were doing well. In the hospital, you’re only seeing them if they’re in crisis.” At Threshold, Cari could watch as her work helped turn lives around. She could be there as clients improved, began to engage in life productively, and rediscovered hope. She was hired as a counselor and quickly promoted to site administrator, which added administrative and managerial duties to her counseling work.

After three years with Threshold, Cari headed back to school to earn her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Maryland at Baltimore and soon found a job in the area with John’s Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where she’d interned as a student. She planned to stay in Baltimore, but she never forgot her life-changing experience at Threshold, where her younger sister now worked. A few years into her time with John’s Hopkins, Cari’s sister called with news. There was an opening at Threshold for a Program Director. “I never would have come back to Montgomery County if my sister hadn’t called me,” she says. “I was happy up in Baltimore and wasn’t looking to leave. But I went in and interviewed, and that’s what led me to where I am now.”

Cari came back to work as a Program Director in 1997, supervising one of the residential programs and quickly establishing herself as a rising star. “We joke that, over my years at Threshold, I worked at every site,” she recounts. “I was a counselor and a supervisor, and I did on-call.” By 2001, she had been promoted to Rehabilitation Director, where she oversaw all the program directors. She began to develop a close relationship with Craig Knoll, the Executive Director, who became a mentor, role model, and friend. “We really started working closely together, and we had a really great partnership,” she says. “Our strengths definitely supported each other, and we could build on that.” In 2005, Craig asked her to step up to the COO position, and often mentioned his expectation that she would fill the CEO role upon his retirement. Cari, however, was reluctant to commit to the idea. “The job definitely entailed more glad-handing, more fundraising, and more political juggling,” she explains. “I thought, “Do I really want to do that?’ I wasn’t sure.” Although Cari had always been more dedicated to her clients than professional glory, Craig knew no one else would be able to bring as much dedication to the mission and as much knowledge of the organization. In July of 2012, as the merger went through, Cari promised Craig she would seriously consider taking over upon his retirement in five years.

Those five years turned out to be more like five months. Craig was diagnosed with cancer and took a leave of absence while he recovered from surgery. Then, in January, he announced that he wouldn’t be coming back. It wasn’t the smooth transition anyone had envisioned, but Cari stepped up to the challenge. “I felt I owed it to the organization,” she says. “I have a lot of loyalty to this mission, and I knew I had it in me.” In July of 2013, Cari was officially named CEO, and she took over a fledgling organization without the guiding light she’d looked to for so many years. But today, she is happy to report that Craig is recovering well, and business, too, has begun to thrive after a dramatic restructuring and adjustment process.

As the newly anointed leader of a young organization, Cari has undergone a fair amount of adjustment herself. She is never a micromanager and always a coach—one who models her “open door” leadership policy after the management style she observed as a Threshold employee. Now, at Cornerstone, she’s learning how to effectively communicate, touching base with each employee as frequently as possible. “I want to feel connected and be available for feedback, but I don’t want to tell people what to do,” she says, of her leadership style. “I try to be hands-off and flexible, but I also try to hold people accountable.”

As a trained counselor, Cari is better equipped than most to maintain a healthy, productive work environment, and to young people entering the working world today, she emphasizes good communication skills as an absolute necessity. “The biggest challenge for people is dealing with conflict at work,” she says. “I see it all the time. Don’t be afraid to respectfully deal with conflict. People struggle with respectful conflict management at all levels, but it’s extremely important.” She also urges young graduates to take advantage of all the opportunities that come their way, never dismissing or ignoring experiences that could turn out to be life-changing. “Look at all your options and don’t just say no to things that come along. Be willing to give them a try,” she says, echoing the encouragement of her mother years ago. “I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of great opportunities come my way.” Indeed, it may have been luck that brought Cari her opportunities, but it was dedication and compassion that turned them into something much more.

Cari Guthrie Cho

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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