Wendy Gradison

In the Name of Belonging

As a young girl growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wendy Gradison came to realize at an early age that some of the hardest barriers to overcome are also the hardest to see. She first began to notice the invisible constraints that separated her from her peers when she entered a private elementary school, where she became the only Jewish child in her class. As well, her parents were barred from joining organizations in their community because of their religion. “Growing up in an environment that was very prejudiced and discriminatory, I didn’t ever quite feel included,” she recalls today. “It gave me firsthand experience of the invisible barriers and hidden discrimination that so many people in our society face, and I knew I wanted to pursue a career that helped people overcome those obstacles to achieve a sense of belonging.”

Now the President and CEO of PRS, Inc., a psychiatric rehabilitative services organization that provides a path to wellness, recovery, and community integration to individuals living with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and other hidden brain diseases, Wendy has dedicated her life to the deconstruction of these barriers. In the rubble of the aftermath, she designs pathways to success for her clients, helping them lay the pavement that allows for a smoother journey through life. “So many of our clients have suffered silently as they live with the stigma of mental illness,” she remarks. “Even though it’s a brain disorder, it’s not treated like other medical conditions, which are talked about openly. Instead, it’s often forced underground until a person’s life is shattered and it’s impossible to keep hidden any longer.”

Clients thus present at PRS with the most damaging diagnosis of all: hopelessness. As mental illness often emerges for the first time between the ages of 18 and 25, many are only at the threshold of adulthood, yet feel that they will never realize their goals or dreams. The PRS platform, however, is all about realization—that recovery is possible, that success is within reach, and that hope is founded. “My staff and I are driven by the facilitation of transformation in peoples’ lives,” Wendy affirms. “Our success is tangible, and meaningful, and powerful, because it means people are moving forward with their lives.”

PRS was first developed in 1963 in a church basement. The Community Mental Health Act had just been signed into law, releasing patients from the debilitating grip of psychiatric hospitals, institutions, and asylums, to be brought back to their communities in the hope of rejoining society. Yet there were no services set up in those communities to meet the needs of these individuals, prompting local mental health associations in Northern Virginia to ask a brilliant visionary, Vera Mellen, for help. Vera began holding meetings for former patients, where they would play cards, drink coffee, and socialize in an environment of skilled training and support. Thus marked the beginning of the field of psychiatric rehabilitation, and PRS.

Psychiatric rehabilitation has nothing to do with medication or 50-minute therapy sessions, instead focusing on building relationships between clients and staff through working side-by-side on a client’s chosen goals. For this reason, a key  pillar of Wendy’s work is the growth and development of her employees. “I love that I get to be part of creating a culture of mentorship and coaching at PRS to help young people advance their careers and learn what it means to change our clients’ lives,” she says. “Our clients’ success depends on the development of engaged and trusting relationships by our clinical staff, so it’s critically important that I’m focused on our team’s well-being and nurturing. We hire and train for emotional intelligence, placing a primacy on our staff’s understanding of how they’re experienced by other people and how to modulate that experience for the greater good. I also focus on maintaining a fun, dynamic, rewarding, and open culture, where staff can make mistakes and challenge the status quo without apprehension. They’re the change agents, not me, so I’m working everyday to make sure they have the tools and support they need to be exceptional.”

PRS began as a small program in Fairfax County helping clients recover from serious mental illness, and has since evolved to serve clients with substance abuse disorders, autism spectrum disorders, mild intellectual disabilities, or a life crisis at hand. The organization provides Recovery Academy Day Program services, community support services, employment services, and community housing, serving clients throughout Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. PRS also recently merged with CrisisLink, a 45-year-old nonprofit that runs a 24/7/365 crisis hotline. The operation makes outbound calls to seniors and individuals living with mental illness, and has recently added an innovative texting platform to appeal to young people.

PRS is largely funded through government grants and contracts, supplemented by fundraising efforts that allow them to provide services they believe in but which fall outside the scope of government resources . The Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, for instance, can understandably only fund employment support services cases where individuals meet certain metrics that indicate high likelihood of a successful employment outcome. Some of Wendy’s clients, in contrast, are very early in recovery but want to begin the process of getting a job immediately, so fundraising allows PRS to take those chances on those clients. It also allows them to provide services to clients who can’t cover assistance costs themselves but aren’t poor enough to meet Virginia’s Medicaid eligibility requirements. Thanks to these efforts, PRS has grown to over 80 employees and utilizes its $6 million annual budget to serve over 1,000 clients.

While PRS helps its clients with a host of considerations that include medication, housing, nutrition, budgeting, and behavior management, its key focus is supporting people in choosing, getting, and keeping jobs. “Employment and vocation are some of the most powerful frames through which we view ourselves and our lives,” Wendy points out. “Being employed allows someone to feel productive within a valued role, which does so much for self esteem. A lot of the work we do is helping clients find that valued role of their choosing, whether it’s in a job, or getting involved in their faith community, or as a family member, volunteer, or student. We empower people by helping them find that place where they feel energized, and where they feel like they belong.”

For Wendy, this feeling of empowerment and belonging first came from her family. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she spent the first several years of her life in Washington, D.C., and still vividly remembers her parents’ decision to move to Cincinnati when she was four. As the second oldest, she was assigned the important role of copilot to her father, who was driving the family’s station wagon. They stopped at a motel for the night, and the next morning, he broke from the family’s staunch nutrition standards and let his young daughter add sugar to her Rice Krispies. “We were never allowed to have sweets—only a single bowl of ice cream on Sunday nights,” Wendy remembers. “We weren’t allowed to watch TV either. We were required to play a musical instrument, take ballet, and have an hour of alone time in our room each day to look inward. These traditions—and those memorable little moments when we were allowed to break from them—were hallmarks of our extremely close family, which provided comfort in Cincinnati as I confronted anti-Semitism and discrimination for the first time.”

Wendy and her four sisters had the tremendous benefit of watching their parents pursue interesting and meaningful work. When Wendy was small, her father, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard’s business school, was assistant to the Undersecretary of the Treasury, and then the assistant to the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (now known as HHS). He then served on the Cincinnati City Council while also working at the stock brokerage firm his father founded. Later, he was elected as mayor of Cincinnati, and then to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for eighteen years and focused on healthcare on the Ways and Means Committee. “He’s a top expert when it comes to the complexity of our nation’s healthcare system,” Wendy avows. “One of the things I respect most about him is his ability to grasp the grays, the blacks, the whites, and the inconvenient truths about any issue. He was always open-minded, willing to listen to others’ views even when they conflicted with his own. He taught me that things are never simple—that the more closely you’re willing to look at an issue, the more complex it becomes. I really loved watching how he would synthesize all the facts, figures, opinions, politics, realities, and environments at play, in an effort to solve some of the toughest problems in our country.”

Wendy’s mother taught her the equally critical skill of marching to the beat of her own heart. A dancer and Tufts graduate, where she received her Bachelors of Science in Mathematics, she never lived by anyone else’s rules and instead followed her own soul and voice, which led her to pursue law school when her daughters were still young. “She was one of only four women in her class,” Wendy says. “She’s always been a role model for me through her confidence to trust her own judgment and find her own way, even as society was telling her she should be a homemaker who wore makeup and used curlers.”

Even immersed in the experience of growing up, Wendy sensed that her story was unique. She recalls the day the first President Bush came to speak on behalf of her father at one of his campaigns, and she was responsible for picking him up at the airport in the family station wagon. She would help out with the political campaigns that elevated her family’s presence in the community, even as she noted the discrimination against Jews that left her feeling like an outsider. She grew up with a silver spoon and access to the best education, even as she remembers vividly the riots that shook Cincinnati after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I remember looking out the back kitchen window and seeing a building burning just a couple blocks away,” she says. “The city was on fire. It really impressed upon me the principle of equality—that people deserve an equal chance in life.”

From nursery school until her senior year of high school, Wendy was taught in the same private school setting, where high school students were required to wear uniforms, but where a visionary Head of School for her elementary years preferred that girls wear pants and shorts just like the boys—a revolutionary move at the time. Wendy’s parents expected their daughters to be top in their class, and the girls rose to the occasion. From seventh grade onward, she went to school with only girls, which proved a great environment for her science and math skills to flourish. She thought she might like to pursue a career in dance, but ultimately decided she didn’t have the raw talent for it. She then thought she might pursue math, until she enrolled at Williams College and took her first advanced calculus class. “Unlike one of my sisters, who knew from the age of eight that she wanted to be a doctor and took a very straight path toward that goal, I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” Wendy recalls. “I felt lost, in a way, but I was very interested in human nature and in the ways people relate to one another.”

Psychology, then, was a perfect major for Wendy, supplemented by courses in diverse subjects like music and math to reflect her wide-spanning interests. Williams had just gone co-ed, and Wendy’s freshman class was the first to admit women. The hard lessons of youth and growing up were learned against the striking backdrop of the Berkshire Mountains, and Wendy emerged a seasoned young lady to land her first job as a counselor at the Family Planning Council of Western Massachusetts. “I had never worked before, and I really didn’t understand what being an employee meant,” she says. “My employers, as well, weren’t in a position where they could realize the importance of teaching and mentoring me.”

Wendy went on to accept a position with Carl Sagan at Cornell University, where she worked on the Voyager Interstellar Record Project. The two Voyager Spacecraft were being launched out into the universe, and the project entailed coding 120 photographs and an assortment of music and information onto a record in case the vessel was ever found by intelligent life. “He was such a great visionary, and it was so much fun to be in his orbit, so to speak,” Wendy recounts. “Yet I was directly reporting to his office manager, whose leadership left much to be desired. I had not yet had that mentee experience with a superior who was invested in my personal and professional growth. I feel that these challenging early experiences in the workplace informed the kind of employer I wanted to become.”

Then Wendy came to Washington to live with her father and work on Capitol Hill for Senator Bill Cohen of Maine, who went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Defense. “It was a great office environment to work in, and I had a wonderful boss there,” Wendy says. “At that juncture, I realized that what I loved about the various jobs I had held was the interpersonal piece. The common thread between all of them that seemed to give me energy in any setting was the act of relating to people and helping them in any way I could.” That’s when a friend suggested she get her Masters in Social Work—a degree Wendy had never heard of before.

Learning that it was a good degree for those interested in working with people and with an eye toward social justice and giving back, she enrolled in Catholic University’s two-year program, where she interned at a mental health center called the Prince William County Community Services Board. Working with young people afflicted by serious mental illness, she began to see the marked impact of the programs and services she was helping to administer. Upon completing the program, she was hired by that agency, where she spent the next seventeen years of her career.

Wendy’s boss during that time, Jan Holton, was an incredible influence on her professional path, teaching her invaluable lessons about management, leadership, and organizational culture. “She was a keen student of organizations and taught me how to think about staff, how to have difficult conversations, how to hold people accountable, and how to make an office environment a great place to be while maintaining very high standards,” says Wendy. “When you spend so many years working for someone that exceptional who’s always taking you to the next level, you internalize those qualities over time.”

After fifteen smooth years there, the board brought on an executive director who didn’t mesh with the culture of the organization. Wendy had to work with the new individual directly, and noted the negativity that emanated from the new style of management. “From that situation, I learned how important it is to be incredibly welcoming and have my door wide open for anyone to come talk with me about anything,” she says. “I want each of my employees to feel that they’re welcomed and appreciated.”

Serendipitously, Wendy found herself unable to grow further in her current position just as Vera Mellen was looking for a new program director. The two hit it off, and in 1997, Wendy joined PRS as a member of its management team. Vera then announced her retirement later that year, and Wendy threw her hat in the ring for consideration. “After a year with PRS, I had been with the company long enough to form my own opinions about what we needed to do to move to the next level, and I had spent enough time in a different work environment that I offered a fresh mindset,” she explains. “I also really believed in the work and understood psychiatric rehabilitation, given my extensive background in the field. Most importantly, in my interview, I was not someone who said we needed more money to accomplish our goals. Instead, I said we needed to make different choices with the resources we had.”

After completing a national search, the board chose Wendy to fill the position of CEO, marking a new chapter in PRS’s evolution. And since she took the helm, her signature initiatives have revolved around bringing business practices into an organization that’s all about heart. She has focused on efficiency, workflow design, restructuring, accountability, and deliverables, taking the nonprofit to the next level by accentuating the business mindset that must underlie a mission focus in order to maximize effectiveness, sustainability and impact. “What Vera created and grew was her gift,” Wendy affirms. “Now, this is mine. And whoever succeeds me will bring a different set of gifts. But for today, while I’m here, we’re focused on the idea that our work is never done. We’re always about, what’s the next thing we can learn to do better? How can we improve that client outcome, improve the bottom line, and better meet the mission? How can we serve more people in need more effectively?”

This leadership was instrumental in landing Wendy the 2011  Excel Award for Nonprofit Leadership through the regional Center for Nonprofit Advancement. The organization was also a finalist for the Washington Post award for nonprofit excellence. But to Wendy, true success is measured in joy, abundant in her life not only thanks to her work at PRS, but also thanks to her family. Her husband of thirty years, Lee Goldman, is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Mclean, Virginia. “I’m intense and focused and can be very anxious, whereas he’s extremely laid back, relaxed, calm, and steady,” she says. “My work gives me great joy and is very dynamic, but it’s also hard and intense, so it’s really good for me to be around him and his calming presence.”

A renaissance man, Lee spends his weekends woodcarving, fly fishing, or tinkering with technology. Both Lee and Wendy treasure their roles as parents to their children, now age 25 and 27. “I’m so proud of them and how we co-parented such joyful, competent, curious, funny, confident kids,” Wendy says. “It’s such a gift to watch them evolve and take their own journeys through life. My daughter is getting her masters in school counseling, while my son recently chose to leave the corporate world to explore working in a mission-driven organization. They make me prouder everyday.”

In advising young people entering the working world today, Wendy underscores the importance of following your heart. “Pay attention to fit instead of salary,” she encourages. “Be respectfully assertive. Don’t let the hard stuff go underground, but instead express it in a productive and encouraging way. Find mentors and pursue places and environments that give you energy, where you can have fun and be joyous. As your job responsibilities and stressors increase, preserve your commitment to finding those people who are centered and calming, and to paying attention to nutrition and exercise. Take time to find gratitude everyday. Life is short, so pursue work and a life that makes you feel more alive—that gives you that true sense of belonging and making a difference, to which we all aspire.”

Wendy Gradison

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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