Barbati Leaves Huge Mark on Oh Wow! Children’s Center

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Suzanne Barbati’s departure from Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology is coming a little later than she had planned.

By about eight years.

Barbati, Oh Wow director of planned giving since stepping down as its president and executive director in 2021, retired from that role Thursday.

“I’ll be moving into the next chapter of my life, and I don’t really know what that means,” Barbati said during an interview on her final day at Oh Wow.

Barbati was hired in March 2009 as executive director of what was then the Children’s Museum of the Valley. At the time, the museum was moving from a building at East Boardman and Walnut streets and transitioning to a focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – a direction sought by the center’s namesake donors, Roger and Gloria Jones.

Oh Wow opened to the public in May 2011 in the former McCrory Building, which Oh Wow eventually purchased in 2019.

Her Decision

In July 2021, Oh Wow announced that Barbati would move into the fundraising position and was looking for a new executive director as part of a leadership reorganization.

What Barbati described as “a variety of things” drove her decision to finally inform Oh Wow’s leadership about a month ago that she planned to step away from the organization, including a desire to spend more time with family and being comfortable with the leadership in place.

Leaving had been on her mind for far longer, she confessed.

“I made the decision to step away in 2015. It just took a while to find the right mix of people where I felt comfortable stepping away,” she acknowledged. “Internally and with the board of directors, we were talking about succession planning and our future way back in 2015.”

The organization was “well on our way to establishing” a succession plan when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said.

“It was never her idea to be here forever,” said Marvin Logan, Oh Wow’s executive director since October 2021. “She finally had reached a point where she was confident that, one, in the new role that she took on there was a foundation that we could build from, and, two, that Oh Wow will be in good hands with the team that we have here.”

Reflecting on Milestones

Barbati reflected on several milestones for the center. She pointed to the museum’s relocation to the McCrory Building and the partnership with First National Bank that allowed that to happen, as well as the partnership with WFMJ-TV, which provides a weekly forum Sundays for Oh Wow’s educators to reach out to the community.

Marvin Logan, Oh Wow’s executive director, and Suzanne Barbati.

“What I did every year was add something new, and now we’re at a place where technology has been becoming much more important. That’s not my area of expertise. That’s Marvin’s area of expertise,” she said. “I see us having established that foundation that enables Marvin and his team to take those technology opportunities and grow them. That is really important to me, to the board and to our entire community.”

The pandemic, which left venues that involved congregate gathering shuttered for months, forced it to pivot to virtual programming and introduce its STEM SAKs, or “science activity kits,” that were distributed free of change thanks to community donors, she said. 

Oh Wow itself remained closed from early March 2020 to May 2021, during which time a $4 million renovation took place. Subscriptions remain available for the kits, which are used in after-school programming and outreach.

“We’ve listened to our subscribers and made modifications to that product based on their input,” Barbati said. 

Having a board of directors that was “active and interested” and provided leadership and mentorship was key to her as a new executive director, and she expects the directors to continue to do that with Logan, she said.

“I’m really excited about all of the initiatives that he’s bringing to the table, in addition to strengthening the initiatives that were in place before he got here,” she said.

She is pleased with the management team surrounding Logan – including Colleen Ruby, director of operations, Laura Oliver, director of business and finance, and Jazz’mine Harsch, creative director, as well as the promotion of some senior edutainers “to positions I believe are appropriate and necessary for our growth.”

Barbati’s “unbridled passion” left a strong impression on Logan when he explored the executive director’s position. Oh Wow was “almost like another child of hers,” he recalled. Following an initial virtual interview, he met with her in person, which “helped be that thing that kicked me over the edge to know that this was an organization that I wanted to pour myself in,” he said.

“For anybody who has been in the nonprofit business, starting something from scratch is borderline insanity because it takes countless hours. At times, it can feel like a thankless job,” Logan said. “Suzanne gave it everything that she had to be able to build something that could last.”

Barbati acknowledged that implementing the succession plan “was not an easy adjustment,” but she and Logan “worked through those wrinkles” and she is comfortable stepping away. “I can’t wait to see what he does next – what he does, what the team does and how the board moves the museum into the next chapter of its life,” she said.

Measuring Her Impact

Trying to measure Barbati’s impact on Oh Wow is “pretty difficult,” said Wiley Runnestrand, vice president of GreenBoard IT in Warren and chairman of Oh Wow’s board of directors.

Suzanne Barbati shows the water table attraction, one of her favorite sections of Oh Wow.

“We all owe her an incredible debt. There’s a lot of communities our size that don’t have that type of facility,” Runnestrand said.

Runnestrand grew up with parents who were “big proponents” of doing science with him at home, he recalled. That was important for him, especially for becoming an entrepreneur, because it taught him that the world was a “moldable space,” the value of experimentation and “that failure was just a part of future success.”  

Those are all values he sees in Oh Wow, which gives kids a place to go, he said.

“They’re playing, but they’re playing with the physical world around us through science,” he said. Also, having a destination in downtown Youngstown where people can take kids provides them a “first memory of something positive” downtown, which “set us up for the economic future with a lot of those kids.”

‘A Beautiful Human Being’

Lisa Resnick, founder/CEO of Dandelion Inc. and Dandelion Properties in Canfield and vice chairwoman of Oh Wow’s board, described Barbati as a “pivotal force” for the organization and on a personal level.

“She has been amazing,” said Resnick, who also co-chairs the annual Science of Brewing fundraiser. “Her confidence that she has, her experiences that she shares, the fact that she reaches back to help elevate other members of our community – she is just all in all a beautiful human being.”

Oh Wow, under Barbati’s leadership, has played a key role in the positioning of Youngstown in recent years, said Sharon Letson, executive director of Youngstown CityScape, which also leases office space in Oh Wow’s building.

As downtown Youngstown has transitioned in recent years, it was critical to send the message to the community that families and children were held “in high regard” and “the need for them to come and play and be educated” was recognized, she said.

“It was more than just about the museum,” she added. “It was about Suzanne’s mindset about welcoming, collaborating, always finding a way to make things work. That’ll be her legacy, that gift she gave to our whole community to be that kind of director.”

‘Beautiful, Creative and Crazy’ Legacy

Barbati’s legacy is “beautiful, creative and crazy all at the same time,” Logan reflected.

“Who would have thought that we could have a successful science and technology center at the time?” he said.

Barbati, the Joneses and other early proponents “just had this vision,” and Barbati was “the right person” to pursue it.  

Logan said he’ll miss Barbati’s “infectious laughter” and that the entire Oh Wow team will miss the baked goods she regularly brought to the office.

“I always joke that when I first started, I gained 7 pounds because Suzanne just kept bringing in stuff and I couldn’t turn it down,” he remarked.

Visiting Oh Wow in the future will be different, Barbati acknowledged. “Maybe I’ll be able to bring my grandkids here and be able to spend two hours with them without getting a phone call or leaving for a meeting,” she said.

Barbati said she and her husband, Bill Florig, already have a trip planned. She is looking forward to rest and relaxation, and she will take time to consider what she might do next.

“I’m going to evaluate my options and figure out what I want to be when I grow up,” she remarked.

Pictured at top: Suzanne Barbati stands in the store/gift shop area near Oh Wow’s main entrance.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.