Gateways to Better Living Prepares for Retirement of Executive Director

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio — Gail Riess has an innate passion for her work as executive director of Gateways To Better Living Inc., showing care and compassion for the people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that her agency serves.

Riess is insistent on her and her staff providing personalized care, compassion and giving those people a voice and rightful place in society. Since 1997, she was that voice for her clients, who, she says are “discriminated against every day because of the way they look or act.”

Riess will retire June 30, but will stay on as a consultant for six months. Her career has always been about making sure her clients’ are included in the community.

“My job is to better their lives,” Riess says. “We are their families. It’s up to us to make their lives better in any way, shape or form, and also teach the community that it doesn’t matter [about their disabilities]. I think the next generation will get it.”

It will take three people to take over Riess’ duties July 1. Kristie Rossi, current day program director, will become the chief operating officer; Jim Linert will remain in his current position as chief financial officer; and Karl Ware, current program director, will become the CEO.

Gateways was founded in 1972 by Leonard Kirtz Sr. and a group of concerned parents to provide an alternative to traditional institutional placement of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Since Riess took over 24 years ago, Gateways has increased its facilities for daytime services to three – most recently adding a building in Boardman that opened in July 2020. The other two are in Niles and Youngstown. Gateways has 13 intermediate care facilities that provide 24-hour services to its clients, along with 25 locations that house three to four people in Mahoning Valley neighborhoods.

Linert calls Riess a “visionary” in the industry.

“She’s been aggressive in thinking ahead of where we are now,” he says. “She’s always looking to the future. That’s one of the reasons she is looking for another day program. We’re OK where we are now, but she sees in the future there’s going to be a big demand for day services. So when that demand comes into play, we’ll have the location and people will come to us.”

Linert, who has been with Gateways for eight years, says Riess’ business savvy was crucial to the nonprofit’s success. A few years ago, she secured five homes – getting 70% to 80% of the construction cost covered by the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. Linert says her work with contractors to design and decorate housing locations is “going to be hard to replace.”

Riess has made Gateways thrive, something board member John Morvay has seen since he came aboard in 2002. Morvay says the budget has tripled in that time because of Riess’ leadership.

“I’ve never seen anybody put as much time and effort into running an organization as Gail,” he says.

Rossi, who came to Gateways as a staff member in 2002, describes Riess as a strong leader and businessperson. Rossi has modeled her approach after that of Riess, whom, she says, loves the clients and cares about them.

“She has rubbed off on me and taught me everything I know about the field,” Rossi says. “Over 19-plus years, I’ve soaked it all up as much as I can.”

Under Riess, Ware has seen Gateways become the largest company with intermediate care facilities in the area. Taking over in July will not be an easy task, he says.

“We have a lot of the processes and procedures in place that we need to remain viable as we are now,” he says. “Just make sure we remain true to what it is that we do. I think we’re going to be fine.”

James Dietz, Gateways board chairman, says Linert, Rossi and Ware have been mentored by Riess and are prepared to take over in July. “What we’re hoping is that what she’s done in the past is going to pave the way for continued success,” Dietz says.

Meanwhile, Riess is quick to point out her team has made this venture successful over her tenure. Gateways has about 500 employees.

“There’s no I in this field,” she says. “It is a we. We have to support one another. Without that, no gains can be made.”

Riess’ career started at the former Youngstown Development Center in 1980. She took a position seven years later near Cleveland at a place which had been decertified by the state and she and her staff achieved recertification in 18 months. Riess was hired to recover yet another company before finally coming to Gateways.

Pictured at top: Gateways To Better Living Executive Director Gail Riess is surrounded by her three successors, from left, Kristie Rossi, current day program director and future the chief operating officer; Chief financial officer Jim Linert; and Karl Ware, current program director and future chief executive officer.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.