Champion for Children and Families

Oesterlen Services For Youth, Inc. Executive Director Donald L. Warner Announces Forthcoming Retirement in April 2022

Donald L. Warner, Executive Director of Oesterlen for the last 19 years, has always led with a servant’s heart. Whether initially inspired by his military father, who instilled in him a can-do attitude that grew into a calling to serve others, or his years giving back to his communities as a member of Boy Scouts of America, Warner’s passion for service has defined his 47-year career championing children and families.

Now, after advocating for society’s most vulnerable and helping to execute effective systems to support them, Warner has announced his intention to retire from Oesterlen in April 2022, giving the agency sufficient time to find a successor and ensure a smooth transition.

“As Executive Director, Don has helped to position Oesterlen as a model for excellence in residential and community-based treatment, foster care, and community and school-based youth therapeutic services,” said John Saraga, president of the Oesterlen’s Board of Directors. “His innovative spirit, statewide advocacy efforts, and leadership in the field of youth and family services are all exceptional, and we are grateful to have another year to partner with him as we continue to serve more than 1,000 clients annually.”

Upon retiring in 2022, Warner will be leaving an enviable 20-year legacy at the comprehensive, multi-program, Lutheran-affiliated social service agency founded in 1903. During Warner’s nearly two-decade tenure, Oesterlen achieved considerable success across multiple areas, including earning national accreditation.

“Before Don arrived in 2001, Oesterlen was fully licensed but not nationally accredited,” explained the Rev. Ronald Green, retired administrator and current member of Oesterlen’s Board. “Don wanted to change that, so he engaged the Council on Accreditation (COA) for Children and Family Services, and a year later we were beginning the necessary documentation of our processes and identifying measurable outcomes. Don mobilized all of us as he led the entire accreditation process, which resulted in Oesterlen being COA accredited in 2004. It was a huge feat, and we have been re-accredited every four years since.”

Under Warner’s leadership, Oesterlen also reimagined or expanded programs to provide a full range of social services to its clients. In addition to establishing the agency’s first Multisystemic Therapy Program in 2005, which transformed four years later into the agency’s Intensive Home-Based Treatment Program, Warner and the Oesterlen team created a new School-Based Wraparound Program as part of the state’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students’ Initiative, dedicated the Kulisek Training Center and Booker Community Counseling Center, and positioned the agency to offer more immersive therapeutic services for girls and boys in crisis. Warner also brought a vision for repurposing some of Oesterlen’s properties.

“I’ve been proud of how resourceful we have been to utilize existing buildings to further what we can offer those in need,” Warner explained, adding that by reimagining the spaces, Oesterlen has also been able to add dimension and depth to the programs it provides for both its residents and community-based clients.

Two new spaces that reflect this depth and dimension emerged in 2013 and 2014 under Warner’s direction. In 2013, Oesterlen, as part of a tri-county collaborative effort, received nearly $300,000 over two years as part of then-Governor John Kasich’s Strong Families Safe Communities initiative targeting strategies to stabilize youth in crisis from ages 8-24. With funding for the initiative from Ohio’s Children Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act, Oesterlen was able to convert its original farm house into the Clark Greene Madison Counties Respite and Resource Center. The first child was admitted in 2014.

“This initiative was an extensive one involving 13 entities across three counties working collaboratively to make it happen,” Warner said, noting that the result has since been life-changing for individuals within the tri-county region whose circumstances require immediate intervention during a time of significant crisis. Thanks to the collaborative effort, the center has also continued to be funded beyond the state’s initial two-year parameters.

Fast forward a few months later to October 2014, and Warner and the team celebrated another milestone: the grand opening of the Oesterlen Life Skills Center (LSC), formerly Overlook Cottage. In establishing the LSC, Warner explained that Oesterlen is able to help youth and young adults develop more employable skills due in great measure to the facility’s “Labs,” which have ranged from an aquaponics ecosystem early on, to a greenhouse, woodshop, print shop (paper), T-shirt print shop, computer lab, and therapy garden, among other unique features. 

“This complex added significant educational and therapeutic resources for the benefit of Oesterlen clients in multiple programs, including Residential Services and the Brooker Community Counseling Center,” Warner said. “The LSC also opened in partnership with the Springfield City Schools and remains a part of the school day for residential youth with the youth receiving academic credit.”

A centerpiece of Oesterlen’s forthcoming campaign, the LSC now looks to expand its vision even more, thanks to $500,000 Capital Improvement investment from the State of Ohio and another $250,000 to be raised by Oesterlen  – a goal Warner will play a critical role in helping to achieve during his last year at the helm.

“These types of resources are essential for helping our clients find pathways for success,” Warner said. “Each opportunity to grow, to learn, and to achieve brings them hope and confidence both in themselves and in their future.”

Reimagining what’s possible and following LSC’s founding, Warner continued the trend of repurposing existing facilities, this time turning Oesterlen’s former Gatehouse Cottage into a barn with 4H Club activities, including animal care opportunities for all their clients. The cottage was renamed to Farm View Cottage Barn, and the 4H Club name became Oesterlen Acres 4H Club back in 2015.

“In establishing this space, we are now able to help our clients care for other living things,” Warner said.

Such resourcefulness, creative thinking, and advocacy for what’s best for families and children have formed the core of Warner’s career in the social services sector, as has a thorough understanding of the needs of front-line workers.

“As a servant-leader, you need to identify changes that can make front-line workers’ lives less complicated, so they can devote more time to those they serve,” he explained. “The staff on the ground needs support on all sides, and it’s something I’ve always tried to provide in my life and in my work.”

To do that effectively, however, often involves inventing or streamlining systems – something Warner learned firsthand through a challenging situation in Illinois. It was the late 1970s/early 1980s, and he was part of an entry-level child protective multi-service unit in Illinois. Like much of industry at the time, the agency struggled with its infrastructure and operations for serving those most in need. Inefficient tracking mechanisms for case management, limited resources, and ongoing complaints proved problematic.

“Children were getting lost in the system to the point that it became a national crisis,” Warner recalled. “It was then that I began to look at the systems themselves, realizing that if I could change the system, real change could happen.”

With that newfound revelation, Warner began to see that his lifelong calling was in child welfare despite being four credits shy of an MBA.

“This was a defining moment for me as I began to see that the systems often created the issues and problems in any career track or industry, and if I was going to try to change systems, I wanted to change them for kids and families most of all.”

The Eagle Scout who loved serving in his youth would now serve others as a life pursuit, tackling every challenge with grace and integrity, listening and learning from those around him, and working tirelessly on wide-range reform.

“I was able to get in on the ground floor of change, which allowed me to gain exposure to multiple systems in Illinois and surrounding states,” Warner said, adding that his work and that of so many others eventually led to statewide change and influenced national reform efforts as evidenced by the landmark Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.

By 1988 and following 13 years of progressive leadership in Illinois, Warner, joined by his wife Cia and their two children, Jason and Briana, headed eastward to the Buckeye State where he worked as the Director of Social Services and Deputy Executive Director for Summit County Children Services in Akron for the next 13 years. In this capacity, Warner worked closely with his team to implement better systems to keep families together, particularly single moms and their babies. The agency also addressed the needs of the more seriously challenged youth in the community.

“If we can provide strong safety supports for children, the odds of success for the family increase substantially,” Warner said.

Once in Ohio, Warner also continued to keep child welfare front and center at the state level, always approaching his advocacy work through the lens of what is best for all Ohioans. His years volunteering with the Ohio Children’s Alliance, formerly the Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, and his service on the nonprofit’s board further affirm his commitment to improving services for youth and families across the state, as has his leadership in Lutheran Services America of Ohio.

“Ohio has gotten better about caring for its kids,” Warner said, noting the enactment of new policies, and Federal and State laws aimed at supporting children and families that have evolved over the years and for which Don has been deeply involved.

By 2001, however, another Ohio-based agency began to tug at Warner’s heart, and he responded with a move to Springfield to start a new journey as Oesterlen’s Executive Director.

“With Oesterlen being my first private social services agency, I quickly had to adapt to wearing many hats and being a jack-of-all trades,” Warner recalled, “but Oesterlen is where I felt all my experience throughout the years all came together.”

“Don’s quest for quality at every level, his own work ethic, and his collaborative leadership by personal example have all been tremendous for Oesterlen,” said Green, who worked alongside Warner for 14 years. “Even in this time of COVID-19, when 40% of the staff is working remotely, Don is on campus monitoring the situation and making sure everyone is safe.”

Warner’s efforts to support his staff and elevate the child welfare field these last 19 years at Oesterlen have not gone unnoticed as his many honors and awards attest. In 2014 alone, Warner earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers, as well as the distinguished George Stevens Award from the Ohio Children’s Alliance for his executive leadership.

From his first moments on Oesterlen’s campus to now, and consistent with his professional priorities, Warner continues to bring his full self to each day, listening, learning, and encouraging others to share ideas, to brainstorm, and to bring their best thinking to the table.

“I believe in participatory leadership and management and often explain that I have 51% of the vote as Executive Director and will take ownership of whatever decision is made,” Warner said. “I will also always ask for a back-up plan for everything we do.”

At the same time, Warner also regularly pauses to celebrate and honor those who he has been privileged to hire and partner with at Oesterlen through a series of annual awards he developed his first year with the agency. These include the Child Welfare Worker Award for professionally licensed staff, the Direct Service Worker Award, and the Foster Parent of the Year. Warner expanded the program in 2013 to include the Amelia Oesterlen Award in recognition of those staff not in positions of direct care or who are a licensed professional.

“We all believe young people and their families are reachable, and that together we can be a positive, constructive change in their lives,” Warner explained. “We need to recognize those making a real difference each day.”

A faithful Lutheran leader, Warner also knows the power of faith in his work and life, and with his last year of service at Oesterlen upon him, the man who once considered professional ministry plans to lead with the same authenticity, compassion, and commitment to kids and families he has displayed throughout his entire career and during the pandemic.

“Within the family of Lutheran Services in America, which covers more than 200 social ministry agencies, we are called to live up to the highest standards of service as we dishonor our Lord by being anything less than the best,” Green shared. “Don Warner not only understands this, but he lives it, and that has been exemplified in his service to Oesterlen for nearly two decades.”

As for life after April 2022, Warner sees his advocacy for children and families continuing. He and Cia, who will celebrate 47 years of marriage this year, also plan to remain active members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and serve their hometown of Springfield where they plan to stay. The only difference may be the momentary reflections and bittersweet emotions that often come when one’s career concludes.

“I hope I’ll be remembered by the Oesterlen staff and statewide as someone who was fair, who listened and cared, who never presented himself as the smartest one in the room, and who did his best for children and families.”

Of that there is no doubt.

By Karen Gerboth