At first, Danita Johnson Hughes was a bit hesitant to take the lead at Edgewater Systems for Balanced Living in Gary.
She was unsure if she was right for the president/CEO role of the behavioral health care services organization that was facing challenges.
“I didn’t think I could make a difference as I hadn’t been in this particular type of leadership role before,” says Johnson Hughes, who was born and raised in Gary. “I felt the organization needed more than I could give to it, but a member of the board kept calling me and said, 'We really need you.'
“Finally, my husband (Chuck Hughes) said, 'Try it. You can only help it get better.'” Since Johnson Hughes took on the leadership role in 1995, she has helped guide Edgewater Systems along a steady path to the place of growth and development where it is today.
“We really rolled up our sleeves and got in there. It’s not to say that we haven’t had challenges and financial struggles with this economy, but with the right people in place and the right attitudes, you can overcome all that,” she says.
Edgewater System’s mission is to help community members conquer their own unique issues. “I see people who are experiencing challenges in their everyday lives from a problem in school to serious emotional or mental issues to drug addiction. It runs the gamut,” she says.
The organization touches more than 100,000 lives a year through its services and it has operations in eight different locations including the recent addition of Kidwell Center at 4747 W. 24th Ave. in Gary.
“We spent over a $1 million renovating a facility on the West Side. There are a number of different programs all under the umbrella of youth and family. It is a viable, positive resource for kids and their families. There is definitely a need there,” she says.
Johnson Hughes is also looking forward to the construction of South Shore Commons, a 60-unit apartment complex that will be at 1201 W. 20th Ave. in Gary. It will include the availability of on-site services.
“Many of the people who come in for services are homeless – not single individuals but families. The economy has really contributed to that. If they don’t have a place to stay and can’t afford one, they don’t always get the services they need. You need a physical living address to get services so it can be challenging,” she says.
Johnson Hughes sees Edgewater Systems making a mark on the community beyond the individuals and families who seek help.
“We are a driver of economic vitality with our construction projects,” she says. “Also, it is really important for me being a professional to provide employment opportunities for so many people – close to 300 at various times throughout history. In many ways, we help shape their lives and careers as for many of them, this is their first job.
“One of my greatest accomplishments is taking this organization from where it was and helping it get to a place of respectability and viability to become a community resource. We have been able to expand what once was a fledgling organization to one that is well-respected in the community.”
Edgewater Systems Board Chair Shirley P. Thomas says Johnson Hughes’ low-key leadership style continues to steer the organization toward success.
“She has helped make Edgewater a central place of importance in this area. She is a visionary and I think very highly of her leadership abilities,” Thomas says. “I admire her and the respect that she gives employees to be able to achieve the current goal. There seems to be a unity of thought and mind as to where they are going. She makes sure they follow the strategic plan – it is truly a map of what Edgewater will be.”
Johnson Hughes’ career has its roots in the health care and human services environment, which “helped me develop my passion for helping people.”She has two degrees from Indiana University Northwest, a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Public Administration as well as a second Master’s degree in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago, where she also obtained a graduate certificate in Health Administration & Policy. She earned her doctorate in Human Services from Walden University in Minneapolis.
Outside of her role at Edgewater Systems, she is a speaker and active on a number of boards, including One Region One Vision. She has written two books: Power from Within: Discovering What You Already Have to Live Successfully and Influencing Today’s Youth: Shaping the Behaviors, Expectations, and Aspirations of Tomorrow’s Leaders.
“I speak at colleges, churches, women’s groups, high schools … it is an opportunity to at least get people talking about the issues and how we can address them. It’s not that I am an expert, but I see the challenges by working at Edgewater and being a mom and watching my friends and other people try to raise their children in this very complex society,” Johnson Hughes says.
“It’s so different with social media and technology that wasn’t available in the past, there is so much competing for our children’s attention. We have to understand how to best meet them in the place where they are and help them progress in life and prepare them for what they will confront as adults and to be leaders.”
Mark Maassel, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, has seen Johnson Hughes develop as a leader from his days at NIPSCO to his current leadership roles today with the NWI Forum and One Region One Vision program.
“I am glad to see her increasing comfort with sharing her experiences, knowledge and background as a guide and mentor. She has really been able to help people think of what is important to help our young folks become adults,” Maassel says. “She has always had some of that, but she is really stepping up her game and doing more with her background and familiarity with these issues.”
Johnson Hughes believes part of her impact as a community leader lies in starting discussions on these issues, particularly with the One Region One Vision initiative.
“I think of us as a regional community. I strongly believe the issues that we face in Gary every day and our clients face are not unique to Gary. Our problems don’t just stop at the border or the county line, they trickle over,” she says. “The sooner we can have an open dialogue and come up with ways to tackle the issues, the better we will be as a community. We all have a stake in the Region and we can accomplish so much more if we work together to try and facilitate change. There are a myriad of issues to confront and it’s not simple, but at least we can start a conversation.”
She continues to find inspiration to be involved from a sense of responsibility as well as from her husband, who is executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce.
“I feel an obligation to give back to a community that has given so much to me,” she says. “Since the day I met my husband, he has always been involved. We are very different - I am more of an introvert and only an extrovert out of necessity due to my profession. He encourages and inspires me … when I don’t feel like I can do it, he pushes me.
“I hope I am an inspiration through example … I hope I am inspiring others by providing an example that they can look to and possibly want to emulate.”