Agent of change
Janienne Bella is CEO of A Chance to Change, a nonprofit agency that helps clients suffering from addiction and behavioral health problems.
The crucial services her organization provides are all right there on the back of the business card of Janienne Bella, CEO of A Chance to Change nonprofit agency for addiction and behavioral health problems.
“We can help with: trauma, family and marital conflicts, co-occurring disorders, drug and alcohol use disorders, gambling addiction, depression, anxiety, stress management, tobacco cessation, drug and alcohol education, grief ... and more,” her card reads.
“Our clients aren’t that faceless person under a bridge,” Bella told The Oklahoman on Monday. “We’re helping your neighbors, ... the person holding office and your good friend who’s having serious behavioral problems at home but, because of the stigma of mental health, doesn’t feel like they can even tell their best friend.”
Last year, A Chance to Change served 1,729 people, ages 5 to 91, who traveled from 24 counties for services provided by the agency’s staff of 22, including 13 licensed therapists. Accepted payments include cash, most private insurance and Medicaid. Financial assistance is available for those who qualify.
Bella, 47, has led the agency for the past two and a half years. Her most recent former job was with the American
Red Cross as CEO of Oklahoma and Arkansas from 2010 to 2015.
From the new A Chance to Change offices at 2113 W Britton, she sat down to talk about her life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots. A: My parents both grew up in northern Indiana. My father worked for Trinity Industries Inc. steel fabrication there; then at the company headquarters in Denton, Texas; and lastly in Oklahoma City, where he was a plant manager. We moved from Denton to Edmond when my older brother and I were in the eighth and fourth grades. My mother was
an entrepreneur. She owned Video Warehouse in Kickingbird Square, where I worked from the eighth through 12th grades, and for a while, a Hallmark store. I had a very stable childhood. My parents were married 52 years when my dad died this past April. My mother is retired, and my brother and husband both work for Trinity Industries. We all live in north Edmond, near each other. My sisterin-law is like a sister to me; she and my brother started dating in the eighth grade. And my two nephews are very tight with, and close in age, to my son.
Q: Did you always plan a career in the nonprofit sector?
A: No. I was very social ... had a ton of interests, and must’ve changed my major five times in college at OSU. I was going to be a speech pathologist, interior designer and fashion merchandiser among other things. It was my last adviser — Dr. Kay Murphy — who convinced me to stick to a human environmental sciences major and finish my degree. She was a compassionate and gentle guide, yet so firm about providing me a lane and helping me to focus.
Q: What was your first professional job after graduating from OSU?
A: I worked two years as a student assistance counselor to at-risk kindergarten-through12th-grade students in northern Indiana — at a school in Winamac and at another nearby rural school. My aunt told me of the opening and I lived with my grandparents, which was fabulous to spend quality time with them while they were still active and mobile. My maternal grandmother was widowed and lived in town, and my dad’s parents had a farm where they raised corn and beans. I was very close to all of them. My brother and I spent every summer all summer there growing up.
Still, it was scary when my parents dropped me off for that first job. The job was really tough because some of the students I was counseling were only four years younger than I was. And it was hard for me to define boundaries of when work stopped and began, or where my role was and wasn’t. I found myself driving around at midnight to shoo home teenagers so they wouldn’t get in trouble the next day for being out past curfew. On the upside, I met my husband on a blind date in Winamac. He transferred with Trinity Industries from Indiana to Oklahoma, so he could move back with me. We married two weeks before I started my job with the Red Cross. With his first name being Tony and last name, Bella, people mistakenly assume he’s Italian, but he’s Hungarian. His surname was shortened upon his ancestors’ immigration to America.
Q: What made you leave the Red Cross and join A Chance to Change?
A: The May 2013 Moore and Shawnee tornadoes were particularly difficult. Though it was a rewarding time to help people, it took a big toll personally on my spirit and on my family. I’ll never forget the night after the 2013 Moore tornadoes. I went home in the middle the night to change clothes. My husband woke up and wanted to touch base to see how things were going. I broke down telling him about the destruction, the lives that were lost, the work we had ahead of us, and that I was scared and questioned my ability to lead. He swiftly wrapped me up in a big hug and said, “You are the exact right person. It will be big. Just take it one second, one minute, one hour, one day at a time. You’ll get through it; you’ll be fine.”
After the two-year transition that followed the Moore tornado, a friend called me about the CEO opportunity with A Chance to Change. I agreed to talk with Joann Pearce, the interim and former CEO, and I immediately meshed with her phenomenal spirit. Then I met the board and we hit it off, too. It just fit. I still think often of my husband’s words, almost more now with my work at A Chance to Change. I’m grateful for his and my extended family’s support. And I love that they love what I do!