What she did know was that she wanted to return to Wheeling following her college career.
What Susie Nelson didn’t know was how.
When she was graduated from Wheeling Park High in 1989, her beloved city had endured much loss with businesses closing in the downtown and people moving away for better economic opportunities. The decision to depart, in fact, became the norm once those high school days came to a close because the number of living-wage jobs was dwindling, the steel industry was slowly withering away, and unless a native wished to be in the banking, medical, or education fields, the time arrived to pack and wave.
But wait! Education?
That’s what her mother did for Ohio County Schools. Nelson believed she could teach, too, so off to West Virginia University it was to obtain a degree in physical education. Following her graduation in 1994, Nelson returned home with her degree and then, technically, never used it.
Instead, she accepted an internship with the Wheeling Nailers and eventually became the franchise’s director of marketing and game night operations. In 2002, she left professional sports for municipal government, becoming the marketing and community relations specialist for the city of Wheeling.
“When I first started with the city, I can remember Nick Sparachane, who was the mayor then, telling me that he expected me to make so many connections in the position that it would be a stepping stone for me,” Nelson said. “And he was right. I met so many people that I didn’t know, and eventually some of those connections led me to where I am today.”
And that is with the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley, a non-profit organization that has worked to grow financial endowments since its inception in 1972. Nelson became the executive director in September 2007.
“I know I got very lucky, and I realize it doesn’t work out like that for everyone who wants to stay but has had to leave. That’s happening less these days, but I have seen a lot of my friends move away for a job,” Nelson explained. “Now who would think a P.E. major would be running a community foundation?
“That seems kind of odd, but I guess it works because I love this position and everything I’m involved with,” she said. “When I was working for the Nailers, I found out about the Community Foundation, and I always thought that working there would be a really cool thing to do because of the working non-profits, but I never imagined I would actually do it.”
Nelson married Doug 22 years ago, and today the couple has two children, 13-year-old Sarah and 8-year-old Jake. They reside in Triadelphia, and the children attend Bridge Street Middle and Middle Creek Elementary.
“One of the reasons we live here is family,” Nelson said. “My mom is here, my sister is here, and my husband’s parents are here, too, and it’s a lot easier to raise a family when you have family close by, and I really didn’t want to go far from them if I didn’t have to.
“That’s why it’s so nice to be able to have a career in the city where you were raised, and that’s because you don’t really want to leave,” she continued. “There was a time when we did our best to stay and did after my husband lost his job with West Point Products after they moved those jobs to Mexico. I had a pretty good job at the time but still had some choices to make, but honestly we never seriously thought about leaving.”
And that has been a very good thing for the Community Foundation. Since Nelson was hired nearly 10 years ago, the amount contributed to its various funds has grown by 58 percent. In 2007 the endowment was up to $24 million, and soon that number is expected to surpass $40 million.
“We have grown a lot financially, but I also believe we have grown as far as awareness. When I first started in this position, not many people knew that the Community Foundation existed let alone what we do,” Nelson said. “Before we moved here to Market Street, we had a small storefront on 12th Street that gave us a little bit of visibility, but not much. Some in the non-profit community knew who we were, and some in the baking industry knew, but that was pretty much it.
“It’s still more of a secret than I would like it to be, but we’ve made a lot of progress. We are definitely known more now with those working with the non-profits,” she continued. “We owe a lot of thanks to our local media outlets for giving us the time to explain our goals and how anyone out there can get involved.”
One way more local residents have discovered the Community Foundation is by participating in the “Amazing Raise,” a one-day fundraising event that is facilitated by the non-profit in an effort to assist more than 100 other such organizations in the Wheeling area, including service organizations, churches, and schools and colleges. This year’s “Amazing Raise” will take place in early May.
“We’ve started getting ready for ‘Amazing Raise’ this month even though it’s not until the beginning of May, and that’s because we want to continue attracting more and more non-profits,” Nelson said. “The official kickoff will take place in February because that means we will have a meeting with all of the non-profits that will be participating this year so we can let them know how it’s going to work. There aren’t any big changes, so it will be more of a refresher for everyone.
“Over the three years we have had Amazing Raise, we’ve been able to help raise over a million dollars for these organizations,” she said. “Our mission is building endowments, and while that’s not what we are doing with ‘Amazing Raise,’ we are showing what Community Foundations do. More people have discovered that you do not give to a Community Foundation, but you do give through a Community Foundation, and that’s exactly what takes place through the ‘Amazing Raise.’”
She was raised on Carmel Road in Woodsdale and lived with her younger sister and her mother, retired teacher Jeanne Finstein. Her mother and father divorced when Nelson was 4 years old, and she now has two more “half” siblings living outside the valley region. Finstein has been very involved with Friends of Wheeling for many years and recently served as the interim director of Wheeling Heritage before Jake Dougherty was hired on a full-time basis.
Wheeling Heritage was founded in the mid-1990s and has worked closely with the city of Wheeling to preserve and celebrate the city’s storied history as well as promote economic development through re-purposing existing structures. Orrick, an international law firm that operates its global operations center in Center Wheeling, is a prime example because its office building once housed Wheeling Stamping.
“I am definitely feeling an energy, and I am looking forward to watching what more is going to come here because of that energy. That’s one reason why I am very happy that our offices are in the downtown because I get to see a lot of things happening every day,” Nelson said. “And I can tell that we, as the Community Foundation, want to be a part of this renaissance that is taking place right now. We want to be able to help in a lot of different ways, and our Civic Leaders Program is one of those ways.
“We love entrepreneurship programs, so anytime we can help with the things that surround economic development, it’s something we get excited about,” she explained. “We also understand there are basic needs that need to be supported, and we do that, but we hope to be involved with more economic development in our area.”
But what about her children? Will they be able to stay here after deciding what it is they wish to do to earn a living? Right now her daughter is thinking architecture, and her son recently has wished to be an engineer of some sort.
“I’m sure he doesn’t know what kind of engineer,” the 45-year-old mother said. “It may be an engineer on a train, I’m not sure, but I won’t care as long as it keeps him close.
“People now have a renewed interest with what is going on now, and that’s because of what has been taking place in Wheeling for most of the past decade, and I am hoping that it continues so when it’s time for my children to make the choice about where they will live as adults, it’s easier to stay here instead of leaving the area,” she continued. “That’s every parent’s wish. We all want our kids to stay close to us so the family remains tight, and we all can thrive while living close to each other. It’s something I think about when I go to work and do what I can do to make Wheeling a better place to live and raise children here.”
(Cover photo by Steve Novotney)