PHOTOS BY BRODY WHEELER
JoAnne M. Ryan, MHA, RN, has long shone brightly in our community. Media powerhouse Norma Holland, designer Gail Riggs and others have lauded her successes, citing penchants for advancing well-being communitywide, nurturing young talent and enthusiastic collaboration. Ryan, named among 2022’s Women of Excellence by the RBJ and a 2021 ATHENA Int’l. Award finalist, took over as Ronald McDonald House Charities of Rochester President & CEO in 2021. An illuminating Q&A follows.
JoAnne: A native Rochesterian, I live in Pittsford with my husband, Dr. Stephen D. Ryan, MD. We have four adult children combined. Our amazing grandchildren are 6-months, 18-months, 4 and 6. By training, I’m a registered nurse who—from the start—found tremendous gratification in providing direct care and could’ve remained bedside my entire career. When opportunities aligned to my other interests emerged, a shift into management shed light on the leader in me: Right place, right skill sets, right time!
That opened the door to other roles at Rochester Regional Health and beyond: Volunteers of America-Upstate NY, the Alzheimer’s Association, Continual Care Solutions, Inc. I’ve always found joy and success in building partnerships across sectors. I hold an AAS in Nursing, a BA in Gerontology and a master’s in Health Systems Administration. I serve on the Bishop Kearney Board of Trustees, RIT’s MHA Advisory Board and the Golisano Children’s Hospital board. I’m also board chair for Webster Comfort Care Home.
RW:How did you decide to lead RMHC-Rochester?
JoAnne: A colleague alerted me to the opening while I was a co-founder immersed in building up CCS. Its state-of-the-art software helps community-based organizations enhance their efficiencies to better serve our most at-risk neighbors. I was thrilled to know that our product positioned CBOs to weather the lean COVID years, but RMHC’s mission and emphasis on “keeping families close” compelled me. As a nurse working in a unit for preterm babies, I saw the devastating impact separation had on families—who commuted daily, slept in lobbies, slept in their cars—when high-level care was needed. The more I researched RMHC’s offerings and impact, the more eager I was to lead a local chapter.
RW:What qualified you as the perfect choice?
JoAnne: The combination and culmination of prior experiences prepared me to lead our agency. Bedside nursing magnified my compassion, revealed the complexity and frailty of childhood illnesses and affirmed how impactful stress is on family dynamics. Similarly, managing and motivating teams through challenging times had made me an active listener, a clear communicator and a believer in the power of kindness. Leaders must have a clear vision for the future, a keen sense of stakeholder needs and the ability to convey both. My time at CCS reminded me to tie verifiable data to evidenced-based outcomes so that they’re recognizable and reimbursable. When I applied, a board member urged their colleagues: “(JoAnne) exudes the skills and off-paper qualities we are looking for in a candidate.” Such kind words!
RW: Describe RMHC-Rochester for us.
JoAnne: Our mission is to support the health and well-being of children and families. We believe all deserve access to quality care. We take the worry away so families can concentrate on their children. We clear barriers by proving: lodging, transport, companionship, respite, meals. All are welcome in our Ronald McDonald Family Room and Family Lounge. Others are referred to Westmoreland House or House Within the Hospital. In 2021, we saved families $1.2 Million by providing:
• 6,000+ overnight stays
• 11,000+ meal vouchers
• 3,000+ snack bags
As integral supportive care partners to families of critically ill or injured children at URMC/Golisano Children’s Hospital and RRH, we offer a “home away from home” as loved ones receive care. We share close bonds with McDonald’s Owner/Operators of Greater Rochester, too, who are integral to our history and a vital resource as donors, board members, sponsors, volunteers and more.
JoAnne: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell. Favorite quotes include:
• “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” – RBG
• “Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.” – CP
• “If you’re going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers.” – RBG
• “(As) a leader, share the credit with others! Some of it rightfully belongs to them anyway.” – CP
RW: Who was a major influence and why?
JoAnne: My Dad was amazingly kind and humble; a friend to all. In a roomful, he made everyone feel special. Though orphaned at 9, he was the best father. His ability to love, support and affirm was built on a foundation of faith, family and food—pillars our Italian family clung to. He lived DEI values, offering his last bit of bread to anyone in need. Dad passed when I was 30 but his lessons live on. They include:
• “Gratitude pays big dividends.”
• “Honesty in small matters, honesty in large matters.”
• “Be motivated by those who need more and share what you can.”
RW: When we met you years ago, you were at VOA-UPNY. Describe that.
JoAnne: Founded locally in 1901, VOA breaks the cycle of poverty via programs and services which encourage positive growth while promoting self-sufficiency. It offers individuals guidance and resources for changing their lives. While president and CEO, I learned about servant leadership and the power of mission-driven service—both essential when addressing poverty, homelessness, incarceration and addiction. CBOs like it provide the bulk of services to those impacted by social determinants of health and disparities in access to care. VOA-UPNY grew my perspective and my conviction to clear barriers: Change ONE life by breaking the cycle of poverty and the ripple effect will be felt for generations!
RW: What (3) traits help you lead RMHC-Rochester and push it forward?
JoAnne: Integrity. Humility. Compassion. I’ve been fortunate to lead teams large and small successfully. Beyond remaining true to your word, there are other challenges new leaders must face to ensure everyone’ success. Invest in all staff versus just the most vocal or influential. Practice humility as you learn about culture, strategic direction and opportunities. I balance my own involvement, guidance and support with the needs of my team and all challenges before us.
Encourage open conversation and consensus, too: Healthy teams agree to disagree, respectfully. If consensus is elusive, rally support around a common purpose. Give others latitude while modeling collaboration. Get even better results by welcoming a mix of perspectives, inviting in those who have deep expertise in areas you don’t. Express interest in everyone’s success, individually and collectively. Celebrate diversity of age, orientation, culture and more.
RW: What excites you about the work you do?
JoAnne: Here are just three examples.
• Each day, we’ve eased a family’s journey. Since minutes matter, we help them recover those by clearing barriers to focusing on their child’s health and well-being.
• Our team’s small but mighty! We flex as needs shift but with an eye on our North Star: How can we best serve our healthcare and community partners to strengthen family ties?
• We’re fortunate to be supported by a global mission, to share a global brand and to receive input from many incredible partners as we reimagine what’s possible.
JoAnne: I married my absolute best friend, cheerleader and supporter. Steve’ my anchor in a storm. His council reorients me when I may be unsteady and I’m always grateful for that! Balance is found in “my happy place,” too: time with grandchildren who provide BIG doses of levity. It’s hard to be sullen when a 6-year-old says: “Meme, don’t worry so much!” Faith is another source of perspective and balance. Then there’s humor. Laughing with my amazing circle of colleagues and friends is the best!
RW: What are your greatest accomplishments to date?
JoAnne: First- Raising amazing, accomplished daughters. Then there’s investing in and lifting up friends, colleagues and team members by being present. Leadership offers its own vantage point. It’s a privilege to help others step into their light and recognize their talents and value. It’s gratifying to see someone advance a career or switch paths. It’s an honor to help others recover from setbacks, offering a lens for viewing upsets as chances to pivot, muster strength and build resilience.
I often quote Maya Angelou: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Preparing for this article reaffirmed how grateful I am to give and receive so freely. Role models and mentors have gifted me their time, wisdom, insights into success and more. Knowing how they navigated upsets made it OK for me to open up to others in their times of need. It proved, for me, that wide circles of trust absolutely do lift us up.
JoAnne: I’m an ordained minister in the Ecumenical National Church of VOA. While CEO of VOA-UPNY, I was required to complete a year of training and become a commissioned minister. I then chose to be ordained, studying another year to reach that goal.
RW: How do you stay motivated and optimistic amid tragedy?
JoAnne: My team buoys me. I’m inspired by their daily demonstrations of profound commitment and compassion. They’re great at celebrating miracles on behalf one family while supporting others at times of immense loss—in the same day, if not hour. I’m motivated to ensure that they have what they need to do what they do so well!
RW: What motivated you to lead nonprofits?
JoAnne: This work isn’t for the faint of heart. NFPs face significant resource challenges. You learn quickly to be strategic, resilient, flexible and tenacious. It’s a testament to the power of mission-driven work. RMCH’s dedication to service above self, to its mission and to “keeping families close” moved me. I feel like the luckiest CEO in Rochester! In just 18 months, many profound moments have reinforced that belief. I watch in wonder as stories of hope, courage and strength unfold amid crisis. I witness passion and dedication up close, thanks to our leadership team and staff members. I sense their pride in our mission and our formidable reputation as a beacon of excellence.
RW: How can other women eliminate barriers to leadership?
JoAnne: Don’t look to social media to determine your worth or assess your success through another’s lens. Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one makes us feel inferior without our consent. Stand in your light, cling to your core values and swing for the fences. Heed Coco Chanel’s words that a woman “be two things: WHO and WHAT she wants.” Be you, go for what you want and lift other women as you ascend.
RW: What (1) tough decision have you had to make?
JoAnne: Hard decisions are hard for a reason, since each choice has an impact. The hope is that our professional decisions are made, respectfully and humanely, at the right time and for the right reasons. Closing a division core to the history of VOA-UPNY was tough for my team and for me.
RW: How has your ability to navigate power structures shifted?
JoAnne: I’m joyful when my work matters and I’m passionate about it. Only after a period of true discernment did I realize how much I missed actively leading a mission-focused team. So, I took ownership over my career trajectory and applied for the role I have now. Earlier on, I may not have been as brave or determined.
JoAnne: Be less afraid, make bold decisions and take more risks. Blessed with open doors, your journey will be rewarding and humbling. Be grateful for that. Many will serve as role models: family, friends, colleagues. Their strength, determination, courage and spirituality are great examples—complemented by a pledge to serve others, share gifts and offer talents with no expectation of return. They’ll always be your safety net, so stretch yourself!
RW: What (1) thing do you have too many of?
JoAnne: If you ask Steve? SHOES. The hunt for a perfect pair to finish an outfit is thrilling—but there’s no point in wearing amazing shoes unless you’re committed to doing amazing work while you wear them. 😊
RW: What’s on the horizon for RMHC-Rochester?
JoAnne: We plan to engage our healthcare partners—URMC/GCH and RRH—in identifying community needs around bringing RMHC-R Family Rooms to rural hospitals, expanding our mental health/wellness programs and exploring if it’d be helpful to offer RMHC Care Mobile telehealth services regionally. Yet we’ll always let the community guide us.