Smart Start Director John Gerstenmier retiring, committee searching for new director
SALISBURY — It’s been quite a ride for John Gerstenmier, executive director of Smart Start Rowan, but that’s all coming to an end. He will retire from the agency this summer after five years as the head of Smart Start.
“I’ve had a marvelous ride. I’ve just been blessed,” said Gerstenmier, who plans to return to the ministry.
Smart Start Rowan provides early childhood education and health support, including dental and physical. It offers development screenings, family support and resources for children from birth to age 5, as well as resources for child care professionals. A search committee made up of Smart Start board members is in the process of finding a new director.
Gerstenmier has had more than 20 years of service as an ordained minister.
Although he never left the ministry, Gerstenmier has had to divide his time.
“I serve as executive director and for myself, it’s a ministry. I’m ordained clergy and have served large and small congregations over the years. It’s been a blessing to do what I do as a minister,” he said.
Gerstenmier said he wants to return to ministry, but he may take on a role in the nonprofit sector. Gerstenmier has no immediate plans to head a church, but he is awaiting an answer from God on his future.
“He hasn’t confided in me yet,” he said with a laugh.
“At this point, I am not looking to take a full-time pastorate, but looking forward to returning to pastoral ministry in the supply or interim basis.”
If he does return to the pulpit, or takes on the nonprofit world, it would harken to his days when he served on the Smart Start board in Union County, was chair of First Steps in Pageland, S.C., and served as a Presbyterian minister.
In the five years that Gerstenmier has worked in Rowan County, he’s been commuting from his home in Waxhaw. He and his wife, Lynn, were unable to sell their home with the collapse of the housing market.
Gerstenmier said he jokingly tells people he lives in Rowan County, but sleeps in Waxhaw.
“That was not our original plan. We weren’t able to sell, so we continued to commute,” he said.
He’s grateful to his staff. “Even if I weren’t there, I’d feel secure in knowing the legacy will be there. The staff will ensure the partnership will continue to serve the community and its families,” he said.
The staff, he said, is dedicated to the young children and their families.
There are goals Gerstenmier is proud the agency has accomplished, including being able to push ahead despite a decline in funding.
“Every year, we’ve continued to see an increase. That’s a reflection on the professional child-care providers, those in the homes and in the larger centers and then our technical assistance staff,” he said.
“We were significantly cut back two years ago. We are about replenishing both staff and programs. I’d like to have that in place before I say goodbye,” Gerstenmier said.
Gerstenmier said he’s pleased with the ongoing partnerships with agencies like the Rowan Health Department, Rowan United Way and private providers.
Throughout his time with Smart Start, Gerstenmier has established and maintained a range of professional collaborations with area and state agencies and nonprofits including Rowan County Clergy Support Group, North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council and Rowan Salisbury Schools LINKS Core Management Team.
He’s also appreciative of the support from the community, especially the business sector that has allowed employees to serve on the Smart Start board, which is made up of 27 individuals.
There were will be an overlap in the time that Gerstenmier plans to leave and when a new director steps in, he said. The board hopes to have the new director in place by May or June.
Jimmy Greene, a board member and past president, said Gerstenmier submitted a letter with the intent to retire in January.
“He has been a wonderful executive director. He came with a ministerial background and has used this as a mission. I think he feels a calling elsewhere for his future plans,” Greene said.
He said Gerstenmier led Smart Start through what was probably one of the most difficult times.
“We had a changing of the guard. When the budget got crunched in Raleigh, there was a lot of concern of where we were going to go and how we were going to be funded. We were affected by the change. John helped steer us through that. He was the right man for the job,” Greene said.
Smart Start Rowan has administered more than $19.6 million in services to Rowan County’s children during Gerstenmier’s tenure. He was also able to secure the agency with a number of grants and other funding.
“We are going to move forward and hopefully be strong as ever,” Greene said.
Greene said the agency has had more than 90 applicants and the board will whittle that down to a workable number.
“Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to set up some interviews,” he said.