By Suet Lee-GrowneyMay 17, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla., May 17, 2018 -- "I have always been about children," said Sarah Gersper, newly appointed Fort Sill Child and Youth Services coordinator.
Gersper details a story from her childhood of her grandfather, who paid for her education, discouraging her from pursuing a career in educating young children.
"He said that's a thankless profession," she said. "But I did it anyway."
She went on to pursue her degree in human development at the University of California, Davis. She said she thrived being in college because it was fun and it was everything she wanted it to be and more.
After she graduated in 1991, her husband surprised her by enlisting in the military.
"I was working as a preschool teacher and he came in and said 'Oh, I enlisted in the Army,'" Gersper said.
Since then, she's had to get creative with tackling their military adventure, raising children, moving 10 times in the last 27 years, and juggling the many detours staying on-course with her ambitions of being an educator.
"Every time we moved, it was a new challenge," she said.
She's worn many of the hats available in the education industry. This includes being a teacher in schools, being in the kitchen washing and serving food, and Child and Youth Program Assistant (CYPA) at several duty stations they were stationed.
Despite the many opportunities she's had, it was a trainer position she's always been interested in.
In 2007 when the Gerspers returned from Germany to be stationed at Fort Sill, she saw an opportunity to apply for an assistant director position at Tincher Child Development Center (CDC).
"I said, OK, let me give it a try; but (instead) of the classroom now, let me try the management side," she said.
After a year of serving in that position, she was promoted to Tincher's director. But, in military life fashion, the Army had other plans. So they went to Fort Carson, Colo.
Despite the stumble she experienced in her career path, she grew with the challenges she was handed. Gersper had the opportunity to transfer her center-director job to Fort Carson.
"I opened a brand new (CDC) center there and worked in that program for a couple years," she said. "And then they had a trainer position open up that was going to be school-aged and youth-based, and I've always been in the early childhood department. So I thought this was a great career building opportunity."
She finished the final 1.5 years at Carson as a trainer before her husband came down on orders again.
This time it was Delaware. However, she didn't want to go there because there was no CYS at their new duty station.
"CYS was home," she said. "Lo and behold, (my husband) called branch and said any chance we can return to Lawton? And they said absolutely, so they put him on orders to come here."
RETURNING TO FORT SILL
Gersper was eager to come back to the CYS here, she said, so she got in touch with Brenda Spencer-Ragland, director of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
Because Gersper has had a long multi-disciplinary career in CYS, finding something new and exciting proved to be challenging.
"There were some opportunities in CYS, but nothing I had already done to career build," Gersper said. "So (Spencer-Ragland) said 'Hey, I have this opening in FMD, the Financial Management Division. Have you ever thought about that? You have budget experience and all of that, why don't you give it a run.'"
Gersper was picked up as a budget analyst at Sill's FMD in 2015 and was in that arena for about two years.
"It was the best career move I could have ever been afforded," Gersper said, referring to her stint as a budget analyst. "I had managed budgets for CYS before, but the true inner workings of it really aren't clear until you're part of the whole (FMD) and you see how all of the money works together."
Spencer-Ragland said, Gersper serving in that position groomed her to a much larger position -- program operations specialist -- and one which she would be in today, CYS coordinator.
"If you're going to be a Child and Youth Service coordinator, you really need to have a strong understanding of financials," Spencer-Ragland said. "It gave her the diverse experience and that ability to see it from outside the program."
When Gersper returned to CYS in 2017, she had the opportunity to shadow her predecessor, Ivory Marshall, before assuming the role as coordinator.
"It was a really great opportunity for me to see hands-on what a coordinator's responsibilities were in advance, as well as how to support the organization from the financial side of the house," Gersper said.
Helping Marshall run CYS built Gersper up in other aspects of the job, according to Spencer-Ragland.
"It was outstanding experience because it strengthened her and her knowledge in the background checks, reports, analysis, and things that we do in order to keep the program," she said. "It was almost like (the jobs leading up to the CYS coordinator) was a plan. I would like to take credit for it being a planned transition, but it wasn't."
The FMWR director noted the many hats Gersper wore prior to assuming responsibility was the right recipe to stepping into her current role.
"I believe she's not only the best qualified, but I believe she's ready to go," she said.
Gersper was very frank speaking of how she felt about the amount of authority and liability her duty calls for.
"I'm still in a little bit of a shock, I won't lie, because it's an ominous responsibility," she said. "Because we are talking about the safety and development of our most valuable resources -- the children of military members. It doesn't get any more important than that. It's a huge, huge responsibility."
Despite having big shoes to fill, Gersper said she loves to lead.
Gersper said she is here to coach and mentor, which is her style of leadership. However, she is not shy to be strict when it comes down to business, due to the many rules and regulation to run a CYS.
"I've been told, and I guess it's true, that I am fair but firm," she said. "I'm also one that is strong in accountability -- we have to deliver because we can't stay open unless we are following all the rules."
She said because of the many skills she's acquired along the way, she also loves to lead from the trenches, if need be.
"If you're short and need a caregiver, I will go into the classroom if it needs to happen," Gersper said. "If we have a flu outbreak and it affects our staff, guess what? We still have to take care of our children. So on we must go."
Spencer-Ragland said Gersper is an outstanding leader because of her strong knowledge of the organization and her ability to make educated and calculated decisions.
"Not only the folks that work for her, the co-workers have great respect for her," she said. "She's got that functional knowledge that allows her to lead in a confident, positive manner. That's huge in a program that's as diverse as ours."
The team Gersper leads at CYS are talented, well-educated professionals, who are there to provide developmental care, said Spencer-Ragland.
"They know right from wrong, and they will call you out on it, so you've got to make sure (you know what you're doing) and that's what Sarah brings to the table," she said.
Balancing work and family is difficult and delicate, said Gersper. She described the season in her life this moment as being an empty nester, so her career fills the void she felt when her kids went away.
"Work is my family," she said. "Now I have all this (staff and children) family to take care of. You will see my husband working alongside of me. He knows how important this is to me."
Gersper said she wants excellence, to be part of the front-runnings and good ideas when it comes to making CYS seamless across the Army.
"I'm very driven," she said. "Having military parents feel like, this is a rough life that we lead, but we've got this great family (CYS) that's taking care of our child and helping us during these difficult years."
Gersper, who has raised three children and is now a grandmother, said her daughter is also a teacher and works for a public school in Oklahoma.
Despite Gersper's at-tempts like her grandfather to dissuade her daughter from pursuing a career in education, her daughter did so anyway.
"She followed her heart and she's doing it, too," Gersper said, giggling. "It's in the the blood, I guess."