Barbara Johnson

Barbara Johnson retired Friday as executive director of the United Way of teh Pine Belt Region. 

(Photo by Linda Cranford)

Gilbert takes reins as executive director

After 19 years of service as executive director of the United Way of the Pine Belt Region, Barbara Johnson has retired. Many folks involved with the organization never thought the day would come that Johnson would actually leave, even though she had talked about retiring for several years. 

But on Friday, she walked out of the Chisholm Center Building at the corner of Oak and Magnolia for the last time, leaving the executive directorship in the hands of longtime friend and former co-worker Rhonda Gilbert. 

Johnson began volunteering with the United Way in 1984, when she was working at Trustmark Bank.  

“I still remember Bob Gaddis calling me into his office and asking me to be a volunteer with the United Way,” said Johnson. Gaddis was the bank president, and very active in United Way. “He asked me to serve on the Citizens’ Review Panel.”  

The Citizens’ Review Panel visits and reviews the United Way partnership agencies and works with the Fund Distribution Committee in deciding on the amount of money allocated to each agency. 

“The first year I was on the Citizens’ Review Panel, I went for four interviews and I still remember them. I visited the Christian Food Mission, Parents for Drug-Free Youth, Laurel Language, Speech and Hearing, and the Pine Belt Drug Alliance,” recalled Johnson. “After going on those four interviews, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, look at what these people are doing with the amount of money they are getting from the United Way and the services they are providing to our community.’ I thought how awesome it was that they could provide those services. Then I thought, ‘they’re not getting enough money.’”

Johnson said she served on the Citizens’ Review Panel for three or four years.  “I always wanted to do more,” she said. “My goal was to be Fund Distribution Chairman. I knew that the Fund Distribution Chairman oversaw the Fund Distribution committee and all the people on the Citizens’ Review Panel. I thought about being able to influence how much money we could raise in the community if I was Fund Distribution Chairman.” 

Johnson became Fund Distribution Chairman and served three or four years as chairman.

“Then one day, Bob Gaddis called me into his office again and asked me if I wanted to get involved with the campaign process of the United Way. I became the Commercial Division Chairman. At one point, I was Fund Distribution Chairman and Regional Campaign Chairman. It was a unique situation. As far as I know, I’m the only person that has served a dual chairmanship like that.”

After serving as a volunteer for 15 years, the opportunity for Johnson to serve full-time with the United Way came in 1999, when the executive director at the time, Anna Willis, decided to retire.  

“I told them I would give three years,” Johnson said. “The first year, I was going to assess where we were and make changes. The second year, I was going to implement those changes and determine their success. And, the third year, I was going to analyze those changes to make sure everything was in shape, and then I would be gone. I was going to do something else.” 

Gilbert comes to the United Way with over 30 years of experience in the banking industry, having previously worked with the Bank of Jones County and First State Bank as assistant vice president, and most recently with Grand Bank in Hattiesburg as internal auditor.  

She has been married to Randall Gilbert for 21 years and has lived in Jones County for more than 25 years. She has a son, a daughter, two stepsons and six grandchildren.  

“I have known Barbara for many years, and have always admired her work ethic and compassion,” Gilbert said. “As a friend and former co-worker, I am so excited and thrilled to be able to take the reins and follow in her footsteps. It’s exciting and scary for both of us. I look forward to doing everything I can to make United Way the best that it can be and continue what Barbara has been doing for the last 19 years.”

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