Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 4, 2013

Little Debi knows how to do a big job

As United Way director, she's made goal 5 of 11 years.

MC Weekly

---- — She may be just 5 feet 2 inches tall, but she’s “big time” when it comes to doing a crucial, perhaps overlooked job.

I’m talking about United Way of Miami County Executive Director Debi Wallick, who knows something about setbacks in life.

Wallick is in her 12th year with the UW as another campaign gets underway. She started as the executive assistant after Executive Director Jan Douglas wisely recruited her. When Douglas moved on, Wallick, now 54, became executive director in 2005.

Wallick can empathize with people who need help in their lives.

She was born in New Castle and lived on a Muncie farm until she was 10. That’s when her father, who owned a plumbing business, died of a liver disease. He was just 42.

She moved with her mother to Peru; her half-brother stayed in New Castle.

“My mother was very supportive,” Wallick says. “She motivated me to be whatever I wanted to be.”

Wallick thought she wanted to be in the medical field. She took classes at Ivy Tech before attending George Williams College in Williams Bay, Wis., which offered an excellent program in physical fitness classes. She earned a physical fitness specialist degree, equivalent to a two-year associate degree.

After returning to Peru, Wallick married Josie Birner, but the marriage ended in divorce. Birner, the father of her three children — Misty, Melissa and Matthew — died of a heart attack when he was just 46. He was the general manager for the Dillman furniture stores.

Her college education made Wallick a good fit to become the physical and program director for the Miami County YMCA.

She eventually moved on to become the athletic secretary at Peru High School, where, as a student, she was involved in gymnastics and track and was a cheerleader for the wrestling team. Some years she also was a teacher’s aide. And she coached junior high track and AAU wrestling.

Wallick was not involved with the Peru Circus during her school years, she said, because she was too busy with school activities. But as an adult, she became an integral part of the circus, using her background to train several acts, among them, Side by Side, Roman Ladders, Roller Blade, Web, Single Trap, Trampoline, and Tumbling.

Mike Miser was involved with the circus, too, and a romance developed. Wallick married Miser, who was divorced and had two children, Star and Jamie.

After getting Jan Douglas’ offer, Wallick reasoned that with Star and Matt about to graduate, it was a good time to make a career change.

Then she suffered another blow. Her mother, 73, died of emphysema.

There would be more tragedy. Mike, who worked at Smurfit Stone Container Corp. in Wabash, succumbed after a battle with throat cancer. He was just 48.

Fortunately, Wallick had family, friends, the circus and the Peru Rotary Club to lean on. As a fellow Rotarian, I marveled at the successful membership drive she created — a competition in which every member was on a team named after a university.

As a cheerleader for the wrestling team, Debi had become friends with Randy Wallick, who was a year behind her. Debi and Randy, a Peru businessman and legendary circus trainer who was divorced, began dating. They married in 2011, and Debi gained another stepdaughter, Brittany.

Meanwhile, Wallick’s creativity and determination were resulting in marketing efforts that helped keep the UW healthy during difficult economic times. The UW has made its goal five of her 11 years, which is remarkable considering the recent economic climate. In 2007, she said, Miami County had the highest per capita giving in Indiana — 117 percent.

Her current “baby” is the backpack program she created two years ago. Every Thursday, volunteers pack 7 to 9 pounds of food in backpacks for Head Start students to take home for the weekend. The food feeds them and family members.

The program serves 54 children, but it will soon grow to 140, thanks to a $5,000 grant from Exact Target Foundation and local grants, Wallick said.

“The volunteers are what drive me,” Wallick added. “People have stepped up. The community is only as good as its infrastructure. We have to start from the bottom up.”

Wallick said she wants to serve the UW for another five or six years.

That’s “big” for Miami County.

Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at r.mosco@comcast.net.