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The following is the cover story from the October 2022 issue of the Columbus African American News Journal
Maya Angelou directed us to remember that “What you learn, teach. What you get, give.”
Oyauma Garrison, the new CEO of Maryhaven, Central Ohio’s oldest and most comprehensive behavioral health and addiction treatment provider, embraces Angelou’s philosophy. He defines a life well lived as one of constant self-improvement that ensures you can consistently pay it forward.
“I have never shied away from joining any leadership program that could sharpen my skills or add tools to my tool kit,” Garrison says. “I love to explore new ideas and constructs, enhance workplace culture, motivate people and see us realize our goals. But, the point of all that education, the heartbeat of every experience, is to deepen your positive impact on other people’s lives.”
Garrison’s personal and professional history and experiences well prepare him for the complexities and opportunities of managing a large, multi-location behavioral health care facility.
He acquired strategic and operational management expertise during a 20-year stint in the insurance industry, starting with State Farm after graduation from Dennison University. “My first work engagement helped me develop the ability to navigate halls and walls, understand leadership and live out a vision and mission,” he explains.
He found mentors like Eschol Curl, one of the regional officers for State Farm, who pushed him to explore the language of the boardroom and earn his master’s in business administration. Volunteering for leadership roles with organizations, like the National Black MBA Association, added to his knowledge and networking base and led him to a new role at Nationwide Insurance.
As Chief of Staff to the Chief Marketing Officer, he immersed himself in innovative thinking and how to create a great workplace culture as well as make a profit.
“What was great about the insurance industry is that it taught me how to navigate politics and bureaucracy, while also deepening my appreciation for just how incredibly valuable people are,” he says. “When people understand and align themselves to a shared purpose, the sky is the limit.”
He entered the nonprofit world as CEO five years ago, turning a local entity that serves families and children with severe illnesses into a national organization. “I’ve never looked for easy jobs,” he says. “I’m always interested in challenges that stretch my intellectual muscle and make a meaningful difference for other people.”
Garrison’s LinkedIn profile includes 24 entries that summarize his professional accomplishments and volunteer commitments. Among them are stints on the boards of St. Vincent Family Center, Impact Community Action, Build On, the National African American Insurance Association, Buckeye Insurance Group and The Jacobson Group, an insurance industry-centric executive placement firm.
Not a surprising pace for a man who, when staring down the COVID epidemic, decided to run literally every day starting on January 1, 2020. By the time you read these words, he will have hit his stride 1,000 consecutive days of running.
His determination began in boyhood, growing up in inner city Baltimore. The lessons of his early years left indelible images of the realities of addiction. “I saw many people on the streets of Baltimore with similar stories and circumstances to the clients we serve,” he explains. “I know the struggles of maintaining sobriety all too well, as my father, a veteran who served his country honorably and who was an incredibly strong man, lived with alcoholism.”
He sees his new role at Maryhaven as a blessing and a calling, rather than a job. But that calling is focused and tempered by data-driven strategy, business acumen and an acute understanding that Maryhaven will do the most good if it is also the best-operated, most innovative provider of its kind.
“First and foremost,” he says, “we have to change how we describe who we are and why we do what we do. We are a social service agency but, after nearly 70 years, Maryhaven is also an economic backbone. We’ve generated more than a $1 billion in positive economic impact to Ohio. We stabilize lives and families, help people return and stay productive in the workforce, find housing and function as taxpayers and consumers. At the same time, we are a nonprofit. It’s not just about revenues and the bottom line, we focus on people—those we serve and the staff that serves them. Our staff are compassionate, dedicated experts. They need all the resources and support we can offer as they go about the essential work of truly restoring lives.”
What Maryhaven does matters more than ever. As Garrison points out, he came to the agency at a time in which there has been a 44% increase in overdose rates in the African American community.
“We have to innovate and collaborate to beat those sobering numbers,” he states. “So, in addition to a continuum of care that reflects best practices for treatment, we also are focused on prevention to avoid relapse moments and crises and collaboration to provide wrap-around services that people can easily navigate and rely upon. A woman in our women’s center engagement program should easily be able to access work clothes through Dress for Success, food for her family through the Mid-Ohio Food Collective or Local Matters, and employment and training options through local companies or other nonprofits.”
Garrison also wants to be sure that Maryhaven is seen as a vital resource for all Central Ohio communities. “Addiction tears at all fabrics of our society, affluent suburbs, inner city neighborhoods, and rural communities. It exists everywhere, no one is immune. The difference is that not everyone has the same access to treatment and resources that are critical to long-term recovery.
While he is leading change to make sure Maryhaven’s services are universally accessible across its eight urban and rural sites, he sees diversity as a continuous thread in the organization’s history.
“Maryhaven exists because of some wonderful folks in 1953 who wanted to reach a group of people who were not being served—women battling alcoholism,” he says. “The focus at the time was on treatment for men. The same thinking has to guide us today. Our mission must include being seen as accessible by people of color. We intend to build bridges with great organizations already in the urban community, partner with other community leaders and join into an open and honest dialogue about what is truly happening in our families and neighborhoods.”
This calls for appropriate treatment protocols too, as he notes: “In certain markets, heroin is no longer the drug of choice. Crystal meth dominates, because it is cheaper, and more readily available. Our treatment practices have to track with these realities and offer the right level of care for all types of substance use disorder. Crack didn’t disappear because of the opioid crisis.”
He’s calling for honest dialogue too. “We also must address the misperceptions about drugs like marijuana,” he points out. “It may seem less harmful, but for many people it is a gateway drug. Just like we didn’t talk about women drinking alcohol in the 1950s, we can’t afford to sidestep these hard conversations today.”
Maryhaven is on the move, adding a longer-term hybrid residential unit where people can transition after their initial recovery. “It’s critical that we offer more partial out-patient programs so people have stability in housing and treatment while they return to work or start a workforce readiness program,” he explains. “We also intend to hire our former clients as employees, so they can bolster their resume and continue working for a brighter and better future.”
Garrison is a former marathon coach and DJ who worked at parties and receptions throughout his college career. It isn’t a surprise that he concluded every event with a favorite song: “Lean on Me.”
That’s what it means to try to live a legacy.