2018 Leadership Conference Speaker Bios
Rhoni Basden has been the proud executive director of Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley for over 5 years. She and her husband relocated from Seattle, Washington, where Rhoni was the former education & special needs coordinator for the City of Seattle's Head Start program. Rhoni has two little boys who are very much a part of Girls Inc., being raised with a strong dedication to equal rights. She graduated from the University of San Francisco and has dedicated her career to public service and charitable organizations. She has worked for the ACLU, Seattle Children’s Hospital's Autism Research Department, and contributed to research in early childhood development studies with former clients. Her mission is to ensure that all girls within our community have access to quality, educational and intentional programs that allow them to grow into the best versions of themselves.
Julia Bentley is a public company investor relations and communications professional with over 30 years of experience. She is accomplished in investor relations and media relations, internal communications, technical and persuasive writing, crisis management, and people development. Julia has financial and business acumen and experience in budgeting, financial analysis, financial and SEC reporting, strategic planning, acquisitions and divestitures, post-merger organizational integration, and corporate governance. She has worked as vice president of investor relations and communications for Vera Bradley and Saks Incorporated. While at Saks Fifth Avenue, she also served as the official company spokesperson. Prior to 1998, Bentley served in various posts at publicly-traded retailer Proffitt’s, Inc., including senior vice president and chief financial officer. Prior to joining Proffitt’s, she earned her CPA designation and served as an audit manager with Ernst & Young.
Julia is very active in the Knoxville community. She is a member of the Executive Women’s Association and currently serves on the boards and various committees of several organizations, including the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum and the Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians. She was appointed by Mayor Madeline Rogero to a seven-year term on the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, and is current president of the board of the YWCA of Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley. Bentley holds a BS in business administration from the University of Tennessee, where she graduated with highest honors in accounting.
Freddi Birdwell is a seasoned fundraising professional with more than 25 years invested in fundraising and nonprofit management. Her progressive career includes extensive work with the American Cancer Society, where she served in a variety of leadership positions, and with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, where she spent eight years as director of development and community relations. She has worked at the local, state and regional levels. In both organizations, Freddi was a part of and sometimes the catalyst for significant transformation and growth. Her experience inspired her to become a consultant and trainer, with a passion for helping small to medium nonprofits reach the next level of service to their communities.
Freddi holds the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential and is a past president of the Great Smoky Mountain Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She also serves on the boards of the Smoky Mountain Planned Giving Council and the Knoxville Association of Women Executives. Freddi earned a BS in secondary education at the University of Memphis, with endorsements in English and speech/communications, and completed additional coursework in communications and public relations at UT Knoxville.
Dr. Walter Crouch
Walter Crouch, PhD was selected by the board of trustees of Appalachia Service Project to be the home repair ministry’s next leader in January 2011. He most recently served as the vice president of church relations at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, TN. He joined C-N’s religion faculty in 1998, teaching a number of courses and specializing in Old Testament. He moved to administration as vice president for church relations and director of the Norton Institute for Congregational Health in 2002. Since 2008, he has led the College’s Ministry Guidance Program for those called to full-time Christian service.
Dr. Crouch’s professional experience blends a quarter-century of ministry with hands on skills learned as a journeyman electrician as well as a certified general contractor, mortgage broker, and real estate agent. During the course of his educational pursuit and academic career, he has served as either full-time or interim pastor at churches in Florida, Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Tennessee. He holds a BA from Palm Beach Atlantic University, an MDiv from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Baylor University.
Jim Fetzer is the Chairman for the East Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. ET-VOAD is a voluntary consortium of recognized state and volunteer organizations active in disaster relief. Its mission is to foster, through cooperation in mitigation and response, more effective service to people affected (imperiled or impacted) by disasters. ET-VOAD assists volunteer organizations become more effective in their service in disaster relief and recovery.
Lee Freeman is the CEO/executive director of Sertoma Center, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides resources to and helps enrich the lives of adults living with mental and intellectual disabilities. After working as a nursing recruiter and account executive for a national staffing firm, he began a prosperous career in marketing for DeRoyal Industries, an international, vertically integrated manufacturer and marketer of healthcare products. There he marketed, trained and sold acute care medical devices and personally holds two patents for surgical products.
After gaining his MBA in 2015 from The University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business, Lee decided to make a career change, as he felt the desire to serve his community and better the lives of those in need. He became the leader of the Sertoma Center in 2017. In addition to his MBA, he holds an undergraduate degree from UT Knoxville in communications with a concentration in advertising.
Lisa Higginbotham, MSW, serves as the program manager for the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS), a secure, collaborative database on persons experiencing homelessness. Under Lisa’s leadership, KnoxHMIS has doubled community partnerships and now hosts 21 Knoxville-Knox County social service agencies, including over 60 programs. Lisa has 16 years of experience in program development and community engagement in addressing homelessness, housing, mental health, and domestic violence. Lisa earned her MSW from the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, and has worked in the UT Social Work Office of Research and Public Service since 2012. Lisa also serves as an adjunct professor for the University of Tennessee teaching Advanced Organizational Theory and Practice.
John is a creative thinker marked by an insatiable curiosity, positive mindset, and good humor. He is skilled and experienced in the innovation development process and strengths-based change management. John supports and empowers companies, organizations, and individuals to shape their work and personal lives by finding innovative solutions to complex challenges and optimizing the life-giving forces that help them thrive. John’s mission is to assist in the discovery of organizational strengths and structure, and enable creative approaches to seemingly fixed problems and reframe those problems into opportunities. John holds an MA in design thinking and is a certified appreciative inquiry facilitator. He has also taken additional courses at the Luma Institute, The Grove International Consultants, and IDEO U.
Kim Lauth has more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector as a director of development and marketing, vice president, executive director, COO, and consultant. In 2013, she formed Kim Lauth Consulting, LLC, a consultancy focused on building organizational capacity to meet community needs. Kim has held the CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) certification since 2002. She is the president of the Smoky Mountain Planned Giving Council and past president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Great Smoky Mountain Chapter. Throughout her career, she has raised millions of dollars for operations and capital projects. Her work has been published in the Journal of Healthcare Philanthropy.
Allen Newton earned a BS and MS in education from the University of Tennessee. He is currently the director of the Sevier County Economic Development Council, and has been in this role since 1997. Allen has also worked with workforce development programs, including Sevier County Partners, has served in management for the Smokies Stadium, construction management, concert and special events management, and has assisted with wildfire recovery. He is co-owner of Buddy’s Bar-B-Q in Sevierville, chairman on the ETEDA Advisory Committee, and past president of the Sevier County UT Alumni Chapter. Allen has also served as a board member for Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport Authority, Sevier County Fair Association, United Way of Sevier County, Sevier County Tourism Committee, and ETDD Economic Development Subcommittee.
Dr. David Patterson
David A. Patterson, PhD, MSW, is the Cooper-Herron Endowed Professor of Mental Health Research and Practice in the College of Social Work at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the founding director of the Doctor of Social Work (DSW) in clinical practice and leadership program, having served in the position since 2010. Dr. Patterson has been the PI/Director of HUD and locally-funded Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS), a community outreach research endeavor of the College of Social Work. He is a past-president of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Faculty Senate. He is also the past chair of the UT Office of Research and Engagement-sponsored Academic Outreach and Engagement Council. He is a UMASS Center for Mindfulness Qualified Teacher with a daily meditation practice of more than a quarter century. The primary teaching focus of Dr. Patterson’s 27-year academic career has been on clinical social work practice. A major focus of his scholarship in recent years has been on homelessness and the application of information technology in service delivery to homeless individuals and families. Dr. Patterson is the author of numerous peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters.
Jacqui Pearl has served as the executive director for the Koinonia Foundation since August 2017. In that time, she has taken on a multitude of tasks including growing the newest program under the Koinonia Foundation umbrella: We Adapt Programs. We Adapt Programs are monthly recreational activities held in Knoxville that provide a social, fun, and safe outlet for adults with disabilities. Her goal is to give participants the ability to socialize with peers and be independent in addition to providing families with respite care.
Jacqui is a twelve-year resident of Knoxville and has grown to admire the philanthropic nature of the area. Her past nonprofit experience is varied, having participated on boards and committees for organizations such as Horse Haven of Tennessee, The Stanford-Eisenberg Knoxville Jewish Day School, and Girls Inc. Her compassion and willingness to aid populations within the community that are underserved has made her a valuable part of the Koinonia Foundation family. Koinonia in Greek means “caring community,” and that’s what Jacqui hopes to continue to bring to the individuals in our area with disabilities.
Frank Rothermel is president and 50% stockholder of the Denark Construction. Rothermel joined forces with Denark in 1996, after over 20 years of experience founding and leading his own construction company. From his early experience as a craftsman and his BS degree in economics from Ohio University, he has always put quality construction and customer care first.
Frank brings a wealth of construction experience and a deep understanding of a client’s expectations. As president, he focuses his attention primarily on operations, office management, and finance & administration. Through this participation, he is able to guarantee Denark’s continued strong and stable growth.
Beyond his general contracting accomplishments, he has made a point of giving back to the community through work with many local nonprofit organizations. Rothermel has dedicated a great deal of his time and energy toward the advancement of nonprofit and community organizations that are focused on the care and enrichment of people’s lives. Rothermel serves on multiple boards, including chairman emeritus and founding member of Volunteer East Tennessee, chair-elect of the Medic Regional Blood Center, and member of the Knoxville Homeless Coalition, to name a few.
Paul Schmitz builds the collective leadership of organizations and communities to achieve greater social impact through his roles as senior advisor at The Collective Impact Forum and CEO of Leading Inside Out. He is also the author of Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, and the former CEO of Public Allies, where he helped more than 5,000 diverse young adults begin careers working for community and social change. Paul is a faculty member of The Asset-Based Community Development Institute, was a social innovation advisor to the Obama White House, and has been named three separate years to The Nonprofit Times list of the 50 most influential nonprofit leaders in America.
Grant Standefer served as the director of development at Compassion Coalition from November of 2004 until February of 2006. He then served as the executive director from 2006-2018. Grant holds a BA in Biblical studies from Lubbock Christian University, an MA in Biblical and related studies from Abilene Christian University, and a DMin in missional and spiritual formation from Lipscomb University. He is a certified Bridges Out of Poverty trainer, and has completed the Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness program through the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. He is also a graduate of both Introduction Knoxville and Leadership Knoxville. Grant serves on Mayor Rogero’s roundtable on homelessness, the FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Board, and is a member of the United Way of Greater Knoxville’s Faith Cabinet and Connect Knox.
Rev. Allyn Steele
Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele is the co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center. Raised in Texas, Germany, and North Carolina, Allyn’s work has included solidarity struggles with Thai people’s movements; work as an educator and organizer in Spartanburg, South Carolina; and a range of support for front-line struggles in Nashville, Tennessee and throughout the South and Appalachia. As a member of the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), Allyn was a member of Highlander’s 2010 Threads cohort and served as an adult ally for the 2010 Seeds of Fire youth program. He joined Highlander’s Board of Directors in 2011.
An ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Steele has served congregations in Juneau, Nashville, and Springfield. Allyn’s focus and interests lie at the intersection of radical pastoral care, institutional transformation, dismantling toxic white masculinities, and liberation-driven ministry and movement building, especially in rural and small-town communities. Allyn holds a BA in history from Wofford College (SC) and an MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. He came to Highlander from the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, where he served as a member of the education team.
John Tolsma is founder and CEO of Knowledge Launch, LLC, a global learning company. A graduate of Duke University and Harvard’s JD/MBA program, he has lived in Knoxville for almost twenty years. John serves as chair of the Connect Knox Steering Committee, an initiative of Leadership Knoxville, and is chairman of the board of the Webb School of Knoxville.
Jerry Wear is retired from public school administration in the Sevier County School System, where he served for forty-five years. A Rotarian with the Pigeon Forge Rotary since 1984, he has been a member of the board, president, Youth Act and Interact sponsor, and Youth Projects chairman. Jerry served District 6780 as chairman of the Youth Exchange Committee and as a member of the Group Study Exchange Committee, and has served on the planning committee for three District Conferences, as well as the Rotary International President’s World Interact Conference held in Pigeon Forge.
Wear was a member of the Ohio-Erie Multi-District Rotary Youth Exchange Committee for twenty-two years, where he served as chief contact and country contact for France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. He was a delegate to the Europe, Eastern Mediterranean, and African Youth Exchange Conferences held in Madrid, Brussels, and Lille, representing the United States and Canada Rotary Districts. He is a major donor to Rotary Foundation, and served as assistant district governor from 2009-2012.
Wear presently serves as committeeman of the Heart 2 Heart project sponsored by the Heart of America Rotary Zones 30 and 31, which restores sanitation and provides clean water in the Kentucky coal mining region that has been devastated by the Federal Government.
Ellen Wilhoit is the executive director of Leadership Sevier, which strives to identify and select current and emerging leaders within the community for participation in their three programs: Leadership Sevier, Leadership Tomorrow, and Smoky Mountain Youth Leadership. Ellen retired in 2015 as the president and chief administrative officer of the LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville. For the past 38 years, she has built on the foundation she gained from her education at East Tennessee State University to become a leader in the healthcare field.
Ellen graduated from ETSU with a BS in nursing, and later earned an MS in health services administration from the College of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinios. She has served as director of nursing at Fort Sanders Sevier Medical Center, and was later promoted in 1995 to VP of Women’s Services system position for Fort Sanders Health System. She then returned to Fort Sanders Sevier Medical Center as assistant administrator/chief nursing office and nursing home administrator. In 1999, Ellen became president and chief administrative officer and nursing home administrator, serving 15 years in that capacity. In 2014, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from ETSU.
Generous with her time, Ellen has served on the boards of many organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club of the Smoky Mountains for over 25 years, Mountain Tough Recovery Team, Sevier County Children’s Shelter, Sevier County CARES, Robert F. Thomas Foundation, ETSU Foundation, ETSU National Alumni Association, ETSU Board of Visitors, James H. Quillen College of Medicine, ETSU Nursing Advisory Council, and ETSU/Sevier County Partnership. She has also served on boards or committees for East Tennessee Healthcare Executives, Knox Area Hospital Council/Tennessee Hospital Association, Sevier County Board of Health, and First United Methodist Church. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Tennessee Association of Community Leaders.
Liza Zenni’s career in nonprofit administration has spanned 20 years. Since 2002, she has served as executive director of the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, a membership-based organization of artists, arts and culture organizations, historic homes, and arts supporters in 11 East Tennessee counties. Alliance membership now includes 450 individuals and more than 110 organizations ranging from multi-million dollar performing arts organizations to tiny historic homes. Liza led the creation of the downtown’s Emporium Center in 2004 and now manages its spaces, providing homes for eight arts organizations, 10 artist studios, and countless exhibits which have returned more than $300,000 in artwork sales to local artists.
Under her leadership, the Alliance created Knoxville’s first united arts fund in 2012, which, in addition to providing general operating support for established organizations, has recently expanded to include a grant program specifically benefiting individual artists and nonprofit arts organizations with annual budgets under $100,000. Since 2015, Zenni has led the City of Knoxville Mayor’s Public Arts Committee. As a result, the city’s public art collection has grown more than 10% in the past year.