Ellen DeMartinis, CEO of the nonprofit organization, Opportunity Enterprises, works with nearly 500 employees and countless contributing members of the community to service residents of Northwest Indiana who have disabilities, supporting them as they realize their potential with individualized programs, care, and job placement services. Now, as OE looks back on its 50th anniversary, DeMartinis reflects on her 24 years with the organization; nearly a quarter-century that has seen much growth, not only in herself, but in the company and social attitudes in general towards those with disabilities. This growth has involved countless challenges-turned-successes, thanks to the amazing people DeMartinis works aside every day, as she can attest.
DeMartinis has lived in Porter County the majority of her life, having grown up in Chesterton and moved to Valparaiso about 10 years ago; but she has always been in the region. Before her time at OE, she worked for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and ran a license branch for years. Later, she would move on to train different branches on getting organized and in starting new branches. These experiences would go on to help her transition to the next stage in her life.
“I was at a transition point where I thought What do I really want to do with my life? I was 40 years old, I wanted to do something different, but I had no idea I would end up at OE. I could have never anticipated the impact it was going to have on my life and my family’s lives,” said DeMartinis, about the crossroads she had come to in her life.
She had started off working at Opportunity Enterprises under a grant to implement a Total Quality Management System or “TQM,” as it was called in the 1990s.
“It was all about performance measurements, metrics, team techniques and gathering data, analyzing data, problem solving. So, I was brought in to do training with staff. I was really only supposed to be there a few months,” Demartinis said with a laugh, “and twenty-four years later, here I am!”
Soon enough, her program won a national award and her temporary position became a permanent one; DeMartinis was offered an HR position training new staff.
“It’s addicting, OE is addicting. Once you’ve become a part of it, you never want to leave. It captures your heart. That’s what it does to you,” she said earnestly.
As the years passed, DeMartinis would experience a steady rise through the ranks at OE as her hard work and dedication for the organization and strong commitment to its goals and success was noticed by coworkers.
“It just evolved from there,” said DeMartinis of her rise through the ranks of OE. She would go on to become HR Director and thrive in that position for about seven years. Later, as the company grew, former CEO Gary Mitchell wanted to create more of a leadership team so she was promoted to Chief Operating Officer. Eventually, that role would be combined with the role of Vice-President.
During a transition period, DeMartinis served as interim CEO which quickly became a permanent position, as the board asked her to take the position on full-time. After having spent three years in that position, and having gained so much experience already, it felt a natural shift for her.
“When the job is yours and you feel the responsibility, there is a greater level of ownership that comes with that,” DeMartinis said of taking on the new role.
Rising through the ranks at OE wasn’t something DeMartinis could have foreseen as a child thinking of her future career. “I wasn’t exposed to people with disabilities very much, even in school. Times were very, very different then, even volunteering wasn’t as much of an opportunity back then. Growing up in Chesterton there weren’t many of those opportunities. That’s something that has really happened in the last 20 years and it’s so strong in this community,” said DeMartinis of her experience growing up. Fortunately, times have changed for the better and she now helps run an organization that helps individuals with disabilities live longer, more fulfilling lives in the community.
Helping the company comes with its own challenges, but for DeMartinis it is rewarding to keep OE a success and give back to an organization that has seen a lot of change over its half-century of existence. OE started out with a group of 10 families that wanted a better life for their children. In the early 1960s, there were few, if any, places for people with disabilities to go for education, training, or societal integration, let alone to generally improve quality of life.
“They were kept at home and they were basically out of society. It was a very bold move for those families to try to do something that hadn’t been done before,” said DeMartinis of the courage of OE’s founding family members.
OE would soon change this for area families. When OE began it was only a day program and expanded vastly from there. It is far from just day services now, it also offers residential services and job placement, growing from one little room in the bottom of a church basement to having 11 different locations throughout Porter, Lake and La Porte Counties. One of the most recent services offered is OE’s Respite program, which provides clients the opportunity to get the feel for living on their own for a little while, and provides their family members respite. Under constant support by caring OE staff, families participating in Respite are provided a unique chance to experience a break, and clients getting in some social time with friends. Currently, this program serves more than a thousand individuals on an annual basis in a variety of ways; a staggering increase from the ten families with which it began.
“It’s very difficult to become a significant nonprofit, especially with the way funding changes continually in Indiana and elsewhere. The fact that OE opened and has made it 50 years is a milestone within itself,” DeMartinis said of the achievement and success of the non-profit.
Still, DeMartinis emphasizes the community itself as OE’s largest supporter, which has helped it grow from humble beginnings to a large and successful non-profit serving Northwest Indiana.
“Valparaiso and our communities are so perceptive and so supportive of our organization,” said DeMartinis of the constant and sincere outpouring of support Opportunity Enterprises sees from the community. “So many of the local businesses in this county alone support us in very generous ways. The support we get from the state for the services we provide can in no way cover all of our services, so it’s our fundraising campaigns and grant writing efforts that make up the difference. Otherwise, we would only be able to provide very basic services to our clients.”
“Where else can you go where you ask for help on a Saturday morning to pack 40,000 bags for the Chicago Marathon runners and 700 people show up? That is remarkable; it’s a testament to the community and to the belief in OE as well,” DeMartinis said of OE’s Packathon event last year. “That’s what’s kept OE alive for all these years - believing in what we do, believing in the power of potential of people.”
DeMartinis also sees commitment from within that OE’s employees have for their cause, from the bottom to the top, and an unwavering belief in their ability to change the lives of their clients.
“I am very, very fortunate to have such an excellent team of people around me. My executive team is very strong in their skills and there’s a lot of experience there. We have so many talented, long-term managers who have been with the company for many, many years as well, so there is an internal strength along with a very dedicated and engaged board of directors.”
After having been with OE for nearly half of its existence, DeMartinis has no regrets, and said she truly feels blessed by the changes the organization has made upon her and her family, with two daughters having worked there as well.
“It has changed our perspective on so many things in life and it helps you to look at the beauty in every day. The struggles we have are nothing compared to what other people have. You can make a difference and appreciate the smaller things in life when you work at OE,” reflected DeMartinis.