Donna Urian, Board Chair of the YMCA Greater Brandywine and Shareholder at Fischer Cunnane & Associates Ltd, spoke to DELCO Today about growing up in Springfield and Glen Mills. As the oldest of six children, she sold greeting cards door-to-door at age 10 to earn her own money. She chose a career in accounting because she had an aptitude for math and, as a single parent, wanted a job that would be in demand to support her family.
Donna discussed how she became involved with the YMCA after attending a fundraising dinner to raise money for swimming lessons for kids. She also shared new developments at the Y, including the surge of interest in pickleball and more programs for seniors.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born at Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, PA. We lived in Springfield, Delaware County, until I was about 12, and then my parents moved to Glen Mills, Thornbury Township. We were in the West Chester Area School District.
I’m currently living in the house I grew up in. My husband and I bought the house after my mother passed away. I’m trying to prove Thomas Wolfe wrong – you can go home again.
What did your parents do?
My father was a radiologist, and my mother worked for Glaxo. She stopped working outside the home to , raise the six of us, and then when the youngest was out of college, she went back to work for my dad’s billing company.
You were the oldest of six – what role did you play in your family? Were you the boss?
My younger siblings would probably tell you yes. I was the one that got them all in line. There are only eight years between me and the youngest, so we’re close in age.
What memories do you have of growing up in Springfield and Glen Mills?
Growing up in Springfield, I remember following the mosquito man on my bicycle, breathing in all those DDT fumes. Today, you’d have your kids taken away if you let them do that.
One of my fondest memories was being part of “Donze’s Backyard Follies.” We had somebody in our community who was very passionate and active in the community, and she got all the kids involved in putting on a show every summertime as a fundraiser. We’d practice all summer and then performed for the public.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
My first W-2 was a waitress at Abbott’s Dairy Cottage in Springfield. I did a lot of waitressing throughout high school and college at various locations.
Before that, though, I remember signing up to sell greeting cards door-to-door. I loved getting out there, making my own money, and having my own business. I didn’t tell my parents I signed up for it until I got the greeting card kit. in the mail.
Where did that entrepreneurial spirit come from?
I had sold Girl Scout cookies, so I was used to going door-to-door, and I liked that. I wasn’t old enough to babysit, my parents hired babysitters. I saw them getting paid, so you put all that together, and I thought, why not sell my own greeting cards and make my own money?
Of all the lessons you learned from those early jobs, what stays with you?
I learned how to deal with the public, which is an invaluable skill. I also know which side is my bread-and-butter plate and my coffee saucer, as far as setting tables. But dealing with the public was the most important. Whether it was the ice cream place or a more refined establishment, people are pretty much the same.
Did you do any sports in high school?
I didn’t do any in high school, but I played field hockey in junior high. I went to Henderson High School – it was very competitive – and I preferred participating in the geography and history bees.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
My first introduction to music was groups like the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere and the Raiders. I pretty much like the same music today that I liked back then. My first concert was the Rolling Stones at the Spectrum, with Stevie Wonder as the opening act. I still see them when the tour. The last concert I took my children and they had a blast.
Where did you go to college, and why there?
I got my degree from Widener, and how I ended up there was something of a serendipitous route. I started at Penn State Brandywine. After I got married I moved moving to North Carolina. That put my college degree on hold. I had two children and then became a single parent.
I moved back here, and I was blessed to have the parents I did. They helped me get back to school. Widener had great professors and a great reputation for accounting, and that’s how I ended up there for my third and fourth years.
Why the drive for college? Were your parents pushing all your siblings to go to college?
Only some of the six of us. I did well the first day of first grade to get into the college of my choice. My dad was the first one on either his or my mother’s side to go to college, and not only did he go to college, he went to medical school. There was a difference in opportunities for my siblings and me versus some of my cousins, and I was the beneficiary of that.
So we knew that college created great opportunities. My parents realized my one sibling did not care to go to college and she had different interests and they supported her to find something she was passionate about.
When you finished at Widener, did you go to graduate school or go right into the workforce?
I started working. After a couple of years, I went back for my master’s degree. I needed time to apply what I had learned, so the Master’s education was both practical and theoretical.
Why did you decide to study taxes and accounting?
The accounting was because I liked and was good at math, and being a single parent, I needed a technical, marketable skill so that I could get hired as soon as I graduated. Although, accounting isn’t anything like math anymore. And I got along well with the Widener accounting professors.
I studied taxes because I wanted to be an attorney, and there are legal applications. Also, the tax partner when I started my career was a mentor and he was a strong influence.
When you look back over your career, who are the people who believed in you?
Without a doubt my parents. When I came back here as a single parent at 26 and didn’t know what I would do, they got behind me.
Then, career-wise, some of the managers. When I started, we were part of another firm. I’ve been with the same firm my entire career, even though the name has changed. Some of those managers and supervisors spent time with me and helped me develop my career. When I worked in Media, one of the managers said, “Hey, Donna, there’s a great opportunity for you in West Chester – why don’t you talk to them?” and got me talking to Bob Fischer and Joe Cunnane. They really took a personal interest in my career development.
I also had professors who took an interest and said, “Hey, go ahead and be part of this work-study program,” or made introductions for me.
What do you think they saw in you?
They saw somebody who worked hard and took the time to study the details before I asked questions.
How did you get on the YMCA Board? How did you get involved with the Y, and what is your role there?
I got involved initially because I was invited to a Good Kids dinner. I was very impressed with the mission. At that dinner, they were looking to raise money for swimming lessons so everybody could learn to swim. My mother was passionate about us learning to swim – we all took swimming lessons as kids at the Suburban Swim Club. I realized how important that is and that not everybody has the opportunity to go to a swim club and learn to swim. I thought providing underserved youth swim lessons was a great mission.
That was my first introduction. After that, I was friendly with the CFO at the time, who reached out and asked if I would be on the finance committee. They then asked me to be on the Board, and at that time, I had to say I couldn’t do it, but please keep my name for the future. And they did. Denise Day reached out to me about eight years ago and asked if I would consider serving on the Board. That’s when I joined.
What is your role on the Board?
I’m the chair. It’s a two-year term. I started at the beginning of 2022.
What’s going on at the YMCA that you find exciting and engaging?
COVID created a challenging environment for nonprofit and for-profit businesses as well. Today, many nonprofits are adapting to the current needs of their community.
Healthy living and social responsibility are a priority for everybody, whether for young or old. The Y serves an important community need, there’s something at the Y for everybody
One of my favorite programs I like to participate in is the holiday program for the children who use their “Y bucks” they’ve earned throughout the year to shop for family members, whether it’s grandparents, parents, or siblings.
A new initiative is Kindness Matters. I believe it really does.
What’s on the horizon for the Y?
We continue to look at the strategic plan developed as we came out of COVID to ensure we are relevant and fulfilling our mission.
We’re looking at ways to help seniors because we realize that is a population that can benefit from more social interaction. There’s a lot that we can offer them. When you look at well-being, it’s not just physical. It’s emotional and mental as well. We can be a resource and facilitator, and collaborate with other community partners. That applies to seniors, as well as families and youth
If you haven’t heard of pickleball before – it’s hot. Denise Day was one of the first people I heard utter those words. She said, “Just watch out – this is coming.” She was right. It’s been great for our membership.
What is it about pickleball that makes it so attractive to seniors?
It’s intergenerational. Seniors can play with grandchildren or other generations. They’re still getting some physical exercise. There’s a sense of community. I don’t know why, but it captures what other sports are not. Not everybody’s golfing or playing tennis, bowling can be too noisy for some, but pickleball has captured a lot of people’s interest.
What other community initiatives are you involved in personally, Donna?
Currently, I’m also on the Board of the Chester County Community Foundation. Those are the two that I’m currently on. Knowing that I would be chair of the Y Board and wanting to do a good job there, I deliberately stayed off other Boards but said, “Keep my name in the hat, but I can’t do it at this time.”
What do you do with all your free time?
I have five grandchildren, and they keep me pretty busy. Longwood Gardens is a favorite for walks, any time off year. I used to volunteer there and enjoyed it. During COVID, I missed live music and travel, so I am doing as much of that as I can.
Do you read much?
I’m a summertime reader, always have a book at the pool or the beach. I’m a little bit of a news junkie,
Do you have a favorite source for news?
I find myself going more and more to BBC and Reuter’s. It’s not easy to find true news and be able to get rid of everything extraneous. I’ve realized that most of our news sources are biased, and I take that into consideration. I do look at issues and events from both sides.
In this crazy world that we live in, how do you maintain your hope and optimism?
When I look back at various documentaries – whether it’s on the History Channel, YouTube or PBS, they’ll show the ’60s or the ’70s or the ’80s – you look at what we went through back then, and we got through it.
Why wouldn’t we get through the next stage based on the past? And – what choice do we really have? We’ll get through this.
Finally, Donna, what’s the best advice anybody ever gave you?
“Embrace change” I have gotten a lot of great advice over the years, but this one is most relevant today.