IT'S EASY TO BE fooled by the genteel appearance of Barbara Birkenheuer. That benevolent smile hides a mind bent on producing Fortune 500-quality decisions. More Christian than chief executive officer, she speaks softly, but carries a big clipboard.
When Birkenheuer steps into an office, stand by for action. Using her ability to lead, she transformed into bona fide successes two fledgling nonprofit organizations, the Severna Park Assistance Network (SPAN) and Community Center at Woods.
But Birkenheuer won't have us to boss around much longer. Tomorrow is her last official day as director of the community center.
She and husband, John, and their daughter, Lisa, are moving to Wilmington, N.C., where Mrs. Birkenheuer is to become executive director of its Habitat for Humanity chapter. Lisa is attending Elon College in western North Carolina.
The family vacations in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Birkenheuer says, "and we thought we'd eventually go there to work. But God had something different in mind. This was not an easy decision. It's so hard to say goodbye to the people and a job that you love."
In 1992, she took charge of a fledgling Severna Park Assistance Network and created an outreach program for county residents in crisis that had been conducted hit or miss from the offices of local pastors.
Before the organization of SPAN, ministers from five churches - Woods Memorial Presbyterian, Severna Park United Methodist, St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal, Our Shepherd Lutheran and St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic - had formed an ecumenical committee to try to more efficiently handle the needs of those who came knocking on their doors for help. But the committee was not up to the growing task.
When Birkenheuer was hired, she trained a crew of nearly 20 volunteers to work in the pantry or interview clients in an office in the old parsonage behind Our Shepherd. The pastor, the Rev. Frederick Eichner, was a founding member of the original ecumenical group.
Under Birkenheuer's leadership, SPAN became synonymous with reliable help for Anne Arundel's needy. Today, it provides individuals and families with emergency food and money for prescriptions and home fuel. Its monetary assistance often means the difference between a roof overhead and eviction.
SPAN, sponsored by more than a dozen churches, also provides an outlet for residents who wish to donate time, money, food or all three to help their fellow people.
When Woods church decided five years ago to breathe new life into the bankrupt Severna Park YMCA next door, Birkenheuer left her job at SPAN to become director of the newly named Community Center at Woods.
Under her watch, it has become a social center where seniors receive free medical care, a safe place for teen-agers to meet on Friday nights and an affordable meeting place and fitness center for all residents.
The Rev. Terry Schoener, minister at Woods for 21 years, and the Woods congregation will say farewell and Godspeed to the Birkenheuer family at the 9:30 a.m. service Sunday. A reception will be held afterward.
"This is a goodbye to the whole family," Schoener says. "John was an elder, and Lisa was a big gun in our youth ministry program when she was in high school.
"I'm in mourning. It's a terrible loss, all the skills that Barb has, and she employs them so single-mindedly to further the whole Christian enterprise. That's what I really appreciate about her: her competence, enthusiasm and faith."
Patt Haun, a 20-year resident of Arnold, has agreed to serve as interim director at the community center. Although her position is officially temporary, she would like to make it permanent and has resigned from her job as the center's family life coordinator to be more available.
Haun comes to the job at an important time in the center's development. Plans for a capital campaign to support a proposed expansion and renovation are in the final stages. The campaign is expected to begin within the next two months. "We'd like to be digging holes and making dust sometime next year," Haun says.
Her experience makes her an appropriate choice to oversee construction. She was a member of the first expansion planning committee in the early 1990s, when Woods church built a sanctuary. Then she was chairman of planning for Phase II, the expansion completed in early 1998 that added offices and a front entry.
"It's an exciting time at the community center," Haun says. "It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be worth the effort."