Maria Heege isn’t eager to talk about her accomplishments.

Heege, the president and CEO of United Way of Greater Stark County, is one of this year’s Women’s Impact award recipients. She’s quick to point out that she doesn’t work alone. The community is full of amazing women.

“There’s so many women I work with who deserve to have it, too,” she said. “So I’m representing all those women in Stark County.”

Heege has spent more than 40 years working with nonprofits and more than 36 years—her entire adult career—with United Way.

She volunteered for the organization as a child, working alongside her mother. In 1981, Heege was a student at Kent State University and volunteering at Indian River in Massillon when United Way offered her a job. She accepted and never left, rising through the ranks from program director to executive director to executive vice president to chief operating officer. She was named president and CEO in 2008.

When she moved into a leadership role, she made it a point to lead by example.

Heege and her husband, Karl, are guardians of Heege’s sister, Chris, who has disabilities. She knows firsthand how difficult it can be to balance family responsibilities with work and other obligations.

So Heege implemented flexible scheduling, to give United Way employees (often women) the time to take care of their loved ones.

When Heege started her career, she made sure to gather a “safety net” of mentors, women she could approach for advice or encouragement. She offers that same service to others by actively listening and sharing life experiences.

“In turn, I have learned so much from these amazing women,” she said.

Maureen Ater, vice president of marketing and fund development at Goodwill Industries, counts Heege as one of her strongest supporters. Ater knows she’s not the only one.

“Maria has been one of the most influential people in my personal and professional life. She has an amazing ability to build up people around her,” Ater wrote in an email.

“Maria has dedicated her life to this community, working most of her career as a leader in the nonprofit world and volunteering with hundreds of other organizations and initiatives. Her passion and drive are unparalleled … She is a selfless leader; always focused on others above herself.”

Heege is involved with numerous organizations including the Stark County Family Council, ICARE Care Team, Stark County Homeless Continuum of Care, My Community Health Center, the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, Stark Civic Group, Stark Board of Developmental Disabilities, the United Way Worldwide Human Trafficking Committee and the Ohio United Way Board of Directors.

Heege is a strong believer in the philosophy of servant leadership. It’s what drives her work.

“I really, really believe in giving back. I believe that we all have the opportunity to lead,” she said. “To remember where we came from and those who help us. We have the responsibility, then, to pay that out to other individuals.”

She’s passionate about the key role United Way plays in the community and its ability to bring all different people together.

“I try to make sure we treat everyone as equals. It doesn’t matter what the title is behind your name. It’s what you’re doing to give back to this community that’s been so good to us,” she said.

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Jessica Holbrook

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