President and CEO, Caring Health Center
In Both Healthcare and Ministry, She Leads with a Servant’s Heart
By Mark Morris
Tania Barber likes to say her main motivation is servant leadership.
As president and CEO of Caring Health Center, as well as the founder and pastor of Living Water Global Ministries, her passion is focusing on the needs of others rather than the wants of self.
“I’m working in the career of healthcare, and I’m intertwining my calling, which is being a help to others,” she said. “It’s what gives me my drive.”
Barber’s story with Caring Health Center (CHC) begins in the salon where she worked as a hairdresser, which was about to close. As she was trying to figure out what to do next, one of her customers offered Barber temporary work as a switchboard operator at CHC.
“That was definitely not in my future plans, but it was bread and butter on the table for my children, so I said, ‘absolutely, I would love to come and help out,’” she recalled.
After a year as an independent contractor, Barber was hired as the permanent switchboard operator. As the years progressed, so did her career in roles of increasing responsibility, culminating in 2005 when she was asked to be CHC’s chief operations officer. She declined that offer and was asked two more times before finally accepting the position. Her hesitation was due to a concern that the COO position would remove her from the ability to engage and communicate directly with patients.
“I finally realized that I could have a greater impact in an executive management role, to help inform the policies and practices of the organization,” she told BusinessWest. “It was a chance to make positive changes to the issues I saw first-hand when I worked on the front line.”
Barber’s empathy for people in the community goes much deeper than her experience as a healthcare worker.
“I am one of our patients; I come from the same community,” she said. “When I was on MassHealth, I was denied services because they weren’t covered.”
These inequities made her more passionate about her position because community health centers are mandated to provide care for everyone, whether they have insurance or not. “It gave me the chance to speak to family members and people in the community that they could receive high-quality healthcare like everyone else and not be denied because of their ability to pay.”
Her passion for helping others led to her promotion to president and CEO of CHC in 2013. Under her leadership, the center has increased the number of patients seen every year from 14,000 to nearly 20,000, while staffing has increased from 109 employees to 250.
New services offered under her watch as president include a pharmacy, behavioral-health and substance-use treatment, and a wellness center. She has also built a diverse team, with strong representation by people of color in executive management and throughout the organization.
Barber has also put a special emphasis on improving services for the underserved and refugee populations in the community, noting that “I want to help remove the barriers and increase their access to quality care.” Currently, CHC serves the largest number of refugee and immigrant patients outside of Boston.
“I finally realized that I could have a greater impact in an executive management role, to help inform the policies and practices of the organization. It was a chance to make positive changes to the issues I saw first-hand when I worked on the front line.”
COVID-19 has brought multiple challenges to healthcare organizations, and CHC is no exception. Like most facilities, CHC offers telehealth, which works well for those who can access it. For others, it leads to a ‘digital divide’ where patients who might benefit from telehealth lack access to the internet or the devices to connect. This concerns Barber because recent data shows communities of color have contracted COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate.
While patients can still go to CHC for care, fear of leaving the house and becoming infected by coronavirus are preventing many from treating their other ailments. For the refugee population, these fears are compounded by the dual concerns of being exposed to immigration authorities, as well as to the coronavirus.
One solution, then, was to bring CHC to its patients.
“We purchased a mobile van to bring care to the community,” she explained. “The Mobile Health Clinical Services program has enabled us to confront some of the challenges we’ve seen during these times of COVID.”
Working with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, CHC also arranged to provide mattresses as a way to combat COVID-19. Barber explained that a mattress makes a big difference for patients who live in dense neighborhoods or housing.
“Many of these people were sharing the same sleeping quarters or even sleeping in the same bed. By setting up individual mattresses, they are able to get some separation.”
Woman of Faith
In addition to her full-time career with Caring Health Center, Barber is a minister with Living Water Global Ministries, which she founded in 2011. While wearing two hats can be exhausting, the key for her is balance. “I make sure to rest and take a vacation when I feel its time. Of course, I factor in family time as well.”
As a woman of faith, Barber said she believes in adding value to the lives of others. It starts with seeing a person’s potential, and she has encouraged several CHC employees to enroll in undergraduate and graduate programs.
“They have gone back to school, graduated, and now work in different roles in the organization. Two of our employees are currently pursuing doctorate programs,” Barber said with pride. “If you believe in people, they will have the faith to believe in themselves.”
In the spirit of that philosophy, Barber founded EST.HER, a leadership-consulting firm, in 2019. “One day I was looking at the Book of Esther and I didn’t see the name ‘Esther’ I saw E-S-T, H-E-R, and thought, ‘establish her.’”
Because her passion is to help others achieve their goals and dreams, Barber founded EST.HER to help motivate disenfranchised women and allow them to eventually become pillars in the community. In fact, the EST.HER logo uses the acronym PILLHERS, which stands for ‘Purposely Impacting Lifestyle Leaders Helping Each Reach Success.’
Biblical scholars have noted that the Book of Esther teaches that our past doesn’t dictate our future, and God places mentors in our lives to teach us wisdom, she noted. “I want to help women aspire to become the pillars in our community and serve as the anchors who can help the next generation of leaders.”
In her nomination of Barber as a Woman of Impact, Yvonne Williams, chief Development officer at CHC, noted that “it’s not an overstatement to say that Tania Barber’s intelligence and vision directly impact the lives of thousands of patients and their families, as well as hundreds of employees.”
Early in her career, Barber took a professional-development course titled, “How to Take Charge of the Front Desk.” Among other things, she credits it with teaching her how to switch gears to the supervisor role after making friends with co-workers.
“The course was also instrumental in teaching how to lead, how to help people see beyond the horizon of where we are and where we need to go, and, finally, how to get there.”
That early course launched a career of servant leadership, in which she is still helping people see beyond the horizon by making the simple declaration, “I’m here to help.”
With a long track record of leading by example and helping others do the same, Barber is a true Woman of Impact.