Denise Sears has faced many challenges throughout her life — some a result of her commitment to reach for larger-than-life goals, some a result of personal tragedies that were beyond her control.
Hailing from upstate New York, Denise moved to New York City to attend Columbia University and major in international economics with a focus on developing countries. Her goal was to work for the World Bank, but those were different times, she says, and there was certainly no red carpet for women seeking careers in traditional financial institutions. “The door was not only closed,” Denise quips, “but it was locked and there was a Doberman on the other side keeping guard.”
Denise decided to pursue corporate banking before moving into investment management and then marketing, eventually opening her own marketing firm. But while her career was succeeding on all fronts, her personal life was riddled with obstacles. After leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, Denise was forced to raise her daughter, Lauren, on her own for nearly 20 years. Lauren was the love of Denise’s life, but even her devotion couldn’t protect her child from the harsh realities of illness — and death.
Lauren was diagnosed with kidney disease at age 9. Denise donated one of her own kidneys a year later, but at age 11, Lauren developed cancer from immune suppressant medication. She lost a kidney again, which resulted in another transplant, but because of the impact of chemotherapy, it was hard managing the level of immune suppressants. Lauren battled valiantly over the next decade before passing away in 2012. She was just 23.
Denise has soldiered on despite these challenges. She received a master’s degree in healthcare administration, remarried and adopted a son. She also began a new career as President and CEO of the nationally accredited Supplies Over Seas (SOS), a nonprofit organization that collects unused medical supplies and distributes them to 105 countries around the world.
Let’s meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, Denise Sears.
How did you begin working for Supplies Over Seas?
In January 2013 I moved to Louisville to be with my future husband, and I had a number of nonprofits ask me to consult for them. Having run my own business for over 20 years, I had a skillset they wanted to access. I eventually went to work for Neighborhood House, a community center in West Louisville. In 2016 I was searching the CNPE (Center for Non-Profit Excellence) website to find a workshop for the staff, and CNPE had just posted a job ad for the position of President and CEO for Supplies Over Seas. I debated about the job for about a week before deciding to throw my hat into the ring. Then they hired me.
Tell us more about what Supplies Over Seas is about.
SOS was started in 1993 by Dr. Norton Waterman, who was a well-known physician in this community and the Greater Louisville Medical Society. He recognized that, because of the inherent processes in the healthcare system, a lot of medical supplies were getting thrown away. He was very concerned about how this waste was affecting the environment, and he was also aware of the dire need for medical supplies and equipment in developing countries. So he and others started collecting items and coming up with ways to get them into the hands of people who needed them. In 2010, Supplies Over Seas became a 501(c)3 organization.
What types of supplies does SOS collect and distribute?
There’s a wide variety. It could be a box of gauze, where only half has been used for a patient, or it could be hospital socks a patient never wore. There might be syringes that were brought in for a patient and never used. Larger items include incubators or anesthesia machines. As equipment nears the end of its life — as we define it in the United States — it may no longer be used once new technology becomes available. But that doesn’t mean that piece of equipment can’t be used in other countries to save lives.
What do you do with supplies that have expired?
According to the World Health Organization, we can’t ship those overseas, but we do find a use for them locally. We donate to nursing schools and medical schools, which helps them save on costs. We give supplies like saline flushes or incontinence pads to animal welfare organizations. We also partner with Jefferson County Public Schools to provide supplies for their science program and art classes.
What is your typical workday like?
My day is a smorgasbord of activities, and I can be pulled into different areas. One day I might be working on the financial side; another day I’ll be working on fundraising or going into the warehouse because we have issues that need to be addressed.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your position?
Being able to go to hospitals where we furnish supplies. [It’s amazing to] see the joy and love between a mother and her baby and know that, if we hadn’t come together to furnish those supplies, that baby could have died.
Losing a child can be difficult, but you’ve said that Lauren’s passing inspired you to keep working and sharing your talents. How so?
I remember thinking one night, “I can die with her, or I can live for her.” I chose to live for her, to honor our love. She is the one who truly taught me about unconditional love, and I need to honor that gift.
Do you have any local restaurants you enjoy?
Where do you like to hang out?
Is there anything about you that people would be surprised to know?
I auditioned for the movie Jaws.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, and who was it from?
It was from my dad. I worked for him briefly and remember going into his office one time [to talk about something], and I didn’t have all the facts. I was trying to gloss over it, and he said, “Don’t talk about what you don’t know. Go back and learn it. You need to focus on what you know, not on what you don’t know.”
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Chocolate, a glass of wine at the end of the day and laughter.
Thank you for an inspiring conversation, Denise, and thanks to Gretchen Bell for the today’s photos.
Find more amazing FACES of Louisville in our archives HERE!