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Beline Obeid

Avocation becomes profession

After 35 years in nursing and hospital administration, Val Gokenbach found herself dealing with a sudden job elimination. The City of Grosse Pointe resident turned her part-time activities into a second career.

City of Grosse Pointe resident Val Gokenbach. photo by The Detroit Free Press and Fox News.
March 10, 2011
When her position at Beaumont Hospital was unexpectedly eliminated, Val Gokenbach didn't have to look too hard to reinvent her career. She turned to her avocations.

The energetic Gokenbach worked as a nurse and executive, raised two children, earned a master's degree in business and a doctorate degrees in management and organizational leadership and devoted many hours to charitable causes.

It was her involvement with charitable organizations that led to her latest venture. The City of Grosse Pointe resident is administrator of Mitch Albom Charities and coordinated and participated in the first medical team dispatched to the Have Faith Mission in Haiti in January.

Gokenbach's involvement with Mitch Albom Charities began several years ago while she was vice president, chief nurse officer at Beaumont.

"I sit on the Board of Visitors for Wayne State University School of Nursing. There was a woman from Cooper Standard (automotive) giving a presentation. They're the ones who funded Mitch (Albom) to open the S.A.Y. (Super All Year) clinic downtown, a clinic for homeless moms and kids," Gokenbach said.

In her capacity at Beaumont, Gokenbach knew she could garner volunteers for the clinic among the nursing staff, but thought she could take it even further.

"Beaumont loves to get involved in philanthropy and the community, so maybe they would provide all of the labs," she explained. She invited Albom to make a presentation to executives and decision-makers at Beaumont.

Gokenbach among children at Have Faith Haiti Mission.
"Mitch did a really nice pitch about the S.A.Y. clinic and the help he needed and Beaumont said 'yes, we'll help you.' So we started doing their labs and diagnostics; we sent them medications," Gokenbach said.

The clinic is still affiliated with Beaumont, but when Gokenbach's job was eliminated late last year, she contacted Albom.

"I called Mitch and told him I'm not with Beaumont anymore, but I've got the clinic all taken care of and I'll still volunteer my time for you and help you in any way you want," she said. "He was very, very supportive and called me down to meet with him and said 'I'd like for you to work with me.'"

The charities are under the umbrella of the Detroit Rescue Mission, so Gokenbach is an employee of the mission. She is administrator of the S.A.Y. clinic, assists the mission with some of its detox centers and manages the medical components of the Have Faith Haiti Mission Albom acquired after the 2010 earthquake in that country.

It was while Gokenbach was working at the clinic that Albom asked her to develop a medical mission to the orphanage.

"I put together a group of four of us: Two nurses, a nurse practitioner and a dietician. We did histories and physicals on all the kids. We charted them on the height and growth charts, did dental exams as best we could and we started a chart process on them. Now all the kids have a medical chart," said Gokenbach.

They found some of the children had scabies, others had upper respiratory or ear infections and many had headaches.

"We think it (the headaches) has to do with blurry vision and not having glasses, so we just linked up with an optometrist who is going to see the kids," explained Gokenbach.

"The other thing that was a big problem was the diet because they eat rice and beans twice a day, 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. That was it. And these kids are starving. We completely changed their diet. We added a lunch, we added more protein and developed a really good dietary program."

Gokenbach, center, takes the pulse of a child at the mission. The medical team Gokenbach led to the mission created a chart for each child living at the mission, including height, weight and overall medical condition.
Gokenbach continues to work from afar finding medical attention for the orphanage with plans to visit quarterly to make sure all is working.

In addition to coordinating activities at the Haiti mission, Gokenbach works at the S.A.Y. clinic "two to three days a week now and I do administrative work, but I'm also taking care of the patients there as well," she said.

"In a smaller venue, everyone pitches in and does what they need to do and we are really working hard there to let everybody know the clinic is there, because it's completely free. There's absolutely no charge for anything."

Her reinvented career doesn't stop with the mission. Gokenbach also teaches classes in the nursing program at American Sentinal University.

"When I finished my doctoral degree, the woman who was the chair of the (doctoral) committee asked me if I'd like to help with the doctorate of nursing practice and leadership because my doctorate is in management and organizational leadership."

Gokenbach wrote the doctoral program emergent course. Nursing doctoral candidates spend two weeks in Denver participating in the program; one week with Gokenbach learning about leadership, such as organizational theory and leadership styles.

She also teaches online courses in the nursing master's program.

If that isn't enough, Gokenbach also provides leadership consulting services and coaching for executives. And, there's more. She wrote a book — "Tap Dancing Through Life: 7 Steps to Finding Your Personal Rhythm and the Life of Your Dreams" — a few years ago which she hopes to now have time to promote.

Gokenbach measures the height of a mission resident.
Gokenbach admits the first month after her Beaumont job was eliminated was difficult. But after a couple of months, she realized she was on to another phase of her career. She starts wistfully, "I did this 35 years of 70 hours a week . . ." and trails off before finishing, ". . . can't wait to go back to Haiti.

"It's completely different work than what I did before, but it's as rewarding."

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