By Alison Bailin Batz
Photos by Claudia Johnstone
Life has a funny way of coming full circle. Gail Baer can certainly attest to that.
“I grew up in Maryland near Washington, D.C.,” Baer says. “I was a proud math and science geek. I was also proud to join my parents, especially my mother, in activism efforts.”
Notably, Baer’s mother was deeply passionate and actively involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, which was an international human rights campaign through the 1980s. Baer still remembers accompanying her family to rallies and helping volunteer where she was needed.
After high school, Baer earned admittance to Cornell University, where she stretched her “geek” muscles further, studying engineering. While there, she also met Michael Baer, whom she married after they both graduated.
Around the World
The couple then began their careers on the East Coast, with Gail taking on a role as a management consultant. Over the next 10 years, the couple welcomed three children: David, Rachel and Amy.
“Then, in 1999, with all of our kids under 6 years old, we had the opportunity of a lifetime,” Baer says.
Her husband was offered the chance to work on a big project in Singapore. So, the young family up and moved across the globe.
“The idea of leaving the United States for something so completely different than what we all knew might seem scary to some, but it was the adventure of our lives,” says Baer, who marveled at the melting pot of languages, culture, religions and world views from the moment their family arrived.
They spent the next three years living on the Asian island – fun fact: Singapore is what is called a “city-state,” which is its own sovereign land or small country much like Monaco or Vatican City – bonding in a way not many get to experience in their lifetimes.
“We were living in Singapore when 9/11 occurred and, as one would imagine, security tightened and overnight a military presence was everywhere,” Baer explains.
Though her family was not scared, they were certainly on high alert.
Coming Full Circle
In 2002 when her husband’s project concluded, the family relocated back to the East Coast. Once back, Baer took on a leadership role with Grant Thornton, using her analytical mind and mathematical background to help expand the firm’s business model beyond tax and accounting and into consulting.
In 2005, serendipity struck.
“My husband had the opportunity to relocate to Phoenix just as Grant Thornton announced an enhanced presence here – on 24th Street and Camelback Road to be specific,” Baer says. “Arizona became home.”
It was in Arizona, in fact, that Baer’s life began to come full circle.
“Being a newer business, I worked with the firm to build an authentic, strategic philanthropy presence in Greater Phoenix,” Baer explains.
She used data analysis, research and her background in community outreach to launch GT Cares, a community relations program, for the firm in 2007. Through it, Baer helped mentor young team members on how to best dip their toes into volunteerism; supported leadership to seek out board positions; and financially supported important causes in the community.
“It was not unlike the way my own parents mentored me down that exact same path in my youth,” says Baer, who never thought her background in numbers would connect the way it did to directly help people. “The impact we were having was real, tangible and one of the most fulfilling things in my career to that point.
So much so, Baer decided to make a career change.
“I left the traditional business world in in 2011 to join the Valley of the Sun United Way, which fights to break the cycle of poverty across Maricopa County, and then in 2016 I had the opportunity to join Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS),” she says.
JFCS, which provides behavioral health, healthcare and social services to all ages, faiths and people in need across Maricopa County, sent a call out seeking to fill a new position focused on increasing major and planned giving for the organization.
“My position at JFCS is a unique one – it allows me to combine my analytical and philanthropy background to help people convert their passions and generosity into a true investment back into the community.”
Today, Baer is focused on ensuring JFCS has the funding and support needed to help anyone who needs it gain access to a litany of services, including: counseling, mental health assessment and treatment, early childhood trauma assessment and treatment, child crisis intervention and rehabilitative services, support for victims of domestic violence, substance abuse, work force readiness for teens aging out of foster care and more.