Interview appeared in Desert Charities News – April 2016
by Vernell Hackett
“I bought a home here in 1986 and moved, but I just thought I was too young to be retired,” Harris says. I did volunteer work for the fundraising group of the McCallum Theatre and met so many charitable people and was impressed with the good that was being done for so many organizations here in the Valley. After my volunteer work ended, I decided to look for a position, hopefully working with one of these philantropists.”
“In 1987 I had an interview with Coeta Barker as her personal secretary and executive director of her family foundation. I got the job and worked with Coeta until she passed away in 2005. After Coeta’s passing, the Board of Trustees honored me by appointing me President of the Foundation.”
The Barkers established their Foundation in 1977 in Eugene, Oregon, which was their permanent home. After Don’s passing in 1980, Coeta purchased a second home in Rancho Mirage in the mid-80’s which eventually became her primary residence.
“Before I moved to Palm Desert, I most recently worked for an investment banking firm as office manager and secretary to the CFO. I found that in the desert, many personal secretaries work in the home, like I did.
The Coeta and Donald Barker Foundation gives grants to organizations in California and Oregon. Among the grants given in the past few years in our Valley, are Eisenhower Medical Center, the Coachella Valley Boys and Girls Club, nursing scholarships for the College of the Desert Foundation, the Desert Forum Youth Program, the McCallum Theatre’s art education programs, Family YMCA of the Desert, nursing scholarships for Cal State University Palm Desert Campus, Palm Springs Art Museum youth program. The Desert Symphony, Assistance League for School Bell Program, Martha’s Village and Kitchen, Salvation Army, Shelter from the Storm organization for battered women and Volunteers in Medicine, just to mention a few.
I do basically what Coeta did when she was here,” Harris explains. “When I was working directly with her, she would often take me with her to meetings and events where we represented the Foundation. I think she was ‘grooming’ me and I didn’t realize it at the time. We now have a formal office in Rancho Mirage.
Both of the Barker’s were interested in helping young people, so there are many grants to colleges and schools that they liked to support. It is so rewarding to be able to help people,” Harris says. “It is so great to have the opportunity to see where the money goes and what it helps. Just to see the outcome of what we are doing is so wonderful.”
Most of the grants are given to organizations in areas where a board member resides, which allows everyone involved in the decision making process to understand that someone has a finger on the pulse of that charity and they know what they are doing in the community and can recommend them. Plus, they can stop by to visit with the principals and personally see and report back to the board just exactly how the money is being used for the cause.
We don’t personally get involved with the people who are helped through our donations, but we do know what is going on within that organization, “Harris explains. “Board of Trustees’ meetings are held twice a year when applications are reviewed and approved. We also arrange site visits to some of the charities we support so that the Board can see ‘hands-on’ the help we are providing.
I have no regrets… every time I get on the freeway to go out of town, I am so thankful I am here,” Harris says. I do know Coeta always wanted to make a genuine and lasting difference with charitable organizations, and we feel we have fulfilled that. We always plan to continue to follow her established guidelines in order to help and honor the organizations she cared about.
“It is definitely a good feeling to carry on something that makes such a difference in people’s lives. I have the greatest job in the world and the best Board to work with.”