“I truly believe that in today’s world when you’re not learning, you’re falling behind.” – Emily Douglas, USA

“When I was growing up, my parents did everything they could to ensure I had a good education,” says Emily Douglas. “They chose the places we lived in Ohio and Kentucky with the main goal of getting my siblings and me into great schools. My mom and dad also placed a strong focus on math, science, technology, art, and most importantly, creativity. My parents were highly involved and for that I am grateful.” 

The curiosity that Douglas’s parents nurtured and encouraged has served her well. In 1991, at the age of 11, Douglas founded the non-profit Grandma’s Gifts in memory of her grandmother, Norma Ackison, who died of breast and lung cancer at the age of 60. In homage to her Grandmother’s Appalachian roots and struggle with poverty, Grandma’s Gifts provides goods, services and opportunities to people and organizations in need in Appalachia. But that is not Douglas’s “day job” – she currently works for Battelle for Kids an organization founded by Battelle Memorial Institute in 2001. As Human Capital Director, Douglas explores effective human capital strategies for recruiting, selecting, developing, and recognizing educators and non-instructional staff in schools to ensure the best learning experience for students.

Douglas has traveled and spoken to more than 200,000 adults and children across the United States about community service, youth activism, service learning, Appalachia, literacy, and her organization. She has testified before the Ohio General Assembly and the United States Congress. She has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and has received multiple awards for her work as a youth activist and young adult social entrepreneur.

Douglas’ passion and energy for her work – both at Battelle for Kids and Grandma’s Gifts – is infectious. Equality, and the firm belief that anyone can make a difference, is at the heart of everything Douglas does. “All children should all be afforded the opportunity of a sound education and if this is not occurring, conversations need to be had,” she says. I hope you enjoy her effusive storytelling, love for learning, and charismatic personality as much as I do.  

Here’s today’s Daily Edventure with Emily Douglas: 

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

From a young age, I was interested and involved in volunteering. In 1991, I lost my grandmother, Norma Belcher Ackison, to breast and lung cancer. She was the glue that held my family together and still to this day we have never quite recovered from this tragic loss. My grandma was diagnosed in 1989 with breast cancer and became sick very quickly. I was only nine when she passed away, but she taught me lessons that have changed my life forever. While I was very young at the time of her passing, I vividly remember her smile, laugh, stories, and mostly her kind heart. I know that while she was taken from my family only six days after her 60th birthday, she still to this day watches over us. 

Norma Belcher was born the twelfth of twelve children and shortly following her birth, her father died leaving her mother to raise the children in Depression-era Appalachia. My grandmother learned all too well the challenges and humiliation of poverty. She often shared with me stories about the way she had felt when other children had made fun of her tattered clothing and home with newspaper curtains. Too often people that lack the funds to live up to society’s standards are seen as ignorant or lazy, yet this is often not the true story. My great- grandmother, Belle, always told her children, “It’s not a crime to be poor, just inconvenient.” While we only had a short time with my grandmother, she worked to teach us lessons about appreciating how lucky we were as children, that it is not wise to judge people because of how much money they have, that hard work and dedication pays off, and that love conquers all. 

My grandmother also never forgot the caring neighbors and family who reached out to help her and the family in Ironton, Ohio. After her marriage to Odell Ackison, and as an owner of a small business, my grandma never forgot her roots. Often she took us along to shop for clothes and toys to donate at Christmas time or to deliver food to veterans who lived in caves throughout the county. As children, my brother, sister, and I believed that everyone’s grandmother did the same. We always knew our grandma was special, but we never knew just how special. Once she passed away we began to realize that not everyone acted this way and the need for help was greater than imagined. Thus, through her words and her actions she taught us that it is our responsibility to reach out and help others who do not know the advantages that we often take for granted. 

After returning to visiting southern Ohio and my other relatives, Douglas realized that many Appalachian children in the area do not have things like toothbrushes, warm coats, and books. She also began to see that their schools did not have supplies to do things like she had at her school in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Douglas knew that she could not let the lessons her grandma taught die, so in her memory and with her teachings,Grandmas Gifts was born.  

Douglas has run Grandma’s Gifts for 20 years, supporting Appalachian schools, families, and organizations by providing over $12.8 million in goods and opportunities. Grandma’s Gifts has provided assistance to more than 2.5 million people. The organization has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show as well as in Time, Business Week, People and National Geographic magazines. The organization has ZERO paid employees, volunteers, or board members, allowing 100 percent of funds raised go towards making a difference.  

“My grandmother Norma, helped others because she thought people were just supposed to be that way,” says Douglas. “Following my grandmas passing, I can feel that my grandma is with us and is cheering our every success. She is and always will be in my heart and mind.” 

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

In addition to my parents’ efforts, I was fortunate to have incredible teachers in my early years of school. After having two fantastic, creative third grade teachers, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be one so badly that my siblings and I only on occasion played house, cops and robbers, Barbies, video games, or Ninja Turtles… we mostly played SCHOOL. I created math exercises and homework for my little brother and sister. We also read together, did flashcards, held art class, conducted home science experiments (with parent supervision) and more.  

My favorite teachers throughout school were Mrs. Sara Dale, Mrs. Kathy Moss, Mrs. Louanne Dorne, and Mr. Tom Masters. My seventh grade math teacher, Louanne Dorne, was a wonderful woman. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she still came to work every day with a passion for her students and a commitment to teaching. She did everything to make sure we stayed engaged even if that meant taking off her wig and telling jokes to make us laugh. She made me look at numbers and equations in a different way, and through it all, instilled a love for math that has never waned. 

It all started with a simple assignment. Mrs. Dorne asked our class to interview people about how they “used math in their job or daily life.” Around that same time, I had picked up a book called E-mail Addresses of the Rich and Famous by Seth Godin. I showed it to my mom and dad, and they dared me to email celebrities for my project. Keep in mind, this was 1995, so the Internet and email was still a novelty in many homes, including my own.  

So, I began sending emails to people in the book with the subject line “Please Help”–the type of message most of us would immediately delete today. Surprisingly, I got responses from more than 15 “famous” people, who all shared how they use math in their job. This included film critic Roger Ebert; Alan Kay, co-developer of the Apple Macintosh computer; the science fiction write, Anne McCaffrey; motion picture director Phil Alden Robinson; Susan Shepherd, the then-systems operator for Compuserve; and Will Wright, developer of games like SimCity and SimAnt. I even heard back from Bill Gates. I also interviewed my parents and grandparents. Through these face-to-face conversations with family and stories from “the rich and famous,” math became real. It was no longer just a subject I learned in school, but something that had a direct impact on my life and future goals.  

Mrs. Dorne was so proud of my work, she even called the local newspaper to share what I had done. Sadly, only a few months later, she lost her battle with cancer. She was only 32 years old. Still to this day I think about her and all she taught me. Mrs. Dorne worked every day to not only help her students “get” math, but to also foster a love for math and appreciation for how important it is in our lives. After being a part of her class, I have always been fascinated by how other great math teachers are able to make that connection and transform learning for their students.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

While at Battelle for Kids, I have worked collaboratively with other human capital teammates to design six interactive online courses around strategic compensation, six courses on performance management, and one free course on comprehensive human capital. We have also developed a free online human capital assessment. I love the idea of creating free materials that people can use to reflect, learn, and grow with 24 hours a day, seven days a week.   

I love integrating technology into learning where it makes sense. Appling technology to support my work means matching learning and communication methods with client needs. Sometimes people use technology just to say they used it, and while I am a huge fan and proponent of technology-integration, I really don’t see that as being the point. It means pushing the envelope, but not to the point where people disengage. I want to know that when I work with a client to use technology in learning or for work that it makes their life easier or more efficient and effective, not a burden. 

I also enjoy helping people learn how to use programs, apps, and hardware they may not be used to using. For example, I think I’ve encouraged about 100 people in the past year to sign up for Twitter and then taught them how to use it. 

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

My education and past experience in human resources and process improvement allow me to draw from practices, strategies, and lessons from a variety of industries. This has allowed me to better advise clients in their work. I also work to continuously learn, as I truly believe that in today’s world when you’re not learning, you’re falling behind. 

I have worked on a variety of issues around strategic planning; process improvement; change management; and comprehensive human capital including educator compensation, rewards, evaluation, placement, selection, professional development, engagement, satisfaction, and more! I have had the immense opportunity to directly work with more than 65 districts across the country from 205,000-student urban districts to 345-student rural districts in a variety of states as well as a Bureau of Indian Education School. Currently, I advise state-and district-level officials in a variety of human capital related projects; speak across the country to education human resource professionals, teachers, superintendents, and building leaders; as well as help groups implement projects.  

I also maintain the “K-12 Talent Manager” blog for Education Week, the largest K-12 education-focused newspaper. In this blog I write about effective human capital strategies for recruiting, selection, developing, and recognizing educators and non-instructional staff in schools to ensure the best learning experience for students. I have done this for about two years and often hear from people that they appreciate education-focused human capital resources online! 

While I can’t say that I have personally or individually changed conversations, I would like to think that more districts across the county are thinking about how to recruit, grow, reward, and retain their most important asset – their people. I would also like to think that more people feel as if there are human capital, organizational development, and process improvement resources available to them, where five years ago, the resources were far and few between. 

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?

I know the use of apps, cellphones, mobile devices, and technology is changing education. I think it’s very exciting to see people connected when and how they please whether they’re in Cleveland, Ohio or Singapore. I also think it’s great that people are using data to improve their practice. Technology enables us to change how we teach and learn as a society. 

Personally, I sit in the airport and use apps on my phone or tablet to connect with teammates, read articles, follow Twitter, answer email, network on LinkedIn, and take free online courses via Coursera. Due to the amount I travel, people always ask me if it’s strange not going into an office every day. I always laugh and say that all I need are a working (charged) computer or phone and an Internet connection, and I’m good to go. In the future (and in some places already) work and school are not a place, they’re what takes place.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

As an HR person, I think that our biggest and best opportunities for successful innovations are around people. Whether you call it human resources, human capital, talent management, or personnel, having processes, measures, goals, development opportunities, and rewards in place that align to an organization’s mission is crucial for success. More and more organizations, and not just in the education industry, are starting to realize that despite your strategy or financial health, without the right talent in the right jobs, your organization is in trouble. Talent-focused leadership and planning is a must in education.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

I think that problem solving, creativity, and communication are key 21st century skills. I often ask participants in sessions I conduct to do “wacky” or crazy things to get them thinking creatively or differently. The thing is that as we become older and learn “the rules,” thinking outside the box becomes very difficult. Let alone asking people to think completely differently – or “like there is no box.” The great part is that in my experience, people truly enjoy such divergent thinking exercises and being creative and innovative… we just don’t always encourage this type of thing socially.

When it comes to why I think these skills are important, as an HR person I watch the types of jobs that people post as well as the types of jobs that organization are unable to fill. Many organizations in 2014 are looking to hire individuals who can look at a problem, analyze data, come up with an idea, share it with others, gather feedback, and revamp their idea. I think too often we hear about individuals who are great when it comes to analysis and math but can’t work in a team or speak publically to a group. Vice versa, there are individuals who are very creative and innovative, but can’t think through implications of costs, finances, strategies, statistics, etc. This is a gap that I think we need to work to close, as people who can do a bit of all of those things are who we need to be leading our organizations and teaching our children.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I don’t think my gift would be a physical tool – it would be the gift of curiosity and persistence. I believe that persistence and curiosity lead to life-long learning and reflection. Don’t know a word you heard someone use? Look it up! Wonder how music videos are made? Look it up! Can’t remember the name of the author of the book you’re reading at school? Look it up! Can’t seem to find the author’s name? Look again! Wonder how did Jesse Owens or Marie Curie become famous? LOOK IT UP!

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

I have seen some organizations in our country doing phenomenal work. What makes it phenomenal? District leaders and teachers working together to make long-lasting, real change. The work being done through collaborative change efforts and is not only making a difference for kids in the system, but adults as well.   

The unfortunate part is that many organizations and districts are still working through change efforts that involve force or no involvement of teachers and staff. We often say at our office, “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.” I believe that working together to make a difference is one of the most important things we can do to support education in the United States. 

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

I think we must all continue to focus on accountability and equality. All children should be afforded the opportunity of a sound education and if this is not occurring, conversations need to be had. When it comes to equipping students with 21st century skills, I would like to see more project-based learning, creative problem solving, technology integration, as well as high-quality math instruction, and writing. This also means that students must be able to display learned skills through testing, public speaking, and working on projects (some involving technology and some not) as that most mirrors work environments in any industry. We must grow and prepare our future.

 About Emily Douglas

Director of Human Capital at Battelle for Kids

Columbus, Ohio, USA

Twitter handle: @EmilyDouglasHC, @GrandmasGifts, @WagNWheels


  • Birthplace: Columbus, Ohio
  • Current residence: Columbus, Ohio (On the weekends… I travel all over the country Monday-Friday!)
  • Education:
    • Certification: Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations – Social Media in HR: From Policy to Practice, 2013
    • Certification: Human Resource Institute – Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), 2011
    • The Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business – Master in Business Administration (MBA), 2009
    • Certification: Emerson Network Power, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, 2007
    • The Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business – Master of Labor and Human Resources (MLHR), 2007
    • Miami University in Oxford Ohio: Bachelors of Arts – Political Science Major, 2004
    • Worthington Kilbourne High School in Worthington, Ohio
  • Website I check every day:  Twitter! – I am a Twitter addict. I freely admit it. I like to stay up-to-date on education, volunteerism, human capital, talent management, continuous improvement, leadership, nonprofit, and business management happenings. Twitter is a great tool for networking, sharing, learning, and engaging with dreamers and doers. The great part is that all of this information is at my fingertips via my smart phone!
  • Person who inspires me most: My grandma was and still is a huge inspiration in my life. Before losing her battle with cancer in 1991, when I was very young, she taught me a great deal about being thankful for what I have as well as the importance of making a difference. As for others who inspire me daily, I would say my siblings Sarah and Zachary who are both brilliant; my fiancé George McNab who is one of the most kind people I’ve ever met; and my parents Terri and Jerry Douglas – they have always inspired me to be a lifelong learner, reflector, sharer, doer, and dreamer!
  • Favorite childhood memory: I have many wonderful memories that involve my family and things we used to do when I was in school. For example, my siblings and I were known for having the craziest science fair projects at school. If we weren’t blowing things up, we were blowing toilet paper in the air, dropping things from high places, growing bacteria we got off the water fountain, or breeding fruit flies and watching for genetic abnormalities. Everyone used to joke that my brother, sister, and I were the science fair attractions you “just had to stop and see.” One year we all worked to create a “Pie Tin Flying Egg Dropper” which exhibits Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion at the same time. Look it up on YouTube to see what one looks like! It was, needless to say, a hit! As a side note, both of my parents are engineers, so science and math were a big deal in our house and “normal” science projects weren’t on the list. While I was at times embarrassed and just wanted to be “normal,” looking back, I would never trade those experiences in… ever. Another example of a great memory would be that one day my father took us to a huge junkyard to find pieces of metal to teach us how to weld. Why learn to weld? Why not! We walked around in mud that was about 10 inches deep and watched the junkyard machines smash full-size cars as if they were made of paper. We had a blast! As we went to leave a man turned around and asked my father what we were doing and he without a moment to think responded, “They’re learning to weld. We’re making a Barbie Dream Home.” I laughed so hard that I choked. We did go home and weld… but we never made a Barbie Dream Home! I am lucky to have parents who were involved and valued hard work and continuous learning, as well as creativity and having fun. This is something I plan to pass on to my kids one day!
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I travel for work with state departments, districts, organizations, teachers, and principals all across the country. I am on anywhere from 100 to 140 planes a year. Over the next month I will be traveling to Grand Junction, Colorado; Houston, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Washington D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee; and then Green Lake, Wisconsin.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I laugh all the time! Laughter is good for the soul! About a year ago we rescued a dog from an Appalachian pound. His name is Frazier. I’ve had many dogs in my life, but he’s the only one that will sit and watch television. He’s some sort of hound mix so when he barks he goes “Boooooooo!” As for the last time I laughed, it would have been at Frazier, “booing” at cats on TV.
  • Favorite book: My favorite book depends on the topic. I read a great deal, which keeps me up-to-date in my job. Yet, my favorite books that I could read over and over would be the Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, The Da Vinci Code, any book from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series, Five Children and It, and anything by Roald Dahl.
  • Favorite music: After being a DJ in college and graduate school, I will listen to about anything with the exception of music with negative, hurtful messages. I love everything from bossa nova, blues, jazz, and bluegrass, to rap, alternative, any rock, ska, hip hop, hip house, electronic, and industrial.
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? If you want something bad enough, never ever, ever, ever give up. Too many times in life I was encouraged by people to quit doing things because they “weren’t cool” or what “girls did.” If I had listened to them, I probably wouldn’t be filling out this questionnaire now. Thank goodness my parents always supported me and encouraged me to be strong.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Don’t think outside the box… think like there is no box.”  Why is this my favorite quote? I’m all about creative thinking and problem solving. I like to be challenged!
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