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- Photo by Rob Bartlett
Marni StahlmanPresident/CEO of Shepherd’s Hope
If you're ever looking for Marni Stahlman, chances are she's not in her Windermere office.
The president and CEO of the nonprofit Shepherd's Hope is likely driving between the organization's free clinics throughout Central Florida, checking in on her staff, volunteer doctors and the hundreds of uninsured patients they serve every day. Try texting her instead.
Stahlman, 54, is one of the fiercest advocates for the uninsured in Central Florida, where one out of every four people is living without health insurance in a state whose governor chose not to expand Medicaid. Last year, close to 18,000 of those people visited one of the five locations belonging to Shepherd's Hope, including about 500 evacuees who came after Hurricane Maria from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But this wasn't always the career path Stahlman envisioned. Growing up in Winter Park as the daughter of psychologist mother, she was being carted off to psychotherapy conferences as a kid and reading Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams as a teenager.
After an eight-year stint playing Mickey and Minnie Mouse at Disney World, she went on to get multiple degrees in psychology, including a doctorate, at the University of Tampa and Troy State University. By the time she was 33, she was the first female CEO of a major hospital in Central Florida and was recognized for her accomplishments by the Orlando Business Journal on its "40 under 40" list.
At the time, she was running Laurel Oaks Hospital, a privately owned, for-profit psychiatric facility for children and adolescents. During one weekend, Stahlman was attending a wedding when a 15-year-old girl who self-mutilated was admitted to the facility. The hospital's stretched-thin staff was supposed to check on her every 15 minutes – but during an emergency, they missed a check-in. Within those minutes, the girl popped open a plastic pencil sharpener and swallowed the blade.
"I resigned the next day," Stahlman says. "Luckily, she was not injured and she was taken to the hospital, but something very bad could have happened. We didn't have adequate staffing. Psychiatric care for children shouldn't be about the money. That's when I decided I would only work in the nonprofit sector and started on this path that eventually led me here to Shepherd's Hope."
Since starting at Shepherd's Hope five years ago, Stahlman helped consolidate the organization's nine locations into five locations along bus routes for more accessibility, increase staff and budget, and open up the group's first building, a 10,000-square-foot clinic in Winter Garden.
Informing a mother that her child has cerebral palsy or trying to find someone in the Florida Legislature who cares about uninsured working people can be taxing on the soul – which is why Stahlman and her staff rely on "hope moments." Those can be anything from getting an unexpected $2,000 donation to repair a transvaginal wand for ultrasounds to convincing Florida Hospital to pick up the full tab for someone's tumor removal surgery.
"I'm not naive enough to think I can change the world, but I can change one person at a time," she says. "I can't think about the 40 people waiting in line at other locations. I just have to think about that one person, and if we can navigate the system for that one, get hope and healing – that's one. That's a win."
Her Jewish faith and her 10-year-old daughter keep her grounded.
"I constantly say to her, 'You're not all there is,'" she says. "In Judaism, the concept of a mitzvah is to extend yourself, to reach someone else with nothing involved for yourself, to meet a need in some way. She'll come home and ask me if I did any mitzvahs today, and it makes me proud to tell my daughter what I do."