A Visionary Leader. A Great Partnership.

Contributed by Ari Russell

In the early 1990s, Gwinnett County conducted its first comprehensive needs assessment. Several things became apparent: The needs of the community were growing along with the population; residents knew little about what services were available or how to access them; even local providers were unaware of other providers or what services they provided. Times were quite different then, before the widespread use of the internet.

The needs assessment resulted in the establishment of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services led by its visionary Executive Director, Ellen Gerstein. Over the years, Ellen was skilled at bringing the right people and institutions to the table to address diverse problems such as substance abuse, homelessness and the overarching need for information and referral. GUIDE was one of the Coalition’s first partners, a partnership that has proven mutually beneficial and continues to this day.

Early on, Ellen recognized the need for timely local data to identify issues and target strategies. She worked with the University of Georgia, the school system and many youth-serving agencies to develop the Comprehensive Youth Health Survey. The survey was conducted annually in Gwinnett middle and high schools and provided data on high-risk behaviors and protective factors experienced by youth throughout the county. For years, Gwinnett was the only county in Georgia with access to this kind of data that allowed agencies such as GUIDE to apply for hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding.

GUIDE and the Coalition partnered on numerous substance abuse prevention initiatives over the years. These focused on smoking and clean indoor air, underage drinking and, most recently, opioid and prescription medication abuse. The Coalition was awarded the Drug-Free Communities Support Program grant for its maximum ten years along with other grants only available to DFC coalitions. GUIDE was always the lead partner in conducting community level change strategies. As these strategies led to successful reductions in youth alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, Ellen mentored other coalitions in neighboring counties so they could apply for the DFC grant. She helped even more coalitions throughout Georgia to apply for this grant. To date, all of these coalitions have been awarded the DFC grant.

Other major coalition initiatives lead by Ellen that made significant impacts in Gwinnett include:

  • Gwinnett Helpline, a comprehensive information and referral service that is accessed by over 25,000 residents every year;
  • Gwinnett Great Days of Service that brings together over 70,000 people annually to complete community service projects throughout the county;
  • Gwinnett Neighborhood Leadership Institute that prepared hundreds of grassroots leaders to take on leadership roles in their communities and the county;
  • People Helping People monthly talk show that explores community needs and local services that address them; and
  • Research and Accountability Council that brings together epidemiologists, researchers and other professionals to evaluate local data and coalition initiatives.

This year, Ellen Gerstein will be retiring after serving as the Executive Director of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services for 29 years. Her visionary leadership has resulted in hundreds of initiatives that changed thousands of lives for the better. It brought millions of dollars in grant funding to Gwinnett for substance abuse prevention and other services. She was sought out by coalitions throughout Georgia and the nation for advice on coalition building and sustainability. Her office is across the hall from GUIDE. This resulted in countless opportunities to discuss pressing issues, plan strategies and celebrate successes. She has served on the GUIDE Board of Directors for most of those years just as GUIDE’s leaders have served on the Coalition’s. To say she will be missed is an understatement. We wish Ellen all the best as she retires and takes time to just enjoy life… although we sincerely hope she stays involved as a volunteer and advisor for years to come.


Ari Russell was the founding Executive Director of GUIDE, Inc and served in that capacity for 28 years. During that time, she worked extensively on community-level change strategies to reduce youth substance use. Currently, she is a prevention consultant, trainer and grant writer with A&E Consulting.

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