Female Faces of Philanthropy: Debbie Wells

Debbie Wells is the Executive Director of AISS Foundation, a 2021 Impact Giving grant finalist. Debbie has more than 17 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, supports numerous nonprofits, and has a passion for nurturing the personal, educational and professional development of young people.

We recently asked her a few questions about her philanthropic life. We promise you’ll be moved by her story. 

What drew you to start working with nonprofits?

Early in my life I realized I really liked helping people, which later developed into a passion for nurturing the personal, educational and professional development of young people. I was drawn to working with nonprofits because of the difference they make in the world and in local communities. The first nonprofit I volunteered with was Career Beginnings Mentoring Program (CBMP). I loved the idea of helping a young person prepare for college, however I wasn’t sure if I would have time to really make a difference in their life. I was working more than 50 hours a week and pursuing a double masters, an MBA and a MA Information Technology Management. I shared my concerns with Jon Anderson, the Career Beginnings coordinator. He said, “any amount of time that you’re able to spend with a child, is more time than they would have received if you weren’t in the picture.” I will never forget his words, because they changed my life. I was always waiting for the right time to get involved and learned that whenever you get involved … it is the right time.

What are your goals for AISS? 

AISS’ main goal and mission of our College to Career Readiness STEM Program is to provide low income minority students a clear college to career pathway in the STEM fields to ensure that they obtain gainful employment and break the cycle of poverty. When I first joined AISS, the founder, Paul Riordan, and I would talk about having this program in every school district in America. With Paul’s passing last year, it only motivates me more to want to reach that goal.

Over the next two years our strategic goal is to increase funding through capacity building grants so we can expand our program to help more students realize their dreams and to hire more staff to support them. We currently recruit once every other year and would like to recruit every year to increase the size of our cohort. A long-term goal is to secure business sponsors for each of our scholars as they go through the two-year program.

Other goals include:

  • To Motivate our youth to specialize in the fields that are the future of our country
  • To Coordinate partners to motivate scholars towards pursuing STEM careers.
  • To Help our parents understand the value of higher education so they can be supportive.
  • To Provide Training on Life/Soft Skills to bridge the gap between high school and college.

Who or what inspires you? 

My faith inspires me. I am committed to fulfilling my purpose on earth and what I believe is God’s gift to me … my passion for guiding our youth’s personal, educational and professional development. There’s nothing more motivating to me than to congratulate a scholar who got accepted to their dream college when they didn’t think they could even make it to college, or when they actually graduate from college and get their dream job.  What drives me each day is

knowing that there are so many young lives that can be changed if they had the opportunity to go to college or get a higher education. I witnessed twins fulfilling a promise, they made to their mother to one day buy her a house. There are so many options and possibilities that can impact the lives of students from disadvantaged areas if they had access to a program like AISS.

In addition to AISS, do you have a nonprofit or area of interest that you like to support?

There are so many nonprofits that are doing great work that I support, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girls Inc., High School Inc., Nicholas Academic Center, OCBF-Project Youth, and OCCHC-SteppingUP. I am also proud to be a member of Kiwanis Santa Ana Club, who’s been helping youth in Santa Ana for 100 years! AISS Founder, Paul Riordan, introduced me to the club and I have been on the board for about five years. All of these are nonprofits are community partners because we are all in the business of helping and guiding our youth. I have worked with and supported coordinators from each of these nonprofits, and they have done the same for me. We don’t see each other as competitors because we have the common goal of helping our youth.

I do have a personal area of interest that I support: Breast Cancer Awareness. I have two members of my family who I deeply respect who are Survivors over 15 years. Unfortunately, last year I became an unwilling member of this club. However, I feel very blessed to be on the road to recovery thanks to the support of a medical A-team from Providence St. Joseph Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment in Orange. I also had a lot of support from my family, friends and AISS. A year ago, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it to today. My whole life turned upside down when I heard those sad words, “It’s cancer Debbie.”

When I finally got my wits about me after the first two rounds of chemo and knowing that I was going to have to do a third, then surgery before finally going through daily radiation therapy for six weeks, a gospel song came to mind by Reverend James Cleveland, “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” Two of the verses goes like this …

“I don’t feel no ways tired, I’ve come to far from where I started it from. Nobody told me (nobody promised me), that the road would be easy, but I don’t believe that he brought me this far to leave me.”

This song resides in me and what inspires my spiritual walk every day. Causes like Breast Cancer Awareness, need to be regularly discussed. I never knew that there was more than one type of breast cancer. Because of a news program I saw one morning about women putting off their mammograms due to the pandemic, I was prompted to pick up the phone and schedule mine.

Which accomplishments — personal or professional — are you most proud of?

I am personally most proud of earning my dual master’s degrees from Webster University, earning the Distinguished Alumni Award from Chapman University and keeping my promise to myself to attend all of my nieces’, nephews’ and twin cousins’ high school graduations. “Higher Education” is extremely important to me because I believe it is the great equalizer in life. It is an accomplishment that you earned, and no one can take away from you. Higher Education has an exponential effect on your life, which can lead to a positive impact on you, your family and your community! We focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education because those are the careers where jobs are available to inspire the innovation and success our scholars seek and the world needs to survive. However, non-STEM fields are just as important because those careers complement STEM professions. Both are needed to have a healthy society.

I am also very proud of all my professional accomplishments at AISS, one that caught me off guard was being named “Person of the Year” at the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce’s Difference Makers’ Luncheon. I humbly accepted that award because it gave me the opportunity to publicly thank so many of the volunteers who have given their time to AISS. It also gave me the opportunity to acknowledge all the number of scholars and alumni we have been able to help change their lives.

One of my most impactful accomplishments is finally getting a place to call our home, which is an administrative office at OC Shared Spaces at the Village on 17th Street. For the first time we had a consist location to meet daily and meetings rooms for the board and scholars. For years we were living like nomads, trying to negotiate various places to meet because we didn’t have the budget to rent or lease meeting rooms.

Another great accomplishment that I share with AISS and the film director is having our story told in the “Achieving Greatness” documentary by Kristina Chatow. This documentary really told not only the plight of our scholars and the communities they come from, it also showed our outcomes and successes of some of our alumni. A few of our new alumni had the opportunity to talk about the impact of AISS and share their hopes and dreams. Kristina took a lot of time getting to know the people she was going to highlight, which helped personalize them to the audience. The icing on the cake was that the documentary was accepted into three film festivals, and the film won in the category of best short documentary film at The California Women’s Film Festival.I was a little apprehensive at first about being in the documentary because of what I was personally going through at the time, however I knew the importance of telling our story. I am so grateful to have been part of such a beautiful representation of AISS.