- Associated Press - Saturday, April 12, 2014

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - Debra Johnson-Tourigny is used to making things happen.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the near lifelong Huntington resident was able to step in as president of the board of directors for the Huntington Area Food Bank - a volunteer position - and pull it out of a tailspin.

Since Johnson-Tourigny took the reins of the board in February 2013, the food bank has been able to distance itself from an embezzlement scandal that involved the removal of a previous director, avoid losing the right to serve Southern Ohio and parts of Kentucky, straighten some of its practices and re-install a sense of normalcy.

For the work she has done with the now renamed Facing Hunger Food Bank, Johnson-Tourigny has been selected as the 2013 recipient of The Herald-Dispatch Zack Binkley Award for Community Service.

“After the unfortunate embezzlement incident with the former director, most people would have wanted to distance themselves from the organization,” wrote Margaret Mary Layne, executive director of the Huntington Museum of Art. “Debbie, however, agreed to become president of the organization and lead the board of directors at a time of terrible distress and confusion.

“If Debbie had not taken the stand that she did and had not devoted her time, an alternate scenario could certainly have been that our food bank would have closed down. This is not an exaggeration.”

An insurance agent for nearly three decades, Johnson-Tourigny said she looked at the food bank situation as something she could fix.

“It was the first time I have felt so strongly that, as we ran into problems, I could take the lead,” Johnson-Tourigny said.

She had been involved in volunteer work with local agencies, from the Marshall Artists Series to the Huntington Museum of Art to the Cabell Huntington Hoops Family Hospital for Children. But her role had always been that of a background player.

As soon as she was named president of the board of directors for the food bank, she realized it was a different ball game.

“I didn’t realize how visible this is,” she said. “In the past, no one knew anything about me. We would go do what we were going to do and have a good feeling and move on to the next thing.

“Then, I become the president of the food bank and as soon as the door opens, the press was asking me what my strategic plan was for the next 12 months. Talk about a deer in the headlights.”

It was a difficult position, but Johnson-Tourigny happens to be an expert in strength through adversity.

She’s had to carve her own path through a swath of obstacles ever since she decided to leave Marshall University before graduating to learn her father’s trade as an electrical engineer.

When that opportunity evaporated, Johnson-Tourigny found herself without a degree and without any prospects for a career.

“I’m self-taught in everything,” she said. “You can do it if you work really, really hard. It’s made me who I am, but it’s not the road for everyone.”

In 1981, the Gordon Merry Agency - an insurance firm named for the father of current Cabell EMS Director Gordon Merry - gave Johnson-Tourigny her first shot in the insurance industry with a role she described as “a glorified secretary.” But she was thankful for the opportunity and made the most of it.

She then moved to the Carson Agency in Charleston.

Women weren’t typically given roles as agents in property and casualty insurance at the time, she said, so she developed a marketing program where she would put together a product package for a client, then give it to a man to go and present.

“I just kept studying and kept working,” she said.

Her work got noticed, and an agency in Huntington run by a man by the name of Gaston Caperton came calling.

Johnson-Tourigny wasn’t initially keen on moving back to Huntington, but the agency eventually wore her down.

Three years later, Caperton became governor of West Virginia. Since then, the firm has been through multiple owners and is now Wells Fargo.

“The names have changed but the people are the same,” Johnson-Tourigny said. “It’s like a family there. It’s a home.”

When it came to volunteering, she admits she originally got involved in the community because it was a good way to network.

“The firm always supported volunteer work, and, when you’re young, you don’t have any contacts,” she said.

But soon after doing the work, she said she began to appreciate the causes.

When it came to the food bank, she said she was asked to join the board by County Manager Chris Tatum to help straighten out some insurance issues.

“When I participated in the mobile food bank, and actually met the families that we were helping, it made a change in me I’ll never forget,” Johnson-Tourigny said. “I felt like this was a great thing. This was what I wanted to do.”

Three years ago, then Debra Johnson married to Barry Tourigny, Cabell Huntington Hospital’s vice president of human resources and operations.

Since then, the pair have become a sort of power couple in terms of community service.

“We don’t have children, so what we can give back to the community is our legacy,” Johnson-Tourigny said.

Johnson-Tourigny will end her role as president of the food bank’s board of directors at the end of 2014. She said a sustainable plan has been constructed to put the agency on solid footing and watch it grow through 2020.

“It’s not the Debra Johnson show,” she said. “We have a lot of great people on our board, and we have great employees. I’ll move into more of a fundraising role, and we’ll be bringing in new people who are going to work and who share and believe in our mission.”

As for her own role in rebuilding the Facing Hunger Food Bank, Johnson-Tourigny said there is a sense of pride.

“I’m happy, but I have a sense of relief and accomplishment,” she said. “It’s like when you build something - and I didn’t build it, I helped - and you sit back and look at it and you feel proud. That’s where I am.”


Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, https://www.herald-dispatch.com



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