No moment appears too big for Dr. Jerry Haag
By Rj Walters
Photography by Dan Austin & Jordan Randall
When he’s invited to the table with government officials and powerbrokers in Washington D.C. he knows how to astutely listen and thread needles of information that encourage action for children who desperately need a voice.
When the organization he leads steps into large-scale relief work—whether it’s providing meals during a pandemic in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture or he and his wife, Christi, are sharing the stage with Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis to bolster Hurricane Ian recovery efforts—it’s just another chance for him to be faithful to the mission he says God has called him to.
But some moments, when the cameras are off and Haag’s qualifications and impressive resume matter little to none, are more powerful than he could ever have prepared for or dreamed of when he took over as President/CEO of One More Child, whose international headquarters is located just west of downtown Lakeland.
Travel back to 2014. The scene is remote Uganda, Africa in a village populated with circular mud huts with thatched roofs.
Dr. Haag and several others are on a “vision trip” to determine how they might be able to help provide food to families and children in an especially poverty-stricken region.
Beneath the shade of a tree, Haag meets Florence, a mother of eight who is reeling from losing her husband and from rebel activity that ravaged the village. Florence’s situation was so destitute that she could no longer afford staples like salt or tea.
Florence said her daughter Faith desperately prayed to God to send someone to help them, and when One More Child arrived at their home she was confident it was God’s answer to that prayer.
Fortunately, Haag determined One More Child could coordinate a feeding program and child sponsorship program to provide hope to Florence and neighbors in her community.
As Haag was about to leave, he scanned his surroundings and was disappointed that he couldn’t locate the courageous widow who had shown him such kindness. But that letdown lasted only seconds as a beaming young girl—one of Florence’s daughters—arrived at his waist with a gift in her arms. It was her family’s chicken!
It would have been an insult to refuse this bountiful present, and in that moment Haag experienced the fruit of a lifelong pursuit of excellence in business and leadership in a way that no award or achievement could compare.
When Dr. Haag was hired in 2012, he assumed the top spot for an organization with a 108-year history of primarily serving foster children in the state of Florida. It had carved out an important niche and impacted around 3,000 children and families per year.
But Haag was a visionary with a strong business IQ, and he wasn’t coming on board to uphold the status quo of what was then called Florida Baptist Children’s Homes.
He was ready to take the vision God had given him and Christi and pair that with wisdom garnered as a university vice president at Baylor University, corporate experience at ATT and a previous seven year-stint in child welfare as president/CEO of South Texas Children’s Homes.
Prior to accepting the job, he remembers telling the board that change was on the way if they hired him.
“Are you ready to be creative in how you can help one more and one more, no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak?”
As Christi often shares, “Our prayer was and always is, God give us the world for children.”
The growth in just more than a decade has been near miraculous.
The organization has evolved to meet the needs of hungry children, foster children, victims of sex trafficking, single moms and struggling families at more than 50 locations in 14 countries.
In 2022, One More Child impacted more than 420,000 children and families and provided more than 14 million meals.
Recently, the down-to-earth Texas native who in his free time enjoys fly-fishing and eating good barbecue, shared some of the principles and experiences that have guided him in leading a flourishing non-profit.
Hone in on Your Mission and Diversify
Haag earned his PhD in finance/real estate, so he recognizes more than most the value of having diversity in a portfolio. When Haag came on board he quickly realized that licensing foster parents and operating homes for foster parents—the bread and butter of the organization for decades—were only a couple of the runways available to providing Christ-centered services to vulnerable children and struggling families.
He and his executive team began exploring additional revenue streams related to child welfare, both governmental and private. They also began hiring people with a wealth of expertise in different arenas: fundraising, law enforcement, education, to name a few.
This enabled them to utilize the networks of other leaders in their fields to more quickly make connections and propose ways to not only help hurting children and families, but also provide prevention services.
Not every program or partnership paid dividends—Haag readily admits there have been a number of misses along the way—but over time, one success led to another and the multiplication was a sight to behold.
Under Haag’s leadership, One More Child added services for victims of sex trafficking, started a Single Mom’s program, went from a Florida provider to a global ministry, and also created the Compassion Center model. The Harold Clark Simmons Compassion Center on the Lakeland campus was the first of its kind—a community hub of services where staff and volunteers provide for felt needs like food, hygiene products and clothes, but also offer career and parenting workshops, tax prep services and more. The model was so innovative that leaders from the federal Department of Health and Human Services visited several years ago to take it all in. Haag says at times diversifying has meant cutting back programs that had run their course, but most of the time it is about taking calculated risks.
“I look at the purpose and what’s at risk,” he said. “It’s (usually) worth the risk because if we don’t, what’s at stake is literally life and death of a child; whether a child is abused or they are thriving, whether a mom can provide for her own children or they are removed. There is so much at stake.”
Track and Analyze What Matters Most
As the organization has grown to more than $50 million in annual operating income, it has been crucial to create data dashboards that track monthly and annual goals related to One More Child’s mission.
Chief Operating Officer Stephen Robert led a multi-pronged process to build tracking and reporting processes that tie into employee’s day-to-day responsibilities and annual goals.
Those metrics help the organization analyze effectiveness and remain dialed into their primary mission, while continually evaluating potential growth opportunities.
“What’s important to us is being able to impact one more child or one more family or being able to help one more mom transition toward self-sufficiency,” Haag said. “To do that, we need to be asking, ‘How many moms completed the program, how many have stable jobs?’ We are able to keep each other accountable.”
Create a Culture That is Bigger Than Any One Person
Like many workplaces, One More Child was forced to evaluate remote work and flexible scheduling when the pandemic hit. For an organization that has always been intentional to build camaraderie and for a long time was able to maintain a sort of “mom and pop” kind of feel, it has been an objective over the past decade to explain and demonstrate the expectations of One More Child’s culture.
The four core characteristics One More Child is looking for in employees are: Humble, hungry, wise and called. It’s important for hiring managers to understand how each attribute is defined.
“Wise means they have God-given wisdom, but they are also emotionally intelligent and they can work with others from all different kinds of backgrounds toward one purpose of being able to make the difference for a child,” Haag said.
One way the organization creates culture is by hosting a virtual Zoom devotional every Monday. All staff are expected to log on for a staff led devotional and prayer time, followed by organization updates and highlights. Another avenue for culture development is off-site staff retreats, sometimes organization-wide and other times department specific.
Recognize That Titles Don’t Define a Persons’s Importance
Dr. Haag knows it’s a special privilege to be invited to the Oval Office with former President Donald Trump for a signing of a major Human Trafficking bill or share a public forum with Gov. DeSantis. In fact, he admits it’s a bit surreal and almost feels like he’s on movie sets because he has seen these figures on TV so many times.
But he says shaking hands and smiling for cameras isn’t what makes it memorable.
“It’s not that I’m important or they’re important, but it’s the importance of the work,” he stressed. “I look at it as a fantastic opportunity to leverage greater help for children and families. And really anybody can come alongside us….it happens at [our Compassion Centers] when someone comes to volunteer and they’re moving boxes, helping people.”
Haag said unfortunately too often “everyday heroes” like a sex trafficking survivor who now helps other victims heal, or foster parents, or a single mom who is dedicated to helping her children thrive, “are not celebrated in our economy nearly as much” as people in the cultural limelight.
Love Will Find a Way
Dr. Haag could be immersed in a pivotal meeting months in the making, but if his bride calls, he’ll step out.
He acknowledges people like his father-in-law and countless non-profit leaders have helped him acquire the business acumen he has today, but he says hands down the biggest impact on who he is as a leader and on the growth of One More Child is the woman he fell in love with as a student at Baylor decades ago.
He nods his head at the notion that it’s not always “good to go into business with family” but he and Christi are an example of the sweet fruit of shared labor when at its best.
The couple travels everywhere from Texas to Southeast Asia and many places in between to serve children and families. They also speak at large conferences, including one workshop called “LIPSTICK on the Mirror” that is about keeping the spark alive while serving God and others. Christi is a dynamic speaker, and locally she has been a beloved leader at Moms of Lakeland for many years.
Dr. Haag says their marriage and shared work is effective in part because they agree on what their purpose is and the sacrifices they have to make to fulfill that.
“She is one of the wisest and most compassionate people I know,” he said. “It can be all consuming because it’s what we pour our hearts and minds and our ideas and passion into every day…but the beauty is you get to walk through it together.