Straight from the Heart: Abby Silfies, executive director with the American Heart Association

Abby Silfies is executive director of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania’s branch of the American Heart Association. Not only is she a busy nonprofit executive, but she also runs her own nonprofit charity, Every Ribbon Counts, with a friend, Susan Bostian, and is a mother to five girls. That’s right. Five girls.

Abbie Silfies, executive director, American Heart Association of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania – submitted

A dedicated mom, she manages to balance the demands of parenthood with a busy career and still find a little time for herself. While it’s not always easy for Silfies, it is always worth it, she says.

As an executive director for the AHA, Silfies oversees fundraising and awareness initiatives related to heart health. With the help of her team, she plans and executes three main fundraising events throughout the year, the Heartwalk in September, the Heart Ball in February and the Go Red for Women luncheon in May.

This year, Silfies is particularly excited for the Go Red For Women Luncheon, which will put a spotlight on 12 heart disease survivors and their stories.

In addition to those three major events, Silfies promotes Heart Month in February and works with schools, hospitals and businesses to encourage heart health awareness and offer CPR training.

As part of our Women in Leadership series, LVB took the time to get to know Silfies and learn how she manages to do it all.

The multi-tasking executive opened up to us about the importance of advocating for our own health, the benefits of scheduling and learning to ask for help.

What would the public be surprised to know about heart health?

 How important it is to advocate for your own body. I’ve met so many women who probably had pre-existing conditions for years, but never made a connection between their symptoms and heart issues. We blame it on anxiety, etc…but that weight on their chest might be more than just in their head.

It’s also surprising how many people in the Lehigh Valley are not trained in CPR, and how much the success ratio would be improved if people were trained, how many more people could be saved.

Hands-on bystander CPR is so critical, so many people have heart attacks outside of their home. Having every-day neighbors knowing how to do CPR saves lives.

For women, take care of yourself, listen to your body. We put everyone ahead of ourselves. That can be detrimental. We all need to be worried about heart health, men and women.

How much of the money raised goes to the cause?

Silfies at the Go Red For Women Luncheon, an AHA fundraiser -submitted

At the AHA, 78 cents on the dollar goes to the mission, which in the nonprofit world, is outstanding. We are diligent in that we don’t have large overhead costs.

A huge portion of the money goes to research. Some of the research goes to procedures that were unheard of just three years ago. People’s lives are being saved who would have been told, just a few years ago that their condition was terminal. That is due to research by the AHA.

How did you find the heart disease survivors that will tell their stories at the Go Red for Women for Luncheon?

We used our communities, to be honest. We reached out to both hospital systems and asked them if they had any particular stories that they felt they wanted to tell. We used our own database as well. I don’t think more than three of the survivors knew each other before we connected them. It gives me the chills to think about. During the photoshoot we had, they prayed together like a family, but they had just met.

Tell me about Every Ribbon Counts…

Well because I’m not busy enough (laughs)…

In my past role, I was the development director at the American Cancer Society. I left there in January of last year. But I had started my journey with the ACS as a volunteer because I lost my best friend to brain cancer. Though my career was not going to continue with the ACS I decided that I was going to continue on in a different way in that realm.

I filed for my own 501c3. My friend Susan and I had been doing a fundraiser called the Bling Your Bra. We divied up the funds raised between different cancer organizations in the Valley. It was just something fun for us.

But we knew that we could do more than that. With overwhelming support from the community, we cofounded Every Ribbon Counts. The mission is to fulfill supplemental cancer support needs in the Lehigh Valley. 100 percent of every penny that comes in goes out into the community, which makes us a great organization to donate to. We don’t pay ourselves any salary.

Silfies’ five daughters -submitted

The local Pediatric Cancer Foundation was looking to do a caregivers retreat. They do a camp for the kids but really wanted to do something for the parents so the parents could unwind and be taken care of.

We raised $52,000 in just six weeks recently and were able to fully fund the cancer retreat for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

With your full time job, Every Ribbon Counts, and being a mother of five, how do you find time for it all?

I thrive in organized chaos. I really do. I have also been really diligent about making lists. It keeps me from being overwhelmed. You have to be ok with never finishing your list. Knowing that it is ever growing and evolving. But you also have to look back and think about what you did accomplish and not what you didn’t.

My kids also keep me centered. As a mother of teenagers, it’s a very real thing.

I also am sure to schedule time in my calendar for me. Maybe it’s even a time set aside to make a schedule. I now make only one night a week to attend events. I may attend four events in one night. I’m the masters stacker, stacking a bunch in one night, but then the rest of the week is for my family. I’m gone one night but I’ve accomplished a lot in that one night. It’s about strategizing your chaos.

I used to get to the point of exhaustion. But now I schedule myself to go to the gym a couple times a week. I have a standing once a month Friday night date with a friend where we sit down and talk for four hours. We are each other’s therapy.

I get up early in the morning to walk my dogs. Balance is a word that is always at the forefront of my mind. I love peanut butter M&Ms and they are in my desk but I also worked out this morning and had a salad for lunch.

Tell me more about how you make time for mothering.

I integrate my kids into everything I do too. My 11-year-old could probably put on a charity event tomorrow and that’s a real thing. My older kids are phenomenal students of the work I’ve done. My oldest daughter is the philanthropy chair of her sorority. My second oldest is the president of Students Against Cancer at West Chester University and my freshman at Pitt is interning on a congressional campaign right now.

My one proud mama moment-of my five very different children-is that they all are community servants. They all understand giving back and the role they can play in that.

Silfies and Every Ribbon Counts co-founder, Susan Bostian -submitted

I think that stems from the fact that I really have dragged them to countless events and sometimes it is kicking and screaming.  But they have learned the reasons behind the fundraisers. They understand that spending 20 dollars on a charity bingo ticket is better than spending 20 dollars on a movie ticket.

As women, we struggle to ask for help. Last year when I left the Cancer Society, I needed help to figure out what I would do next. The friends and family and community were there for me saying, “this chapter will be the best ever…” I had to lean on them and that was a really different feeling. At the end of the day I now know I can ask for help if I need it.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

My biggest goal for the next five years would be to continue making my kids proud and to learn to be proud of myself.

When I was honored as one of the 40 under 40 by Lehigh Valley Business, I read my bio and thought, “Who are they writing this about? I accomplished all of this?” It was surreal.

I have just started to embrace the philosophy of living each day for each day. I was very future focused and then when I lost my best friend, I realized how short life is. And in the line of work I”m in, you encounter a lot of loss. I want to have as many adventures as I can, make as much of an impact as I can, and see where the road takes me.

All gifts matter: An interview with Jane Nordell, major gift officer for Lehigh Valley Health Network


As a major gift officer for Lehigh Valley Health Network, Jane Nordell is a fully integrated member of not just the philanthropy staff, but also the children’s hospital team.  Connecting those who want to donate with the hospital, she had a major hand in coordinating philanthropic support of the new lobby at Reilly Children’s Hospital, the much-lauded Lutron Lobby.

“My job is about building relationships between people who care, like Lutron, and this hospital,” she said. “It’s rewarding to be a part of.”

Jane Nordell, major gift officer for LVHN, strives for flexibility, not balance. – submitted

As a mom to 3-year-old fraternal twins, Tate and Johanna, Nordell understood the importance of making the hospital a friendly place for children. From philanthropy to family life, she strives to be her best self, while acknowledging that no one can have or do it all. Nordell’s wife, Erin Firestone, also works full time, making for busy days for the family of four.

“The concept of balance ends up stressing me out, so if I can, I strive for flexibility,” Nordell said. “Flexibility is a better outlook to me. It’s a concept that helps me meet everyone’s needs.”

On a recent rainy December afternoon, Lehigh Valley Business sat down with Nordell, where she spoke more with us about the complexities of achieving work/life balance, the importance of philanthropy, and her three desert island must-haves.

LVB: What drew you to the field of philanthropy?

I went to music school, and while there I started to think about other things I might want to do. I took some nonprofit management courses and found that I really liked them. It was a mental break for me because I spent so much time immersed in creativity and classical music.

Initially, I became interested in nonprofit management because of its relationship to the arts.

As I became more and more immersed, I learned about fundraising and the ability to be a part of finding the funds that help organizations fulfill their purpose.

LVB: At LVHN, do donors approach you with the desire to contribute financially?

There certainly are donors who make themselves known to us. They could be grateful patients, board members, or just people whose general care about a particular area is most realized at a hospital.

LVB: What’s it like to work with extremely wealthy individuals?

For me, interactions with these people can absolutely impact the work we do, and can impact it in a magnanimous way. The impact of working with high net worth individuals is huge. It’s really exciting. But when it comes down to it, people are just people. With $10 or $10 billion, they are still people who want to use their resources to better the lives of people in our community.

LVB: Are there people who donate very small amounts of money?

Nordell, left, and wife Erin Firestone, right, hold their children, twins Tate, left and Johanna, right. – submitted

Absolutely. And some of those gifts are the most touching. We receive gifts of cash, sometimes even just $5 in the mail. Maybe a note accompanies the gift, and it’s written out in shaky handwriting. Maybe it’s an elderly person, and what they can give is just that $5. That that person cares so much, that’s really heartwarming. All gifts matter. It’s important to let yourself be affected by every gift, by how much people care.

LVB: Do you ever encounter resentment from community members who think, ‘LVHN has so much money, why do they need to go out looking for more?’

I’ve heard that, but at the same time, that’s not backed up by the perspective we have working here every day. We are eight hospitals and counting but we are still a community supported organization. A lot of our projects, like the street medicine program, are 100 percent donor supported.

In the street medicine program, nurses and volunteers take medicine to people on the streets and in homeless shelters, sometimes straight to their encampments. It is a service that is needed. These people aren’t being taken care of anywhere else. Figuring out how to connect people to social services so they can live healthier lives is a huge thing that philanthropy funds. It also funds capital projects, endowments…Without philanthropy we couldn’t do those things and the community wouldn’t be as well-off for it.

LVB: Tell me about a particularly challenging time in your career.

My pregnancy was really hard and my twins were early. Being able to keep up with the demands of the job while meeting the needs of the babies was a challenge. I have a desire at all times to do well, and it was difficult to make choices. There was a lot of adjusting to do.

LVB: Tell me more about how you manage a work/life balance.

I’m not gonna lie. It’s hard. There are definitely times of a heavy workload here. But it was a friend at Lutron who told me not to try to achieve work/life balance but to try to find work/life flexibility. It reframes things in your mind. Maybe I have a couple of weeks where work is super busy, and then maybe there are weeks where there is more time for my family.

I need to make time for me, which I do, but I have to acknowledge that I have twin 3 year olds who need me. There will be more opportunity for even more “me” time later.

LVB: Let’s have a little fun with the next few questions. We’ll start with your hometown. Where did you grow up?

Nordell, far right, at a naming event for Reilly Children’s Hospital in 2018, with Dr. Marybeth Browne, chief of pediatric surgical specialties and Dr. Nate Hagstrom, chair of pediatrics-submitted

Bedminster, New Jersey.  But I’ve lived in lots of places. Easton is my home now. I’ve been in Easton longer than anywhere else I’ve lived.

LVB: What book you are reading right now?

Radical Candor by Kim Scott. It’s a business communications book. It is about telling the truth in a kind, compassionate way in order to build high-performing teams and achieve results.

LVB: If you were stranded on a desert island, what three non-necessity items would you want with you?

Apple music, sweatpants, and my piano.

LVB: Which person in your life influenced you the most?

My father. I watched him in his career as I grew up. He worked for American Standard in product development and marketing for 40 years. It was interesting to see him navigate the changes in his career with humor, grace, humility and diplomacy. What that demonstrated to me was that nothing as too difficult to overcome or withstand. He liked what he did and believed in what he did.

LVB: What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be patient. I have a tendency to hurry things up and want things when I want them.

 LVB: If you could bring anything to the Lehigh Valley from any other part of the world, what would it be?

Hoagie Haven in Princeton, New Jersey. Double meat, double cheese, double bacon cheesesteak. It will kill you, but it’s amazing.

LVB: Are you a print person or a digital person?

I wanna be a print person, but I’m a digital person. I’m often reading on my phone at night. But I love the feel of a book with real pages. A book forces me to take some time away just for myself.

LVB: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to leave with our readers?

I would encourage women to do what is best for their family and their work, in whatever order that makes them happy. I think the workplace is adjusting to accommodate the lives of women and families and men and families, but it’s a work in progress. Exercise your right to have a work life and a home life. Insist on it. And we will see where the future takes us.