In 1993, 16-year-old Don Barber thought he was just taking on a part-time job when he started out washing dishes after school at an assisted living community in Victorville, CA. But bigger things were happening. Don was launching a career with the community’s owner and operator Koelsch Senior Communities. Today, after succeeding in a variety of Koelsch positions, Don serves as the Senior Executive Director of Sterling Inn, the same community where he started out with his hands in the sink.
“The story of my career at Koelsch is the story of hope, growth, and opportunity,” Don says.
Koelsch Communities, founded in Kelso, WA in 1958, is a growing, family-owned company with 23 senior-living communities in eight states. Second-generation CEO and President Aaron Koelsch, a dynamic leader, takes an active role in every aspect of the company’s activities.
Koelsch offered Don a full-time job in the kitchen after he graduated from high school. Don seized the opportunity, quickly taking on more responsibility and rising though the ranks as a Dining Room Server, Dietary Aide (prep cook), Dining Room Manager, Lead Cook and Assistant Kitchen Manager.
“I worked hard and tried to show initiative,” Don says. “I’m good with mechanics so if something broke in the kitchen, I’d fix it. My efforts were encouraged and recognized. Koelsch continued to present me with new career opportunities to develop as a professional.”
Less than three years after Don started full time at KSC, President and CEO Aaron Koelsch asked him to move north and accept a promotion to Food and Beverage Manager at the company’s flagship community, Delaware Plaza in Longview, WA. One year later, Don was promoted again to Food and Beverage Manager for a then-new Koelsch community, Canterbury Inn, also in Longview.
“Aaron (Koelsch) was more than a boss to me—he was my mentor,” says Don. “He trained me, he encouraged me and he provided me with opportunities to grow and build my resume. One huge thing I learned from Aaron was the importance of people and listening skills. Aaron is never too busy to stop, take a resident’s hand and ask about his or her day. Then he focuses on that one person and really listens.”
Meantime, Don’s priorities were changing. He and his wife longed to return home to California, buy a house and start a family. “This is a family-oriented company, so leaders here understood,” Don says. After two years in Washington State, Don moved back to California, again with a Koelsch promotion in hand, this time to Corporate Food and Beverage Manager, supervising meal service for three California communities.
In June 2006, the Vice President of Operations offered Don another promotion—Executive Director of Sterling Inn, the same community where he had started out washing dishes 13 years before. “I was humbled by the opportunity and scared stiff,” Don says. “But I knew I had Aaron’s support and that company leaders would be there to back me up.”
For Don, it has been an ideal position. “I know what it’s like to do many of the jobs I now supervise,” he says. “I know the history of how we did things and it helps me problem solve. I thrive on the relationships that surround me, both with the residents and the staff. There are employees here who still remember me from my early days in the kitchen,” he says.
He’s also grateful for an executive job that doesn’t require extensive travel. “My wife and I have two young children. I’m happy to stay put for now.”
Though Don has been through plenty of Koelsch interviews, he has never interviewed with another company. “What I know about other companies is how happy their former employees tend to be once they get here. They love the passion for senior care, the supportive, personal corporate culture and the variety of opportunities. I was so fortunate to find my first job here. It led me to not only a career, but also a calling. I know I’m making a difference.”