Empowering Change in Communities

James McDonald at Muskingum University for Homecoming weekend.

James A. McDonald ’73 has developed an impressionable career that continues to impact the world. Due to his achievements, he was one of the 2023 honorable recipients of the Muskingum University Distinguished Service Award.   

James was raised in Zanesville, Ohio, by his parents, Frank and Ruth McDonald. He was originally accepted into Ohio University Athens, with plans on attending there, when his father received an unexpected call.   

“In the spring of ‘69, my dad got a call from Muskingum. I think they were trying to improve and expand diversity on campus, so they called. Well, the rest is history,” said James. His father then drove him to Muskingum with only a suitcase and a brown grocery bag, where he stayed in Memorial Hall for the first year. 

“I entered there as a math major, and for the first two years, I took the required courses. Then I changed in my junior year to psychology,” said James. “I believe I am more of a humanitarian, so it was an easy shift to a different career path.”

James McDonald has a toy on his shoulder. This was a picture of him when he was a radio host for WMCO at Muskingum University.

At Muskingum, he was involved in various clubs and organizations. “The Black students on campus formed an organization called “Uhuru,” a Swahili word for freedom, and I was the co-president of that,” said James.   

In addition to him forming his own organization with his peers, he was heavily involved in WMCO. “I also had a radio show on WMCO in the morning. My handle there was “Brown Sugar,” and all through my years at Muskingum, that is how people knew me,” he said.   

James was also involved in a few plays within the theatre department. He graduated from Muskingum with his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1973.   

“Going to Muskingum was some of the best four years of my life. Meeting people from all over the country, all various cultures, and having the opportunity to learn and travel,” said James.  

After James graduated from Muskingum, he took some time off from school to work, but eventually decided to go to graduate school. He attended Ohio University, earning his Master’s Degree in Public Administration in 1984.   

James has served Allwell Behavioral Health Services for 48 years, but has been the President and Chief Executive Officer since 2013.   

“We have about 25 service lines in our organization, counseling, medication management, day treatment, residential and employment services, and case management,” said James. “We have 250 employees, and we serve about 12,000 patients a year.” 

James McDonald's professional headshot in front of a colorful background.

He has a lot of responsibilities as the President and Chief Executive Officer, and each day at work is different, which is something that he loves about it. “My work revolves around making sure we are solvent or have enough assets to cover our liabilities and pay our bills. As well as creating meaningful work for people,” James said. “We work with community partners to develop integrated care that includes mental health, substance use, and physical medicine for people in our community.”   

In addition to his important role at Allwell, he is also a Board Member of various organizations throughout Zanesville. Some of these include Chair of the Board of Directors of Genesis Healthcare System, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Zane State College, founding board member of the Ohio Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families, Chairman of the Board of Muskingum County Community Foundation, and Chairman of the Board of the Muskingum County Senior Center.   

“I have been on a variety of boards in Zanesville,” James said. “I think one of the main reasons is for diversity and a different perspective. I try to influence our community to be wholesome and engaged. I just feel like I have a responsibility to improve the quality of life here.”  

In addition to his role on various boards, he founded an organization that he is very passionate about called Forever Dads.   

“When I first started working in mental health, we would see people with the onset of mental illness at maybe 40 and 35 years old. Then a few years later, the onset was their 20s, then teens, and then we started seeing kids,” James said. “I just wondered what had changed that psych issues have begun so early, and one of the main dynamics was family and the disintegration of family.”  

James McDonald, his wife, children, and grandchild posed in front of a landscaped background.

Through his research, James began many different programs through Forever Dads that specialize in father absence. “We have programs for new dads, couples, and divorced parents. There are a variety of ways that we try to honor and connect fathers to their kids.”  

James is incredibly passionate about this organization and its ability to leave a lasting impact on the community. “I wanted to create an opportunity for kids to have the same opportunity I had – to have a father and a mother in their life and to grow up with both parents,” said James.   

In addition to Forever Dads, he is the originator of Enterprise Community. “It is a cradle-to-career approach to education, employment, and healthcare outcomes for every child in Muskingum County. There is amplified focus on people of color and families living in poverty,” said James.   

Among his career and the various organizations, he has founded and had an active role in, he has experienced many accomplishments that make him proud. However, one of his favorite accomplishments is his family. He is married to his wife, Lisa, and has two kids, Sarah and Michael, as well as one grandson, Jordan.   

"I am proud of the lives that began with Lisa and me. That we had the responsibility to create successful over the course of their lives, and the joys and challenges of that,” said James. 

Additionally, his proudest accomplishment through his years of service was creating a crisis hotline. "I was Emergency Service Coordinator. I developed a crisis hotline where people can call 24/7, and we train volunteers to answer the calls,” James said. “I was also one of the members that would go in the emergency room 24 hours a day and provide psychiatric crisis intervention.”  

Take care of yourself. And live your life in a manner of integrity, honesty, and purpose.

Due to his experience throughout life, James has advice he wants to share with current and future students at Muskingum University. 

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