meet along the way: Donna Gales

By Diane Beck

This story was first published as “Faces of Southeast Missouri: Donna Gales” in the January 2024 issue of The Best Years.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

Donna Gales earned a degree in floral design from the American Institute of Floral Design and went on to become head spokesperson for the American Floral Society (AFS), traveling around the United States to attend and run floral conventions. From the halls of the White House to exclusive NFL Superbowl parties, from Broadway to the Rose Bowl, Gales designed for significant audiences throughout the U.S.

Due to a stroke, Gales returned to her hometown Gideon, Mo., in 2018 to find the quiet a small town offers. 

“I wasn’t happy about it at first. I loved my work. What was I going to do in a little village in the Bootheel of Missouri after riding so high, but my daughters insisted,” Gales says. 

Soon after moving back, Gales and one of her daughters, Carla Borden, attended Gideon’s annual Labor Day festival. Borden heard a rumor an antique dealer was going to buy the stained-glass windows out of the Methodist church, another piece of Gideon beauty lost. Gales and Borden quickly decided they could not let that happen. Their purchase of the Methodist church marked the birth of Bootheel Arts Center.

One of the main goals Gales has for Bootheel Arts Center is revitalizing the community through the arts and other cultural events. When Gales discovered Gideon’s school had a cache of musical instruments that were no longer in use, Gales was quick to see an opportunity. Bootheel Arts Center now has those instruments. 

“We’re just waiting for teachers who will draw students to participate. As inspiration, we hold concerts, recitals and other musical events in the main sanctuary once a month. The acoustics are superb. To sing there is heavenly,” Gales says. 

She imagines a future for Bootheel Arts Center that weaves together theater, dance and visual arts, as well as other mediums.

Bootheel Arts Center also hosts a variety of cultural events such as an annual Christmas celebration. Through one such celebration, Gales discovered her second calling in Gideon. Numerous children, rather than asking for toys, asked for food. 

“We didn’t realize there was such a need,” Gales says. 

Shortly after, Gales and Borden purchased a stretch of downtown Gideon, created a warehouse and became members of the Southeast Missouri Food Bank. Garden Shed Food Pantry now serves a circle of five communities radiating from Gideon that constitute the Bootheel of Missouri. Staffed with 23 volunteers, the food pantry not only provides boxes of food to families, but also takes meals to the elderly. 

In 2022, Garden Shed Food Pantry fed more than 10,000 people. In the future, Gales wants to renovate the basement of Bootheel Arts Center to restore its function as a kitchen. However, significant repairs need to be made to both buildings, and Gales is dependent solely on private donations. 

“I want provide a place where people can get their need for beauty met by the arts, by enjoying the loveliness of the building,” Gales says. “There’s something about that building, especially when music is playing … then instead of hopelessness, people can come in and experience a little joy each day.”