By Courtney Westlake
Persistence is what first brought me into contact with Kelly Thompson years ago.
At the time, she was serving as communications director for the Springfield office of the American Heart Association, while I was working as a reporter for the newspaper in Decatur. She drove all the way to Decatur to discuss a new campaign she was working on and was trying to get media coverage for, and I recall being impressed by her leadership and outgoing personality at the time.
And now, persistence is what has afforded Thompson the opportunity to take her leadership skills to the next level as executive director of the Ronald McDonald House in Springfield.
Though she has held several roles in the volunteer and nonprofit industry, Thompson didn’t always envision making a career out of it. As a speech communication and political science double major, she worked first for the Illinois legislature and next, a consulting company. But then her mother passed away.
“Sometimes it takes something personal to happen for you to re-evaluate where you’re headed,” she said. “That was the ah-ha moment for me, and I asked myself if I felt I was making a difference, and at the time, I didn’t feel I was… Sometimes you have to take a risk.”
I first met Kelly three jobs ago for both of us, and have been fortunate to work with her in every new venture in some capacity. What I’ve seen from her is not only persistence, but a compassion combined with reliability and good business sense that can be sometimes hard to find today.
Over lunch at Café Brio, Kelly and I talked in depth about opportunities, and the myth that the perfect opportunity will eventually come along and just “happen.” On the contrary, Kelly has always strived to build her career as she has envisioned her role in the community.
“I’ve always been selective of opportunities but had a clear picture of what that looked like,” she said thoughtfully. “Looking back, I can see how I’ve been strategic about what I’ve wanted to do.”
We agreed that taking on challenges in your career is often what affords you bigger opportunities. Kelly noted several projects she took the initiative to start while in past jobs that not only benefited her employer but also helped to build leadership, communication and organizational skills, such as the Smoke-Free Springfield campaign that she ran through the Heart Association.
“I’ve believed that you always have to take advantage of opportunities when they arrive, and create your own opportunities because they’re not created for you. You have to take risks.,” she emphasized. “I’ve tried to always be open to taking on challenges; seizing opportunities and challenges expand your skills.”
The Ronald McDonald House was coincidentally the first charity that Thompson decided to volunteer at when she moved to Springfield years ago due to her love for children. Now, in her role as director, her volunteer job-turned-employment fulfills her every day.
“It is at the end of the day, knowing that I – along with many others – helped a family in crisis who needed it, even if just for a short period of time,” she said.
What is the balance like in leading a nonprofit, between helping families, but also running a business? Easy, when you look at the incoming dollars as aid for families, Thompson said.
“Yes, we always look at the bottom line,” she said. “We are there to serve families, but to do that in the most efficient, transparent and beneficial way possible, we are always looking to reduce costs and make the most wise decisions possible.
“Part of my responsibility as director is to be the best steward of someone else’s money,” she said.
As Kelly enters year four as the House’s director in December, she is looking toward the long term. Over the next year, the House will undergo a complete renovation to better serve its families, and Kelly is also exploring a “family room program,” in which local hospitals create a mini version of the House within the hospital, complete with sleeping quarters, laundry and other services.
When I mentioned Kelly’s personal goals, she told me she is working toward better time management and also continually looking for ways to work with the local community.
“Why is that so important to you?” I asked, and I was impressed with her unique perspective regarding community involvement.
“We’re a part of our community. In order for nonprofits and charities to succeed, we have to have a strong community,” she explained with conviction. “I want to be more involved with the Chamber and other leadership and speaking opportunities, and continue to help the local community through my role.
“Whether it’s a strong business sector, medical industry, etc., all of those intersect and help us as nonprofits to be stronger as well,” Thompson added.
Persistence and vision are what got Kelly to where she is today, and persistence and vision are what will keep the Ronald McDonald House successfully serving its families and community under her leadership.
By the way, I had Café Brio’s greens salad, and it was refreshing.
Courtney Westlake is a freelance writer from Springfield.