By Courtney Westlake
Ginny Conlee gets things done. That has been my impression as I’ve witnessed Conlee’s work in her leadership roles for many years, though I’ve only just gotten to know her better personally in the last year. And after sitting down to lunch with her at Café Brio, I am more convinced of this than ever.
Conlee’s impressive actions and follow-through can be noted in her long list of accomplishments and full resume, but what you won’t see on that list is how much she cares. Conlee always makes time to ask about others’ lives because she is genuinely interested, and learning is a lifelong endeavor for her, as evidenced by the fact that she has two master’s degrees – in international relations and an MBA – and she completed the Leadership Springfield program just last year.
“I was the oldest person in there by 30 years!” she laughs. “But it’s kind of fun to shake it up every now and then.”
When I asked Ginny about her background, she enthusiastically told me about each job in her career – from joining the Peace Corps and working in the Philippines after receiving her degree in education and music, to a long career primarily with the state in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Department of Public Aid and Mental Health. Each job description was followed by “And that was really cool!”
“I was really scared of retirement (in 2002) because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she admitted. She volunteered in a few roles and also worked as a “software tester” on an interim basis for a year with DCFS. But eventually, she was asked to join the board of directors at the Hope Institute. The decision to accept the position on Hope’s board paved the way for the numerous volunteer leadership positions Conlee now holds.
“Then I knew about the crew that was thinking about starting a women’s giving circle through the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln (CFLL), so I became a starting member of that, and then I was asked to join the board,” she said. “They’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and it’s fun to be able to work on big issue things. We don’t just fund stuff; we think about how to make the community better for everyone.”
Though at first glance, Conlee’s various roles seem unrelated, but it’s clear that in each of her positions – from child abuse investigations to being a board member at St. Patrick’s Catholic School – there is one common thing that drives her: the success of the future generation.
Ginny acknowledged that she has never had children herself, and I asked her why children have been such a passion in her life. Her mother being a kindergarten teacher certainly influenced her, but the simple personal fulfillment that Ginny finds in helping to give the youth in our community new opportunities is very obvious by the noticeable excitement in her eyes when she speaks about the positive work of the organizations she is involved with.
“So many kids don’t even know there are opportunities out there,” she said. “We need to help them have the skills to compete in the world and the knowledge that there are opportunities available that they maybe didn’t even know about or no one in their family has done before.”
Ginny and I had a frank discussion about progress and how too many children and parents live “just trying to make it through today,” as she described. “How do we break that cycle?” I asked her.
“By starting early,” she responded. “By getting (children) ready for school, by teaching families how to read to their kids, to talk to their kids and how to positively influence their kids’ lives. Often, we need to work with the parents more than the children.”
We talked about how interesting it is to be on the boards of organizations both with so much money to work with and so little money to work with, and she described how valuable it has been to bring people together from each of her positions – not just financially, but to have varying degrees of expertise to rely on with new initiatives and campaigns.
“I see all this stuff I do, and it all connects,” she told me. “It’s all about helping people who need help for one reason or another. I just try to do a good job wherever I am. I’m not interested in helping people who think they deserve to be helped. I’m interested in helping people who, in spite of all they’re facing, want to keep trying.”
With the primary goal of giving children better opportunities for success in life, Ginny finds a way to make things happen, and I expressed what a commendable quality that is to her.
“Nobody else is going to do it,” she replied. “And I like to do it. I don’t do things just because I should, but because I like them and find them interesting and I like learning.”
By the way, I had the Brio Burger, and it was so enormous (and delicious) that I got to take home leftovers for my husband to enjoy.
Courtney Westlake is a freelance writer from Springfield.