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Community conversations: Kara Hay, CEO of Penquis in Maine


As the chief executive of a private nonprofit corporation with an annual budget of more than $50 million and a staff of more than 350 people, you might think that Kara Hay came to her post following a long career managing nonprofits. But with undergraduate degrees in theater and psychology and a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, her background is distinctive. She has extensive experience working with children, families and communities, and, in many ways, Hay's clinical experience has shaped her approach to community development. It is people-centric while also being big-picture focused; it's about building collaborations to find socially minded solutions that do the greatest good for the greatest numbers.

Hay has been CEO of Penquis since 2014, though her tenure with Penquis began in 2009, when she joined the organization as deputy director/operations manager of Penquis Child Development. Prior to that, Hay worked as a mental health casework supervisor for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, as a children's service coordinator supporting families experiencing domestic violence, and as a family therapist and child development specialist. She also has worked as an independent consultant, providing training and consulting services to parents, mental health providers, early childhood specialists, and nonprofit and school staff.

"I very much enjoy collaborating with others and using both creativity and critical thinking to solve problems," she says during a recent interview with NeighborWorks Works. Among the topics during the interview, Hay discusses her organization's impact on behalf of residents, Maine's unique community development needs, and how the arts have influenced her work role at Penquis.

Kara Hay (at right) receives the 2018 Nonprofit of the Year Award from the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Memorymaker Photography.

NeighborWorks: How have your previous professional roles prepared you for the work at Penquis?
Kara Hay: My previous work experience provided me with a firsthand look at the impacts of financial instability on families and children, and the long-term costs to families, communities and society as a whole. Having worked in both the public and private sectors, I understand the strengths of each and the power and possibilities of cross-sector collaborations in addressing the challenges facing society. I implemented and witnessed the success of quality, research- and evidence-based prevention activities and interventions, and the difference they made on family outcomes.

Was there anything about Penquis that surprised you/hadn't expected/thought would be different after you joined the organization?
Something that was eye opening to me as I joined Penquis was the extent to which people weren't simply filling jobs in the organization; they were fulfilling a mission. It was amazing to discover the exceptional knowledge, commitment and compassion of staff across positions, programs, departments and the overall agency. The corporate culture of Penquis was somewhat atypical for what many think of when they think of social service organizations/community action agencies. Penquis was forward-thinking; it valued innovation and taking calculated risks to better meet the needs of its communities. There was always the encouragement and the expectation to do more and to always strive to find ways to do things better. I knew the organization did good work, but I was very pleased to learn just how well it did it. The culture of Penquis perfectly matched my personal leadership style and approach to addressing poverty.

How do you feel that Penquis has had the greatest impact in the community, and what role do you play in that?
In a more immediate sense, Penquis has helped our area's families and workforce to be safe, stable, connected and financially secure. With a comprehensive approach to community development, we are able to meet diverse needs, from transportation to housing to child care and more. We enable individuals and families to meet basic needs and to pursue goals that not only improve their quality of life but also strengthen the fabric of their communities through employment, volunteer service, homeownership and business development.

More broadly, Penquis has worked to ensure that the needs and interests of individuals with low income are included in discussions of policy and practice, and to help stakeholders to understand and value a comprehensive community development approach. Transportation matters in issues of health care and employment; housing quality impacts health; child care affects education and employment outcomes. These issues are interconnected.

I have been fortunate to be a part of many stakeholder groups that allow me to bring these issues to the forefront, forge new partnerships, and help catalyze efforts that support comprehensive and inclusive solutions that cross sectors and industries. I use Result-Based Accountability (RBA) in my work with stakeholders and have instituted RBA at Penquis. This approach uses data to drive the development of strategies and measurement of impact in order to move the needle on societal indicators.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for the organization?
National NeighborWorks Association (NNA) President Jesse Ergott presents Kara Hay with the NNA Emerging Leader Award in 2017.
I see the biggest opportunities resulting from these partnerships. Just last year Penquis entered into a management agreement with a regional community health and social service organization—the Charlotte White Center—to provide executive leadership to the organization. This has led to a number of new opportunities, one of which is the development of a new children's residential services model that involves Penquis, the Charlotte White Center and Acadia Hospital, a community mental health agency and acute care hospital. Working with community stakeholders we've also opened a children's advocacy center to better respond to child sexual abuse and established a community investors' initiative to meet the needs of families that would otherwise go unaddressed. I know that, continuing to work collaboratively across sectors, so much more is in store.

Where is there room for improvement? What are the areas you feel that are the most challenging currently?
We are currently working toward having a more robust cross-generational approach to services. This involves implementing a universal intake and a whole-family approach to identifying and meeting the needs of families served. This is challenging because many federal and state funding sources—through funding restrictions and technological requirements—are structured to create and maintain service silos.

How do you see intersection among affordable house, improved health and vibrant communities?
The research is very clear that access to affordable housing impacts children's development and academic performance, the health and wellbeing of families and seniors, workforce productivity, and local economies. We cannot achieve better outcomes for our communities and families without providing access to housing that is both affordable and safe. This can mean many things, including affordable housing development, home repair, lead abatement, foreclosure and financial counseling, and even assisted living services for seniors, all of which Penquis offers to the community. To effectively address issues of affordable housing and quality housing, we need to recognize that the challenges—and solutions—are multifaceted and vary by family and community.

How do you successfully engage with the people in the community?
Our approach to engaging members of the community is multifaceted and comprehensive. We believe that engaging the community often, through many avenues and in a warm, responsive and supportive manner is the best way to build relationships and establish coalition building. We have staff representation on numerous boards, committees and coalitions/networks, and we also have public representation on Penquis boards, steering committees and advisory groups. We participate in and often lead community events, presentations, resource fairs and community drives and also share information and resources through traditional media, social media and newsletters.

Finish this sentence: It would be impossible for Penquis to achieve its mission without ...
The support of individuals across sectors who recognize that investment in effective, comprehensive community development strategies yields enormous social and economic returns.

Your undergraduate and graduate degrees are interesting and diverse. How did they prepare you for your work, and is there a mark that you've left on the organization that you'd say is unique to your talents or interests?
My undergraduate degrees are in theater and psychology, and my graduate degree is in mental health. Theater is valuable in a number of ways. It trains you to see the "big picture." With any production you have to be cognizant of the story's place in time, its setting, the characters, and their actions and motivation. This fosters a more holistic view of the world and understanding how the times we live in, our people and institutions, and interests and motivations all influence one another. You try to tell the story in a way that the audience can connect to it. This is valuable in terms of communicating needs and issues in a way that effectively conveys the message and meaning. You also explore the limitless possibilities of how to tell the story. Being open to what's possible and being excited by what's possible is essential to innovation and developing solutions. Theater productions rely on many people coming together and performing different but essential functions. Each and every person's contribution is critical and respected. This instills an appreciation of collaboration and the knowledge that if we work together we can produce something that is far larger than any of us individually.

Kara Hay stands among colleagues and peersPsychology and mental health, in general, focus on individual needs, perspectives and motivations. Understanding and respecting where each person is and where they want to be is crucial, at a direct service level, to being able to provide support that is needed and implement strategies that are effective. At a leadership level, it helps to communicate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds, find common ground, and work together to identify common goals and strategies for achieving them.

I think my appreciation for theater and production have definitely left a mark on the organization. I do try to make every presentation and event informative, engaging and impactful in some way. And I'm always more than willing to have fun at our agency's annual one-day training, whether it's playing Dorothy in a "Wizard of Oz" skit or dancing to music throughout the decades. There is real value to using creativity and performance to have fun and connect with one another. At the same time, I very much enjoy collaborating with others and using both creativity and critical thinking to solve problems. My interest in exploring what's possible and then using an RBA lens to put ideas into practice has helped in facilitating partnerships and projects that are making a difference in our communities.

With a background in the arts, how do you think creative expression plays a role in community development?
Creative expression has immense power and often is an untapped resource for building communities. We know that through the design of physical space, architecture and community planning can create, enhance or diminish a sense of community. But socially, providing a creative space—opportunities for creative expression—also builds a sense of community. It can foster community identity and pride, increase individual feelings of empowerment and acceptance, and help people within the community to bond with one another through shared experiences, dialogue, and increased awareness and understanding of others' backgrounds and beliefs. In many ways, modern society creates isolation. The arts brings people together.

What is the biggest issue facing affordable housing in the next five years (in your area and overall)?
Simply, the need far outpaces availability and the resources to address the problem. It is difficult to identify the biggest issue since there are many populations experiencing different challenges, all of which put people at risk of homelessness. There is a dearth of subsidized housing and long waiting lists, substandard homes—particularly in rural areas—that will be uninhabitable unless repaired or replaced, a housing market that is unaffordable to most, and a rental market that is even more unattainable. In Maine, which has the second-highest proportion of individuals older than 65, affordable housing for seniors is a significant problem that will only worsen in the coming years. Nearly 10,000 senior households in Maine are on waiting lists for affordable housing.

What is the biggest issue facing community development in the next five years (in your area and overall)?
Creating a healthy, sustainable economy is the single biggest community development issue. Maine has an aging workforce and needs qualified workers, improvements to its infrastructure, affordable workforce housing, student loan debt relief and essential services, such as quality child care and elder care services to support working families. We also need to invest in services that support a healthy workforce, including access to medical care, mental health services, and treatment for substance use disorder, and to invest in business development services. Maine is among the top states for microenterprise ownership (seventh in the nation) and small business ownership (ninth in the nation), and small and micro businesses are widely recognized as the backbone of Maine's economy. Providing assistance to help businesses grow and thrive helps to create jobs and sustain families and communities.

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