Kelly Henderson has come a long way in her career, and it’s because “people believed in me,” she says. Now, as the new executive director of Ministry with Community, Henderson wants to pay that gift forward.
Ministry with Community is a day shelter and organization that serves people who are hungry, lonely or homeless. It is open from 6:30 a.m.—5:30 p.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year. Ministry with Community is expecting to serve more than 150,000 meals to those in need this year as well as provide shower and laundry facilities, access to social workers and connections to local agencies that can help with housing, employment and other needs.
Henderson, 40, who began at the agency in 2008 as an executive assistant, is now running the place. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t,” she says. “This place has my heart, and I can see myself in a lot of people who are here.”
How did you get where you are today?
If you look at me on a piece of paper, I don’t have the qualifications to have made any of the steps I have.
I was a single teen mom. I had my son at 17. When I was 19, he was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. I graduated from WMU with a bachelor’s degree, and it was suggested we move to Schoolcraft because the schools there had a really good program in autism at the time. We lived in a trailer and worked odd jobs, and I got involved with the People’s Church. I was there one Sunday when Ministry’s former executive director, Kendra Stetser Rowe, said she was looking to hire a volunteer coordinator. I met with Kendra, and she recognized that I was not ready to be the volunteer coordinator at that point but was ready to step in to Ministry as the executive assistant.
Kendra left in early 2010, and Rob Oakleaf stepped in as executive director. He said, “Kelly, you are going to be operations director.” And I said, “I can’t do that. How am I going to run the facility and do human resource stuff?” He said, “You’ve been doing it. You can do this. You got this.”
I did that for a few years, and then Rob said to me, “You know what? You’re the No. 2 in the organization. You step in for me when I am not here and make a lot of decisions. You’re the associate director.” And I said, “I can’t do that. That’s too much.” He said, “No, no, you can.” So I said OK.
He knew at some point he was going to leave and, not that it was his choice to make, asked me to become the executive director because he saw the potential in me. I said, “I can’t do that … (she laughs).” It took some time, and I’m ready. I’m excited.
What made you want to do this?
Coming here and being with the people that believed in me … (she tears up).
The whole point of Ministry for me is to love people, and that’s what we try to do every day. So we smile and we welcome folks, and that includes our members (the people the organization serves), our staff and our volunteers.
So many folks who come here say that as they go about their day no one looks them in the eye or says hi to them. So when they come here, we do that. Anybody that walks through our doors is an important, lovable human being, so we want to treat them that way. They have stories to share and they want someone to talk to, and we listen and we learn.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done in your career?
The place we are sitting in, this building (Ministry moved into a new facility in 2016). I worked really closely with the architects and picked out paint colors and chose materials. I had no idea you could have a two-hour meeting about toilets, but it’s possible (she laughs).
We tried to work in what our members and volunteers were looking for and what our staff needed to make this the best place that it could be, because this is our home for a very long time. We won’t have that opportunity again, so we tried to knock it out of the park.
What are you looking forward to doing at Ministry?
We’ve been in the new space for just over a year and have a lot of the kinks worked out, so it’s time to move to that next step and align our staff to our strategic plan and change some roles and positions in the organization. Several staff will take on different work that hasn’t been done before because we were so busy trying to keep the old building in one piece. Being the executive director gives me the opportunity to recognize folks, just like Rob and Kendra did with me, and help them continue down their path.
What keeps you up at night?
The touching stories here, whether it’s a struggle or a success. I worry because I know some of these folks live outside, and as it gets colder you wonder if you’ll see them tomorrow. Sometimes I feel the weight of the world, and then I remember I come here and do this work and this is my piece that I can give back to the community that I’m in.
What’s on your bucket list?
Go to Ireland, because I’m Irish. It’s like a heart calling — I love to travel and see new things and I’m a total tourist. So, even though I’m terrified of heights, I have got to kiss the Blarney Stone. (To kiss it, one has to climb the steps to the battlements of Blarney Castle and lean backward from the edge of a parapet walk, holding on to iron railings. Protective crossbars have been installed as safeguards to prevent long falls, but some people still find the experience frightening. Legend has it that kissing the stone gives the kisser great eloquence.)