Donna, tell me a little bit about yourself! Where are you from? What was your first job like? Where’d you go to school? Things like that.
I am from the area, I actually grew up in Canonsburg. It’s a little village in the Rockford area. I went to Rockford High School and then went on to Aquinas College.
My first “not professional” job, started when I was 11, and I worked for a family picking weeds in their garden and cleaning their home. At about age 14, I started working pretty much full time at Cannonsburg Ski area which was in my back yard. Summers, I also worked full-time at Amway doing production work on the soap line, second and third shifts. My first professional job was at Bethany Christian Services. I started as a foster care case aide and then went into volunteer management.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t know that I ever had this aspiration at an early age, but when I actually started thinking about what I wanted to do, I thought I wanted to be an educator. I did very well in school, and it was really important to me, so as I went off to college, I had plans to become a teacher. I did a pre-teaching semester early on. I was based at Franklin Elementary School. It was really rough, and I was really ill-equipped, and I just remember thinking there has to be something that we can do to with and for children who come to school tired, hungry, anxious, depressed, other than simply bring them into the classroom and expect them to sit there and learn. That was when I decided that I needed to be involved in something that impacted kids outside of education and from a broader perspective.
What have been your past jobs and experiences leading you here to D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s?
When I was at Aquinas, I was very involved in community work, like grassroots kind of stuff. I think that’s where I started to develop an understanding of systems and I began to think I wanted to do research and figure out how to make the systems that are set up to help people actually work. During this time, and as part of an independent study project I worked with a small group of other students and a Sociology professor to understand the needs of and advocate for services for LGBTQ young adults in Grand Rapids before LGBTQ was even an acronym. I also worked in domestic violence, staffing a crisis call line and at working at a women’s shelter. At Aquinas, I also ran the volunteer program on campus where I connected students with a variety of different grassroots volunteer opportunities. I graduated from Aquinas, married a month later, and began working at Bethany Christian Services in their foster care department as a case aide.
How long have you been with D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s? What’s your journey been like throughout your time here?
It’s hard for me to remember, I’ve been here so long! I think I started here in 1985. I worked in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program as a case manager and later as a supervisor until 1999. Early on, because of my own experiences and my work in the community I was really aware of the impact of trauma, poverty and bias on children and families and was drawn to the child welfare world.
My plan was to get some work experience before continuing my education. However, my career took a quick left turn when our three year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1991. That kind of derailed some of those plans as we dealt with her illness and recovery. Eventually, this experience led me to leave the agency in 1999, when I went to work at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital as Coordinator of the Pediatric Oncology Resource Team (PORT), a program that provides support for families who have a child or children with cancer and blood disorders. PORT was a brand new program, started by parents. I was drawn to this work because of my family’s experiences. I really understood that like the child welfare system, here was another system that families struggled to navigate, and I wanted to impact what this experience was like for other families.
During that time, my career took another shift when my two nieces, three and five years old at the time, came to live with us. When it became clear that reunification with their birth parents was not possible, Dani and Sammy joined our family permanently through adoption, and I came face to face with the exquisite and unique braiding of heartbreak and joy that I believe are a part of every adoption story. This experience brought me back to the world of child welfare and I returned to the agency in 2002, working part time as a foster home licensing worker, while we focused on stabilizing this new family of four kids. As my own family’s adoption story was playing out at home, I was assigned to work mostly with pre-adopt families – licensing families who were willing to foster but whose primary goal was adoption.
While I enjoyed foster home licensing and working with adoptive families, I continued to feel drawn to the bigger picture and how systems impact services, and how we could maybe improve processes to better serve kids and families. I was given the opportunity to explore quality improvement practices and models, and over several years my work became more focused on developing and overseeing quality improvement and risk-management processes. Eventually I took on leading the agency’s accreditation process with Council on Accreditation. My writing was apparently decent enough, so when we learned about federal grant opportunities to support mentoring, I was asked to dive into another new realm, writing for federal grants. We were successfully awarded two large grants which I went on to manage. All of that lead me to a Director level position overseeing federal level grants, quality and risk, and the medical team. That brought me to 2017, when I was promoted to Chief Operations Officer, and here I am!
What are some of your primary responsibilities as COO?
I oversee the operational areas of the agency – Human Resources, EDI, IT, Facilities, Quality & Risk, legal issues, Project Management, and the Administrative Coordinator. I am privileged to work with an exceptional group of operational area leaders who are experts in their fields. So, not needing to be an expert in all of the operational areas myself, I believe my primary responsibility is providing effective leadership. To me that means showing up every day with energy and optimism, a passion for our mission, a dedication to our values, and a commitment to identifying strengths and potential in others and removing barriers so that potential can be realized.
What are some professional accomplishments you’ve had throughout the years? It doesn’t have to be just through D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s, it can be through anything.
Outside of DABSJ, I guess the professional accomplishments I feel most proud of include being a Peer Reviewer for the Council on Accreditation. In this role, I visit organizations across the United States and review their compliance with COA Standards. I am also proud of the work that I did around helping to establish a long term program that supports kids and families dealing with life-threatening cancer and blood disorders.
At DABSJ I have enjoyed leading our accreditation process, and being able to develop a system and framework for performance, quality improvement, and risk management. Related to that, I was invited to work closely with Jim Paparella, Denise Spaulding, as well as other Kent County PAFC and DHHS leaders to help build the framework for what is now WMPC. And last but not least, I am proud to be a part of an operations team that ROCKS!
Why do you do what you do? What gets you up and into work every morning?
You know, my personal life experiences allow me the perspective to understand that there really is very little that separates me from the individuals we serve. I have tremendous empathy for the vulnerabilities experienced by the children and families we work with and I believe we can and must do better! I believe that the systems are what are inherently flawed, not the individuals. So I am energized by being in a space where I am able to team with others to influence the internal systems and culture that supports the critical work done every day by our DABSJ employees!
What are some things that are important to you outside of work? Any fun hobbies?
My family is my highest priority! I’ve been married for 36 years to Jim, an amazing and patient partner. I have four adult children (Ryan/Megan, Alysse/Nick, Dani and Samantha) and two grandchildren (Paige and Lenora) who challenge me to be my best self.
As for hobbies, I’m a runner. I love hiking and biking, and adventure racing. I participate in triathlons when I can. I also love fishing. As for movies and television, I love social justice movies, mindless comedies, and medical dramas, and listen to music of all varieties. My go-to travel spots are Manistee, and anywhere in the U.P. or Northern Michigan. My bucket list travel destinations are the Grand Canyon, Ireland, and Australia.
Fishing with my husband
Do you have a humorous or good personal story you’d like to share for the conclusion of your bio?
In my first professional job at another child welfare agency in town, I did foster care and foster care case aide. I was not particularly good at this work. I was especially not very good at the case aide part…driving children around the county. Remember, this was before there was such a thing as GPS and cell phones!
While driving a six year old child to the Y for counseling, I missed a stop sign, hit a Greyhound bus, bounced off the curb, shot back across the road and hit the same bus again. I totaled the agency car I was driving and undoubtedly added to that child’s trauma narrative!
That was an awful time, and although we laugh as we talk about it now, it really wasn’t funny. But I like to look back at that time and think that I learned an important lesson:
We can’t be good at everything... and it is okay to not be good at everything.
But we are all good at something… So we need to find our something. Find our purpose.
And make our time count, because there is much to be done.
Missed our last post? Meet Jim, our President/CEO!
Have you read our next post yet? Meet Jim, our CAO!
About Allyssa Murphy
Allyssa's journey in the nonprofit world began in 2016 when she started working as a marketing assistant at a small residential facility for foster children in Flint, Michigan. This is where her passion for advocating for children's rights began. She later joined the DABSJ team in 2017.
Her hobbies include planning vacations - but never taking them, game nights with friends, keeping up with the latest movies and TV shows, and visiting friends and family on the other side of the mitten.
Allyssa graduated from Grand Valley State University with a bachelor's degree in Advertising and Public Relations with a minor in Nonprofit Administration. She also has an associate's degree in Media Arts from Mott Community College.