“Sara Speaks” is a quarterly blog series written by Sara, a longtime ShelterCare consumer. In her latest blog, she sits down to interview ShelterCare’s new CEO Michelle Hankes!
Sara Speaks: An Interview With Michelle Hankes C.E.O.
I’m happy to have been chosen by Janice and Cat, from the Development Team, for allowing me the honor of doing a one on one with a real, leaders leader. Michelle’s “breadth and depth” of knowledge of people and life amazed me the entire time we spoke. Michelle is, in the true sense of the word, an Educator. Her world, much like ShelterCare founder Susan Ban’s, is one founded on communication, non-profits, academia and being unrepentantly spiritual. She was a joy to talk to. To be honest, if I felt trepidation because of the change in leadership around here; the fear of the unknown really – there was no need. Susan, of course, chose a very worthy successor. As we entered her office we’d been discussing past brushes with downturns in health and the curves life can throw.
Michelle: I think a lot of us, we just ignore it. You have kids; you focus on your kids. And I’ve loved my work – I’ve always been in social services. But, when you love your work and love your family…sometimes you forget to love yourself.
Sara: You’ve been through a lot and I agree, it’s easy to neglect yourself. I have this saying written down to remind me, it’s taoist – “These are your three treasures: patience, compassion and simplicity.”
Michelle: Say that again, I’ll write it down.
Sara: The compassion really applies to yourself first because you can’t be compassionate to other people unless you’re alive. It took a great deal of work to get here. Why ShelterCare? I‘m trying to avoid the usual lines of questioning for this.
Michelle: That’s OK, we’ll just have a little discussion. So the work I had been doing was with a national organization. When you work at one you feel like a piece of it. You don’t get to have any real creativity. My original role was to make sure babies were born healthy, but the role changed. It went from getting to work with families, to working with with people, doctors, researchers, donors, and the board. The non-profit changed into, ‘We’re now one big non-profit. Our researchers are going to be researchers – now the only thing you’re going to do is fund raise,’…and I’m a good fundraiser. But not being able to make decisions; not being able to meet the people I’m serving; that was really hard, because I thrive when I’m making a difference. I was raising money to make a difference but, I wasn’t making a difference with people.
Sara: In other words you weren’t living up to your potential.
Michelle: Exactly. My husband said, ‘We need to make sure we’re all happy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I love what I do, but I don’t love where I am.’ So, I started looking around and usually, in my past, I created collaboration and created partnerships…looking at an issue and saying, ‘What’s the creative way to go at it. You do this, and I’ll do this.’ That’s what my background had been in. So I happened to see ShelterCare pop up on my LinkedIn, I reached out to the individual who was doing the search, and he turned out to be one of those wonderful people. I did a lot of research on Eugene. I reached out to see, ‘Would I make a good impact, would I make a difference? I think so. You know, you can try!’ I talked to a lot of board members for interviews. They had me come out here with my husband to do the presentation with the other individuals they were looking at. Part of it was, not only, ‘Does ShelterCare want me?’ But ‘Was I a good fit?’ Back and forth. It had to be a good fit. I got to sit down with Susan for a while to talk. I got to sit with board members, staff, I got to sit with some consumers. And, I fell in love with the place – I fell in love with the people.
Sara: What’s your educational background?
Michelle: I have undergraduate degrees in political science, international history, music performance and theory, and I have a masters degree in science education, museum studies and geology. And then I have my certification in nonprofit management.
Sara: You’ve got a broad spectrum…
Michelle: I love to learn!
Sara: Is there anything you’d like to add, as far as outside interests or volunteer work, for instance, that pertain?
Michelle: I didn’t plan to be in nonprofit work. I guess, sort of…I planned to be a park ranger.
Sara: Susan is a minister.
Michelle: If you go into life with your blinders on going, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ then like 30 years down the road you go: ‘Gee, I’m miserable!’ You have to be you. Show me a 20-year-old who knows who they are; they’re only starting to. I have a 20-year-old at home.
Sara: So I hear you have a personal interest in psychology. Would you mind elaborating?
Michelle: I have a brother that’s bipolar. He has overcome a lot of things. He was briefly homeless. My aunt, who was my favorite aunt growing up, had schizophrenia. You were talking about geniuses you know? She would be one of those geniuses – she could play any instrument. She was brilliant. She had her own demons. The family went around her. I was raised knowing Clarice has her good days and bad days. There were days when she was a danger to herself and others. She hurt herself badly when I was a youth. She was still my Aunt Clarice. I loved her then and I love her now. At my senior recital, I had to sing arias in seven or eight different languages, and she came. She had the flu too, but she was there, which meant more to me, because she understood. To this day I look at her as my hero. One of my favorites stories is about Albert Einstein who asked to speak at Yale or Harvard or Princeton. You can picture one of those huge lecture halls, and packed with all these scientific minds; physicists etc. Albert Einstein walks on stage with his violin and plays it for 45 minutes. He walks off the stage and you’ve got all these scientists saying: ‘What the heck! We were here to see Einstein speak.’ They asked him later: ‘Why did you do that?’ He replied: ‘They’ll never understand the science, if they don’t feel the music.’ I might have misquoted that slightly, but something along those lines.
Sara: You told us earlier that you were a dog person!
Michelle: Dogs love us unconditionally…they really do, and we all need a little love unconditionally. My current dog, Harley, was a stray who got hit by a car, or was thrown out of one. He was unwanted. He had mange and was missing fur. His hip was bad. He was about six months old.
Sara: What is he?
Michelle: Maybe chihuahua/terrier; he’s about twenty pounds now. He was about ten pounds when he followed my husband and kids back from the school bus stop. He chose us. The boys were going to name him “Honda” because I’d just gotten a Honda motorcycle. He’s been with us now for eight years. He’s healthy and happy, and a little fat. His problem is he’s a little “Napoleonic.” Big dog? It doesn’t matter how big that dog is, Harley will go first. He loves people but will defend his “terriertory” as we call it.
Sara: Terriers are game, and chihuahuas are crazy. They can be kind of neurotic.
Michelle: They may take after their owners (laughs). That’s pretty much the combination of what Harley gives me. We are part of his “terriertory.”
Sara: So tell us about your family!
Michelle: Sure! Michael and I will be celebrating our 23rd anniversary this year. Keegan will be twenty next month. He just finished his early degree in Film Tech. He had done some videos, and just did the first movie he got to work on. He was the graphic designer and production assistant. It’s a cowboy/zombie horror movie and it will be on Netflix this year! It’s called “Potter’s Ground.” It’s a small budget horror film…he’s had to do a lot of different things and learn that Hollywood isn’t all lights, camera, and action sometimes – he’s starting from the beginning. Then Rory is 15 and a half. He’s a sophomore in high school. He’s making the transition from Tennessee to Oregon slowly. Unfortunately, he’s one of those genius level people. Some day he wants to be a lawyer, but that was last week. My husband does editing and social media. He works freelance from home, by internet.
Sara: What about self-care? What do you do for fun?
Michelle: Now that I can walk again, after a hip replacement…love the outdoors! It’s that science background. I like hiking, camping, and I like doing day trips with my husband and exploring. Maybe a new campground…maybe a winery or a restaurant we’ve never tried. Or, see the ocean and take the boys if they want to go.
Sara: Oregon is an outdoor person’s paradise.
Michelle: I love reading. It can be a bag, it can be a book. I really love science fiction.
Sara: Do you have any advice for us on leading a happy existence?
Michelle: Smile until you mean it. That’s what my therapist taught me years ago.
Welcome Michelle! Seriously, she smiles a lot. Another aspect of her being is that of cancer survivor/advocate. She mentioned this about herself and husband Michael: “We had cancer at the same time. It’s why I think healthcare is so important and having someone you trust – a family, friend or peer, is so vital.” The Forest Service? Too many talents for the great indoors. Besides an interest in pursuing an education in nonprofit management, history, politics and her love of music: Michelle plays violin, viola and a little guitar – she specialized in science education. If you can teach 8th grade anything, much less science, you need to be eloquent, convincing and forceful. That’s Michelle. What the reader didn’t hear was the reassuring, very down to earth, business-like tone (with a slight accent!).