Jill Dunn, Bona Vista Program’s CEO/president for the last 42 years, is retiring effective July 2.
I wrote the introductory line to this article many times in different ways, but I figured it was best to rip off the Band Aid from the start and then tell you more. I hope that’s OK. I’m also a “tell the sad news first and the good news second” kind of person. So, now you know the sad news. Take a moment if you need to, and then proceed reading.
The good news? The work, heart, and impact she has had on this organization, the people we serve and the community as a whole, will long outlast her name plaque on the door. And, that’s intentional. She has set us up for success over the years and now gets to sit back and watch what we are able to do with it – from the comfort of her home or her jewelry-making studio.
I sat down with Jill last week to talk about the changes in the industry since she started, some of her most/least favorite moments over the years, and what she plans to do after retirement. I planned on writing this article like I would if I had interviewed her when I worked at a newspaper many years ago. Factual. But, the more I thought about it the more I felt like I had to stay true to myself and write how I write now – like I’m talking to my friends (which I consider all of you).
When anyone leaves an organization, and for whatever reason, it stings. It leaves a hole where they were in the office, in the role they played, in the part of the family they fulfilled. Over time, the seat in the office gets filled, the role they played gets picked up by someone else, and, while they will always be part of the family, someone else is in that spot more regularly.
However, when that person has been a part of the organization for 42 years, I don’t know how you expect it to not have a tremendous impact. There’s no denying the passion for the Bona Vista mission that Jill has. That is the focus of every decision she makes. Will this decision better the organization? Will this decision positively impact those we serve? Will this decision help to sustain Bona Vista in the future? If the answer is “no” to any of those questions her answer is no, too. Her focus is always on the mission.
That’s one of things I love the most about her. Part of my job is to meet with new hire orientation groups to tell them about their upcoming trainings. My part comes directly after Jill meets with the group. That’s right. The CEO of an organization with 500 employees takes the time to meet with each and every orientation group. And, I can tell you without a doubt that every single group has heard one thing loud and clear from her – we are mission-driven! Anything less is not acceptable. And, she’s right!
We love hiring in new people. But the reality is the work we do is not for everyone. She knows that. She’s seen so many people come and go from here because they think they can do what we do and realize they can’t. She’s seen people come and go from here because they stopped putting the mission first and started putting themselves first. But, one thing is true of Jill; she will not be shaken or deterred from the mission.
When Jill started at Bona Vista in 1976 at the age of 24 as the director of vocational services, Bona Vista only had about 40 staff, a budget less than $2 million, and one main building (that wasn’t even big enough to house all the staff, so there was an annex building in the parking lot Jill worked out of). It’s easy to see how far we’ve come since then if you’ve ever taken a tour of our current programs and buildings. She’s seen capital campaigns create new facilities to fit the needs of those we serve. She’s seen regulations increase, funding decrease, and fought relentlessly to turn both of those tides. She’s been with some of the people we serve since they came for services as children and continue with us as adults.
Because of all of that, there are a million stories I could share with you. And, I will (some). There’s no way that I can wrap up Jill’s 42 years into one article. So, I’ll give you tidbits of her insight when I share more about Bona Vista’s 60 years in this community this year. I’ll leave you with a couple quick stories to end this article, though. They are two stories that I believe show her resilience, her unwavering passion and her heart for those we serve.
First, you likely know that Bona Vista is a nonprofit. However, operating as a business is a necessity if you want to stay afloat, at times. One of those times came when the state froze all funding. Bona Vista wasn’t getting reimbursed for any services. How do you survive a time like that? You cash flow the organization on the reserves you have in the bank. Would it have been easier to close the doors, tell staff to stay home until further notice, and tell those we serve we are sorry, but there is no money for us to care for them? Absolutely. Is that what Jill chose to do, though? Not a chance. She held on until the funding came back, providing the same amazing care we provide now to people when we were getting nothing in return. Because that is what it is about – the people.
Second, in 2013, the Arcadia Developmental Center closed its doors without much notice after an extensive survey that identified numerous violations. At that time, Bona Vista took in 13 children and adults who had been living there. With no notice, no additional funding, and no support, Bona Vista clothed, fed, and found housing for these individuals who would have otherwise found themselves homeless. At the time, Jill was quoted in the Kokomo Perspective as saying, “We want to provide to these young people something they haven’t had for a very long time, and that’s a family.”
Why would Bona Vista agree to take in 13 individuals in an emergency situation when they weren’t prepared? Because Jill looked at the individuals and knew that they were the Bona Vista mission. Even when she knew that doing the right thing was going to be challenging, that’s what she was going to do. She looked at those individuals and knew if we didn’t step up and provide them the care they deserved, no one else would either.
I warned you. I could go on and on with the influence she has had. And, I’ll tell you some more fun, light-hearted stories in future articles. Today, though, I want you to know that the fight she has given to this organization and those we serve on a daily basis will be tough to match.
That she may be small, but she is mighty. That she may not say or do what you think she should say or do at times, but that’s because she has our mission in mind. That she may be retiring from Bona Vista, but she’s not retiring from life and hopes to eventually create a foundation to support children with special needs. That she may not be the name on the door plaque after July 2, but she will always be a name on the hearts of those she has impacted in this organization.