Q&A with Sharon Osborne, CEO of Children’s Home Society of WA:
Giving Hope, Gaining Hope and Helping Children Thrive
Enjoy Lake City (ELC) met with Sharon Osborne, CEO of Children’s Home Society of WA (CHSW) and the Children’s Home Society and Trust Foundation to discuss the work of the agency. CHSW, founded in 1896, is the state’s oldest and largest nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children and families.
ELC: Where did you grow up and how did you get into social service work?
(Sharon) I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the city, not on a horse ranch. My grandfathers were a dairy farmer and a tobacco farmer. I grew up with horses and bourbon. My husband says ‘when I met Sharon I thought surely I’d get a few horses out of it, but I didn’t even get a mule!’
I was raised in a day when little girls didn’t think about what they wanted to do except as a wife, especially in the South. Even at an early age, I knew I would not end up in Kentucky. I had a wonderful, traditional childhood and I was happy, but I knew there was something else I was supposed to do in life. My life changed when I was about 14. There was tremendous rural poverty in Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Appalachia. On a school project, we went to eastern Kentucky to help plant strawberries in the fields. I saw poverty in terms of shacks with no running water, but also saw an emotional, intellectual, psychological poverty I had never seen. I was so struck and touched by that. From that point forward, I knew this was my calling.
ELC: How did you become CEO?
I’ve been at CHSW over 30 years, 27 of those as CEO. I started as a Regional Director and unexpectedly became CEO.
The agency had been around 100 years, but each site did their own thing. There was no centralized infrastructure, including personnel and accounting. That was ok for a smaller operation, but to have a bigger impact on children and families we needed to build a statewide organization with community-based structure and statewide infrastructure to support programs at the local level.
That was the turning point for the agency and my career. I had my sons, Adam and Jaime and I really didn’t want to be a CEO because that’s a day and night job you never get away from. Then the Executive Director became ill, and the Board asked me to be CEO. I said no, but after a national search, they asked me again. I realized I was already doing the work. I had a very supportive husband at home with the kids so I took the position.
ELC: How would you describe CHSW?
CHSW brings together services and partners so that children and families can reach their potential and communities can be stronger. All of us benefit when children thrive. On top of that, we do advocacy work that creates change in the system and we do innovation work with research universities. We’re not just changing the lives of children and families who are getting our services, we’re changing lives nationally.
Our primary purpose is to develop healthy children, strong families and engaged communities. All the work we do at North Seattle Family Resource Center and in our Early Learning programs is all about keeping the family together and developing strong families.
We give hope but we also gain a lot of hope by being in this environment. I see more positive things, even with all the strife that’s going on in our world today. I see so much optimism and I see people who somehow pull within themselves to move to the next level, especially if they have children. If they won’t do it for themselves, they’ll do it for their children.
ELC: Does CHSW still do adoption?
Absolutely! We do search and reunion as part of our legacy in doing this work for over 100 years. 30,000 children have been adopted through CHSW.
ELC: Are there any families who stick out in your mind?
There have been many. I remember a family who had two kids in foster care and two kids in residential treatment. The youngest was 6 and the oldest was 12. One of them turned out to be a natural little leader. He lived in our Cobb Center for 3 years. Along with the help of the staff, he held his family together with no support from his parents. He would walk right into my office and he’d say ‘we need this Sharon’ or ‘My little sis is having trouble in foster care and she needs help.’ He went on to a foster family but would always come back to me and our staff. When he got his first job, he was able to pull all those siblings together. He took on responsibility so early in life with everything against him. The staff reassured him –‘you can’t live with your parents or be with them on a daily basis, but that in no way means you don’t love them or that they don’t love you, and you can go on with your life.’ We help children move through the trauma they have in their lives, which doesn’t have to define their lives.
ELC: If you ran into a young family in Lake City, what would you tell them our agency could do for them?
CHSW is a safe place for them to come and find resources that can help them – housing, parenting support, education, assimilating into this city. A great place for families to start and find support in Lake City is our North Seattle Family Resource Center and our home visiting programs.
ELC: What do you like best about Lake City? The Farmer’s Market!
I absolutely love it. I love that there are a lot of small businesses owned by local people. It’s very European.
ELC: What are Lake City’s biggest challenges and opportunities?
Definitely the housing situation, the need for more affordable housing. Lake City is such a diverse community. There is enough creativity and vision in this community to see not only how Lake City can take advantage of our diversity, but an opportunity for us to be a model for the country or state.
ELC: How will CHSW’s new Wells Fargo grant benefit Lake City?
We received this grant in partnership with Lake City Future First and Lake City Neighborhood Alliance. This grant will help the community develop a vision plan for Lake City. We will take existing plans, consolidate them and provide an opportunity for many community members and organizations to identify three or four priorities to do in the next 5 years. We have a great advisory board made up of community leaders. When the advisory committee and the community agree on priorities, we can help to find the resources to get them done.
ELC: Anything else you’d like us to know?
I’d like to thank Lake City for welcoming us into the community. I feel privileged to be part of it, building and working together in our community.
For more info about Children’s Home Society of WA, call 206-695-3200 or go to www.childrenshomesociety.org