Rabideau Builds Foundation

June 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Michelle Rabideau always wanted to be a doctor. For as far back as she could remember, little else intrigued her more than making people feel better.

"I truly thought I was going to be a doctor. In grade school somebody said to me, 'you should be a doctor,' and that just kind of spread like wildfire," said Rabideau.

She was so committed to the idea that she left her California home and trekked halfway across the country to purposely enroll at the University of Illinois for the school's highly regarded pre-med program. But she changed her mind about being a doctor in her junior year and graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in chemistry.

So instead of heading off to med school, Rabideau came here to earn a master's degree in public administration from GrandValleyStateUniversity

If you asked Micki Benz, vice president of development at Saint Mary's Health Care, she would tell you that it was a good thing that Rabidau backed away from wearing a white coat and having office hours because that allowed her to direct the hospital's Doran Foundation.

"Michelle has been a catalyst for our foundation," said Benz.

"She has energized the board, developed a culture of giving among our employees and physicians, and raised the profile of philanthropy for Saint Mary's in the community. Her enthusiasm and great sense of humor have made her a great addition to Saint Mary's."

It's easy to map out how Rabideau came to the Doran Foundation, the charitable arm of Saint Mary's Health Care. She landed there four years ago after a six-year stay with Hospice of Michigan as the regional development director. She said she was happy in that post and wasn't looking to make a move, until she received a phone call from a crafty Benz.

"She said Saint Mary's was getting ready to hire a director for their foundation. I said, 'Great, that is what you need to do, it's such a growing industry.' She was very smart. She asked if I would help her with the job description and if I knew of anyone," said Rabideau.

So Rabideau started thinking about who might be interested in the job and then looked over a draft of the job description that Benz sent her. Chris, Rabideau's husband, also eyed the description and said it was the perfect job — for her

"I think I just said, 'I think I want this job.' And he said, 'It's about time that you figured that out,'" she added with a laugh. "I was like, oh, OK."

Rabideau started at Doran during the final fundraising phase for the $42 million LacksCancerCenter, which made its debut in January. For her, though, getting the Doran job wasn't her biggest career break. No, she said that honor went to being able to see what having such a job means to others.

"Seeing that cancer center open and seeing the impact it has made on this community in just the few months that it has been open," she said.

But mapping out how she went from wanting to be a doctor to heading the foundation isn't as easy to chart as how she arrived at Doran from Hospice.

"I can't pinpoint one thing. I really look at everything that I've gone through, everything with my experiences, whether personal or professional or with my community, as truly being in the right place at the right time with the right people," she said.

Quite possibly the single event that may have played the biggest role in Rabideau ending up at the foundation, and coming to the realization that her biggest career break was getting to see the cancer center open, took place a full decade before she arrived at Saint Mary's.

While a grad student, she learned that her mother — Amelia Caspari — was diagnosed with liver cancer. Rabideau left GVSU and returned home to take care of her. Her mother died five months later. She was 51 years old when she passed away 13 years ago.

"I think of all the experiences that I have gone through, that is a pinnacle," she said.

Rabideau was born in Hanford, Calif., not too far from Bakersfield. But she was raised in PebbleBeach, a beautiful part of the Monterey area where her father still lives and home to one of the country's most noted golf courses. Whenever someone learns where Rabideau grew up they expect her to be an accomplished golfer who almost turned pro. Well, that would be triple-bogey wrong.

"I terrorized the golf course when I was little because that was our backyard. I got kicked off the golf course quite a bit," she said.

The court, not the course, is what she likes. Basketball is her game. Specifically college roundball. Particularly that played by the Fighting Illini. Who was ranked No. 1 in Division I all season long? Rabideau knows. And so do her co-workers.

"I think Saint Mary's got a little sick of me coming in every time we won a game wearing a bright orange sweater with blue and orange beads. All I do is college basketball. Every year the first week of the NCAA tournament my husband and I go visit a friend in New Orleans just so we can watch basketball on TV in a warm place," she said.

"If we're not watching college basketball, it's cheering on my boys in their sport activities. They do everything. They're at the age where they can do everything. Basketball, baseball, football, soccer and tennis," she said and then paused. "I think that's it."

Michelle and Chris, an attorney at McCroskey, Feldman, Cochrane & Brock PLC, have two sons — Jacob, 8, and Joshua, 6.

Rabideau is currently devoting much of her time to raising funds for the new $30 million neurology center that Saint Mary's plans to build. She has about $6.5 million left to raise. She also is trying to build a stronger culture of giving among the employees of Saint Mary's and the Advantage Health physicians.

"We have a very generous community, but we always want that to be stronger internally," she said. "In fact, we're in the midst of an employee-giving campaign with an unprecedented response rate. I think our employees need to consider themselves as our donors do in the community, as stakeholders in this organization. We need to send a strong message to our external community that we believe in what we do here at Saint Mary's."

Family, work and community will all play essential parts in Rabideau's immediate future. She said she has been able to keep the three in synch so far, and her goal is to keep it that way in the coming years. For her, the months that lie ahead are less about changing and more about continuing.

"Personally I think I do a pretty good job of balancing it all. We're in the fastest-growing industry, health-care philanthropy. I want to continue to make strides in that," she said. "I think with my family, it's continuing to make sure that I'm there for them when I need to be. And also fulfilling that part of me that loves to be involved in the community and helping others. Just continuing to balance all of that."    

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