Inside Track: A calling to work with children and youth
Jim Paparella, the new head of D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s, says Kent is not like any other county in Michigan.
Jim Paparella, the new president/CEO of D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s since May, had a pretty good thing going in Lansing when he saw the job opening at DABSJ, one of Michigan’s largest child/youth welfare agencies.
Paparella was executive director of Child and Family Charities in Lansing, where he had spent a total of 18 years. He figured he would probably put in 10 more years there and retire.
“I loved the job and the people,” he said.
The opening in Grand Rapids was posted after Sharon Loughridge announced she would retire in early 2015 after 11 years as president/CEO. The more Paparella studied it, the more interested he became in the job.
DABSJ, formed from the merger in 2010 of the two oldest children and youth agencies in West Michigan — D.A. Blodgett for Children and St. John’s Home — is three times the size of Child and Family Charities, in terms of both staff and budget. That was a professional challenge Paparella could not resist; he has more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit human services arena with emphasis on helping children, youth and families at risk.
His experience includes extensive hands-on clinical work and management experience. Under his direction, CFC grew from a $1.8 million operating budget to more than $6 million, and staff expanded from 28 to 129. Three divisions and five programs expanded to seven divisions and 19 direct service programs.
“I was always fascinated with business,” he said, and early on decided he’d like to manage a private, nonprofit organization. He earned an MBA from Northwood University, but his business roots go back to his childhood when he delivered the Lansing State Journal.
In high school, he developed a passion for photography. “My hero was David Kennerly,” he said of the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who became the official White House photographer while Jerry Ford was president. Paparella learned athletes would pay for photos he shot and printed in his darkroom, showing them in action on the field.
But he candidly admits he wasn’t putting enough effort into being a good student, so when he graduated from Lansing Catholic Central in 1976 and applied at Michigan State, he was turned down.
He had heard about the U.S. Navy’s acclaimed photography school, and a Navy recruiter successfully pitched that career training to him. Paparella enlisted and served four years of active duty, working as a photographer on board the USS Constellation aircraft carrier and in the Aircraft Carrier Intelligence Center. His military service took him around the world.
When he completed his active duty in 1980, Paparella enrolled at Central Michigan University. He took business classes and later transferred to MSU where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in the College of Social Science.
While at MSU, he did an internship at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing in its office of strategic planning and business development. He saw how major trends can shape business decisions — and how ventures can fail. Sparrow established a blood-storage service after AIDS appeared on the global scene. Sparrow’s idea was that people would be afraid to accept a transfusion of donated blood and would be willing to pay to store their own blood in case they or a loved one ever needed a transfusion. But the AIDS fear did not last.
The internship interested Paparella in a career in hospital administration. He accepted a full-time job at Sparrow in 1985 as the supervisor of patient transportation services, heading a 28-person staff.
Two years later he got his first big career break, although it did not seem like it at first. He lost his job when Sparrow reduced the size of its workforce. That changed his career direction because he took a job as a residential specialist at a group home in downtown Lansing, a “last chance” facility for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts.
Paparella worked the overnight shift, where he discovered he had good rapport with the 12 men living at the home, who were willing to listen to him talk about how they could turn their lives around. Two years later, a social worker friend told him about another interesting job — an opening for a counselor at Higher Ground, a Gateway Community Services agency operating a shelter and services for runaway kids and families in crisis.
“It was then I realized my calling was working with youth,” he said.
After two years, he was promoted to one of three Gateway division director positions, responsible for runaway and homeless youth services.
“I wanted to be a boss who takes care of the frontline staff,” he said, so they would be in the best position to help the clients they served.
Then the agency underwent a reorganization, which he felt was handled poorly by the CEO. Paparella had been managing two youth shelters, a street outreach program and crisis intervention services, supervising a staff of 26. He had helped land a HUD grant of $250,000 for a larger homeless youth shelter and increased program capacity.
Then came his next big break: He landed the job of executive director at Child and Family Charities. There were 60 applicants — “some with much more experience than I,” he said. He was only in his late 30s.
He really wanted the job, so he prepared an outline of his strategic plan for CFC, covering field operations and administrative planning on the business and finance aspects. Being “brash and confident,” as he calls it, paid off and he got the job. Then, he said, he had to prove himself to his new board.
Now, like 19 years ago, Paparella said he must prove his worth to the DABSJ board. He is eager to do so.
There was something else that attracted him to Kent County: It is the only county in Michigan where all foster care agency services are operated privately, not by government entities. Some are faith-based and some are secular volunteer organizations, with DABSJ being a perfect example. The two original organizations were each well over 100 years old when they merged. St. John’s Home was an orphanage started by the Catholic Church, and D. A. Blodgett Home for Children was started and funded by the prominent Blodgett family.
Paparella says the private sector has strengths the government does not, including more financial resources and options: A government-operated facility can’t hold a fundraising campaign or count on key philanthropists in the community. The private sector also is more nimble and entrepreneurial in delivering services to children and families, according to Paparella, because private groups face fewer constraints than government organizations. The employees and volunteers who run the agencies tend to be highly motivated.
Paparella noted the private sector role in child protective services is a remarkable chapter in American history. In 1874, a court case was initiated on behalf of 10-year-old Mary Ellen McCormack in New York City, who was brutally abused by her foster mother. There were no laws then against child abuse, but there were laws against cruelty to animals, and in fact, the prosecution of the foster mother and the girl’s removal to a safe home was driven by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The next year, the first laws protecting children were passed.