Arkema 'My Work's Not Done'

December 31, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The mention of her job is the fastest way for Leann Arkema to shut down conversation at a cocktail party.

But it’s time to shatter any dour impressions of Gilda’s Club: “There’s a lot of fun and laughter here,” said Arkema, president and CEO of the nonprofit devoted to people living with cancer. “The laughter and joy that happens here is beyond anything I’ve experienced, because people all of a sudden are focusing on what is important and what is not. … Cancer, all of a sudden, gives clarity.”

The quietly confident Arkema is certain of the mission of Gilda’s Club in the community and is just as certain about her role in nurturing it.

“My work’s not done here yet,” said Arkema, who has been at the nonprofit for 10 years. “I also think, at 44, to be doing what I consider to be my life’s work — how more blessed could I be? Every day, I know we’re making a difference.”

The fifth of seven children, Arkema was born in Australia while her father, a Christian Reformed minister, was seeding new churches in a town near Sydney. Moving back to the U.S. at age 4, Arkema grew up in Long Island and New Jersey. Like many before her, she arrived in Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College and ended up staying.

“I thought I would give this Calvin College thing a try and landed here in 1981 as a freshman. I felt like I had landed on an alien planet. It took me a long time to make the adjustment,” she said.

“My standard joke is that I had never seen so many tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white people in one place in my life.”

But after graduation, Arkema got married and her husband got a job in Grand Rapids, so she stayed in the place she thought she wanted to leave. Her dream had been to earn a doctorate degree in psychology, yet that was no longer an option. Then she heard about the master’s program in nonprofit administration at Indiana University.

“I thought, ‘How cool. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to be able to have all that business acumen and apply it to the nonprofit segment,’” she said.

Even though she didn’t attend that program, Arkema put together a customized set of master’s-level studies in business and public administration at Michigan State University, which she attended while working full time in Calvin’s special events office.

Then she accepted an offer to become the first executive director of the venerable St. Cecilia Music Society.

“They had always been run by volunteer power. At 23 years old, they hired me and I was scared out my mind,” Arkema said. As a young musician, Arkema played piano, organ and clarinet, so she was no stranger to the society’s mission. She also was a member of Embellish, the local handbell choir.

“The facility was incredibly beautiful. I was surrounded by music every day. I really felt I was in heaven there, and it was just an incredible opportunity,” she said. “When I look back, I didn’t have a lot of experience to lead or run an organization. They were incredibly tolerant with me. I was surrounded by a lot of wisdom in the women that were there and learned a ton about what to do and what not to do when you’re in a leadership position.”

In her off hours, Arkema became involved in politics, working on the campaigns of the late U.S. Rep. Paul Henry and current U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids. She was in the process of interviewing at an education-related nonprofit when a former Ehlers staffer suggested she apply for a job in his Grand Rapids office.

“I walked in the door, and there was a voice mail from Beth (Bandstra) saying, ‘Leann, you’re up on deck. Vern wants you to come in and interview for this job.’ Well, I had my eye on this other job, so I thought, ‘All right, why not. Life is interesting. Let’s go and just see.’”

Life got even more interesting when Arkema became Ehlers’ special assistant and campaign director. She eventually served as community service director, as well.

“I had this opportunity to have an incredible vantage point of this community from all sides, and to work with someone I deeply respect,” she said.

“In the middle of all this, my very close friend, at 32 years old, dropped dead of a heart attack. My life truly stopped.”

After a time of grieving, soul searching and prayer, Arkema made a list of the 10 qualities she wanted in her ideal job and tucked it away in a book. Three weeks later, a friend called to tip her off about a classified advertisement in The Grand Rapids Press: the fledgling Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, named after Detroit-born “Saturday Night Live” comic Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, was looking for a leader.

“Lo and behold, there it was. In the top right-hand corner — I can tell you exactly where I was and where I was standing — was the job description for Gilda’s Club. It was like I was being tapped on the shoulder. I had a very strong sense in my heart and my soul: ‘You need to do this.’

“I remember saying out loud in the kitchen, ‘No, don’t send me to a nonprofit now. I’ve just gotten my federal pension, federal holidays.’ I knew what it meant to go into the nonprofit world — and a start-up, at that.”

Arkema wrestled with her decision, discussed it with Ehlers, and by August 1998, she was working on the formation of what would become the busiest of the 30 Gilda’s Club clubhouses and satellites in the nation. Of course, she had to supply her own desk and chair for a cubbyhole office in the basement of what was then the National Bank of Detroit building.

“When I was in the interview process, I found that book and that list, and Gilda’s Club was nine of the 10 things on my dream job list. I look back at all my life experiences, and it’s really like I had been prepared for this.”

A flurry of fundraising for $3 million led to the opening of the club in a 3,800-square-foot, rambling former farmhouse at 1806 Bridge St. NW in 2001. Remodeled and expanded with a reproduction of the barn that used to stand on the 6.5-acre property, Gilda’s Club provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the support groups, classes, workshops, meals and other events it hosts for about 500 people per week. With 14 full-time and nine part-time employees, the nonprofit’s $1.3 million budget comes entirely from donations.

“Within six weeks we had exceeded our five-year projections in terms of the number of people coming here,” Arkema said.

Despite limitations on the Bridge Street site, Arkema said, the organization is prepared to grow.

Gilda’s Club is considering satellite centers in other communities. It is working with a group along the lakeshore, offering programs there on Monday evenings, and may support a similar effort in southeastern Kent County.

Driving more than 20 or 25 minutes can be difficult in the midst of cancer treatment, Arkema said.

“If we really want to be with people on the journey of cancer, and provide this oasis for them, we have to be closer to them,” she said.

The organization also is mulling whether to broaden its services beyond those dealing with cancer, such as a program to help children through the grief process.

“We are currently looking at ways to actually expand some of the things we do here to fill some of the gaps that exist in the community, and one of those gaps that we see is around supporting children through all kinds of experiences that are akin to cancer,” Arkema said.

Arkema said that with the success that Gilda’s Club has fostered in the community, she’s been courted for other jobs, none of them intriguing enough to lure her away.

“My life has been changed by this place in a very major way,” Arkema said. “To watch the courage it takes to reach out when you’re in a very vulnerable place and allow others to see that pain or walk with you — I’m humbled by the courage I see here every day, and I’m moved by that courage.”

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