Suzan Nash reflects on her more than 30 years helping area communities
MACOMB — After 36 years as one of the most impactful and broad-reaching administrators in the region, Suzan Nash retired recently from her role as executive director with the Western Illinois Regional Council-Community Action Agency.
There is a public reception for Nash 3-5:30 p.m. today at Taylor’s Hall, 125 S. Randolph St. Although she has retired from the executive director position, Nash is continuing to work for the organization in a part-time capacity. She recently spoke with the Voice in reflection on her career in public service.
Her work began in 1978 as part of a three-month internship with Western Illinois Regional Council. That internship was tied to a six-month internship in Washington, D.C. with the National Association of Regional Councils. She had a job offer in Miami, Fla., but a position came available in late 1979 at WIRC as a full-time staff member. She took the position of planner, and by July 1981 Nash became the executive director. Her exact start date was July 3, 1981.
“The agency was undergoing significant financial and programatic difficulties,” Nash recalled. “I like a challenge, and I knew I’d have good staff working with me.”
Nash was the first woman director of a regional council in Illinois. The first year-and-a-half presented a significant challenge for Nash. President Ronald Reagan and Congress had launched the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which took away direct sourcing of resource agencies and transitioned to block granting. Nash said block granting creates a level of competition among agencies for funds.
“But we weathered the storm. Not only that, but we were approached to consider becoming a Community Action Agency to take on some of the human services like energy assistance, community service block grant…That was a real challenge for my staff and myself,” Nash said. “Part of it was because we needed county board resolution support, and we had to go out and sell what we were going to be doing. It was a new arena for us. But it worked. We serve six counties as a regional planning agency, and we had four counties pass resolutions for us to be a community action agency for them. That continues to this day, however interestingly enough we do administer the weatherization program in Fulton and Knox counties. After all these years some of those programs are starting to come around…”
When she took over WIRC, the annual budget was $96,000. By 1982 going to 1983, the budget jumped to $1.1 million due to taking on the community action agency roles. The budget increase came it a good time, because seven block grants might be submitted by WIRC, and only one might be approved.
“Fast forward a few years, in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, we might prepare 23 applications and get 16 or 17 funded. We just had to get our sea legs, so to speak. We were assuming a lot of responsibilities with the CAA,” Nash said.
Each program has presented its own challenges.
A situation in 1984 prompted the WIRC-CAA to pursue the formation of a domestic abuse program, which eventually became Victim Services.
“We had a woman with her child come to our office. She’d been living in a car for several days, and she had been severely battered,” Nash said.
“We were able to assist her with some support through our CAA, but it got us to wondering if there wasn’t a deeper issue. We spent two years gathering information, and going out selling the fact that we needed this program. We had people who would say, ‘Oh, there’s no domestic violence around here.’ Finally we got funding and started the program in 1986.”
From an administrator’s perspective there are times when one office (WIRC versus CAA) does better than the other depending on how the programs are doing.
“I think with some of the state budget crisis, the tax base in some of the communities having dropped, there is greater demand on our services, because people look to us for grant support or grant assistance,” she said. “We do our best but we’re not always able to provide. They may need funds for a project, but that may not be a fundable project at that time. We are always honest for what will be a good competitive challenge. Another challenge administratively is the greater desire for transparency. Those who are promoting that concept need to be living up to it as well. I think there’s a lot of unfunded mandates that are put on us. I speak globally in terms of social service agencies and government as well.”
Nash notes some of WIRC-CAA’s accomplishments include incorporating CAA with WIRC, launching the domestic violence program in 1986 and later the sexual assault assistance program in 1991. We’ve done tremendous work in housing rehabilitation; public infrastructure throughout the region. There’s also the dollars brought in for the communities throughout the region. That’s got to be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
From the WIRC side, Nash is particularly proud of a brownfield grant written for Canton for remediation of the International Harvester site.
“It was to the U.S. EPA; we wrote it for $200,000, and it was funded. Someone else tried to write it; it didn’t get funded. As a result of that infusion of grant money, they received several other federal allocations for mitigation and clean-up.”
The regional recycling facility started in 2005 with electronics and expanded into doing paint recycling. Over the years, there have been over 5 million pounds of electronics kept out of the waste stream, and 1-2 million pounds of paint that have been diverted from landfills.
When Nash looks back on her time as an administrator and facilitator of human services, she considers it “a joy.”
“One of my favorite moments is having worked with such a wonderful group of people. They believe in the mission of the organization, and do their job every day. They love a challenge. I think one thing I’m going to miss the most once I put my part-time position aside is seeing my staff. I still see them as mine because I hired them, but I get to see them every day. I can only count on one hand the days I had something so catastrophic or gnawing at me that I didn’t want to face that day. It seldom happened. I come to work joyous every day because I love what I do. My boards have been so supportive over the years. When we do a little something for a community and they send a ’thank you’ note…or Project Santa which we started in the ‘80s…we will see a smile on a kid’s face…There are so many aspects to it that are so fulfilling.”
Reach Jared DuBach by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.