‘Work for Good’: Children’s Home Society takes new approach to workforce needs

April 13, 2020

Timing might be in Michelle Lavallee’s favor.

It has been so far, as the Children’s Home Society CEO has not seen a single case of COVID-19 in the children served by the nonprofit, which has residential locations in Sioux Falls and the Black Hills.

“Nobody has gotten sick so far,” said Lavallee, who assumed the CEO role last November.

“Thanks to very fast action by the directors, not one kid has shown signs of anything.”

But the nonprofit’s employees are still commuting to work, so Lavallee acknowledges the risk is there.

“I’ve been doing weekly videos,” she said. “Our young workers like to go socialize after work, so we had to do a lot of discussions about social distancing.”

It’s her latest approach to working with a 364-person team that she hopes to grow. And she thinks the timing might be right for that too.

As unemployment has climbed in recent weeks, Children’s Home Society has launched a hiring campaign – “Work for Good” – and added benefits, including reimbursement for student loans, in an effort to attract and retain employees for roles that historically have been hard to fill.

“I committed to interviewing everybody,” Lavallee said of her first approach. She now has talked one-on-one with more than 300 employees to learn about the jobs, their needs and what would keep them at Children’s Home.

“They want a culture of openness, transparency,” she said. “And what we found is people didn’t know we had a vision and how they fit. And the second thing was they didn’t know our financial future. Our vision is to make everyone personally accountable with a culture of growth and leadership.”

In the weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took root, Lavallee met with the entire staff on both sides of the state to share a new approach.

For certain positions with high turnover, Children’s Home would begin reimbursing employees’ student loans up to $150 per month or would offer the same monthly amount to cover current tuition.

The benefit applies to residential treatment counselors and their immediate supervisors, treatment counselors, as well as the “Brave Beginnings” program staff at Children’s Inn, who take care of kids in emergency placement. Children’s Home also is offering the benefit to cooks.

“People were delighted,” Lavallee said. “I think, at least from my research, we’re the only (local) organization doing this in terms of student loans.”

For employees such as Alexis Wilcox, budgets can be tight. The residential treatment counselor has worked at Children’s Home since last August after coming from a smaller town in Iowa.

“I love working with kids,” she said. “And here, you can be around kids and make a difference in their life and have fun with them, going to the gym and playing outside. You get to be a kid, and it’s fun.”

Her education path had its challenges. To meet her budget for college, she went to a community college and earned an associate degree in criminal justice with a goal of getting into law enforcement. Then an issue with her heart prohibited her from going into the academy.

“And I had so much debt already, I wasn’t going to start another degree until I know what I want to do,” she said.

Now, the goal is to keep working at Children’s Home and use the new benefit to help pay off her student debt.

“I think I will pay my part to get them knocked out faster because I want to go back to school,” she said. “I can get them paid off in half the time, and I found a way to make my budget work.”

For Trevoy Shaw, who has a background in criminal justice and became a residential treatment counselor at the beginning of the year, the plan is to attend law school eventually.

He was driving a UPS truck when he got the job at Children’s Home. A former USF football player, he now plays catch with kids.

“I get to see the kids grow,” he said. “I’m the one who does the first assessment when they get here, and honestly getting to see them when they first get here to when they let you in and comfort them, I’ve seen a lot in a short amount of time. So I’m starting to build a real strong connection to the job.”

He hasn’t started paying off his student loans and hasn’t finished his degree but plans to with help from his new benefits.

“I want to go back to school loan-free or with at least some of it chopped down,” he said. “I want to go into law still, but honestly with this job getting that strong bond, I don’t know where I’ll end up with a degree. I might do social work, who knows?”

Funding for most of the new benefits came from a $44 million donation from philanthropist Denny Sanford. Much of it was invested as an endowment but $4 million was given as an immediate bridge to provide raises, lower the staff-to-child ratio and fund efforts to reduce turnover.

While it’s a pilot program this year, if it proves to improve retention, “we’ll roll it out to other people in our organization,” Lavallee said.

All positions could be a fit for workers displaced during COVID-19 layoffs, Lavallee said.

The marketing campaign, delivered largely through social media, lifts up the value of working for kids, she said.

“We’re featuring kids and talking about all the benefits we have,” Lavallee said. “If you’ve thought about working with kids or working in this field, this is the time to come.”

In the meantime, daily life at Children’s Home has changed significantly. There is a no-visitor policy, and the kids cannot leave campus. Everyone’s temperature is taken, sometimes multiple times per day. For employees who can work off campus, work happens remotely.

“In five days, a company that never worked from home now has every single person who can working from home,” Lavallee said.

“They needed laptops and videoconferencing accounts, and the folks that do therapy with foster parents are continuing. We were worried people wouldn’t want to continue fostering, but they do, and we continue to have people who want to be foster parents. The only thing we can’t do is go into someone’s house.”

There also are changes at Children’s Inn, which has a protocol in place to screen for COVID-19 symptoms but also ensure women and children fleeing domestic violence stay safe during the pandemic.

“We have 62 people who work there 24/7,” Lavallee said. “We have enough beds for 40 people, but 263 days a year there are over 40, and it’s usually a mom and kids who need a safe place, and you can stay up to six months. We have to have immediate clothes from babies all the way through because they mostly show up with the clothes on their back.”

Lavallee is keeping an eye toward the future, though. She is working on a new location for Children’s Inn, which is out of space, and she has started a three-year program in leadership development to prepare employees throughout the organization for moving up. It’s starting with a cohort of 77 people.

“When people are promoted, they don’t have leadership background. And to be leaders, you have to know how to give feedback and know time management,” she said.

And while the new benefits apply to the especially challenging roles to fill, there are other open positions at Children’s Home, including a head of human resources, director of collaborative excellence, therapist, social worker and payroll specialist.

“I love the complexity of it,” Lavallee said. “And how there are six programs, and we have cultural change that needs to take place and the business challenge of raising dollars. You don’t get tired because you just have to keep going to the next thing.”

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‘Work for Good’: Children’s Home Society takes new approach to workforce needs

Take on an in-demand job helping kids and you’ll get help paying off your student loans. It’s a new approach being taken by the new leader at Children’s Home Society.

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