GROWING THE MISSION - Chéree Thomas returns to the Douglass Community Association0
We are happy to present this blog from our newest guest writer, Kaitlin Feddema.
Not all heroes wear capes: some wear red sweaters.
I first met Chéree Thomas on a wintery West Michigan morning in December. Kalamazoo had just received the first blizzard of the year - the one that reminds us what lake effect snow is. Cold, wet, and freshly white-knuckled from the 2-wheel-drive commute, I expected Chéree to be in a mood similar to my own. Instead, I was greeted at the door by a bright-eyed woman in a red sweater whose smile warmed up the entire room. This was Chéree Thomas, newly appointed Executive Director of the Douglass Community Association (DCA).
Thomas was born and raised in Toledo Ohio. After graduating with nearly every degree the University of Toledo had to offer (Associates in Corrections, Bachelors in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Women and Disabilities, Masters in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Diversity and Multicultural Studies, and a Certification in Diversity Management), Thomas took a job with the YWCA. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Kalamazoo when her partner transferred jobs. She continued with the YWCA, where she worked her way to the Senior Director of Programs. Thomas oversaw the domestic violence shelters, counseling services for victims of sexual assault, permanent and transitional supportive housing, and the children's shelter. It was then that she learned about the Douglass Community Association, and spent one year at the facility in 2014 before her career took her elsewhere. But it wouldn't be long before she returned.
On December 19th, Chéree Thomas started her first day at the DCA, a multipurpose facility which houses programs such as counseling services, case management services, after school programs, job and resume training, food distribution, and much more. For Thomas, the DCA was a natural fit. "My passion lies with social justice change, racial justice, and gender equality. My whole purpose in life is to relieve inequities, starting here in Kalamazoo."
The DCA is most widely known for the extensive mental health support it provides to men and women in the community. The staff offers case management and counseling services, aimed at removing the stigma attached to mental health issues. With these and other programs, Thomas emphasized the DCA's opportunity to unify local residents. "The North side of Kalamazoo has a stigma of not being a safe place to live. But people here care about their community, and we want the DCA to be a focal point of that."
Looking ahead, Thomas' first priority is to strengthen and market the services already provided through the DCA. "We're talking about an organization that has been around for nearly 100 years, meeting the needs of the community when nobody else would," she said. "We want to keep those roots fertile and grow that mission." In addition, the facility will be making a few updates, including a permanent food pantry on site for those in need.
What does this mean for the greater Kalamazoo Community? "A lot," said Thomas. "Right now Kalamazoo is experiencing a lot of growth; new things are happening. And for people who feel like outsiders, they don't think this is for them. Our goal is to make everyone - especially those marginalized groups - feel like part of the community. When you have people who are connected, they are more invested. If they feel like part of the community, they will help grow it."
If you happen to stop by the DCA this winter, you'll find Chéree Thomas. She might be buried in paperwork behind her desk, conversing with her colleagues. But one thing's for sure: you'll probably find her in a red sweater - it's her favorite color.
The Quick Connect with Chéree:
- Favorite Season? Fall
- Favorite Food? The Nest at Crow's Nest - but veganized.
- Books or Movies? Books! (with authority) I'm reading 5 books right now. Books are my favorite thing.
- Children? I have 3 girls and a boy. And I'm a GG - not a grandma.
- Ideal Vacation? Sierra Leone. I did one of those DNA tests and found out my ancestors are from there.
- Favorite Stress-Relief Activity? Bike riding.
- Favorite Things about Kalamazoo? The small town feel. When you're part of an organization, people recognize you. It helps me feel connected.