Seattle fundraiser selected to helm Vashon agency

Kathleen Barry Johnson, a fundraising professional and former criminal defense attorney, will become the new head of Vashon Youth & Family Services, a $1.5 million agency that provides a wide range of social services on the Island.

The board announced its selection of Johnson, a Seattle resident, last week. Diane Kjellberg, the interim executive director who will join the board once Johnson steps in, said the agency chose her because she “seemed to connect with us as an agency.” Johnson replaces Ken Maaz, who left VYFS in August. She begins her new job in January.

“She had a lot of experience in a lot of different areas that parallel what we do at the agency. So we thought she’d be a good fit,” Kjellberg said.

Johnson, 48, said she’s thrilled to have been tapped for the position. She said she’s struck by the breadth of services VYFS offers, the professionalism of its staff and the position it holds in the community. She also has a connection to Vashon, a place she’s visited many times over the years.

“I’m really impressed by VYFS,” she said.

Johnson currently works as the development director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan center that works to shape policy on a number of family-related economic issues, including family leave, minimum wage and health care. She joined the institute earlier this year.

Prior to that, she worked as the development director for several other Seattle-based agencies, including the Boyer Children’s Clinic, Friends of Youth and the Sand Point Community Housing Association.

Johnson, recently remarried, is the mother of a 17-year-old with special needs whom she raised on her own. Her own life experiences, she said, have added to her desire to work for an agency like VYFS.

“I think much of my motivation for going into human services in the first place is because I know what it is like to need help, and I know what it is like to find an agency with great people who can give you what you need to get back on your feet,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who goes through life without needing help sometime and that’s why I wanted to be the executive director of VYFS — so I could make sure that help is there for Vashon.”

Johnson, who obtained her law degree from Southern Illinois Law School and spent another year as a Ford Foundation fellow at the University of Washington Law School, worked as a lawyer for seven years, handling criminal defense appeals for low-income clients. But her job meant she was working with people “who had had horrible upbringings” and that she was trying to help them “at the end of the line.”

“So I restructured my career, working to try to make sure life is positive at the very beginning,” she said.

All of her work has been in fundraising, not in overseeing or managing an agency, she acknowledged. Even so, she said, she’s worked at a leadership level and as a supervisor in several organizations. “I actually find that managing people is one of my strong suits,” she said.

Kjellberg said both board and staff members formed the search committee, choosing her as one of two finalists to interview in part because they were impressed by her background in fundraising.

Funding is tight at the agency, Kjellberg said. Indeed, Maaz left VYFS, he said at the time, in part because the agency couldn’t afford to offer its employees health care benefits, something he needed. The agency is also tight on space and may need to embark on a capital campaign in the near future, Kjellberg said.

“Her understanding of fund development — that was really key,” Kjellberg said.

Johnson said she hoped to apply her fundraising skills to address VYFS’s myriad needs, including health care benefits for its employees, something the agency will be required to provide now that the Affordable Care Act is in place.

“I think it’s a moral issue as well as a legal one,” she said.

She said she plans to turn to the community to seek additional funds for VYFS.

“The Vashon community is a very generous community and parts of the community have some capacity to help, and I think we need to do better at asking for help and expressing what the need is,” she said.

Meanwhile, she added, she and her new husband, Mark, are looking forward to moving to Vashon once Johnson’s son graduates from high school.

“I think it’s a wonderful place to live,” she said.


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