Carol Merna

Executive Director, The Center for Prevention of Abuse

A life of helping others, from public service to community development

My schooling was in rural Oklahoma, split between the small town of Washington and the small college town of Stillwater. I have been involved in leadership and community service activities for as long as I can remember, through sports, 4-H, student government, Pan-Hellenic Council and so on. I was fortunate to be able to perform a few internships, with the first at the age of 16 for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I consider my real-life education to have begun during that internship experience, and then continuing through tremendous advisers and counselors in the years that followed.

With nearly three decades of experience in communications, public relations and community development, can you share some of the highlights of your career?
There have been a large number of highlights over the years, and I learned significant lessons from all three members of Congress for whom I worked. Additionally, the lessons I’ve learned from Martha Herm since coming to The Center for Prevention of Abuse have been key. It was difficult to choose just a few highlights, but here are a small number:

  • Bob Michel, the longest serving Republican leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and a decorated combat infantryman during World War II, giving a highly emotional speech on the House floor prior to the vote to obligate troops to the Persian Gulf War. That was the moment I understood the depth of his compassion, his integrity and his love for country.
  • The night in 1994 when, by chance, I was in a small group with outgoing Republican Leader Bob Michel and incoming Congressman Ray LaHood, and both recognized that the Republicans would soon become the majority in the U.S. House.
  • Early morning on September 11, 2001, watching events unfold on a small 13” television in the congressman’s office with one of our college interns. The sense of fear and uncertainty was crushing, but I remember talking with the intern, saying we would need to be strong and stable on behalf of the congressman for his constituents.
  • My own realization that the example of true bipartisanship and civility I had taken for granted for years had become the exception instead of the rule, as rancor seemed to take center stage in Congress.
  • Traveling the entire 18th Congressional District on behalf of three members of Congress, having the privilege of doing really good work on their behalf, and making many, many friends along the way.
  • After leaving the congressional office, having the good fortune to carry many of those relationships with me, and grow them.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
I’ve been fortunate to have several strong mentors throughout my career. Before Ray LaHood was a member of Congress or Secretary of Transportation, he was district director and then chief of staff to former Congressman Bob Michel. When he hired me for Congressman Michel’s district office in 1989, Ray LaHood was a daily part of my work life. His desk was around the corner, three feet from mine. He taught me every day how to care for the congressman’s constituents, and mentored me about the personal value in doing it well.

Please reflect upon your major accomplishments over the last year.
The first couple of months of 2015 were spent wrapping up my time with the Peoria International Airport, helping with their marketing and public relations. While my tenure at the airport was only 10 months, it was an impactful experience full of edification. In March, I made the successful transition to executive director for The Center for Prevention of Abuse. Since then, my time has been chock-full of training, learning, studying, speaking on behalf of The Center, fundraising and so on. It has been a great year of transitions and teachable moments, and I am energized to take The Center into its 40th anniversary in 2016!

How do you hope to continue in Martha Herm’s footsteps at The Center?
Martha Herm is the epitome of grace and wisdom, and she has a remarkable business sense. I have big shoes to fill, without a doubt, but her confidence in me and the confidence of The Center’s board of directors have helped make the transition pretty seamless. The staff at The Center, which is 105 strong, has been incredible. Not a day has passed in the last eight months that I haven’t felt welcome and a part of the team. The examples set by each caregiver have helped me understand what it means to be truly “client-centered.”

I am hopeful that my longstanding experience with relationship building helps make a difference. Additionally, I hope to help our dedicated staff look at the services we provide from a public relations viewpoint. The Center for Prevention of Abuse is the only organization in the entire state of Illinois that provides all the human services we do under one roof! The Center, as a whole, helps people throughout the Tri-County Area, and our Adult Protective Services department serves three additional counties: Fulton, Marshall and Stark.

Last year, The Center cared for 5,000 people, not counting the nearly 30,000 students reached through our Prevention Education department. When guests tour our main campus in Peoria, they are genuinely surprised about the vast and diverse sum of quality care provided to so many—from birth to our most senior—throughout central Illinois. I want to be certain that those who need The Center, as well as those who support our mission, know how to find us. We can thrive by communicating with the general public and humanizing the work we do, giving us the chance to build additional private partnerships.

How do human service organizations make the Peoria area a better place to live?
Human services are a strong economic force, as well as a crucial network for helping our community meet social, safety and human needs. We help grow our economy, and we accomplish this by investing in people. Human service organizations want to help our community enjoy a standard of living that is unmatched. We provide altruistic and selfless experiences that lift our spirits and help us feel that we are making the world a better place.

Tell us about your commitment to Peoria, to building community and to helping others.
Throughout my career, Peoria has been “home base”—the heart of the congressional district and the hub of operation for The Center for Prevention of Abuse. Peoria is a city of neighborhoods, which are the foundation of vibrant and livable communities. By the same token, I grew up in and came to love small, rural communities. Building community and investing in community, large or small, have long been passions of mine. I remember the strong sense of satisfaction that came with helping several rural areas plan and obtain funding for vital public infrastructure, such as clean drinking water. Even today, we build community at The Center by strengthening individuals and families, which build stronger neighborhoods.

As a volunteer, chairing “Make a Difference Day” for the Heart of Illinois United Way in 1996 was a turning point for me. That was the same year I graduated from the Community Leadership School and joined the ranks of 40 Leaders Under Forty. Working alongside people who feel as strongly as you do about supporting a particular cause creates a path to developing strong relationships. Volunteering has also contributed to my own sense of purpose. There is no feeling like helping a cause in which you’ve invested, or helping someone who is experiencing hardship meet their needs.

What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
There have been a couple of pivotal points. The first was actually a few years before I had a career, during my first congressional internship at the age of 16. I have frequently referred to this as my “eureka moment.” I spent half of that summer working in a district congressional office in South Bend, Indiana, and the other half in the same congressman’s office in Washington, DC. That member of Congress had a strong commitment to providing excellent constituent service. I repeatedly witnessed a young, attentive congressional staffer making a world of difference to people in need of help. At that point, I actually knew that public or community service could be what I would choose.

This year, at the age of 50, changing my career path was another pivotal point. While my work in public service has translated really well in community service, the actual move to The Center for Prevention of Abuse has altered my existence and enriched my life a great deal.

What qualities make for a good communicator? What is your secret to staying calm and collected in a hectic workplace?
A good communicator knows their audience and has a clear and simple message. You also have to be an effective listener with empathy for the people with whom you’re communicating. And having an upbeat approach makes the interaction a lot more palatable for the audience, regardless of your topic.

I have learned that my reaction to a situation is often emulated by those with whom I work. It is important to manage my reaction, and I choose to simply not sweat the small stuff. I can honestly say that I’ve relaxed a bit over the years. I look for the big picture and trust my ability to discern and manage real crisis. And, perhaps most importantly, I trust and appreciate the people with whom I work.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and personal life?
Family and my professional life are the cornerstones of my existence, and the health of both is vital for happiness. Long ago, I allowed my work life and my volunteer efforts to monopolize my time. I eventually made a conscious effort to reconsider all the things that competed for my time and prioritize them. A few things had to fall by the wayside, but the outcome was well worth it. Having an extremely patient and giving spouse has made all the difference in the world.

What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
When one door closes, as painful as it may be, it is typically for very valid reasons. It takes courage and inner strength to experience the failure of something for which you worked very hard. But having faith that the dead end will turn into another, more beneficial venture is something I’ve learned over the years through a great deal of personal reflection.

In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
It’s a struggle to feel the need to do it all and be perfect at it. It is often difficult for professional women—or men—to see that good leadership and most successes involve a number of people. It’s not only good for you to ask for help, it is encouraged. Giving others the gifts of authorship and significance can provide tremendous gratification and some peace. iBi

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