Emily Cahill

Executive Director, Peoria Park District

Keeping residents engaged and active through parks and recreation...

Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design

The oldest of three children, I was raised in a small town in southern Indiana called Pekin, which is best known for hosting the longest consecutive Fourth of July celebration in the nation. Growing up, I think the Fourth was my favorite holiday. On that day each year, our town grew from a population of about 1,000 to more than 10,000. We would gather in the same spot each year and were joined by extended family from all over the region to celebrate community and our country… and by extension, our family connectedness.

Being a Hoosier, I grew up learning all there was to know about basketball, of course. My siblings and I were raised on sports, and that focus on competition and performance pushed us to excel in other areas as well.

I didn’t realize until I was an adult that we were poor. My mom made sure that we didn’t want for much, and my dad challenged us to excel. I’m very grateful for both now, though I maybe always wasn’t growing up. By the way, whatever they did worked: all three of us are attorneys. My sister and brother practice together in their own firm not far from where we grew up.

After high school, I went on to Hanover College (shared alma mater of Woody Harrelson and Vice President Mike Pence, oddly enough) and then to Indiana University School of Law.

At IU, I met my husband Brian. He is a native of Brimfield, where his family owns a centennial farm. I moved to Peoria just before we got married in 2000. Three kids and three homes later, I am grateful for technology that makes the distance to my mom and siblings seem shorter, and to my family here for making “in-law” an unnecessary add-on.

Your educational background is rather unusual, with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a JD in law. Tell us about that journey.
After graduating with a degree in chemistry, I headed to law school with dreams of saving the world. After my first year of law school, I spent the summer working for a state department focused on environmental management. I spent the summer learning about red tape and all the ways that environmental attorneys don’t always work for the environment, and I learned pretty quickly that I probably wasn’t suited for that sort of career.

The next summer, I worked in a family law clinic and found that I was much happier working with people than with paper all day. I worked with kids in divorce situations as their representatives in the court process, and supported victims of domestic violence seeking safety.

With some stops and time along the way, I’ve found a home that has allowed me to find the best of both worlds! At the Peoria Park District, I get to celebrate the environment and the value of green space and activity, while working with and for some amazing people to improve our community.

Describe your early career path, moving from associate attorney into marketing at The Center for Prevention of Abuse.
When I moved to Peoria, Brian and I decided pretty quickly that it didn’t make sense for the life we envisioned to have two practicing attorneys in our home. I started searching for positions that were attractive and came across an ad for a grant-writing position at The Center for Prevention of Abuse. My past work in the family law clinic drew me to the post. I received a call two days before our wedding offering me a job. I came back from our honeymoon and started the next day.

I am beyond grateful to The Center for 12 years of amazing experiences and connections. I learned a lot about advocacy and commitment there. I was able to write grants that started new programs that have helped a lot of people open doors and change lives. As budget challenges increased, I received training to answer emergency room calls—to go and sit with victims of violence—and I gained so much respect for the bravery that these women (and men) have inside them.

How did you get involved in Junior League? Tell us about some of its accomplishments under your leadership.
One of my first Peoria connections was with Linda Daley from Rep. David Leitch’s office. Brian had worked for her over past summers, and the three of us had lunch not long after I moved to the community. She suggested the League as a great way to meet people and engage in the community, and boy, was she right! Since joining in 2001, I have met so many great women and have built lasting friendships.

As a volunteer, I also got to take on leadership roles in initiatives that I probably wasn’t qualified for, but that helped me grow as a professional. I spent a large part of the 2000s working to raise funds for the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum. I got to work with world-class exhibit designers and education consultants, and had a hand in the details of the museum that make it such a gem.

I talked to large groups about the project until I could do the presentation in my sleep. I learned how to ask people for money—not an easy task—and, along with some great colleagues and friends, I learned what it means to persevere. It took us 12 years to raise the funds to build the PlayHouse, and I still get tingles every time I walk in the doors.


 

Describe how you worked your way up at the Peoria Park District. As executive director, how did it feel to fill the shoes of Bonnie Noble, who had been there for so long?
I began working at the Peoria Park District in late 2011. I worked in Bonnie’s office from Day 1, and over time, gained knowledge and responsibility. Every day, I learned something about leadership from Bonnie, and I’m grateful for that experience.

That said, I’m not sure that anyone can fill Bonnie’s (always stylish!) shoes, and honestly, I’m not trying to do that. I learned a lot from my time with her, and will always be grateful for her support and for giving me an opportunity to be part of such a dynamic organization.

In part because of the challenging economic times we currently face, I have found that I have to focus on different priorities. I think that it’s critical that our organization focus on emphasizing our value to the community and sustainability, rather than growth. Every day, I am trying to challenge our leadership to think about how their programs can work together within our system to support our community, rather than sometimes competing with each other for community support.

As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
I wanted to play basketball for the Detroit Pistons… or tennis at Wimbledon.

What is your greatest fear in life? Greatest joy?
We have been blessed to have three amazing kids who are healthy, smart and very active. My biggest fear is that they will get sick or not be able to do what they want to do. My greatest joy is watching them grow and learn—and I hate how fast our time is going.

What are some of the current challenges and future plans for the Park District?
The variety of events and facilities hosted by our District are focused on keeping participants engaged and active. Glen Oak Park is a daylong destination and home to Peoria Zoo, Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum and Luthy Botanical Garden. Throughout the District, we host all kinds of adult and youth sports including softball, soccer, volleyball, tennis and more, while Owens Center offers ice skating year-round! Annually, hundreds of concerts, festivals and special events are featured on the Peoria RiverFront and in our parks, in addition to fun and healthy activities at Franciscan, Lakeview, Logan and Proctor recreation centers and our state-of-the-art RiverPlex Health and Wellness Center.

However, this wealth of resources does not come without cost. Parks and facilities must be maintained at the highest possible standard. People are needed to facilitate programs and ensure the safety of our users. After several years of financial struggles, which have included a 16-percent decrease in our full-time workforce and the closure of a golf course, our Park District is in the midst of strategic planning that will focus our work over the next few years on how to become sustainable.

As part of this process, we must find a way to balance fun and fiscal responsibility; to continue to be bold and innovative while serving our users in the best possible ways. We look forward to finding ways to engage participants in better, more consistent ways, and to prioritize our services for the greatest impact.

Describe your involvement in the community and some of the causes that speak to you.
Really, there are so many great organizations and events in our community that it’s hard to pick! We spend the majority of our time chasing our three kids, ages 15, 12 and nine, and do our best to find ways to show our support as much as we can.

I continue to serve the Junior League and its great efforts to build a better Peoria. While my kids have sort of “aged out” of the PlayHouse, our family maintains a membership there to support the great work they are doing. We also love to frequent Peoria Zoological Society events.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and personal life?
Sometimes, I’m not so sure that I do. First and foremost, my husband and I make sure that one of us is at every kid activity. It turns out that, after making our decision years ago to only have one practicing attorney in our family, the practicing attorney has more flexibility than I do most of the time!

Together, which is the most important part, we spend a lot of time planning, and we’re beyond lucky to have great friends and family who support us as we try to keep juggling.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career? How did he or she help you along the way?
I think a lot about the lessons I learned from one of my first bosses. An attorney in Bloomington, Indiana, Lewellyn Pratt took every opportunity to teach me little things about life. One of his most important challenges to me was to always work to make sure that every day was different. Any time he felt like he was in a rut or a routine, he pushed himself (and us) to change things up and find new energy.

In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
I realize now more than ever that I have been afforded opportunities to achieve more without being stopped because I’m a woman, and I am grateful for not being stopped by my gender from achieving goals that sometimes I didn’t know I had. I am truly grateful for those who came before and fought the good fight so that I may take this for granted. To me, today’s working woman faces a different struggle. We can be what we work to be, but the effort to balance all that we want to be is harder than ever. Today, our biggest asset and weakness is the ability to multi-task. With today’s technology, it’s possible to check my kids’ grades, order groceries and answer a work email almost simultaneously. I feel the pull to be all things to all people all the time, and I’m compelled to overextend with the help of technology. Sure, I can bake something for that bake sale and I can attend that conference call while I’m in line to pick up my kids. I can put together a PowerPoint presentation while sitting at a family party. I can work on documents with people who are miles apart from me.

This means that it’s easier than ever to never truly be present anywhere. I have to catch myself and put away my phone and watch the game that I raced to get to. I have to breathe and be in the moment at work, too, rather than thinking about the to-do list at work or home, which can easily be accessed on my mobile phone.

The challenge that we must accept is really an understanding. It has to be okay to not answer an email right away, it has to be okay to have piles of laundry, it has to be okay to let it go for a while and be in that moment, because no technology can bring that moment back. iBi

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