From sports to 4-H to student government, Carol Merna has been involved in leadership and community service since she was a child. At the age of 16, the Oklahoma native landed her first internship, for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1989, Ray LaHood, then chief of staff to former Congressman Bob Michel, hired her for the congressman’s district office. She went on to serve the 18th Congressional District for more than 25 years, working in and overseeing constituent and community service operations for three members of Congress.
She began her role as chief executive officer for the Center for Prevention of Abuse in 2015, guiding its mission to help all people live peaceful lives, free from violence and abuse. Among Merna’s accomplishments, she led the organization through the State of Illinois’ longest budget impasse while increasing its fundraising revenue, strengthened CFPA’s relationships with elected officials and policymakers, and created a new department to serve victims of human trafficking.
Throughout 2020, she has guided the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis which has found many abuse victims quarantined with their abusers. Under Merna’s direction, CFPA has explored new ways to address community and client needs, while ensuring its professional staff remains readily available to assist anyone who is in danger or in need of safe shelter or crisis intervention. Peoria Magazine is proud to name Carol Merna the 2020 40 Leaders Under Forty Alumnus of the Year.
You won the 40 Leaders Under Forty award in 1996. What do you recall about that evening?
It was such a lovely surprise and an award of true distinction. Two people for whom I hold tremendous respect had nominated me, MaryAlice Erickson and Ray LaHood, and I recall that night vividly. I was alphabetically right next to my good friend Brad McMillan. I enjoyed the reception with my husband Tim. It was sparkly and special, and I wore my first important black suit. I have a very distinct memory of the dozens of congratulatory letters from community leaders. They touched my heart and are one of the reasons I send letters to all the 40 Leaders Under Forty designees every year. The award was a rite of passage and ushered me into a new era of leadership possibilities, a stepping stone to where I am today.
How are you different today than you were then?
I am the same basic person who grew up in rural Oklahoma, loving life, friends and family, and getting a kick out of the leadership opportunities graciously offered to me at a young age. But I am also changed in many ways, and the world is a different place than it was then. When I was in my early thirties in 1996, we could count on a reasonably stable world where change unfolded at what seemed a much slower pace. In 2020 the world seems unpredictable. Aspects of my personality have matured significantly over those decades, and so has my leadership style. I have learned to manage and balance change, and I willfully decided that I want to have an attitude of gratitude every day. I realized that there is no place for selfishness in good leadership, and that good leaders should have a robust vision and build strong teams, always helping those teams feel safe, develop and succeed. I believe all those years ago I would have had a difficult time fully comprehending these fundamental truths.
Tell us about the mentorship you received working for three different members of Congress.
The word “lucky” does not begin to describe how I feel about having brilliant mentors—people for whom I have tremendous love and respect. These are folks who constantly allowed and encouraged me to work hard and be my natural best. Frankly, I was able to watch history in the making, and from that I took lessons and advice that I consider to be timeless. From my mentors I learned the value of civility and respect. I began to appreciate the importance of making great, genuine, lasting relationships. They helped me understand what it meant to sincerely hear the people I was working with, and work to take care of their greatest needs. I have incredible leadership lessons under my belt, and I consider it a high honor to be able to share those stories with others. I am the luckiest.
What career achievements are you most proud of?
This is a tough question because I have had diverse experiences over the course of my professional life that have given me great satisfaction. If I must narrow it down, I would say that I am really proud to have successfully worked with communities and people throughout the 18th Congressional District: solving problems, creating plans for good and important growth, improving quality of life, and putting plans into action. I am equally proud to say that many of those people are still my friends today. Secondly, I am gratified to have successfully made a career transition to CEO at the Center for Prevention of Abuse right as I was turning 50 years old. I was re-energized to adopt CFPA’s mission of “helping all people live free from violence and abuse” as my own. I discovered new ways to use my passions. I have developed great respect for CFPA’s team, and I clearly see the difference they make every day in the lives of so many survivors. CFPA is an extraordinary human service organization like no other, and I am blessed to be at the helm.
What do you consider the biggest challenge of your career?
Leading during a crisis is hard. It can shake confidence and pull people off course. I have always been able to rely on my experiences while calling on trusted friends and mentors who freely give guidance. Nevertheless, this year, leading during the pandemic and amidst social turmoil have been crises like no other.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected CFPA and the clients you serve?
It is usually unnecessary to completely reinvent the wheel. There are typically trends, models and historical references to review when making decisions as an agency. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a series of circumstances in which our agency has had to repeatedly set precedent. The Center for Prevention of Abuse has been an essential agency doing crucial work for a population of people in dire situations. We have not closed our doors during the pandemic; we remain available 24/7 to those fleeing violence and abuse. Yet, new protocols had to be developed, longstanding customs were set aside, and we had to be prepared for whatever was handed us. It has been imperative that we remain available, funded and fully able to provide emergency shelter, counseling, safety planning, medical advocacies, orders of protection, therapy, education and more.
The increase in domestic violence during the health crisis—and the volatility of the incidents—has been stunning. Many victims were trying to stay safe at home but were in fact quarantined with their abusers. The good news is that CFPA is here, we are strong and ready, providing free and confidential services for people in our community who have experienced unspeakable trauma. The future of abuse is a dark topic, but CFPA is prepared and our future providing high-quality human services in central Illinois is bright. I am thankful every day for the seasoned, smart and effective administrative team with whom I work every day.
What changes have you made to carry on CFPA’s mission during these uncertain times?
One of the most noticeable changes this year has been our fundraising and events. Early in the pandemic, we were forced to make a major decision to postpone “Light 2020,” CFPA’s global educational conference on human trafficking. We were set for hundreds of visitors to attend from across the community, the country and around the world. It was difficult to discern the severity of the situation when COVID-19 was still new to us, but ultimately our intuition told us it would be necessary to delay the conference to keep attendees safe. We also had to switch up our 5K during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. “I Run with Survivors” became a virtual race/walk with the help of social media, setting a fundraising record with wonderful community participation.
The 32nd annual Duck Race, CFPA’s signature fundraiser, became a testament to the brilliance and resiliency of our marketing and events team. As an agency, we were able to sell out of 30,000 ducks, five dollars at a time! Many of our longtime sponsors were as generous as ever, even when the race became a raffle with the top prize winner announced on the local news. Regardless, while we have been effective without it, there is something magical about bringing people with common goals and beliefs together for a cause bigger than themselves. I hope with my whole heart that we can bring our friends and supporters together again for these events next year.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
There are quite a few quirky stories from which to choose! In Oklahoma in 1983 the legal drinking age for 3.2 beer and admittance to many local drinking establishments was 18—until that summer when the state legislature adjusted the minimum age to 21. That fall, as a feisty freshman at a state college in Oklahoma, I was 18 years old. While attempting to visit a country & western dance hall with friends, where we were legally not allowed, we were appropriately exited by none other than [singer] Garth Brooks, who worked as the bouncer. Not my proudest moment, but it is a funny touch with fame thinking back on it.
What advice do you have for young leaders trying to get involved in the community?
Commit to being a forever student of leadership. Watch, listen and learn from those you admire and trust. Know that you can be a leader at any time, or in any position you may attain. You do not need the title of “boss” to be a good leader. Care about those you work with. Be a giver. Help people succeed. You will be rewarded.
Honesty, responsibility and work ethic matter. Always. Love your community and show up for it by being involved in projects or missions important to you.
Anything else you wish to add?
I am grateful for the good folks at Peoria Magazines, and I want to say thank you—not only for the honor of Alumnus of the Year, but for the original 40 Leaders Under Forty award in 1996. Cheers to you for honoring a diverse corpus of leaders from central Illinois for so many years. You are a reason, an impetus, why so many people begin to see the path in front of them leading to so many other remarkable opportunities. Thank you. PM