Debbie Kennedy was taken on a tour of the Wichita Children’s Home about five years ago by a lawyer who advocated for children there. Like others before her, Kennedy was moved by the grim and unsettling stories one can hear there. It’s a shelter for children who have been abused, neglected, disowned.
She began volunteering, in hours outside her regular job as president and CEO of Wichita State University’s Alumni Association. She became a board member, then chairwoman of the board, and while she did that she heard more stories, about severe injuries, kids who didn’t know their parents, or kids who knew abusive parents all too well. About a staff often underpaid and underfunded but, as she said Thursday, never overwhelmed.
On Thursday the board named Kennedy CEO of the shelter that has cared for Wichita’s most vulnerable children for 125 years. She will take up the role in July. Sarah Robinson, who had done that job for 30 years, is moving into a new position – chief advancement officer – in which she’ll continue to raise funds for the home.
“Sarah will help us in the community and help us in Topeka, and continue to tell the story of the Children’s Home, which she does so well,” said Barbara Ray, the current chairwoman of the Children’s Home. Kennedy will run day-to-day operations and planning, along with a considerable expansion, Ray said.
Robinson, highly respected by Wichita’s social services community for three decades, needed leadership help as the home expands operations, Ray said.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been working with the Board to align my role with what I love best about my service to the Children’s Home – working with the donors, partners and community to achieve our important goals,” Robinson said in a statement. “I’ve worked closely with Debbie over the years, and I’m looking forward to working with her in this next chapter of our story.”
Kennedy, among other things, is a former charge nurse in an inpatient psychiatric-mental health unit, and an advanced registered nurse practitioner in the area of mental health and psychiatric nursing. She is a self-described workaholic who knows how formidable her new job will be. “This is a calling,” she said.
The Children’s Home takes in 1,600 children a year. It shelters them until legal problems or family problems can be sorted out or until foster care can be arranged. The home takes in runaways and children who police suspect have been abused, sometimes severely. When police or the courts suspect a child is in need of care, or a new home, the children are sent to the Children’s Home until the justice system decides where to place them.
Running the home takes dedication and an ability to confront terrible stories and do something effective about them. Kennedy said she’ll do it with dedication. “The job does not scare me,” Kennedy said. “Work does not scare me.” It will be a privilege, she said, to serve some of Wichita’s most vulnerable residents.
In November the home began construction on the first phase of new facilities at a campus on 37th Street North between Woodlawn and Rock Road, according to a statement from the home. Construction has begun on an apartment building for the Bridges program that helps teenagers and young adults transition to safe housing and develop educational and career skills, the statement said.
The Wichita Children’s Home has raised more than $9.6 million of the $11 million needed to build the new campus. As the first phase, the Bridges apartments are expected to be completed in October.