This episode of Bottom Line Faith features Sharon Pierce, President and CEO of The Villages.
“We are seeing an unprecedented need for caring adults, adults of faith, who have a faith community around them to support them in this world. And we know that not everyone is called to be a foster parent, but if you know a foster or adoptive parent, saying “I’ll help you one evening a week” or “Let me take the kids to church so that you two can go to the grocery after the service is over” are ways that we can sustain that single family for each child that we’re privileged to serve, and grow the faith community around these children so that they see they are a person of value, not only in God’s eyes but in our worldly eyes.”
Sharon has served as The Villages’ President and CEO since 1992. She has also served as the Deputy Director of the Indiana Division of Family and Children, where she oversaw Indiana’s state child welfare system. Sharon is also a member of numerous boards and service organizations promoting the best interest of children including Prevent Child Abuse America, the IARCCA Public Policy Committee, the IARCCA Institute for Excellence, where she serves as chairwoman, and the Child Welfare League of America, for whom she is also a National Child Welfare Trainer and consultant for the organization.
Sharon holds a Master’s degree in Student Personnel Administration and Counseling and a Bachelor of Science in English from Ball State University.
Adam: Bottom Line Faith we are back on the air. My name is Adam Ritz, one of your co-hosts along with Ray Hilbert. Ray, I thought we’d start today by reintroducing ourselves to the audience.
Adam: Is that okay with you?
Ray: Absolutely. So, we are really excited about this program at Bottom Line Faith where, Adam, this really is as we describe a place where we like to, that the analogy we use is where we like to lift the hood and tinker around in the engine of Christian Leadership, to see how these high-capacity, wonderful Christian leaders, how they think, how they live, how they make decisions, experiences, and lessons learned. And it’s really a lot of fun to get to do what we get to do. An incredible variety of guests that we’ve had in our episodes.
Adam: The fantastic part for me, and I’ve said this before, is that you know, and you’re the talent agent, if you will, you book the guests on the show, I sort of just show up here and co-host with you. And I never know who’s going to be on the show. And today I had a chance to speak with our guest and I’m really excited for the things that are happening in the building that we are in right now. It’s very exciting.
Ray: It really is. And our guest today is Sharon Pierce. She is the President and CEO of The Villages. And we’re going to learn all about not only Sharon but the ministry here at The Villages. We’re in downtown Indianapolis. And so we’ve been doing episodes all across the country. So it’s kind of fun to be back on home turf for for this episode. And this is going to be a great conversation because we talk with business leaders, we’ve talked with athletes and celebrities and everybody’s making a difference in the world in their own unique way. And we’re learning that in our program here at Bottom Line Faith. But this is going to be special because we are going to get to the core some societal issues, some things that absolutely are affecting our culture, the well-being of our country, and we’re going to really take a look at how one particular organization is making a huge difference in the lives of families and future leaders.
Adam: Sharon, can you tell us a little bit about The Villages?
Sharon: I would love to. I’m Sharon Pierce, I’m the CEO at The Villages of Indiana, and we are actually a statewide organization so we could have met in Indianapolis or Gary or Kokomo or Evansville or Bloomington. We have 20 offices throughout the state. But we talk often about the fact that we champion families, for children. At The Villages, we believe strongly that children grow and flourish and develop and really reach their full potential best when they are raised and nurtured by a loving family. And we know that’s not as common as we would like it to be in our communities throughout Indiana today. And so The Villages has a huge job right now. We have to stand in the gap for those children who don’t have the family. Perhaps it’s at this point in time, perhaps it’s never who can be there for them. So we try to make sure that every child has that dedicated adult who wants more than anything for that child to reach their full potential.
Adam: So you’re working with families and their children, single parents, maybe a grandparent raising the child, and you’re also working with children that don’t have parents.
Sharon: Absolutely. We’re probably best known for foster care, adoption, and Family Services at The Villages, we have a full array of services. But right now, because of the opioid crisis in our state, and really, throughout the nation, we have seen an unprecedented number of children in need of an alternative family, their own biological family, their family of origin, is just not equipped to keep them safe, to nurture them, to love them, to meet their needs.
And so I say often these days that we’re on a treadmill at The Villages, recruiting and screening and training and supporting foster or adoptive families, again, to stand in the gap for those children whose families have sadly gone the way of an addiction to a substance. We know that’s an illness. And we are the finger pointing organization. But our concern is how can we create a childhood like every child disease like every child that we have in our life deserves and what we want for them. So that’s really our core focus right now is making sure that we can meet the needs of these children who are unable to stay within their own family.
Adam: So I’m just curious, and we’ll get to the faith related questions very quickly with with Ray, but just you mentioned that the drug crisis, heroin overdose affecting so many families. Does that affect how you, I guess what I’m trying to ask is are you diving into the world of addiction and addiction drug counseling, in addition to what you do with kids and families?
Sharon: We have to in terms of making sure that our staff and our foster families, our clinical directors, those folks who we’re working directly with these children and their families know, what are the signs, you know, when is a child at risk, and how can we best help right now. 50% of the children coming into Indiana’s child welfare system are five years old or under. Those are very, very young children. 20% of newborns in Indiana, are being born addicted to some kind of drug, which is just a phenomenal statistic, in my mind. It is.
So you’re right, Adam, we have to know what that drug culture is doing to families and how we can best intervene and what kind of hope there is, for those who are addicted to a substance like heroin, cocaine, or an opioid, to be able to fully recover. Our juvenile judges are saying that they’re concerned that only about one in three of these children will ever be able to go back to their own family of origin. Which means that more than ever before The Villages is not only going to need foster families, we’re going to be desperately looking for forever families, as we call them, adoptive families. And one of the things that we’re so proud about at The Villages, and I know this would bless the Lord, is that nine out of ten children that The Villages serves in foster care are in only one family. And then that’s not what you read about in the paper, or you hear about in the news. You hear about a child is in five, eight, fifteen foster homes.
But we are focused on identifying the best possible match for both the child and the foster family, ethnically, geographically, spiritually, emotionally, so that the trauma that each of these children are experiencing and being separated from everything they’ve ever known, their own family, is minimized by the fact that Oh, Ray’s family looks like my family does. You know, they live right outside the city, the school is my home school. So there are so many dynamics that we try to pay attention to so that we can really build bench strength if you will, just like a good team. If you don’t have an alternate you know, guard or point guard, you don’t win many games. We need to have about six families for every one foster child so that we’re making the right match for them so that if indeed they need a forever family, hopefully that foster family that one foster family that they were with is the family that they will be spending the rest of their life with. And that then begins to minimize the trauma and the pain and the crises that they experienced when they were separated from everything they know.
Adam: Great organization. Great, great cause and the website is villageskids.org villageskids.org If you’d like to learn more, or even donate.
Ray: That’s fantastic. Great opening. Thank you, Adam, for kind of setting the tone for our interview today. And Sharon, we’re going to learn more about your leadership and your pathway to your leadership here at The Villages. But give us a little bit of your personal background kind of where’d you grow up? And how’d you end up here?
Sharon: You know, I kind of grew up a consummate mom, if you will. I’m the only girl in my family, the oldest of four children, I had twin brothers that were a year and a half younger than I am, and a younger brother who was six years younger than they were. And my mother died at a very young age of cancer. My father was diagnosed a month later with cancer.
And so I think I just was called to provide the nurturing heart that God had given me for my own family. And that really paved the way for my work with The Villages, my work in child welfare for, you know, 35 or 40 years. I start to lose count. But, you know, I was blessed to be born into a family of faith. And so the older I get, the more I thank the Lord for that foundation of a strong faith and the value of family and so many of the children that we work with at The Villages never had the foundation of a mom, even for 47 years, you know, my mom lived to 47. So I just I try to everyday have that attitude of gratitude for what God blessed me with, as I felt called every day to this important work.
Ray: That’s amazing background. And so did you grow up in the Midwest?
Sharon: I’m a Hoosier, yep, born in Fort Wayne Indiana Lutheran hospital, which has been rebuilt. And yeah, I have lived, we lived in Illinois for a few years. And so we joke about my husband following the soybeans. He was with central soy and a company called East Allee but those soybeans brought us back to Indiana. And I was privileged to serve as the Director of Child Welfare for the state of Indiana before coming to The Villages and have been here as the CEO for about 25 years.
So kind of a long, rich history. But then that blessing of a wonderful personal life, a very supportive husband. We have four children ourselves, they’re all married. And we love those seven grandchildren under seven. We call it joyful confusion when we’re all together. But you know, I love the fact that my grandchildren get to know about the work that I do, and they love adopting a child in foster care at Christmas. And that sense of compassion is one of those things that I’ve just loved bringing to my own family and my friends, my small group through the work here at The Villages. So I think we’re called, you know, as leaders to make sure that the values that God has planted and organizations like The Villages are dispersed as broadly as possible.
Ray: Well, thank you very much for that background. So, this is Ray Hilbert along with our co-host, Adam Ritz. We are the Bottom Line Faith program, we are interviewing Sharon Pierce, the President and CEO of The Villages in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where did the name The Villages come from?
Sharon: You know, we were actually a spin off of an organization in Kansas called The Villages that was founded by Dr. Karl Menninger and many folks know Dr. Karl Menninger because of his concern around substance abuse, and the medical clinic that’s in Kansas. But he also had very vital concern about children growing up in the 60s and 70s who were abused or neglected and felt like, “Gee, these children are coming from a family where violence is prevalent, and they’re being placed in an institution. How are they ever going to know what it’s like to truly be a part of a family?”
And so he developed an agency called The Villages of Kansas and what were called family model group homes. Group homes that had married couples as the house parents, and then you know, really functioned as a family unit where children could have responsibilities within the home. Where there would be vacations, extracurricular activities, the kinds of things that all of us as a parent want to provide for our children. Lilly Endowment got really excited about that concept and did a site visit to The Villages of Kansas and thought, you know what, we’d like to see this concept grow in Indiana. So The Villages of Indiana’s first seed dollars literally came from our friends.
You know, in Indiana, what would we do without Eli Lilly and the Lilly Endowment? And we started initially with a network of 10 family model group homes and now have really it’s kind of an interesting case history, have redefined ourselves because when you have a group home, that doubles the cost per day of services. When you think of the costs that any of us have in homeownership insurance, you know, maintenance, those kinds of things. And many of the Division of Family and Children at that time, the precursor to Department of Child Services in Indiana leaders were saying, “Could you replicate what you’re doing and your family model group homes and specialized foster families?” And so that was really the bridge to The Villages, growth in foster care. And today, we have over 300, licensed, caring dedicated heroic, in my mind, foster families throughout Indiana. So that allows the children who need that, you know, additional family or that alternative family to not have to leave their own school district. If you’ve only got 10 sites, you know, somebody has to travel to get to one of those group homes.
Ray: Right, right. It’s exciting. I mean, that’s what are needed model.
Adam: It takes a village, Ray.
Sharon: It literally does.
Adam: It takes, how many times is that said?
Sharon: It may be an old adage, but you know, The Villages can’t do it. Our staff can’t do it without our foster families, our foster families and staff can’t do it without community partners like Lilly Endowment or Old National Bank, or, you know, community partners that invest in us. We just had a delivery today of 300 tote bags filled with brand new books from the Girl Scouts. And they wanted to adopt The Villages and make sure, as we want to make sure, that education is a vital part of the children that we serve. Because we believe that’s the bridge, that’s the ticket to escaping poverty and breaking the cycle of child abuse. You know, I always say school is a child’s life work. And if I don’t feel good at school, it doesn’t matter what kind of home I’m coming to. But if we can help excite our children about the opportunities that learning provides, and just the escape that a good book provides, we all know about that. So it really does take a village, Adam, you’re exactly right.
Adam: When I pulled up today, there was a truck unloading some gear and equipment and supplies, so you mentioned that the Girl Scouts have dropped off tote bags and stuff. Just curious, what’s the crazy, when you’ve shown up to work one day, and there’s a truck outside. What’s the craziest thing they’ve been unloading to provide.
Sharon: Rocking chairs. We had a truck that was unloading about 20 rocking chairs. And there was an adult, a woman who felt like her vision of being a grandmother was rocking in the rocking chair, reading a book, one of those books, maybe that the Girl Scouts provided. And so I was just so shocked, she had rented, you know, a U-Haul truck and we were unloading rocking chairs. So then we again had some artists who were willing to decorate those chairs. And so those are now in the homes of foster families and kinship care families, those grandparents that are providing that critical role of raising their grandchildren if the parents are incarcerated or involved with drugs or alcohol. So but that was the shocker, where, you know, “This isn’t a furniture store!” And yet there was a very clear vision that this donor had about wanting to provide for The Villages’ children the kind of memories that she felt her children and grandchildren had, which I loved it.
Adam: That means something. A rocking chair means something.
Sharon: It was personal, absolutely.
Adam: It’s not just a place to sit. You sit, you rock.
Sharon: Yes, you contemplate. Yes, you slow down, you slow the pace, you know, the Lord used to say, you know, don’t worry. And I always heard words like a rocking chair, it doesn’t go anywhere. But rocking chairs are for good purposes, as well.
Ray: That’s a tremendous example. So let’s talk, well, we’ll get to a story or two in a few moments about some real case scenarios, right, of the work here at The Villages, but I really want to kind of unpack some of the lessons learned that you have gleaned in your leadership over the years. So would you just share a little bit about what’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a leader, particularly as a leader that’s trying to live out our faith on a daily basis?
Sharon: You know, I think the hardest lesson and it’s probably true for any non-profit leader is the resources available never match the need that exists. And so that is heart wrenching, you know, if anything were going to keep me awake at night, it is those children that we can’t reach, because we haven’t licensed those 10 additional foster families yet, or those staff that are working so hard that I haven’t been able to provide the kind of salary increase they deserve, because there’s just not the resource there. And so I do think that that is an ongoing challenge.
But you know, I had a mentor many, many years ago when I was Director Child Welfare actually who said, “Sharon, more than anything, you need to learn to sort out what you can control from what you can’t control.” So I may not always be able to control what that resource pool looks like. And certainly, I spend a lot of midnight oil on grant writing, I assure you, but I can control what kind of an environment we have for our staff, what kind of respect we treat one another with. How we honor our foster and adoptive and kinship care parents. And so that was such a powerful lesson to me.
And it doesn’t sound like rocket science. But it’s harder than one would think. Because I think particularly when God gives us a heart for a mission like The Villages mission, you want to do it all and yet, I’m minimizing what I can accomplish. If I’m focusing on things that I really can’t impact just now, at least. Maybe later. You know, I always, my husband always jokes that the reason we’re married is because I don’t know how to say no. And that’s not really true. He’s a wonderful guy. But it is hard to say no, in this work, because you want every intern that calls, you want to open the doors for them. I want to know that folks are going to come behind all of us and our staff and the future and care about these children and their families in the same way that we do. And yet, that’s not doing the mission a favor if we’re over promising and under delivering. I love to, you know, under promise and over deliver.
Ray: Well, one of the things that’s a really great process that you’ve laid out there, and a thought, you know, principle because we have a lot of business owners and presidents and CEOs that also listen to our program. And while you’ve shared that in the context of an executive, you know, a leader in a non-profit environment, it really is true in the for-profit world, too, because what business owner doesn’t want to grow their company to a certain degree and hire people, but they also always have to manage limited resources.
So I love what you had to say about focusing on what you can control and being good steward over the resources, whether it’s in your case, clients and families in a business, it’s customers and vendors and employees. So I think that’s a really great takeaway, at least for me. So that’s really good. So that’s a hard lesson to learn. But it’s one you’ve learned to live with, it sounds like, and learn to deal with. On a kind of a kindred note, what’s the biggest mistake you can recall ever making as a leader?
Sharon: I do think it was over promising some deliveries in terms of what we could accomplish for children and families, and then having to scale that down. And so that was before that wonderful mentor, you know, shared this with me. But I think that that is a hard lesson to learn. And again, you have the heart for wanting to see that everything is accomplished. But what I found was, maybe we got to everything on that important list. But everything wasn’t done at the level of quality that we all at The Villages feel is so important.
So that was really an initiative and a synergy for us to build in kind of that performance quality improvement process that’s so critical to any organization, for-profit, or not for profit. And looking at, you know, when we have situations that aren’t as impactful as we would like them to be, what can we do the next time around or next quarter to prevent this so that we have even better outcomes? Our results for children are really pretty amazing. The fact that again, one, every child at The Villages, nine out of ten are in only one family. One of the other groups that’s really a critical population for us are those young people who are aging out of foster care. And these young people are 17, 18 years of age. They were never able to be reunified with their family of origin. They weren’t adopted by a forever family. And so they are a family of one and they desperately need dedicated adults like we have at The Villages to invest in them. But nationally, only 1-3% of those young people go on to college. And we’ve got any kind of post-secondary experience and The Villages on any given day will have around 70% who are involved in some kind of post-secondary training, and many of them in college.
But I feel like it needs to be 100% and I know our board of directors does as well because again, that is their opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and be able to be self-sufficient and fully support their family, their future family. So, you know, we’re very outcome driven. And sometimes I think that comes from making mistakes, it’s like parenting! It’s a lot like parenting. You know, we, I’ve learned I always say being the parent of four kids is the hardest job on my resume. And so I think whenever you’re in non-profit work at you know, how do you use this mistake to learn and strengthen the mission of The Villages in the future?
Ray: Yeah, as a father of three teenagers I’ve got two things that I’m learning about: that is one it keeps me alert and it definitely improves my prayer life.
Sharon: Absolutely. And it keeps us humble. I always say being a parent keeps me humble.
Ray: Well folks, believe it or not, we’re moving rapidly to the tail end of our time here with Sharon Pierce. She is the President and CEO at The Villages of Indiana here in downtown Indianapolis. Their website, we’d love to encourage you to check out this incredible work, it’s the villageskids.org. So Sharon, the last question that we like to ask every guest on Bottom Line Faith is what we call the 4:23 question right out of Proverbs that basically says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for from it flows the wellspring of life.” There are biblical scholars that some believe those are among the last words that Solomon penned, possibly even from his deathbed.
And so the analogy of the picture we paint is here’s the wisest man ever wrote, wrote Proverbs, and a rich, wise person, and he’s gathered his family, friends and loved ones around and he’s at the end of his time here on earth. And he says, I know I’ve given you wisdom, I know I’ve given you all this to live by. Now, above all else, guard your heart. So Sharon, at the end of your time, if you had a chance to gather your family, your friends, your loved ones, those that you have mentored over the years, what would be your above all else advice?
Sharon: You know, I would say, above all else, seek to find your unique calling, and then invest your heart and soul in it. And I’m very blessed that it’s my vocation as well as my avocation. But some folks have a vocation that’s very different than that calling of the Lord. But they can be a Don and Mary Canoy and become a foster parent, or they can support Don and Mary and say, you know, on Tuesday nights we’ll watch little Sammy, so the two of you can go out and just connect or go be a part of your church, small group in the way you thought you might be when you were approaching your 70s. And so I think each of us seeking our unique calling is what creates a caring community, the kind of community that the Lord envisioned in the Great Commission for each of us, and especially for these very vulnerable children.
Ray: That’s about as good as anything I heard.
Adam: Well, I was ready, going to go home and take a nap. But after meeting Sharon, and hearing all of her work and works, I’m going to get more involved, for sure. That’s amazing. I was glad I met you.
Ray: I was thinking something very similar, that, you know, each Bottom Line Faith program is different, right? You know, whether we’re interviewing CEOs, presidents, business owners, athletes, the things that we talked about earlier, and each one has a unique flavor, and I believe each one has a unique purpose. Sharon was just talking about calling and purpose. And I believe it’s quite possible that if you’re listening to this episode of Bottom Line Faith that some of you have been wrestling with what would God have me do? What difference would God have me and my spouse or my family invest in? What would that be?
Some of you perhaps have been praying about fostering a young child or adopting or a number of other things, but really take this time and contemplate. That would be my encouragement. Contemplate that prompting that you’re feeling right now and follow through on it and one place that I would encourage you to follow through is go to The Villages website at villageskids.org, and pray and see if that might not be something that God might have you involve yourself with? Would you agree with that, Sharon?
Sharon: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ray. Because that really is our call to action. Right now, we are seeing an unprecedented need for caring adults, adults of faith, who have a faith community around them to support them in this world. And we know that not everyone is called to be a foster parent. But if you know a foster or adoptive parent and saying, you know, I’ll help you one evening a week or let me take the kids to church so that you two can go to the grocery after the service is over, are ways that we can sustain that single family for each child that we’re privileged to serve and grow the faith community around these children so that they see they are a person of value not only in God’s eyes, but in you know, our worldly eyes.
Ray: Well, Adam, once again, God has shown up amazingly on Bottom Line Faith. Well, folks, this is Ray Hilbert your co-host, Adam Ritz, just thanking you for listening to Bottom Line Faith you can check us out where on the web and on social media. Adam?
Adam: It is bottomlinefaith.org and all of the social media accounts are connected through there. We do a lot of Facebook and through the Truth At Work Facebook page, but you can find all of it including past shows at bottomlinefaith.org.
Ray: Well, folks, thanks so much for listening in and we’ll catch you on the next episode of Bottom Line Faith.