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Finishing alternative career

Alternatives CEO retires after falling into nonprofit profession

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

By: Kelly Dickey Source: The Herald Bulletin


ANDERSON — Working in the nonprofit sector was never part of the plan.

Mary Jo Lee went to her office in the corporate world every day and crunched the numbers. Math was always secure – one plus one is always two.

But a favor for a friend-of-afriend in the early 1980s changed the trajectory of Lee’s life. Now she’s moving on to the next phase of her life with a plethora of programs, honors and lives saved behind her.

After 24 years as CEO, Lee is retiring Friday from Alternatives Inc., an emergency shelter and transitional home for victims of domestic abuse.

“I didn’t realize this was my purpose at first,” Lee said. “I told the (Alternatives) board I was blessed to discover why I was put on this earth, and I believe very much so it was to work in this field.”

Lee laughs when she says she would have made more money and had a better retirement plan if she would have stayed in her original field. But in actuality, she can’t see her life going any other direction following Jan. 1, 1983.

As a favor, Lee visited the relatively new Alternatives shelter and met with its first executive director, Sylvia Bogle. All Lee planned to do was create an accounting system for the growing agency.

“I went in and met with Sylvia and fell in love with her and this organization immediately,” Lee said. “And it started from there. It started with someone just asking me if I’d help.”

In the ensuing years, Lee created her own consulting company that served 85 nonprofits before she turned down – and then eventually accepted – to be Alternatives’ CEO in 1993.

The work meant she could use her accounting skills to run an efficient nonprofit agency, but it also allowed creativity and a chance to solve problems that don’t have a specific, clear-cut solution.

Under Lee’s leadership, the organization has launched various initiatives, influenced legislation, received state and national recognitions, assumed operations of the Indiana 24-hour hotline and been certified as a rape crisis center by the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

But Lee said her biggest achievements include launching the “There’s No Room for Domestic Violence” initiative, implementing children’s programming and moving into its current facility, which includes 30 emergency beds, five transitional housing units, an on-site employment training center, the Madison County Sexual Assault Treatment Center, and on-site domestic violence investigative unit with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department and Robbie’s room, a children’s educational and recreational center. Lee said she’s questioned her leadership at times, particularly when the agency considered moving to its current facility.

“So it’s important that I have been able to remember that I have never been alone in this work,” she said. “I have my faith and I have people that are also committed.

“I’ve never been alone.”

When Lee started working with Alternatives, domestic violence was often still viewed as a “family matter.” Now, she says, most people understand and accept it’s a crime.

Awareness has grown and attitudes have shifted drastically in the last several decades, Lee said. And it’s something she feels affects the entire community.

“I don’t know how to summarize the impact she’s made,” said Ashley Waterbury- Carpenter, Alternatives resource development manager. “She has done so much for victims of sexual and domestic violence and raising awareness for our community.

“She’s really pushed awareness in the public space so that it’s not taboo to talk about it, and so that victims are comfortable to get help.”

Intervention has been phase one – and while that still needs to continue – Lee said attitudes need to start switching to prevention. Alternatives has started by speaking to students about healthy relationships in Madison and Hancock counties.

Lee said it’s time for her to pass the torch to the next generation to move the mission forward. Alternatives CFO Johna Lee – who is also Mary Jo Lee’s daughter-inlaw – will take over as CEO.

Alternatives board President Tom Bannon said Johna Lee’s established presence and passion for Alternatives will make for a seamless transition.

“Mary Jo’s not going to disappear,” he said. “She’s still going to be an advocate, a resource and a friend that we can turn to. She knows she can still have input, but she also knows there’s a really good team that will carry on what she’s built.”

After receiving the Athena Award in 2009, Lee referenced a favorite quote and said, “When I’m no longer here, I hope everyone can say ‘she did what she could, and more.’” As she prepares to step down at Alternatives, Lee contemplates if staff, victims, survivors and community members felt an urge to get involved or help because of her.

“When you’re talking to people you don’t always know what it really means to them,” she said. “It could be a simple sentence you happen to say that could mean something very deep to them.

“I hope people feel good about the accomplishments that I was a part of.”

Like Kelly Dickey on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @KellyD_THB, or call 765-640-4805.

Community Hospital Anderson