The first thing you notice about Jennifer Helgeson is her immediate, genuine warmth. She’s quick with a smile and, if she’s met you a few times before, a natural hugger. With a job like Jennifer’s – President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana (BGCK) – this kind of natural warmth is one of the clearest reasons why she excels in this role. And when combined with her tenacity and strong, determined nature, it isn’t surprising that Jennifer has been the force behind one of the region’s best resources for children throughout our community. When Jennifer first took on her role in September of 2010, BGCK served around 1,800 children. The nonprofit organization has now grown to serve almost twice that number annually and, under her leadership, added two more Clubs in Louisville. She isn’t sitting still, however, and her longtime advocacy for improving children’s lives drives her to continue to find innovative ways to make Boys & Girls Clubs available to even more.
We caught up with Jennifer in between planning a graduation celebration — she is married to Dr. Rodney Helgeson and has three wonderful children, including a graduating high school senior — and preparing for the annual Boys & Girls Clubs fundraiser, The Big Event, happening in June. She kept us on our toes as she showed us around the Newburg Club, moving from a quick chat with a young club member to a warm laugh with her hardworking staff. We so enjoyed getting to spend time with Jennifer Helgeson, today’s FACE of Louisville, and we know you’ll love meeting her as much as we did.
Tell us about your job as the President and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana.
As the President and CEO, my role is to ensure that the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana fulfills the mission it has had since 1959: to inspire and enable all young people, especially those most in need of our services, to realize and develop their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens. We work hard to make sure that our club members get the support they need to achieve academic success, build good character, participate in workforce development programming and lead a healthy lifestyle. As CEO I manage the strategic planning and operations required to support the organization’s mission and goals. I also collaborate with the Board of Directors and staff to secure the resources we need for the six clubs of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana to serve around 3,000 youth annually. I am so fortunate to have a Board of Directors actively opening doors to connect us with donors who truly support the organization. I am also always working to create more community partnerships and collaborative relationships. Part of that means I spend a lot of time providing “brand awareness” and educating people about the range of services we provide our club members. That means I’m involved with marketing campaigns, media events and speaking engagements where I can share the great work happening every day at our Clubs.
What drew you to this line of work?
My career started when my parents introduced me to helping with an after-school program at our church. They were always giving back to the community, and I quickly understood the importance in investing in others through their example. I initially went to graduate school to become a social work clinician but quickly learned that my skills are better utilized working at the administrative level. I feel like this is the best way for me to make a significant impact on the organization.
Working on behalf of children and families has always been my passion. I began my career working in therapeutic foster care and adoption. I loved being able to match a family who wanted to open their heart and home to a new child with a child who longed to be a part of a family. My career, which has spanned more than 20 years, has always been as an advocate and an ambassador for those who often do not have a voice.
What’s the one thing that you wish everyone knew about what you do?
I have the pleasure of working with youth, ranging from ages 6 to 18, who have dreams and goals. These young people will often be the first to graduate high school in their family. They may be the first to attend college and the first to obtain employment. They may be the first in their family to not live in poverty, to not be afraid of where the next meal will come from. They may be the first to choose another way than life on the streets. When our most recent “Youth of the Year” was asked about his dreams, he shared that he wanted something different for his community. He has aspirations of becoming an FBI agent. When questioned about the risk of this role, he simply stated that if he would protect youth trying to come to the Club, why would he not feel the same about protecting his country? You see, I have the opportunity in my role to change and save lives each and every day. I don’t know what else could be more meaningful than that.
How do you unplug and recharge?
I love to travel, read and spend time with my family and friends. I have three wonderful children who are all in high school. I love to spend time supporting their interests. I can be found at lacrosse games, wrestling meets and anywhere that my son is performing. I also love trying new restaurants around town with my husband.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
A typical day … what is that? I love the ability to have many different activities throughout the week. I usually start my day around 7:30 a.m. and begin checking email messages. Meetings throughout the week consist of donor meetings, community meetings, stewardship activities, committee meetings with the Board of Directors, senior management team meetings, media or speaking engagements, coffee, lunch and dinner meetings, budget conversations, marketing conversations and strategic leadership conversations.The Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana has 26 Board members with 12 standing committees that keep me busy year-round. Our biggest annual fundraiser is coming up on June 10, and it’s called “The Big Event.” I would say that right now a good part of my time is spent on how to best leverage our current relationships and make that event a huge success.
I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Center for Nonprofit Excellence and Metro United Way, and I serve as Chair for the Council of Agency Executives. I currently serve in a leadership role on the Kosair Charities “Face It Initiative to End Child Abuse.” I am also proud to be participating in the Leadership Louisville Class of 2017.
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Confucius)
Fill in the blank. “You’ll never see me without my __________.”
Coffee in the morning. Ever.
Where can we find you hanging out around town?
Trying new restaurants, attending UofL football games, watching our kids at lacrosse games, wrestling meets and vocal performances.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
I enjoy Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham novels. I just finished Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell.
Tell us about some of your favorite local restaurants.
We love trying new restaurants and frequenting several of our favorites. I love Harvest, Oishii Sushi, Grind Burger and Simply Thai to name a few.
What are three of your favorite things right now (besides God, family and friends)?
I enjoy traveling with friends, walking my Airedale Terriers and chocolate-covered strawberries.
Thanks so much to Jennifer and her staff for welcoming us into the Newburg Club. Find our more about this year’s Gatsby-themed fundraiser, The Big Event, happening June 10th at the Downtown Marriot, here. And find our more about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana online or follow them on Facebook.
Thanks to photographer Gretchen Bell for beautifully capturing Jennifer in her element.
Read about more inspiring women in Louisville in our FACES of Louisville weekly features here.