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Kate MacEwen meets with client R.W., Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arborite Kate MacEwen

Putting her heart into social services

by Eve Silberman

posted 6/22/2010

In a small, neatly kept house in the east part of town, Kate MacEwen, twenty-nine, is recording a video interview. MacEwen, of average height, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, is development director of an organization called Community Alliance. The man she's talking to, Robert Snyder, is one of the group's clients.

Snyder, a burly, six-foot-seven-inch man with narrow-framed glasses, answers questions fluidly and calmly--until MacEwen asks how the state's elimination of Medicaid-funded dental care affected him. Showing some agitation, he explains that teeth grinding runs in his family and that he needs to keep up his dental care--but that's hard to do when he works just two days a week and has only about $100 a month left over after his rent is paid. Staring into the camera, Snyder implores, "Give it back! Give it back!"

With his permission, MacEwen will post Snyder's interview on the Community Alliance website. She's enhancing the site as part of an effort to increase the visibility of what her boss, Community Alliance CEO Steve Weindorf, calls "probably the biggest little nonprofit you've never heard of."

The group's longtime mission is to help adults with developmental disabilities find housing and support to live independently. But in response to tough times, CA has broadened its scope. When Lansing ended all but emergency dental assistance to indigents last summer, "we could either wring our hands or do something," explains MacEwen. In addition to publicizing the issue, she and a volunteer created monthly "chow-downs" at area restaurants, which donate a percentage of their sales to CA's dental assistance fund. Impressed, dentist Elisa Ghezzi helped MacEwen organize a recent day of free cleanings at the office of dentist John Wehr.

A dramatic life change led MacEwen to work in the struggling human services sector. A child of privilege, she attended an elite private high school in Dayton, where her idea of deprivation was having to drive her grandmother's 1981 Buick Skylark.

"Some of my classmates drove Jaguars," she explains. "But

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my parents tried to imbue some humility in me."

While she "got a ton of grief" from her classmates, the lesson didn't really take. "I used to be judgmental of people who had to rely on food stamps and Medicaid," she remembers. Looking at her parents' prosperity, she figured that anyone who worked hard would be "all right" in America.

Her life and attitude changed dramatically her senior year at the U-M, where she majored in voice and political science. Her insurance executive father started a new business--which soon went bust in the post-9/11 recession. Not long after, her parents divorced. "The house I grew up in sold at short sale," MacEwen says. "My mom took a job at Walmart." When her mother developed medical problems and missed work, she struggled to make car payments until MacEwen took them over.

She quickly found her own footing, getting a job shortly after graduation for a mortgage company, then taking out loans to pursue a master's in arts administration at EMU. At twenty-five, while working at the Michigan Women's Business Council, she bought a townhouse in Superior Township. Her mother lives there now; MacEwen and her husband of two years, attorney Guy Conti, own a home nearby, which they share with four dogs.

Her career goals shifted as her family's experience gave her a new compassion for society's poor and marginalized: "I felt like my heart was more into trying to help those folks." She worked briefly at Food Gatherers before starting her current job a year ago. She is the agency's first development director. "We needed to diversify our funding," says CEO Weindorf, explaining that the agency's $7 million budget comes almost exclusively from government contracts.

The group had spun off from the former Washtenaw Association for Retarded Citizens in 1986. Dubbed the Community Residence Corporation, its mission was to help people with developmental disabilities move from state institutions into the community. Renamed the Community Alliance soon after MacEwen's hiring, it still operates a residential group home, but its focus has shifted to helping clients live independently. "If someone needs twenty-four-hour support for health and safety issues, that's what they'll get," Weindorf explains. It currently has nearly 100 clients in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Robert Snyder shares this rental home with two other men. A CA staff person is there five days a week, while part-timers cover nights and weekends. One of his roommates, a tall, thin man called R.W., shyly shows MacEwen the backyard barbecue, where he grills hamburgers.

MacEwen says her privileged upbringing gives her several advantages in her job, which involves a lot of fund-raising. Talking to professionals and going to corporate events comes naturally, she says, because "you don't forget some of the lessons at your expensive private school." At the same time, she knows how quickly you can go from prosperity to collecting food stamps.    (end of article)

[Originally published in June, 2010.]

 

 
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