Q&A with FUSION’s new executive director Robin O’Grady

‘Helping other people is not optional,’ she says.

Robin O’Grady. Courtesy photo

Robin O’Grady. Courtesy photo

There’s a new friendly face at FUSION.

The volunteer-based nonprofit organization, providing transitional housing and support services to families in need, recently welcomed Robin O’Grady as FUSION’s new executive director.

O’Grady has been a leader of human services organizations in Kitsap County for more than two decades, providing nonprofit directorship and program development.

While volunteering at a women’s shelter in 1989, O’Grady wrote her first grant to the Knights of Columbus for about $2,000. Ultimately, the grant was approved.

“Ever since then, I’ve just been hooked on it,” she said. “It gives me hope. The possibilities are endless and I feel like helping other people is not optional. We all need to be other-centered.”

O’Grady grew up in Long Beach, California, and attended California State University Dominguez Hills where she also received her counseling certification.

Below are highlights from a recent conversation with O’Grady exploring her start in human services and her hope for FUSION’s future.

How did you initially become involved with FUSION?

“In late 2018, my aunt, who lives in Auburn, had done some shopping at the FUSION boutique and she said to me ‘Oh my gosh, you have to check this place out!’ I did a little bit of research about FUSION, and thought ‘this is a great place.’ Then I saw the posting for the executive director position and I realized that the position was a 100% perfect fit for me and is in alignment with my life’s work to help marginalized families. Lucky for me, it turned out that my skill sets were a great match for FUSION as well.”

As executive director, what is your vision for FUSION’s future?

“Our vision is to provide a safe environment to mitigate the trauma associated with experiencing homelessness and help families develop the skill-sets they need to be self –sufficient. We will continue to grow our programs in response to the need in our community.

Over the past 26 years, our goal was to purchase one housing unit a year for families experiencing homelessness and this is our twenty-sixth year and our twentieth unit and the dream that started around Peggy LaPorte’s kitchen table has grown into this amazing, vibrant, critical program. We are focused on creating innovative programs and services that are really going to make an impact on the families that need our help, and at the same time making sure that we continue to honor our dedicated and committed volunteers.”

Of the families FUSION serves, 30% are from Federal Way and the remainder are from surrounding cities in South King County and Pierce County. Eighty-five percent of FUSION families move on to permanent housing.

“I think that’s a really important number; it’s working … With homelessness at critical mass right now, transitional housing is needed. I think FUSION plays a significant role in filling that gap in the community.”

Of your background work leading multiple human service organizations, which experience has been most instrumental in preparing you for your FUSION role?

“I have been a leader and developer of non-profit organizations and programs for thirty years. I have personal and professional experiences all the time which remind me of why I do this work. I’ve seen so much success when communities are willing to come together and use a collective impact approach to addressing community challenges. Programs and communities that operate in “silos” really do their communities a disservice. So I think one of the things that I can really bring to the table is the ability to create partnerships and connections to support and create that open table approach to maximize resources and gain valuable leverage for sustainability. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; we can partner closely with the organizations in our community that are already doing great work to improve access to those services, in addition to inventing new resources.”

What memory from your 25 years of work stands out the most?

“I think about the recession and when the economic downturn really hit. My team and I at the time developed a program for homeless women and children and like manna from heaven, the funding for the program continued to flow in despite the recession. At a time when everyone was trying to figure how they were going to continue providing services and government dollars were dwindling, we had the resources to help our women and their children find hope, to watch them gain the necessary skills to become self-sufficient, and this was such an honor and a privilege. These women and children began to heal and had a safe place to lay their heads at night. It’s such rewarding work.”

FUSION co-founder Peggy LaPorte previously said you have “such a big heart for this work.” When did you realize you wanted to enter the field of human services work?

“I think I’ve known since I was a little kid and I’m not kidding. I had a single mom with four small children and she worked two jobs to make ends meet. My sister and I knew the meaning of having adult responsibility and adult stress as children because we were the primary caregiver for my little brothers. Growing up, I was the one all my friends came to when they needed support. From a really young age, I was a helper. I think I suspected that I would be in a helping field at some point, but it wasn’t until I went back to college and I started taking psychology and business classes that I ended up falling in love with human services and that was it.”

What is one thing the community of Federal Way should know about those experiencing homelessness?

“I hear all the time, and I just think it’s because people don’t know or it hasn’t hit them close enough to home to understand, that there are people experiencing homelessness who may be incapacitated and do want help and there are people who need help, who would want help if they had hope. I think that a lot of times people with challenges are pigeon-holed into typical stereotypes; it’s that mindset, that ‘just go get a job’ mindset, which is caused by a lack of understanding. Everyone has a story and the more trauma that one has experienced, the less resilience they have to cope with challenges that may occur in life. Think for a minute about how difficult it would be for you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and ‘get a job’ when your clothes are filthy, you are hungry, and you slept in the woods last night … The term ‘homeless people’ is a label and adds to the stigma around homelessness. Some people experience homelessness — they are people having an experience, they not a label. The more we can be a catalyst for hope and help people willing to get help, the healthier our citizens and communities become.”

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