Even though she might not have realized it at the time, Shelley Kendrick, 57, was preparing herself for a lifetime of service to seniors even when she was a young girl. The current president and CEO of Ecumen, a nonprofit senior housing and services provider based in Shoreview, recalls helping take care of her grandparents when she was growing up in Flint, Michigan.
That included working in the yard, cleaning house, taking them shopping or helping with the dogs. But it wasn’t all work to her. It was a pleasure.
“I was always attracted to the company of older adults,” Kendrick said. “I remember how much I loved talking with my great-grandmother. She had been a teacher, and she liked books. I was a reader, and I liked to tell stories. She really encouraged me, and she was a huge influence on me.”
Kendrick’s mother, Luetta, has been a major influence and a role model, too.
“She was a working mom — an engineer at the phone company,” Kendrick said. “She managed to have a balanced life, and never missed one of her children’s games. I still talk to her every day.”
Kendrick (no relation to the author) had an early fascination with sports.
“I used to follow my younger brother to little league practice,” she said. “I’d grab my glove, hop on my banana seat bike and show up at the field, hoping I’d get a chance to play. But this was before Title IX, and I wasn’t allowed.”
Still, she made her own way in the world of athletics. Boxed out from playing basketball because she was too short, she won a full-ride softball scholarship to East Michigan University, where she earned a degree in English language and literature.
“I’d always wanted to be a journalist,” she said.
But it turned out that a different career path would soon open up for Kendrick.
Working her way up
After a start in the personnel department of a nursing home, Kendrick eventually worked her way up to become a nursing home administrator. She went back to school and earned a master’s in nonprofit business administration from the University of Notre Dame.
“I was called to do nonprofit work, and I realized it was my mission and my service,” Kendrick said. “I met a number of people during the program and learned that Minnesota had some fabulous nonprofits that might offer me work and advancement, so I moved here.”
Her first job in the state was at the Minnesota Veterans Home.
Gayle Kvenvold, now the president and CEO at LeadingAge Minnesota, an association of organizations serving Minnesota seniors, observed Kendrick’s leadership skills firsthand.
“She arrived at a time of strife for the Veterans Home,” Kvenvold said. “The setting had received a number of significant deficiencies in more than one Minnesota Department of Health survey, and it was the subject of several highly critical newspaper articles — and really tough oversight hearings by the Minnesota Legislature.”
There also was labor unrest and caregiver morale was low, Kvenvold said.
“Shelley was a key leader on the team who literally turned things around for the care community — improving care and regulatory compliance; working with residents and their families, employees and the broader veterans community to restore confidence and build morale. She is a leader who rolls up her sleeves and works alongside her team and never loses sight of the needs and wishes of the older persons at the center of services and supports,” Kvenvold said.
Kendrick moved to Ecumen eight years ago. And last year, she was named president and CEO, filling the mighty big shoes of Ecumen’s CEO Emeritus Kathryn Roberts, who’s received many honors and awards over the years, including the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 2019 Career Achievement Award after 16 years in the role.
Today, Kendrick is leading an organization that continues to grow in size and influence.
Ecumen is one of the country’s largest and oldest nonprofit senior housing and services providers. Founded in Mankato in 1862 as a foster care organization associated with the Lutheran Church, it’s since evolved to serve seniors. Although its spiritual roots continue 150 years later, Ecumen is nondenominational when it comes to those it hires and serves, focusing on diversity and inclusion.
Operating nearly 100 properties and services in more than 40 communities in eight states, Ecumen had a 2018 revenue of $148.2 million. It serves 15,000 people annually with a variety of senior housing options and resources, including independent living, assisted living, memory care, affordable housing, hospice, short-term rehabilitation and long-term care, as well as community-based services and an online medical equipment store. The company both owns properties and also manages them for others, and has developed innovative cooperative-living communities, too.
“Shelley is one of the most dedicated, loyal and people-focused individuals I know,” said Brett Anderson, Ecumen’s vice president for health and clinical services. “She exudes passion for caregivers and for those we serve. Every single interaction with her and every decision she makes is anchored around those two groups of people. She’s a servant leader who has walked the walk and done many of the jobs people within Ecumen do.”
The state of senior living
Kendrick sees the broader valued-based mission of Ecumen as continuing to serve more people and addressing areas of opportunity at a local level.
“To expand our mission, we need to have more team members and take care of them by learning what drives them, what their goals are, and providing them ways to continue to grow and learn,” she said.
One of her key areas of focus is having an impact on the social determinants of health at a local level. One example is social isolation. To ensure Ecumen has a voice at the table for those they serve, Kendrick works with policymakers, legislators and city council members.
She points to the recent completion of Zvago Central Village, a 58-unit cooperative independent housing community in Apple Valley, as an example of this “work local” credo in action.
“Without the help of the city council and the mayor, this project wouldn’t have happened, but it’s an option that people in the community want and need when they’re downsizing,” she said. “Some choose to own, not rent, and this project — like our other Zvago co-ops — make that possible.”
Two other Zvago communities are open now in St. Anthony Park and Glen Lake, and two more are coming — one on Lake Superior and another in Stillwater. Described as “limited equity cooperatives,” they provide for a steady annual growth of members’ equity at a fixed rate of return based on an initial share payment.
Ecumen is also the organization behind Abiitan Mill City, which opened in 2016 as the first senior services community in the core of downtown Minneapolis, all in keeping with Ecumen’s mission to innovate, empower and honor to “change how our society views aging.”
Despite such successes, Kendrick admits that the senior care and housing system can be frustrating and confusing.
“My own mother, who is 77, is looking now at some housing options in Florida. I’ve been helping her, and it’s confusing,” Kendrick said. “If she didn’t have me to help her sort through this, it would be difficult.”
Meanwhile, Kendrick continues to make an impact on her community.
LeadingAge Minnesota’s Kvenvold told a story about her appearance on a panel at the organization’s annual meeting: She was sharing thoughts about the future of aging services, leadership lessons and strategic positioning of not-for-profit organizations.
“I was struck by the way she has humility at her core,” Kvenvold said. “In a natural and poised manner, she drew a room of several hundred people right into the conversation, as though she were sitting at the conference room table with them instead of on a raised dais at the front of the room.”
On the home front
Kendrick is the mother of four children, all of whom joined her family through adoption. Michael, 24, lives in the Twin Cities. Casey, 30, Ashley, 29, and Chloe, 23, all live in Ohio, where Kendrick started her career.
“They’re the light of my life,” she said.
Kendrick and her wife, Mary, live in Stillwater, and the couple can often be found at sporting events. They root for the Twins, University of Minnesota Gophers football, and men’s and women’s basketball and softball (for which she has season tickets).
Kendrick keeps active by running, biking, hiking and kayaking.
“I like to do everything I can physically, and luckily I haven’t had any major injuries,” she said. “My shoulder got beaten up from sliding headfirst into bases when I was playing softball, but otherwise I’ve been very lucky.”
Looking ahead to what’s in store for her career, Kendrick said: “I’ve always liked finding solutions to tough challenges, and that’s why I’m here at Ecumen. I want us to be a place that says, ‘Yes, it can be done,’ and then finds a way to resolve issues. Being here allows me to use the strengths I have to do that.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.