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Kathleen Dess has served four years as Madison Youth & Family Services Board chair as part of her commitment to give back to the village that helped raise her own children. (Photo by Susan Talpey/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Working with children and elderly people are Kathleen Dess’s two great passions. In her professional life, she chose to improve the lives of local seniors, however the desire to support young people led her to join the board of Madison Youth & Family Services (MYFS) a decade ago.
“Children today have all the traditional challenges of youth, as well as many new stresses, issues and pressures. I thought, ‘How can I be part of the solution?’” she says.
“MYFS runs valuable programs that build self-esteem and empower young people to have the tools and resources they need to solve problems, to help their friends and to be good citizens,” she says. “It helps them to know what the right thing is and to understand how to do the right thing.”
This month, after four years, Kathleen will step down as board chair, however she will continue as an active board member, supporting incoming chair Tony Diona.
With links to the Madison Police Department, public schools, Board of Selectman, Board of Finance, and Parent Teacher Organizations, the MYFS Board seeks to develop a greater level of community support and understanding of young people.
“We are strengthening the two-way conversations with all these groups so we understand what they are seeing and facing every day, and in turn know what they need to best support local children and youth,” Kathleen says, adding that the challenges teenagers face are always evolving.
“It was a simpler life for my generation and now there are so many competing demands,” she says. “Today, social media is a huge issue—it’s a challenge to self-esteem and, with the access all hours, young people are not sleeping, which increases stress. As a society, we need to send a message that it’s important to slow down, to read a book, to spend time face-to-face with friends, to breathe.”
Everyone in the community has a valuable role to play in supporting young people and building a strong community for families, says Kathleen.
“Being a teenager can be really tough, and keeping kids safe, mentally and physically, is paramount. As a town, we need to give support at whatever stage young people are at so they can come out on the other side of the curve,” she says. “Studies have shown that when adults say ‘Hello’ to young people, when they look them in the eye, when they validate their input, it all has a significant impact on how young people connect with their community.”
Takes a Village
Kathleen and her husband, Robert, a pediatric dentist in New Britain, raised their two daughters in Madison—both Gabriella, a senior at Providence College, and Alina, a sophomore at Northeastern University, attended Madison schools and many of the leadership programs at MYFS.
“It was a blessing to raise our children in this community, and now we see them out there giving back to the world,” she says. “It’s a common saying, but I believe it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child. Especially as a working mom, I’ve found that you need other people in the community that you can depend on and that will guide your children down the right path.”
A member of the Madison Chamber of Commerce for the past 23 years, Kathleen was also a founding board member of the Madison Foundation in 1996-’97, the same year she was president of Madison Rotary Club. Being a role model to her daughters is important to Kathleen, and she supports the movement to encourage women to take up leadership roles in community and professional organizations.
“We need to put ourselves out there. All perspectives and voices need to be heard in these circles, and we need to encourage young women to step outside traditional roles, and their comfort zone; to believe in themselves and just jump in,” she says.
A Solid Start
As a kid growing up in Tolland, the value of volunteering and community service was instilled early in Kathleen and her seven siblings.
“My dad was a volunteer fire chief and my mom was the president of the historical society, so they always urged us to be involved in the community and strongly believed in education,” she says.
Kathleen worked three jobs to put herself through an undergraduate degree at Central Connecticut State University and then completed a graduate health care administration license at University of Connecticut. Working part-time as a nursing assistant to the elderly, Kathleen discovered her professional calling.
“In high school, I wanted to be a teacher, but I found I have a passion for working with the elderly,” she says. “I believe they are underserved and often not respected, and I believe that we need to do a lot better as a society to care for our elderly.”
In April this year, Kathleen took up a new professional opportunity as executive director of StoneRidge, a retirement community in Mystic. It was the next professional step, following leadership roles at Essex Meadows, Evergreen Woods in North Branford, and The Madison House.
In between, Kathleen continues to work with young people. A passionate advocate of reading and literacy, Kathleen pioneered the Madison Read Aloud Program with the Chamber of Commerce and volunteers with Books for Babies at Yale New Haven Hospital.
“I enjoy talking to new parents about the importance of reading to children and their neurodevelopment,” she says
When her children were young, Kathleen spent five years teaching swimming at the Aquadome and religious education at St. Margaret Church in Madison. She was also a substitute teacher in Madison Public Schools and volunteered in the community.
“Now, I see people around town who are young adults and I held them in my arms when they were babies and taught them to swim,” she says.
At 27, Kathleen worked as a camp counselor at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with cancer. During the summer, she learned that her 12-year-old nephew had been diagnosed with cancer and she spent the next two years supporting her sister with his care, before he passed away at the age of 14.
“There are greater moments that are important in your life and that was one for me,” she says. “After I had my children, I continued to return to the camp and teach pottery because it’s a very special place.”
A potter of 20 years, Kathleen also teaches locally at Guilford Art Center. She is a strong advocate for nurturing passions in young people that give them a break from technology and their busy lives.
“It’s so important for kids to have a vehicle for their passion, their purpose. It’s something they own, that is a part of who they are, that gives them identity. Whether it’s sports or reading or art, it’s a positive outlet to handle stress and other challenges,” she says.
“It’s about changing the culture to say it’s not about the SAT scores, it’s about the health and wellbeing of the whole person and the success of the whole child,” she says.
Every two years, Madison Alcohol and Drug Education (MADE) conducts a survey that informs local agencies about the issues, behaviors and concerns of local students. The next survey will be undertaken in October this year.
Kathleen cites the development and study of the surveys as a key highlight during her time on the board, and credits trends such as the declining drug and alcohol use reported by Madison youth to the successful program of MYFS, particularly Peer Advocates and Peer Helpers.
“They support families and young people and give them a soft landing, a safety net that guides them through their challenges,” she says. “There are great local agencies that work together with the principals and staff in schools to put inventions in place.”
MYFS Director Scott Cochran praises Kathleen’s service to the board, and to the town of Madison.
“Kathleen stands out as a leader who balances a very demanding professional position while attending to many civic and family responsibilities. She was instrumental in leading our board through a period of transition due to the retirements of several MYFS senior staff,” he said.
“Kathleen brings her incredible intellect and compassion to all of her roles and for that she is an inspiration to us all. Beyond that, she carries herself with such grace and humility while never losing her sense of humor. Simply stated she has positively impacted countless lives through all her personal and professional endeavors.”
Madison Youth & Family Services, 10 School Street, runs a variety of programs for local youth. For more information, call 203-245-5645 or find MYFS on Facebook.
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