Shawna Kemppainen is the daughter of a carpenter and a cook who met in a small-town tavern on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s also executive director of The Place, an Colorado Springs organization that helps lead youth out of homelessness — and there, the Nordic edges of her upbringing have served her well.
“We were a Midwestern stoic clan,” Kemppainen said. “My father is 100 percent Finnish, and there is term in their language: sisu. Sisu essentially means perseverance, bravery and courage — and on top of that, this extra gear … that no matter what, you can keep going. I’m good at pushing ahead … through adversity, and I got that from my family.”
Kemppainen was born in Baraga, population 2,000, the middle kid among three. Her family moved to Marquette, Michigan, when she was in fourth grade. When she graduated from Marquette Senior High School, she was sure of one thing: she didn’t want to go to college.
“My dream was to move to the mountains, be a hermit, and write in a cave,” Kemppainen said.
For a while she worked various jobs across Michigan, Minnesota and Arizona — where her parents eventually moved.
“I worked at a garage, and eventually one of the mechanics opened his own,” Kemppainen said. “He asked me to come work for him, to manage the non-mechanic parts of the shop. Which is somewhat ironic, because The Place is a former mechanic shop.”
Later, she earned a commercial driver’s license in Arizona to drive for Goodwill, but she blew up an engine and Goodwill put her in the dispatch office.
“I ended up being really good … managing multiple things, like a well-organized octopus,” she recalled.
At this point, Kemppainen had been taking community college courses while working.
“None of the jobs were fulfilling, and I realized that was a big thing missing,” she said. “I needed to be writing — or something fulfilling. Eventually, I just decided to go to journalism school, because my dream of moving to the mountains, living by myself, and writing poetry wasn’t a reality.”
Kemppainen — honored as one of CSBJ’s 2019 Women of Influence — talked with the Business Journal about asking the late, legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite a question, entering the nonprofit sphere, and what lies ahead.
Where did you go to journalism school?
The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State. Cronkite actually lectured two of my courses. It was awesome. I got to ask him a question once: How do you know if you’re being balanced? Cronkite answered, ‘Well, imagine you’re walking down the middle of the road and people are shooting at you from that side and people are shooting at you from the other, that probably means you’re writing the right stuff and that you’re in the middle — everybody hates you.’
I worked full-time, so I only took two or three classes each semester … but I graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism from Arizona State with a minor in English.
What did you do after you graduated?
My older brother was stationed at Fort Carson, and I visited frequently. One summer, my partner and I were driving back to Phoenix and asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing? Why are we living [in Phoenix]?’ We made a plan, and two years later we moved. I got an interview with the Business Journal within the first week. I was hired as an associate editor in 2001. I’ve been in the Springs for 20 years. Due to structural changes, I eventually left to work for the Pikes Peak Library District as a bookmobile driver.
I wrote on my application, ‘Look, you will not find another me. I have a [commercial drivers license] and I have a journalism degree with an English minor.’ I really enjoyed it — a lot of my stops were at senior care homes — but it was only part-time. Then I worked at The Gazette. But during my time at the Business Journal, one of my beats was the nonprofit sector. Through that, I met the executive director of Care and Share Food Bank … and began volunteering.
What stood out about Care and Share?
There’s a lot of great causes, but if you can’t eat and don’t have shelter — basic needs — it’s really hard to tackle anything else. I volunteered on the helpline. One day, I hung up the phone thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is America.’ There was an elderly lady who called saying, ‘My husband and I … he has cancer and we’ve run out of money. We have food but I need to find toothpaste.’ I was so impacted by that call — and serendipitously, only a week later, [Care and Share] opened a grant writer position. I left journalism and was the first grant writer at Care and Share … [and eventually] became their chief development officer. The $8 million campaign to put up the distribution center that now exists off Powers [Boulevard], I was one of the leaders — it’s one of the things I’m most grateful to have been involved in.
How did you get into your current role as executive director of The Place?
After Care and Share, I worked at TESSA [of Colorado Springs, which provides free services for people experiencing domestic violence] for a couple years as a development director. Inside Out Youth Services, the LGBTQ youth center here, was looking for an executive director … and I decided to talk with them to see if they’d be interested in someone who can do fundraising and communication. I went to work there for about three years. … What an amazing organization — working with LGBTQ youth, providing a safe space for them … a place to be themselves. It was personally fulfilling, being a lesbian myself. During those three years, I helped create the Pikes Peak Safe @ School Coalition, which is still going strong.
Working at Inside Out is where I got to know Urban Peak. I knew about 20 to 30 percent of youth at Inside Out were experiencing homelessness and using Urban Peak’s services. In spring 2013, I became executive director of Urban Peak in Colorado Springs — now The Place.
Why did you change the name to The Place?
Urban Peak in Denver is probably the largest runaway-homeless youth organization in our state. They helped us get started here, which was phenomenal … and we have a great relationship, but we disaffiliated in October ’19. We each wanted to focus on our regions. They’re still helpful and we continue to partner on projects.
As for the name, we did surveys with our youth, volunteers, board and staff … we culled three names — and ‘The Place’ was one. Amazingly, another serendipitous occurrence: I found old documents when the organization originally started the shelter, and the capital campaign to purchase and renovate a mechanic garage was called The Place.
Also, we wanted the name nondescript because some don’t want others to know they’re living in a shelter. If someone’s talking about it, they can say, ‘Hey, have you been to The Place lately?’ versus ‘Have you been to such-and-such shelter?’ Ultimately, it’s the place where young people can find belonging, the place where they can turn their life around, the place they can go when in crisis, and the place they come back to show how well they’re doing now.
Because of the business change, we took over all our own accounting, HR and all the things we didn’t do before. I really feel like in the last 18 months I’ve been setting up a 20-year-old startup. Things are now getting in line, with fantastic people on board.
Tell us about your recent United Health Group grant.
We received $400,000 in April. This is a project guided, in part, by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, because they’re looking to find ways to make an impact for young people’s health and wellness — especially justice-involved youth. With this money, we have several endeavors we are working towards, including a permanent drop-in center for homeless youth.
With reference to working as a dispatcher, you compared yourself to a well-organized octopus. Do you still feel that relates as executive director of The Place?
Very true, yeah. Right now, most of my work is primarily bringing in resources and maximizing them. Whether that’s staff, volunteers, money, I am trying to maximize resources to make sure that this mission works … and build toward the vision of the organization and board of directors. We’re at the size now where I primarily do management and fundraising and working on long-term visions, which is exciting and relieving. Most of my job, I’d say, is making people around me successful.
What do you love about Colorado Springs?
We’re not perfect, but we’re an interestingly balanced community. I know we used to be an unwelcoming place for LGBTQ persons, but … that has changed and is continuing to change. Also, we are a collaborative community — I love that. Again, Colorado Springs is not perfect, but I have sisu — it’s natural for me to press on with issues that may not be resolved in my time. nCSBJ