By Pam Kasey - email
Sometimes training and experience in disparate fields can come together in an effective combination.
Steve De Jesus, executive director and chief executive of the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Morgantown, is an example.
A native of Chicago, he earned a degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing from Chicago's Loyola University — but then he switched tracks.
De Jesus began his work life in 1993 as a Chicago policeman.
It was a promising start, bringing him a commendation in his first year for catching an armed robber responsible for dozens of crimes. But a squad car accident during a car chase just a few years later injured his hip and, eventually, took him off the streets.
Unsure what he would do next, he left Chicago in 2000 to join his sister in North Carolina.
After running and then selling a We the People document preparation franchise, De Jesus unexpectedly found work in the health care industry. A friend working at a home health and hospice agency told him they needed help with marketing — De Jesus' concentration in college. His task would be to talk with doctors and clinic administrators to persuade them to refer patients to the agency.
"I got hooked," he said. "It was a lot of cold calling, a lot of trying to get your foot in the door, but it was really enjoyable because I believed in what I was selling."
He met his future wife, Melanie, an Elkins native and cardiac nurse working for the same company. They were married in 2005.
De Jesus next went to work for an assisted living company in North Carolina as an operations specialist — more colorfully, a "fixer."
"I would go in, take these properties that were in really bad shape, turn them around and make them profitable," he said.
The first, in Greenville, N.C., had a capacity of 52 but housed only 20 occupants when he took it over. Within six months, De Jesus had it full with a waiting list. Then he turned around a property in Winston-Salem. Then a four-building campus in High Point.
"I didn't know it, but I had a knack for this work," he said.
When an upward move to a health care organization in Virginia turned out to disappoint, the couple saw an opportunity.
"We were always coming up to Elkins to visit family — always a birthday party or a family reunion. We were up here at least two weekends a month," De Jesus said. "And then we started having children and wanted them to be part of that, so we always said if we could get to West Virginia we would move here."
Putting it all together
They moved to Morgantown. And although De Jesus had no nonprofit experience, Melanie encouraged him to respond to an advertisement to run the Ronald McDonald House Charities, the nonprofit that provides a home away from home for families visiting hospitalized children.
He started there in April 2011 and has found it to be a natural fit — and not only with the health care facility management he honed as a fixer.
It also calls on skills De Jesus developed on the beat.
"Strange as it may sound, 99 percent of police work is talking with people," he said. "It's not always about locking them up. It's listening to them, trying to help them, referring them to social service agencies. There's quite a bit of that here."
And the biggest part of it goes back to his education and experience in marketing — or, he keeps reminding himself to say in the nonprofit world, "public awareness."
De Jesus realized that awareness of Ronald McDonald House had previously been promoted within Morgantown — but while that might seem to be where the money is, the facility primarily serves families outside a 50-mile radius.
A look at the history showed him that about half of families served come from the Ohio River valley, with smaller portions coming from the Elkins-Buckhannon area and from western Maryland.
"So what we've done is really pushed out away from Morgantown to build these other areas up," he said. "We're doing the lecture circuit with churches and civic groups, a lot of events in the Northern Panhandle and in Garrett County, Md."
The Ronald McDonald House offers two categories of services and, under De Jesus' direction, is preparing to offer a third.
The existing facility offers overnight accommodation to 16 families from more than 50 miles away in easy walking distance of West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital, and it also offers day guest services — laundry, showers, kitchen — to families who live within the radius.
And now the organization is establishing a Family Room within the hospital, adjacent to pediatric intensive care: 1,000 square feet complete with kitchen, shower, nursing room for moms, and television and computer access.
"We have families whose children are in such critical condition that they don't even want to come across the parking lot for our services," he said. "Our hope is that, with this room, they'll step out of the unit just to grab a cup of coffee, take a quick shower."
In promoting public awareness, De Jesus said he doesn't ask for money — people know the organization needs money. He'd rather spend his time educating people about the organization's services. And he asks instead for other resources: to be referred to two other people who might be interested, or to be put in front of someone's church group. He educates people about the pop tab and inkjet cartridge collection programs that raise money for the organization. He asks them to donate canned food or to come in and help clean the house.
In his first two years, De Jesus' approach has drawn enough new support to increase staff from 10 to 16 and to grow the budget from $400,000 to about $1 million.
What's next? He notes that the current facility is 99.7 percent occupied throughout the year and he is looking next, when the economy improves, at expanding. It will test his skills in a new way, moving from the $275,000 Family Room project to a facility update and addition estimated to cost $7 million.
He he can see himself at Ronald McDonald House for quite a while.
De Jesus is a member of the Suncrest Kiwanis Club and is working on a master's degree in nonprofit management at the University of Maryland. He has four children, including Camden, 9; he and Melanie live in Morgantown with their three children, Brevin, 7; Brycen, 4; and Bella, 3.