By Sue Moore
“I’ve never known anybody as dedicated to helping people,” said Jackie Skinner about Danna Downing, director of South County Community Services (SCCS). Downing, director for the last eight years, is retiring on November 4 with the knowledge that Drew Johnson, her successor, is the best person to carry the mission forward.
“I’ve found that you can’t just have a big heart. You’ve got to have a plan in order to ask for dollars and volunteers and a plan to use it to benefit those most in need,” Downing said. “It’s important to explain what we are trying to do and stay within the scope of the stated mission.”
Downing has steered the agency toward what senior citizens needs are over the last few years while still serving the entire population of South Kalamazoo County. The organization was incorporated in 1973 with a mission to achieve economic and social benefits for residents of the Vicksburg School District. The guiding charge was to mobilize the talents and insights of the total community. The founders wanted to attack the causes and conditions which prevented a substantial number of residents from achieving their greatest potential, the charter said. Over the years, the mission was enlarged to cover its current service area of six townships: Prairie Ronde, Schoolcraft, Brady, Wakeshma, Pavilion and Climax – about 25,000 residents at last count.
The founders wanted to provide an organizational framework through which local, state and federal resources may be applied to attack the causes that deprive citizens from reaching their greatest potential, the articles of incorporation state. Forty-six years later, SCCS is going strong.
Nancy Stryker Brown was the first director, followed by at least five others who came after her in the offices at the Vicksburg Community Center at the corner of Main and Prairie streets in the village. Downing’s tenure has included maintaining Wednesday Winners (an amazing weekly volunteer-coordinated program for adults with disabilities); maintaining and expanding the South County Food Pantry in partnership with Loaves & Fishes and a cadre of local supporters; partnering with the Michigan Department of Human Services to add a satellite office on site in Vicksburg; and the four-year plan, Aging Well in South County, a partnership with the Vicksburg United Way and the local Area Agency on Aging.
What became apparent to Downing and the board of directors early on was what could be done for the approximately 1,000 seniors they serve. “As an agency, we always wanted to do more for seniors because there was a great unmet need there,” said Downing. SCCS has faithfully provided programming as it was able to for seniors over the years. Taking advantage of a Metro Community Service Van, now known as the Metro Van Share, was a huge accomplishment, Downing noted. The service has expanded significantly over the years. In 2013, the Aging Well in South County board initiative began with a concerted effort to research and document senior needs. Interviews were conducted to support the need for future funding. “The most important thing is to get seniors connected to the services they need. It’s about linkages,” Downing said.
A strong relationship with the local Area Agency on Aging has been central to assisting seniors over the years, providing expertise and leadership with programs. Among them are Kinship Care Givers (dedicated to providing basic needs assistance to seniors who are raising school-aged children) and the very popular Matter of Balance and Creating Confident Caregiver health information classes held in the service area.
A new partnership with the Vicksburg Rotary Club, called Safe At Home, includes a home survey and free installations of safety devices to help seniors prevent falls. In addition, the Vicksburg Rotary Club provides free emergency preparedness packets that hang on the refrigerator to make sure basic health information is available to anyone visiting the senior’s home.
Most recently, thanks to a local group of volunteers who understood senior needs and opportunities, a successful county-wide millage for seniors was passed late in 2018. The six-year millage is already providing new funds to help South County seniors in the areas of transportation and other emerging outreach efforts.
United Way has been a big leader in helping non-profits set priorities and achieve stated goals through the years, Downing said. Most of the agency’s emergency assistance needs are met with allocations from United Way’s regional and local campaigns. These funds, in partnership with strong community support, have helped SCCS steadily increase the number of people served. It has also increased the reach across the service area to families who need help with their basic needs. New Director Drew Johnson, in his role as Emergency Assistance Coordinator, has been essential to the expansion and refinement of the SCCS mission to help more area residents, according to Downing.
Another major accomplishment during the last eight years: The boards of SCCS and Generous Hands brought their respective organizations together under one roof. “We are more efficient and more cost effective when we share resources as a team,” Downing said. “It is also more helpful to have a single location to meet the needs of our families. This is a place filled with trusted helpers and emergency assistance professionals who know how to find and deliver a combination of interlocking resources.”
“I’m the lucky one to be at SCCS at a time filled with opportunities to help carry the stated mission in our Articles of Incorporation forward,” Downing said. “I’m privileged to have had this opportunity to work with wonderful people and do my part to help provide for others what I hold dear in my heart– a fairer playing field for all people,” Downing said. “Now, it’s time to pass on the baton. The new SCCS team is ready and waiting to serve, if and when anyone needs help.”
Praise for Danna Downing Comes Rolling In
If I could only praise Danna for doing two things, they would be her vision and planning for the future and building a dynamic staff and volunteer base. – Larry Forsyth, SCCS trustee.
Danna is everyone’s friend. I’ve heard her only speak positively about the people she works with and the people in the village. She has had a passion for our community and has worked tirelessly to improve the living standards for all of us. She is compassionate, respectful to all, and respected by all. There will be a hole in the fabric of Vicksburg when she takes her next step into the future! – Wes Bittenbender, SCCS volunteer driver.
It is very difficult to describe in one or two sentences Danna’s service to the agency. Over the past year that we have been cubicle partners, (I like to think of us as close roommates) she has taught me endless lessons about compassion, professionalism, and even hope for a society that seems at time hopeless. Her wisdom, knowledge, compassion and experience, that she has shared with me and everyone that she comes in contact with, is priceless. I am extremely happy for Danna to have retirement in her near future, but it is with a sad heart that she will be leaving SCCS. She wears shoes that will never be filled in this building, but I have no doubt that her light will continue to shine in our community. I will miss her immensely and hope to see her back often. – Sheri Louis, Generous Hands, Inc. executive director.
Working with Danna as a fellow trustee on the Vicksburg Foundation for many years, her obvious compassion and dedication to the community made her the perfect candidate to manage the agency and has proven to be a wonderful gift to all of us living in South Kalamazoo County. Thanks so much, Danna, for always giving 100 percent. – Bill Oswalt, former president of the Vicksburg Foundation.
“Danna has worked incredibly hard to build South County Community Services into her vision of what the agency should be – a place that people can come to in order to get the best possible service without any fear of judgment. We focus on seniors and low-income families, but everyone is welcome to come and talk about their situation, and I think that Danna’s tenure had a huge part in that.” – Drew Johnson, SCCS Emergency Assistance Manager.
“The Agency and its programs have made tremendous growth the past few years because of the vision provided by the board, director, employees and the many talented volunteers who provide the services so desperately needed by South County. The senior millage may not have passed in South County if it were not for the respect given to the Agency and to the dedicated way it approaches the needs of all.” – Jim and Virginia Shaw, SCCS trustee and Wednesday Winners chair.
Danna has always stepped up to make the South Country area a better place. When SCCS needed a new executive director, Danna came off the board of trustees to fill that need. As executive director, she did the same. Whenever volunteer drivers for the van program were not available for a run, she stepped up and drove. – David Aubry, SCCS volunteer van driver.
Danna is committed, dedicated, energetic and has a vision for the future. Did you know that she plans to stay with SCCS as a volunteer? A volunteer who will lead the way with fund raising. – Jackie Skinner, president of the SCCS board.