Nonprofit leader a 'dealer in hope'

HONORS: UWT award goes to Community Youth Services director

April 12, 2010 

Charles Shelan

Charles Shelan, executive director for Community Youth Services, was named Business Leader of the Year by the Milgard School at the University of Washington - Tacoma. He is shown outside the Community Youth Services building in downtown Olympia on Wednesday, March 24, 2010.

BY TONY OVERMAN — The Olympian

  • Charles Shelan

    Position: Executive director of Community Youth Services in Olympia

    Age: 61

    Family: Wife, Norma, is a retired college instructor; one adult daughter

    Background: Raised in Roscoe, Texas; son of a dry goods merchant

    Education: Undergraduate psychology degree at the University of Texas; master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington

    Service: Volunteers in Service to America; Peace Corps

    Commitments: Numerous, including chairman of Washington Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect; chairman of Washington State Coalition of Children’s Residential Services; member of Thurston County Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee; board member of four-state Northwest Network for Youth

    Outside the office: Skiing, hiking, biking, softball, poker

    Leadership advice: “Know that you can’t do everything. You have to be able to pick good people to depend on.”

Charles Shelan has lost the West Texas accent of his childhood, but he retains the values and tenacity born in a small town called Roscoe.

Shelan, executive director of Community Youth Services in Olympia, has been named Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year by the University of Washington Tacoma Milgard School of Business.

He joins this year’s roster of business leaders because of his long success at an agency he built from a small drop-in center for kids – a program with a handful of employees and an annual budget of less than $100,000 – to a $6 million agency, with 75 employes, offering 19 separate programs serving 3,000 youths and families throughout Southwest Washington.

As he begins his fourth decade at CYS, Shelan could easily reflect on his legacy, of his time spent as a volunteer in national service and as a leader whose example has spawned new generations of leaders both regional and across the country.

Shelan looks, however, to the future – to increasing needs and fewer resources.

He continues to build solutions, working, as he is described in his nomination for the award, as a “dealer in hope.”

Shelan was a son of Roscoe’s only Jewish family. Although he was short compared with other students, he played three years of varsity football as a halfback – and still counts a personal best of 201 yards gained in a single game.

Teased and sometimes bullied, Shelan said that it was in his youth that he learned tenacity and found his passion. Where some boys might turn sour and nurture a grudge, Shelan found what he describes as “another path. It wasn’t well-paved.”

He found his early commitment at the local Boys Club.

“It was a defining organization for me,” he said.

Sifting cotton, Shelan and his pals raised enough money each year to fund trips on a chartered Greyhound headed for such exotic destinations as Yellowstone National Park, Disneyland, Alberta and Washington, D.C.

“It’s all a mosaic – parents, family, teachers. You don’t know who has the most influence,” Shelan said of his upbringing.

The young man came of age in the 1960s and sought to serve. After earning a degree from the University of Texas, he and his new wife spent more than a year in Oregon as workers with VISTA – Volunteers in Service to America – which then led to two years in the Peace Corps, where the couple taught middle school in South Korea.

Shelan describes his wife of nearly 39 years, Norma, as “a natural helper. She’s a light that people flock to.”

For another two years, Shelan served in Korea directing the U.S. Army’s University of Hawaii extension service.

After earning his master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington, and after Norma accepted a teaching position at Saint Martin’s University, the couple moved to Thurston County. That’s where Shelan took a job directing the Thurston Youth Services Society, which was often confused with the juvenile justice Thurston Youth Services Center.

“It was difficult to say,” he said of the four-word name. “It wasn’t that much of an organization.”

It took nine years to change the name to Community Youth Services.


Brian Boyd, executive director of the Forest Foundation and the Sequoia Foundation, met Shelan more than 20 years ago when applying for a position as a work-study student.

He watched as Shelan built the Thurston Youth Services Society into what it has become.

Shelan, Boyd said, “is quite a force. When I look at organizations that are thriving, they are organizations that have been able to stay engaged and ready to take advantage of funding opportunities. Charles has cultivated those deep roots with individuals who share his passion.”

Across all of the programs he managed, Shelan “stayed intimately involved. He didn’t really like to delegate and then go to sleep. He felt responsible for everything that happened under that roof,” Boyd said.

Shelan’s service has not been limited to meeting the needs of youths, Boyd said.

He notes that at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, where he has long been a member, he has seen Shelan “play a number of leadership roles.”

Shelan also is known for his business acumen, said Kathy Baros-Friedt, president of the CYS board of directors.

“He runs a fiscally sound organization,” Baros-Friedt said. “When you’re asking people to donate money, you want to make sure it’s spent correctly.”

C.R. Roberts: 253-5997-8535

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