National nonprofit organization Paws With A Cause® has hired Michele Suchovsky, an experienced nonprofit leader and native Michigander, as its new CEO.
West Michigan Woman sat down with Michele to learn more about her and the work PAWS® does to enhance independence and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities through custom-trained assistance dogs.
Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Menominee County, which is in the Western part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, before moving to the Lower Peninsula at age 3. I currently live on the Northwest side of Grand Rapids with my husband, John, and our puggle, Freddy.
What does it mean to you to lead a company with such an iconic and recognizable name and mission?
To follow in the footsteps of our founders, Mike and Candye Sapp, is both an awe-inspiring privilege and a tremendous responsibility. PAWS began in 1979, 40 years ago. And when you think of the lives that have been impacted over that history, you can see the embodiment of our values of transformational change and excellence. As we look ahead, I am excited to carry our mission and all of our values forward, looking at both how we continue meeting the needs of our clients today and responding to the changing needs of our communities.
Was there something in particular that drew you to PAWS?
My first experience with the work of PAWS was while I was in college. A good friend of mine had an Assistance Dog, and I saw how his dog supported him in every aspect of his life. As I have watched the first snowfall, I remember how his dog would help him navigate with his wheelchair through the messy roads and sidewalks. Being a part of an Assistance Dog team was an independence game-changer for my friend and for so many other individuals and families.
To be able to join the amazingly talented staff at PAWS to provide that same life-changing independence to other individuals, families and communities is a dream come true!
Were you involved with PAWS before now?
I serve on the board of trustees and the guild of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and saw the difference it made when they added a PAWS Dog, Vandy, to their therapy staff. I knew it was a cause I felt passionate about and wanted to align myself with.
How has your past experience prepared you to lead PAWS?
I have been fortunate to have had—and continue to have—tremendous mentors and supporters at every stage of my life, which has brought me closer to this point today.
From a professional standpoint, my previous work in the nonprofit sector at Arts Creating Together—a West Michigan nonprofit that provides arts programming to people with disabilities—and the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation—the strategic fundraising partner for the Grand Rapids Public Schools—has been integral. Both helped me to understand the value of mission-service and sustainable growth, which is possible through the collective impact of dedicated board, staff, clients and partners.
From a personal perspective, I've witnessed the resilience and perseverance of the human spirit and have seen every day the truth that every person has something vital to contribute. We all send out ripples of impact that resonate in large and small ways across our communities!
What's your advice to other women looking to move up in their careers and give back to the community?
Be open to new opportunities and building new skills. Step up and volunteer to chair a committee, either with a nonprofit or at your job. Many nonprofit organizations, including PAWS, offer committees for young professionals—consider joining one! It's a great way to build leadership skills and grow your business network.
Outside of work, what do you do for fun?
I love curling up with a good book, hiking the fabulous trails in Michigan with my husband and dog, volunteering with Mary Free Bed, or hosting gatherings of friends at our house.
What's a fun fact about you that many people may not know?
My dad worked for Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company and in high school, we hosted Jim Fowler for dinner at our house when he was in Grand Rapids for an event at John Ball Park Zoo.
Learn more about PAWS and how to get involved.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for West Michigan Woman.
Photo courtesy of Paws With a Cause.