Penny Adams began responding to the Help Me hotline and connecting individuals with local resources in 1987. Over the next several years, she rose through the ranks to Executive Director of AFL Community Services. CIO.
With her retirement on September 29, the woman many know as the face of St. Joseph’s annual Adopt a Family Christmas program will end more than three decades of service to the organization. A search committee is working to find Adams’ replacement.
Back when Adams started answering the phone in the 1980s, Google didn’t exist to answer endless questions. And even today, the search engine cannot connect an individual to all the local resources available to them.
Rather, the job requires creative solutions, and this problem-solving effort to connect a struggling family is what hooked Adams to AFL-CIO community services.
United Way of Greater St. Joseph President Kylee Strough has credited Adams with a leadership style that inspires both staff and volunteers.
“It’s just fun working with her,” Strough said. “You get the same Penny, it doesn’t matter who you are, why you call, you get the same Penny, and I think it’s genuine.”
Much of Adams’ knowledge of the resources available from the various agencies cannot be calculated by an algorithm. It is an understanding that comes with experiences over the years.
“My hope and prayer is that some of what is in Penny’s physical brain is either on paper or in a computer system before she leaves in September,” Strough said.
Even if this charity supercomputer is created, it will still have to rely on the unpredictable donations that really helped the nonprofit keep going.
If you sit down with Adams for an afternoon, you will probably hear him recall some of the memories a person has “paid up on” over the years.
One example comes from a mother who called the hotline to ask for a stove when hers broke down. She also did not have a microwave, which made cooking for her children difficult. The days passed as Adams searched for a solution. Then someone who was helped by the agency years ago stopped by the office and handed Adams $ 100.
“’I want you to use it for anyone who needs help,” Adams recalled, telling the woman. “Miracles like this have happened all the time, I tell you.”
The biggest annual challenge for the AFL-CIO team will be in December. The Adopt a Family Christmas program has grown from its humble beginnings about 50 years ago. Giving gifts for around 800 families each year is a tall order.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Adams spent a few nights in his office looking for a way to connect the dots between adopters and adoptees.
Mike Veale, president of the Northwestern Missouri Central Labor Council is a regular volunteer with Adopt-A-Family. For the past few years, he has taken time off from work to focus on talking to adopters and delivering gifts.
He credits the family atmosphere between the staff and volunteers of AFL-CIO Community Services for their success. But it also underscores the good humor Adams brings to the leadership role.
“She has that little giggle when she laughs that makes you crack up,” Veale said. “She’s having fun right there and she’ll sing Christmas songs to you.”
There is a plan to create a fund in honor of Adam’s legacy. For more information, contact the Help Me hotline at 816-364-1131.