CHAMPAIGN – Jumping rope with a 3-year-old isn't exactly in her job description, but Kathy Ouellette doesn't mind.
In fact, the longtime director of the Center for Women in Transition values her time with clients much more than her official duties running the shelter for homeless women and children.
"I love client interaction," said Ouellette, playing outside the shelter Monday afternoon with a young shelter resident.
Ouellette announced this week that she will step down Aug. 31, saying it's time for "a break." The shelter's board named development director John Sullivan as interim director, effective Aug. 1.
"I'm tired. I'm just ready to go," said Ouellette, 47, who is moving to Arkansas. "I'm planning on taking just a little time off, and settling in down there, and seeing what the next step is for me."
By all accounts, Ouellette has been the heart and soul of the organization for 18 years. She was named executive director in 1989, just four years after the center opened as the Women's Emergency Shelter. It's tripled in size and greatly expanded its mission since then, offering not just housing but programs to help women get back on their feet.
Though she won't take credit for it, Ouellette was "totally the motivation and inspiration" behind the center's $900,000 Unlimited Possibilities Center that opened last summer with room for 16 more women and children, said former board President Jill Butler. The shelter has three houses with space for 48 in the 500 block of East Church Street, including the former Forbes House, which was moved to the site and renovated.
Ouellette's easygoing personality and commitment to the center's mission attracted volunteers and widespread community support over the years, Butler and others said.
"She was one of the reasons that I wanted to be a part of the Center for Women in Transition – her leadership, her passion for homeless women and children," said board President Paula Abdullah, a nurse at Cunningham Children's Home. "Her passion is just infectious. You're around Kathy and you just want to do more and more and more."
Ouellette has been outspoken at times, appearing before the Champaign City Council to advocate for more social services funding or criticizing government officials for bureaucratic changes in housing grants.
But she's also been a diplomat, navigating difficult issues as chair of the Council of Service Providers to the Homeless, said Kerri Spear, community development specialist for the city and vice chair of the group.
After a group of homeless individuals complained about being denied housing at local shelters several years ago, Ouellette asked a committee to work out a grievance policy that residents could use if they felt unfairly treated.
"There were some heated meetings. She did a nice job of defusing frustrations so we could get at the issues," Spear said. "She's just been wonderful to work with, and wonderful for the homeless population.
"She truly loves what she does, and she makes an impact on the women she serves," Spear added. "Some people administer, but Kathy is truly down there, hands and knees, working with people."
Both Spear and Butler were saddened at Ouellette's news but happy for her, too.
"When she told me, I kept saying 'What?'" Spear said. "She's been here a long time, and ready for a change."
Ouellette said she's been thinking about stepping down for two or three years and felt it was time "to move on and explore some new things in my life."
She said the center is financially stable and has accomplished much of what she hoped.
The Unlimited Possibilities Center allows it to offer more educational programs – classes on financial management, parenting and the like. The shelter recently bought a nearby duplex with help from a $30,000 donation and plans to renovate it for use by single women.
And plans are under way for a new business, a second-hand children's clothing store, to help support the center's mission, a dream of Ouellette's for 15 years.
"I think that the center is at a really good place right now," Butler said.
Ouellette said it wouldn't have happened without strong community support.
"I have always felt incredibly privileged to be part of this," she said. "My heart's here. My heart will always be with this place."