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Bringing it back to Kent: Heinisch, KYFS make impact on many lives | 2013 Person of the Year

Michael Heinisch has worked wonders at Kent Youth and Family Services for 14 years, improving the quality and availability of programs. - Mark Klaas/Kent Reporter
Michael Heinisch has worked wonders at Kent Youth and Family Services for 14 years, improving the quality and availability of programs.
— image credit: Mark Klaas/Kent Reporter

The challenges are great, the opportunity to help others even more significant today.

Mike Heinisch knows as much.

As the leader of the Kent Youth and Family Services (KYFS), Heinisch understands the call and responsibility to help the disadvantaged. The nonprofit organization, a vital cog in the community's human and social services wheel, has reached out and touched so many people.

"What's particularly rewarding is we change people's lives," said Heinisch, 60, KYFS' executive director since 1999 and the Kent Reporter's 2013 Person of the Year. "We change for the better children and families' lives on a daily basis here in Kent.

"Kids and families ... have had their lives changed in a positive way so they can contribute to the community, so they can be successful in school, so their kids can grow up and contribute to the community," Heinisch said. "Ultimately, that's what we want for all of our kids."

For more than 41 years, KYFS has provided professional counseling, education and support services to children, youth and their families by developing innovative programs in culturally sensitive ways. Heinisch, embracing his leadership role, continues to make it happen in his own humble yet effective way.

He oversees a staff of 100 strong – from recreational assistants in after-school programs to certified teachers and aides, from licensed mental health counselors to therapists, from chemical dependency professionals to homeless housing specialists, from administration to support staff.

All of whom make it possible for an agency to help an estimated 10,000 people a year, primarily children and youth, in the Kent area.

"Running a nonprofit agency is a powerful experience," Heinisch said. "It's also a very challenging experience because the nature of the sector is always in flux based on what we are blessed with. ... In an economic downturn, we're the first one to see a peak in need, and coming out of an economic downturn, we're the last ones to see the need maybe taper off a little bit as people get back to work and their lives get back together."

Running a solid nonprofit

On Heinisch's watch, the agency has stood on firm ground. The nonprofit runs on a fiscally clean and efficient engine.

"Mike truly cares about our community and gives of his time tirelessly to help those less fortunate," said Ken Thomas, Kent Police chief and KYFS board president. " I am proud of Mike's work, and it is an honor to work with him."

Heinisch arrives for work each morning at 7, but he seldom can be found at his office throughout the day. He prefers to be seen, heard in the community, spreading the agency's voice and making his presence felt on any number of governing boards and commissions, task forces, oversight committees, technical assistance panels and alliances.

He is a casual dresser, a thoughtful, careful listener, a patient man.

"If I'm sitting here, I'm not doing my job for you," Heinisch said from the confines of his downtown office. "But wherever I go, whatever I do, I do on the behalf of the organization, not this person, and I bring it back to Kent. What I want is to bring it back to Kent, whether it comes to (KYFS) or the children's therapy center, or the food bank ... to provide human or social services in Kent."

To be successful, Heinisch urges community efforts to be done collectively and collaboratively without duplicating and proliferating services.

All in the pursuit of helping each other, helping Kent.

"If I can get something for the food bank, I'm just as delighted," he said. "If I can get something for Valley Cities, great."

Those around Heinisch appreciate his approach and work ethic.

"Mike is a tireless worker, a man of integrity and compassion, a friend to those in need and a champion for the public good," said J. David Huhs, a KYFS board member since 2006, its first vice president, and an attorney for the Curran Law Firm in Kent. "He is a well-respected leader in the area of social and human services for King County, and particularly South King County. I know this because I have attended numerous events with Mike, and am always amazed by how many friends and colleagues he has developed over his 30-plus years of service.

"Mike is true to himself, his goals, and the things that he feels are important in life," Huhs said. "I am sure that he has foregone other, more lucrative career opportunities to stay at Kent Youth and Family Services as the executive director. ... Kent is fortunate to have him leading its largest nonprofit social service agency."

Gradually, he found KYFS

Looking back, Heinisch says he never envisioned running this particular agency. It came by progression, a succession of steps during a long career of direct service work that gradually brought him into management.

He understands how things work from many perspectives. He is a licensed mental health counselor and designated children's mental health specialist. He has a master's degree in counseling from Seattle University.

Prior to his position at KYFS, Heinisch was at the Highline West Seattle (now Navos) Mental Health Center as director of the Children and Family Division. He also held management positions at Catholic Community Services as the children's mental health programs and foster care director and family counseling program manager.

Heinisch is well represented. He serves on the board of the South King Council of Human Services (three terms as president) and the United Way's Public Policy and Council Community Building Committee. He also is a board member of the Communities In Schools, Kent, the Building Better Futures president, and founder and board member of Executive Alliance (now Alliance of Non Profits).

He also is the co-chair of the King County Alliance For Human Services, a member of the King County Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Oversight Committee and a member of the Governing Council of the Pacific Hospital Preservation and Development Authority. He works on the King County Committee to End Homeless Interagency Council and other city affairs committees.

True to his roots

Heinisch's willingness to help the greater good of the community stems from his upbringing. He was raised by a blue-collar family in Wisconsin who believed that "if you have something, give it away or share it because it's what we should do," Heinisch said.

His parents were always involved in civic or church efforts and engaged in school activities and sports.

"To be in the helping profession seems like a natural (fit) for me," Heinisch said.

But working with the plight of others is never easy, Heinisch said. Working with a homeless teenage mom, a disrupted family or a teacher with economic disadvantaged immigrant students is a sample of what KYFS routinely handles on a given day.

Heinisch supports his staff, steps in for guidance. He is a source of encouragement.

"It is necessary to avoid being emotionally invested in a personal problem," he insisted, "... don't get caught up in the crisis. ... You have to have emotional separation from it, because if you don't, you won't be able to do this."

Outside of work, Heinisch enjoys family, friends, golf, reading and yard work. An avid sports fan, he supports the Huskies, Mariners and Thunderbirds. He especially follows baseball.

He and his wife Gail, a retired schoolteacher, have a daughter, Katie.

Heinisch intends to continue working for as a long as he enjoys the job. As the human struggle continues for many in the Kent community, so too is the chance to help. It can be greatly rewarding.

"I've always been a person who has enjoyed challenges," Heinisch said, "and if there is another challenge on the horizon ... I'm willing to give it a try."

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