Will and grace: Retiring VP of Humanitarian & Senior Services led with strength + compassion

Shirley Dykshoorn (second from right) with some of her staff at the 2018 Taste of the World. Yasmeen Frost (far right) said the New American Services team was consistently inspired by Shirley's energy and heart.

If any one person ever exemplified the phrase, “Grace under fire,” that person would be Shirley Dykshoorn.

The just-retired vice president of Humanitarian and Senior Services at LSSND handled some of the most complex and challenging portfolios within our agency, including refugee resettlement, immigration services, the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors foster-care program and disaster relief services. In addition, Shirley supervised the Senior Independence service area, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years and made it possible for hundreds of senior citizens to remain independent in their own homes.

When Shirley officially stepped down yesterday, the agency said goodbye to a seasoned administrator with an eye for detail, a voluminous knowledge of everything from federal immigration laws to the intricacies of grant-writing, and a network of connections to rival that of the state’s best movers and shakers.

Then there’s the “grace” part – that unflappable poise and cool that won’t wither against the most incendiary conditions, whether that be a talk show host or a public meeting filled with deeply polarized citizens.

Through it all, Shirley remained calm – never raising her voice and deftly addressing emotionally charged minefields of misinformation by sticking to the facts.

With classic Shirley brevity (she is known for her concise emails), she shared her philosophy for navigating controversy, conflict and rough patches in her professional life:

“Build relationships first. Trust that good will prevail. Be strong. Have faith. Give people the information they need. Trust your instincts. Do not try to do it all yourself. Build off other’s strengths and train others to follow you.” – Shirley Dykshoorn, retired vice president of Humanitarian and Senior Services, LSSND

Shirley came to work for LSS as the Lutheran Disaster Response Disaster Coordinator in 2012 to coordinate LSS’s work in response to flooding in North Dakota and the rebuilding of over 500 homes in Minot. Prior to this, she served for many years on the LSSND Board of Directors, including as chair of the board, which gave her extra insight into the workings of the large, statewide nonprofit.

During her LSSND farewell party – held via videoconference, in keeping with the times – colleagues remarked on Shirley’s breadth of experience (she’s done everything from lead a department in state government and coordinate a multi-state domestic violence-prevention effort to overseeing Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity) and her boundless energy (her work days were typically so filled with a non-stop “revolving door” of colleagues, clients, and concerns that she often resorted to eating lunch over her keyboard).

But mostly, many spoke admiringly of Shirley’s ability to balance her cool-headed professionalism with a keen emotional intelligence and a nurturing warmth.

Yasmeen Frost, team lead of LSSND Resettlement Services, thanked Shirley for her accessibility and willingness to make the New Americans on her staff feel like family – even if that meant relenting to their requests for a sled-riding party in 15-below weather.

“Thank you for always being there and also giving us hugs during tough times, and you know during refugee resettlement, we had tons of tough times,” Frost said. “Whether it was a time when a family member of the staff was hurting, your warmness and your motherly love helped so much and meant so much to all of us.”

Sara Stallman, clinical director at LSSND, echoed that sentiment, emphasizing that Shirley’s qualities of kindness and empathy had helped set her own path as a leader;

“You embody the human and nurturing side of (human-service work),” Stallman said. “Your compassion and your grace and your love just pours from you so freely, and it is something that I will always remember as I continue in my leadership role, to remember that, and to learn from you and be inspired by you.”

People also commented on Dykshoorn’s lively sense of humor (she is known for playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on the kazoo when one of her New American Services staff graduated from college) and intuitive ability to sense when people were having a hard day and needed a piece of chocolate, a quick hug or a funny video of her nearly 3-year-old granddaughter, Everly.

“At the end of the day, people will remember how you treated them,” Shirley says. “That is what matters.”

We know all what Shirley has achieved today, but what helped to shape her into the dedicated fighter for the vulnerable, the underserved and the marginalized in the first place? We sent her a Q&A about what attracted her to the human service field. With trademark Shirley efficiency, she answered all of the questions – succinctly and precisely – just minutes after receiving them. :)

What did you want to be when you were little? I wanted to raise chickens! (Laughs.) I ran across this paper that I had saved which I’d written all about raising chickens. Of course, I hadn’t thought about it since (writing that paper). 

When did you first begin cultivating a “helper’s heart” and where did you get your work ethic from? I was the youngest child and the only girl with three older brothers, so I have always been able to deal with guys.

Working hard was something I learned to do since we all had chores and it was expected of us to help out. My mom asked me to help work with kids at the Anne Carlsen school in Jamestown since she taught there. I got involved in volunteer work at a very young age.

When I was newly married to my late husband, I worked at the greenhouse in addition to my full-time job. I got my master’s degree while I was working full time and expecting my first child.

Your first job out of college was as Aging Service Coordinator for Badlands Human Service Center and, at LSSND, you also supervise our Senior Independence Services. What interested you in helping older adults?

One of my first jobs in high school was at a nursing home.  I worked as a kitchen aid, serving people in the dining room and preparing the food carts, but we also ran the commrcial dishwasher.

Then I also did cleaning at the nursing home. It gave me an appreciation for all parts of reality in an older person’s life.

I graduated from Jamestown College and UND. My undergrad was in sociology/social work with minors in psychology and art.

My master’s in Public Administration from UND included a special emphasis on senior services.

When I was in college, I was able to also participate in a consortium on gerontology, so I got a degree in sociology with all those experiences working with senior citizens as a college senior. They had intern programs, so I could spend January doing targeted classwork, where I could design the course of study. 

I applied to be a student social worker for seniors at a center on Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, which is where my brother lived. So I could walk from brothers’ apartment down to the wharf and work with seniors at the center there.

My first job out of college was as an aging service coordinator. And I got it because I was one of the few recent graduates who had experience (working with seniors).  

You mentioned that of all the classes you took in college, the hardest one was actually in art. Tell me a little about that.

When I was an undergraduate at Jamestown College, one of my most vivid memories was a class in which we had to make our own yarn. We had to clean the sheep’s fleece and card it and spin it. We had to make our own hand loom. We made our own dye batch. I made my dye from berries and I thought it would turn out this beautiful red and instead I got mustard yellow. It was the most intense college credits I’ve ever had. In the dorm, everyone else had time to play pinochle and I was carding sheep’s fleece. (Laughs.)

What three words would the people who know you best use to describe you?

“She knows everybody.”

What would be your mission statement in life? Spend your time and energy doing good. Balance yourself with humor, fun, people you love and things that bring you joy.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in the human-service field? Do not be afraid of taking risks, trying new things, getting experience and taking on challenges. I find that very few people think to ask for advice, though. (Smiles.)

What are your favorite memories at LSSND? This has to be the joy of working with the resettlement team and doing team building with them. Many had never been bowling, sledding, blown kazoos, taken a road trip to Bismarck … 

What has been the proudest moment in your career?

Getting the county commission's consent and prevailing in the Burleigh County vote on resettlement. 

Beatles or Stones? I really like both the Beatles and the Stones. I have seen Paul McCartney twice in concert and the Rolling Stones as well. I love music, concerts and travel. (It’s worth noting that her farewell video was accompanied by her favorite song, “Into the Mystic,” by Van Morrison.) 

How do you hope to spend your retirement? I will enjoy the outdoors, take long walks, babysit, relax and travel. I will volunteer and contribute toward causes I believe in, but will take a break from it all for a while.

By Tammy Swift

© 2020 Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, All Rights Reserved.     Privacy Policy