A new direction for Bethel New Life

CEO to focus on financial literacy, employment programs

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By LA RISA LYNCH

It was faith that led Bethel New Life's new president and CEO, Lori R. Vallelunga, to the Austin nonprofit organization.

During Vallelunga's 16-year career as a clinical psychologist and hospital administrator, all but one of her jobs was at faith-based organizations. Vallelunga wanted to return to that. Faith-based organizations, she explained, nurture more than just the community they serve, but the organizations' employees.

"I think for Bethel, its faith base is really palpable in a way that many organizations don't have, [and] that was actually very attractive," said Vallelunga, who hails from upstate New York. "It allows me to do work of support and nurturing that you might do from a psychologist perspective that is not seen as aberrant or unusual."

Besides wanting to work for a faith-based organization, Vallelunga says her work in psychology compliments Bethel's mission as being a change agent for both the community and individuals. Vallelunga contends psychology is about helping people realize their potential.

"Bethel has always been about social justice and ... about helping people get a leg up by giving them opportunities for personal development," she said.

Vallelunga became Bethel New Life's CEO and president in May after Steven McCullough took a position as chief operating officer for the Safer Foundation after five years with Bethel. Vallelunga is the community development organization's third executive in its 30-year history. Bethel works to strengthen families and build stronger neighborhoods through programs promoting financial literacy, senior wellness, housing, youth development and prisoner re-entry.

Before coming to Bethel, Vallelunga worked for the Hope Institute for Children and Families where she served as senior vice president of strategic development. The Springfield-based organization operates several mental health facilities statewide.

While there, Vallelunga expanded the facility's autism centers from three to 12 around the state. She oversaw the construction of an outpatient medical center and built a satellite program for autistic children at Chicago Vocational Career Academy on the city's South Side. She also facilitated the opening of a general education contract school that focused on special needs children within the Chicago Public Schools system.

Vallelunga has held several leadership positions during her career. She believes her abilities in program development and strategic planning can benefit Bethel.

"Not all leadership positions are equal," she said." So what I didn't want was an organization that was doing well and wanted a leader who can continue what they were currently doing. Bethel is 30-something and redefining who it is and what its role and impact should be."

Redefining Bethel begins with diversifying the organization's financial structure. The majority of Bethel's funding comes from the state, which Vallelunga called "challenging" in these economic times. She wants to find new and sustainable revenue sources, like partnerships with corporations or private-pay models to fund programs.

Vallelunga also wants to focus more on financial literacy and employment. She hopes to expand the organization's financial literacy programs in schools and work with financial institutions to move people without bank accounts away from costly corner payday loans. She said the goal is to help people build an income and then wealth.

To accomplish that, Vallelunga wants to create an entrepreneurship training program, especially in green technology. She contends focusing on entrepreneurism would help those in the agency's prisoner re-entry programs, whose criminal records impede stable employment.

Vallelunga, who specialized in child psychology, received her undergraduate degree and master's in clinical psychology from the University of Memphis. She later did her doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School's Children's Hospital, and her post-doctoral work at the now-defunct University Hospital, which brought Vallelunga to Chicago.

Vallelunga's curiosity about how the human spirit overcomes adversity drove her to seek a career in psychology, a goal she's had since she was a high school junior.

"I think that's what really drew me to it - it's this kind of amazing capacity that humans have to deal with circumstances and overcome them and continue to develop themselves," said Vallelunga, who also flirted with studying biology. "Somehow being in a lab all my life seemed like that wouldn't be too much fun."

While at University Hospital, an inpatient psychiatric hospital for youth and children, Vallelunga helped to get the facility's training program accredited with the American Psychological Association.

Later she took a job with Condell Hospital, in Libertyville, where she worked with the hospital's psychiatric unit. In 1995, she became on staff psychologist at St. James Hospital. Among her many duties, she created a behavioral health residency program, directed the hospital's crisis response team and worked on a re-branding campaign.

However, Vallelunga believes shepherding Bethel New Life in a new direction will be the most rewarding and challenging role she has had in her professional career.

"Bethel is at that place where it is ready to move forward," Vallelunga said. "There's going to be, and have been, lots of changes and those are always interesting and challenging to navigate."

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