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CEO for Lutheran Community Services reflects on career journey

Dennis McGaughy retires after 27 years.

After more than 27 years of working with Lutheran Community Services Northwest in Spokane, and a total of 47 years in social services, Dennis McGaughy is retiring as of March 15.

A retirement party for him is planned from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 14, in The McGinnity Room at 116 W. Pacific, Suite 100.

Dennis said the desire he sees in staff at LCS in Spokane to make a difference in people’s lives reminds him of his youthful passion to make a difference and reduce human suffering.

“We do front-line work for the church in society,” he said. “Lutheran theology says God works through all people for good.  Anyone can use their gifts to help others.  We don’t ask where people go to church.

“Our mission is to bring health, justice and hope, and the greatest of these is hope,” he said.  “We let people know they are not alone. We help them through a trauma.  People need hope to move forward.

“There is much pain in the world, and people need resilience to work through that pain.  ‘I am with you’ is part of the message of hope we bring,” said Dennis, who has understood his work as a calling to serve God and humankind. 

“I looked forward to coming to work each day and spending time face-to-face with people,” he said. “Human life is valuable.”

Dennis, who grew up Lutheran in Seattle, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1969 at Washington State University.  He worked in a residential center in Portland and married, and then spent two years working with the Lutheran Church as a social worker in Nome, Alaska, and three surrounding villages. 

While there, he connected people to resources, started a 24-hour hotline and a home for temporary foster care for infants, and helped people with drug and alcohol abuse.

Then Dennis worked two years with Anchorage churches on social services, before studying at the University of Utah, where he earned a master’s in social work in 1974.

His next seven years were with Lutheran Community Services (LCS) in Wilmer, Minn., until he learned that the Spokane LCS needed a district director.

Dennis served in that role until the last 20 months when he was chief operating officer for the eight Lutheran Community Services Northwest offices in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, each of which has unique programs based on area needs. Spokane focuses on mental health, trauma, therapeutic foster care, unaccompanied refugee minor foster care and wrap-around services. 

Other offices may focus on aging, drug-and-alcohol treatment or foster care.

Heike Lake, the new executive director, has been with LCS in Spokane for 22 years, working as associate director until she became district director 20 months ago.

“LCS in Spokane is a certified sexual assault center with programs for education and advocacy for sexual assault victims and survivors of family homicide.  LCS advocates and counselors help sexual assault victims navigate the legal system and provide them with resources for healing.

Advocacy with the legal system helps victims achieve good legal outcomes.  It requires persevering because the system can work slowly, said Dennis. 

“We stay with people as long as they need us, and are there if they need to come back,” he said. “We seek to move families from trauma, out of crisis and into stable lives.”

For two years, he said, the unaccompanied refugee program has brought youth from refugee camps to Spokane as one of two LCS Northwest sites approved  to care for unaccompanied minors.  Half of the 25 refugee children here are in foster care and half in group homes.

Adult refugee resettlement is done in Portland, Seattle and Tacoma offices. 

“In Spokane, we partner with World Relief, which resettles adults and families, not unaccompanied minors,” Dennis said.

“We understand here that we are part of a network of services, not an island.  We collaborate with other agencies to bring resources to the community,” he said. 

LCS also connects with the YWCA on domestic violence; VOA and Transitions for homeless women and children; Providence Medical Center Emergency Room to connect chronic users with less costly care, and law enforcement to combat human trafficking. 

“Our success comes from employing dedicated people, passionate about and committed to serving others,” he said.

Many employees have been with LCS in Spokane for many years.  In 1990, there were 35 employees. Now there are 100. 

“We embrace our staff, not only for their contributions to the agency and those we serve, but also for their lives outside the agency,” he said.

Growth in recent years has come from 1) the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of mental health care, 2) a federal lawsuit, in which the state won wrap-around services for foster children, and 3) the #MeToo movement giving women courage to access LCS services.

Dennis said that over the years, LCS has learned what to do and what not to do with sexual assault and trauma victims. 

“We know to believe victims, not blame them,” he said.  “We know long-term healing is aided by professional and legal help leading to tangible closure. Part of healing is to maintain a safe environment.

Lutheran churches support the agency, as do individual donors, corporations, small businesses, volunteers and other faith organizations.

“Our belief as Lutherans is that we are called to serve others,” said Dennis, who attends St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.

His hope for the future is for more collaboration among agencies, ministries and the faith community in serving people.

Dennis added that one legacy he leaves LCS in Spokane is a unique fund raiser that grew out of his passion for road cycling.

He helped found the Eight Lakes Leg Aches Bike Ride benefit for LCS in 1999.

There were 17 riders the first year, 68 the second year and 150 the third year.  Now there are 600 to 700 riders, with 100 of them raising $200 to $5,000 each in pledges. To date, the ride has raised about $1 million total.

“It has been a great career,” Dennis commented.  “I am a better person for what I have been able to give and for all I have received.  So many people have journeyed with me and I am so grateful for all they have done for me and those we serve.”

For information, call 747-8224.

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