After expanding Manna’s programs and leading it during a time of intense community controversy over homelessness, Kathy Tonnessen plans to leave the executive director post this spring.
Volunteering has long been one of Tonnessen’s passions. She started spending time at Manna shortly after moving to Durango in 2008 and later joined the board of directors. She became executive director in 2013.
In addition to providing hot meals for those need, Manna provides culinary training, lunches for Durango Adult Education Center students and weekend meals during the school year for low-income students at Durango School District 9-R and the Southern Ute Boys & Girls Club in Ignacio.
“In my belief system, everybody has the right to eat,” she said.
Under her leadership, the organization has risen to the next level, said Manna’s board chairman, Ron Hoenninger.
During her five-year tenure, the nonprofit raised $1 million and built a culinary building where 40 students have studied.
“Kathy has done a tremendous job, and she will surely, surely be missed,” Hoenninger said.
Tonnessen makes thoughtful decisions and consults with others before making them, but once she makes a decision, she doesn’t procrastinate, he said.
“She was never reluctant or hesitant to recommend anything to the board that she believed in,” Hoenninger said.
Tonnessen made a commitment to lead Manna for five years to bring stability to the organization and have an impact.
“As that five-year mark approached, it became clear that was going to be enough time for me, and it was time for someone to come in with renewed energy and enthusiasm,” Tonnessen said. “I had kind of done what I wanted to do here; it’s time to turn it over to somebody else.”
In addition to establishing the culinary school that was envisioned while she was on the board, she also led a culture change at the nonprofit.
As part of this change, she required clients to complete chores to earn services such as showers and laundry, and that has helped them value Manna more and not take its offerings for granted.
“People really needed to have an investment in Manna and have skin in the game, and I think that’s made a huge difference,” she said.
Before Tonnessen, the nonprofit’s executive directors tended to have short tenures.
“This is a very high-burnout job – the population that you deal with and the controversy that you deal with,” she said.
In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union put the city on notice that its anti-loitering ordinance violated constitutional rights to freedom of speech. The city stopped enforcing the ordinance, and panhandling became more visible in Durango.
Panhandling has sparked controversy around homelessness in Durango that has not died down, and Manna is sometimes on the receiving end of the criticism, she said.
“It really makes me sad when I hear comments like, ‘Move Manna out of town,’” Tonnessen said.
If Manna did move out of town, it would likely make those in need even more visible, she said.
Those type of comments also don’t take into account all the services that Manna offers or the broad client base it serves – including seniors and working families, she said. As a whole, Tonnessen said Manna enjoys wide support within the community.
Tonnessen plans to step away from Manna after her replacement is hired and trained. She expects the new executive director will be hired between March and June.
The next logical step for Manna is to become a community hub for services – a role it is already partially fulfilling, she said. For example, a health provider with Axis Health System already comes in once or twice a week.
Hoenninger said he also likes the hub idea, as long Manna can continue to fill its core roles. The nonprofit is open to working with new organizations, he said.
Tonnessen, who plans to stay in Durango, said she’s not ready to retire; she’ll likely find part-time work that will allow her to travel. She also expects to continue working as a volunteer.
“It’s always been one of my passions to feel like I’m giving back,” she said.
To learn more about Kathy Tonnessen’s experience as executive director of Manna, tune into The Durango Herald’s Facebook page at 3 p.m. Wednesday for a livestream Q&A. Viewers will also have the opportunity to ask Tonnessen questions.